Monday, February 27, 2006

Crunch Time

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has released a report on the situation in Iraq*.
Iraqi political actors and the international community must act urgently to prevent a low-intensity conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war that could lead to Iraq's disintegration and destabilize the entire region.
The report argues that there is still the possibility that all-out civil war can be prevented. It offers policy recommendations designed to prevent the disintegration of the country. As listed by CNN and Reuters, the report:
  1. Calls for changes to the constitution Iraqi voters adopted in October that would foster the inclusion of Sunni Arabs.
  2. Warns against provisions that allow for the creation of a Shiite autonomous region in southern Iraq and calls for "establishing administrative federalism on the basis of provincial boundaries"
  3. Calls for a fair distribution of Iraq's oil wealth and the creation of an independent agency to prevent corruption.
  4. Urges the United States to continue to push for national unity, promote a constitution that ensures inclusiveness to all and help build up Iraq's security forces.
  5. Recommends that U.S. troop withdrawals should be "gradual" and must take into account the country's progress in politics and developing indigenous troops.
  6. Urged Iraqi leaders to disband militias and crack down on security forces who commit human rights abuses.
In short, the religious Shi'ite leaders have got to give concessions.

Most Shi'ite politicians favour the federal constitution, and the associated distribution of oil wealth, for obvious reasons. They maintain that it has been approved by referendum and that only minor alterations will be considered. (Al-Sadr, interestingly, does not like it. I suspect that's got a lot to do with his pretentions of grandeur. He reckons he could be the leader of unified Iraqi. No-one in the coalition will be claiming a victory if that ever happens though.) The Shi'ite politicians won the most seat in the election and, quite understandably, expect to be the dominant power in the new government.

What carrots can be offered to the Shi'ites to persuade them to give ground on these issues? There is, it seems to me, only one. If they make concessions, it might prevent civil war and the disintegration of Iraq. That's really all that can be offered and it is, it appears, in the balance.

Do the religious Shi'ite leaders want to keep Iraq together? At this juncture, it is worth pointing out that, for all that factions of the UIA have links to Iran, most Iraqis do have a strong sense of an Iraqi identity. The religious Shi'ites don't want to be part of Greater Iran; what they want is to be an independent country with friendly relations with their Persian Shi'ite neighbours. It is this Iraqi nationalism, in large part, which has kept the conflict in check.

But that nationalism is being damaged by the long steady rise of (already existing) sectarian tensions since the fall of Saddam. Will the religious Shi'ites be content to play but one part in a unified Iraq? Will they cede powers which they believe are rightfully theirs to Sunni groups in the hope that this will provide stability? Or will they now prefer to keep the powers they have gained, even if that means civil war? In crude terms, that is the decision they must make.

As for disbanding the militias, the ministry of defence is talking a good game.
Director of operations Maj Gen Abdul Aziz Jasim said anyone carrying weapons who was not in the legitimate security forces would be treated as a terrorist.
But that, it should be obvious, is bluster, not a sustainable position. Iraq is chock full of armed militias (and indeed just people with AK 47's). If these militias resist disarmament, the situation would descend into chaos in short order. The only way to disband the militias is to persuade those who belong to them and those who control them that it is in their best interest. As above, this is primarily a decision for religious Shi'ite leaders. Will they agree to disband the militias in the current security environment?

The country, and possibly the stability of the region, is very much in their hands.

* I'd normally have a look for the report on the IGC website but as I write this, it's broken. Visitor overload, most likely.

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