Never has the spectre of disintegration, following full-blown civil war, seemed so imminent in Iraq as in recent weeks. Fears of the break-up of the country into feuding entities are being fuelled not only by the passage of a new federalism law through Iraq’s parliament but also by growing indications of support for the division of Iraq in the US. Despite all the shrill talk from US president George W. Bush’s officials about “staying the course” and never to “cut and run,” the fact remains that Washington has been abuzz with discussions of alternative courses of action, which include breaking Iraq up into three autonomous regions.
On October 11 the Iraqi parliament took another step on a constitutional path that will set out a system for forming federal regions. The federalism law was passed despite the efforts of the largest Sunni coalition in parliament and two Shi’a parties to sabotage the vote on the legislation by boycotting the parliamentary session in order to prevent the 275-seat legislature from meeting the required 50 percent quorum. Some 140 legislators voted on each of some 200 articles in the bill, approving them all unanimously.
The legislation lays down mechanisms for allowing provinces to join together into autonomous regions enjoying considerable powers of self-rule. This is a right enshrined in Article 115 of the Iraqi constitution adopted in a national referendum last year, which states that “One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum”. The request for a referendum on the issue becomes binding on a province if it is made by one third of the provincial parliament or 10 percent of its residents. The legislation includes a provision that the process for forming federal regions will not begin until April 2008. This was seen as a concession designed to allay Sunni Arab concerns. Sunni Arabs, who were the dominant political force from the formation of modern Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, fear that a federal system will be disproportionately disadvantageous to them, because it will probably give the northern and southern oilfields to ethnic Kurds and Shi’a Arabs respectively, leaving the Sunni Arabs trapped in a resource-poor region made up for the most part of desert land and agricultural belts along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in central and western Iraq.
Meanwhile, the idea of distributing power away from the centre in Iraq, which dovetails with the federal structure enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, has also been gaining momentum in Washington. A 10-member bipartisan Iraq Study Group has been looking into alternative courses of action for the US in Iraq. The group, commissioned by Congress with five Republicans and five Democrats, and co-chaired by former secretary of state and Republican stalwart James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, is charged with the task of recommending new approaches for the US government to try in its intervention in Iraq. In an attempt to avoid politicizing its recommendations, the group will produce its final report after the impending mid-term elections for the US Congress later this month.
Public discussion of the options under consideration by the Iraq Study Group has employed verbal gymnastics to avoid open discussion of the risks involved in dividing Iraq. In an interview on ABC, Baker dismissed as unworkable a plan by Senator Joseph Biden to decentralize Iraq and establish separate regions for Kurds, Shiae Arabs and Sunni Arabs, arguing that “there’s no way to draw lines” between communities in the mixed cities of Iraq. But, according to leaks to the press, the Iraq Study Group is believed to be discussing devolution of power to the regions, leaving for the central government in Baghdad responsibility for foreign affairs, border-protection and the allocation of oil-revenues to various regions. This substantial devolution of powers would effectively create a structure that amounts to a de facto partition of Iraq, splitting ethnic and sectarian communities apart, despite Baker’s assertions to the contrary.
Although the group’s recommendations are not binding on the US government, and despite statements from officials asserting that the President might not (in the words of White House press secretary Tony Snow) “duly follow its course,” the very discussion of such proposals reflects a changing state of mind in Washington with respect to Iraq. The American people’s patience with the war in Iraq is wearing thin, and it is difficult to imagine Bush not taking seriously recommendations to facilitate an exit strategy put forward by a group co-chaired by James Baker, who ran the campaigns of the president’s father, George H. W. Bush, and helped the current president to claw his way out of his 2000 election debacle in Florida. There are indications that the new Congress will be more hostile to the US government’s current policy in Iraq, and the recommendations will provide members of Congress opposed to the US government’s policy with deadlier domestic ammunition. Ultimately, Congress might push a reluctant Bush into adopting some revised version of these recommendations in its search for disengagement from Iraq.
Obviously, a process of partition against the backdrop of ethnic and sectarian tensions is fraught with grave dangers. Historical precedents are not encouraging, as they resulted for the most part in war, slaughter and destruction. Partition has been a step towards national disintegration in south and southeast Asia, the Balkans, Cyprus and elsewhere; there is little reason to hope that it will fare any better in Iraq. In fact, full-blown civil war seems all but inevitable if Iraq is partitioned. The current upsurge in ethnic and sectarian hostility, as well as violence, raises fears that partition will plunge the country into more chaos and bloodshed.
Despite its apparent emphasis on securing stability in Iraq, the main concerns of the Baker-Hamilton group remain US-centred. It ultimately seeks to produce conditions conducive for a face-saving rearrangement of America’s military and political presence inIraq. Once the tasks of maintaining security in the local autonomous areas have been entrusted to local regional authorities, the USwill be able to start a process of reducing its troop-levels, and re-deploy the remainder to military and air bases outside the main cities and population-centres, retaining the ability to strike from afar but reducing their vulnerability to direct attack.
But Iraqi authorities, whose security forces have been penetrated by death squads, insurgents and criminal gangs, have so far proven their inability to rise to the challenges of maintaining security and upholding law and order. The unremitting violence that rocked Iraq during Ramadan underlined the inability or unwillingness of the Iraqi police and army to uphold security and rein in the militias on the rampage.
There were also other even more ominous signs during Ramadan that pointed to the potential for Iraq’s descent into a sort of Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In fact, many aspects of the current tide of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence indicate that civil strife in Iraqis not restricted to tit-for-tat attacks between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs. Intra-communal violence is becoming a fairly common feature of life in war-ridden Iraq. A grim illustration of the helplessness of the Iraqi authorities was provided by the cycle of sectarian score-settling that surged out of control on October 13 after a police announcement of the discovery of the decapitated bodies of 17 Shi’a labourers in an orchard near the town of Balad, some 50 miles north of Baghdad, which has a predominantly Shi’a population but lies in a majority Sunni Arab area.
In apparent retaliation, about 80 Sunni Arab men were reportedly killed by heavily-armed black-clad men, some of whom are believed to be members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, who set up roadblocks in the town, stopping cars and hauling out anyone suspected of being a Sunni. There were also reports of gunmen in police uniforms hijacking civilian cars and abducting their passengers at checkpoints outside Balad. Some of the bullet-riddled bodies received in the morgue of the town’s main hospital showed signs of mutilation and torture. After chasing Sunni residents out of Balad, the gunmen clashed with residents of Dulu’iyyah, a predominantly Sunni town on the east bank of the Tigris, opposite Balad. Sunni Arab gunmen in Dulu’iyyah retaliated by showering Balad with barrages of mortar rounds, resulting in the deaths and injury of scores of residents.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the revenge killings in Balad and surrounding villages and towns is that it went on unabated for several days despite the presence of extra Iraqi police forces, the deployment of troops from Iraq’s Fourth Army, whose soldiers are considered the best-trained in the Iraqi military, and the imposition of curfew. After five days of sectarian slaughter, US forces were re-deployed on the streets of Balad to quell the orgy of killing. On April 15 American troops had turned control of parts of theprovince of Salah al-Din, which include Balad and Dulu’iyyah, as well as surrounding villages, to the Third Battalion of the First Brigade of the Fourth Iraqi Army Division. This was followed by another step on September 18 in which full control of the entire province was handed over to the Fourth Army. Under such arrangements, US forces are usually redeployed to local bases asbackup.
A case in point came during the last week of Ramadan, when fierce battles erupted between fighters of the Mahdi Army and Iraqi police and army troops in the southern city of al-’Amarah, the provincial capital of Maysan province, where the British had handed over responsibilities for security to Iraqi forces in August. Fighting broke out in ‘Amarah after the head of the Maysan police intelligence, a member of the rival Shi’ite Badr Organization militia, a constituent organization of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), headed by Abd al-’Aziz al-Hakim, was killed with four of his bodyguards by a roadside bomb while travelling on the highway between ‘Amarah and Basra. The assassination prompted the family of the slain officer, Qassim al-Tamimi, a member of the large Banu Tamim tribe, to kidnap the teenage brother of the local head of the Mahdi Army, Shaykh Fadhel al-Bahadili, demanding that he find and hand over the killers. In retaliation, hundreds of Mahdi Army fighters attacked police stations, set fire to them and briefly seized control of the city. The violent showdown in ‘Amarah came only days after a meeting between prime minister Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr in the ‘alim’s office in the shrine city of Najaf. The meeting was intended to enlist al-Sadr’s support to attempt to cap spiralling sectarian violence.
If the fighting in ‘Amarah highlighted the potential for all-out intra-communal conflict alongside the spiralling inter-communal strife, the involvement of Mahdi Amry fighters in the violence in Balad, which came after repeated calls by al-Sadr on his followers to eschew sectarian violence, was another indication that al-Sadr is losing control of individual units of the Mahdi Army. In fact, there has been mounting evidence since the bombing of the Askariyyah Shrine in Samarra that various units of the Mahdi Army are splitting off from the loosely-organised and disorderly paramilitary organisation to pursue their own agendas.
As these events in Balad were unfolding, a long-awaited conference of political leaders was postponed. A statement issued on October 15 by the ministry for national dialogue said that the “National Reconciliation Conference”, which was scheduled for October 21 in Baghdad, would be postponed for “emergency reasons” until November 4. The postponement reflects the disruption that spiralling violence is inflicting on efforts to heal Iraq’s increasingly serious political and social wounds.
Under these circumstances, federalist schemes for Iraq can only be expected to make worse the escalating civil conflicts as areas with mixed populations, or divided political loyalties, slide into open warfare between different groups that are fighting to maintain control of territory or people. Iraq is already caught in the grim embrace of civil strife. Unfortunately, all the efforts to chart a new political future, forging political compromise and improving security, have so far only served to buy time and delay Iraq’s dark day of reckoning, a day marred by civil war and utter disintegration.