last, some individuals in American policy-making circles are beginning to
realize that the fundamental cleavage in Iraqi politics is not between Shiites
and Sunnis and Kurds. Thanks not least to a couple of excellent articles by Sam
Parker of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), there is growing
awareness that the main front in Baghdad is between two loose coalitions that
are essentially cross-sectarian in composition. On the one hand, there are the
"Powers That Be", formed around the axis of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq
(ISCI) and the two Kurdish parties, with Nuri al-Maliki in an important and
sometimes independent position, and with the Sunni Islamist Iraqi Islamic Party
(IIP) as a highly reluctant junior partner. Confronting this alliance is a
second coalition, identified by Parker as "The Powers That Aren't", and
comprising Shiite Islamists (the Sadrists and Fadila), secularists, minor Sunni
Islamist parties as well as the Awakening councils that have emerged since the
start of the "surge" in 2007. The struggle between these two groups is not
primarily about sectarian issues, but rather about access to power and
privileges in the emerging Iraqi system of government. This became pointedly
clear in the recent debate about the provincial elections law, in which the
"Powers That Be" desperately tried to resist calls for early elections that
could challenge their power bases in the Iraqi governorates - gains they scored
in the previous local elections in January 2005 when many Iraqi forces chose to
However, a brief look at the Democratic presidential ticket and its policies makes it clear that these insights have yet to reach the advisers of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. For example, during his recent trip to the Middle East, Obama revealed an extremely dated way of thinking about Iraq, more or less reiterating the Iraq cosmology of those Bush administration officials that have been in charge since 2003. During a press conference in Amman on 22 July following a visit to Anbar where meetings with "Sunni tribal leaders" were high on the agenda, this tendency could be seen very clearly, with Obama consistently portraying the principal dynamic of Iraqi politics as a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. On a number of issues Obama identified "Sunni issues" where the reality is that there are Iraqi nationalist demands fronted by Shiites and Sunnis together.
One example is the Iraqi oil sector. On this, Obama said: "I think resolving the big issues like the hydrocarbons law in a way that gives Sunnis the impression that their voice is heard, that's going to be important." In fact, the real problem with regard to the hydrocarbons law is that two Kurdish parties insist on the right of federal regions to sign contracts with foreign companies, whereas almost all the other parties - in this case Sunnis and Shiites alike, and including some of those Shiites that normally are quite pro-Kurdish - favor a more centralized system. Most Iraqis are confident that a purely demographic distribution system based on governorates (not sects!) will be adopted, and see the American quest for a "Sunni quota" as out of touch with Iraqi traditions of centralized government.
Another relevant case is the idea of "Sunni representation in government". Again, Obama: "Now, the willingness of Sunni cabinet members who have resigned to now return, to have those cabinet seats filled, and a sense that the Sunnis are going to participate aggressively in the upcoming elections, that, again, is I think a sign of progress." However, very few analysts that have done work on Iraq before 2003 think the return to the government of the tiny Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) would be of any consequence whatsoever. With or without the IIP or other figurehead Sunnis in their ranks, Maliki and his team will still fail to address the demands for a more fundamental overhaul of the political system of Iraq that a majority of Iraqi parliamentarians are calling for, irrespective of sectarian background.
The addition of Joe Biden to the Democratic Party ticket emphasizes the acuteness of this last point. In the past, Biden has been one of the main advocates of a "forced federalization" of Iraq, and after having toned down his Iraq rhetoric in the weeks prior to his nomination as vice presidential candidate, he has now resumed with full force, claiming that the concept of centralized government must be removed from Iraqi politics. What Biden fails to take note of is that Iraqi politics has changed enormously since he launched his plan back in 2006. Back then, "The Powers That Aren't" were unable to muster a parliamentary majority. Today, they have the upper hand. They demand an Iraq with less federalism, not more of it. Above all, they want a guarantee against sectarian regions such as "Shiistan" and "Sunnistan". But US presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, continue to ignore these shifting realities and the need for a policy that is fundamentally different from the ones proposed by Obama, Biden and McCain.
Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq-focused website http://www.historiae.org. His books include "Basra, the Failed Gulf State" and "An Iraq of Its Regions? Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy."
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Meredith L. Nicoll: Whom and Exactly How is McCain Going to Fight?
- From the Editorial Team: Obama Stresses Security Policy Differences with McCain
- Barack Obama speech: Withdrawal from Iraq and Reorientation of National Security Priorities