Beyond Sectarianism

A new policy report prepared by a mix of Iraqi professionals with the support of the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (NUPI) was published in February 2009 . The report titled More than Shiites and Sunnis recommends institutional reform and explains how this could lead to positive changes and support the independence of Iraq. There are many arguments in the report that resonate with what we Iraqis say to each other in political conversations, but there are some which lead to more questions. Among those arguments with resonance:

The key to stability in Iraq is to recognize the longevity and endurance of non-sectarian Iraqi patriotism as a fundamental value among most Iraqis… suffice to mention the monarchy period, when Iraq for many years had a functioning parliamentary democracy, as well as most of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, when Basra, Baghdad and Mosul were often ruled as a single charge from Baghdad (and were habitually referred to as “Iraq” by contemporary writers).

By focusing on the framework for the elections in the broadest possible sense, instead of attempting to micro-manage the situation via deals with selected partners, the United States would finally be able to liberate itself from the policies of patronage that has vexed its efforts in Iraq since 2003.

We recommend a range of practical measures that can maximize participation by Iraqis in the next elections and minimize the incentives for other regional players to sabotage progress towards a more sustainable political system in Iraq.

The principle of ethno-sectarian quota sharing in government should be prohibited…

Negotiations with Iran concerning Iran–US issues.. should be strictly bilateral negotiations where Iraqi matters should be kept off the agenda

On the other hand, questionable arguments such as:

The Iraqi character of Kirkuk should be highlighted, and the need for a negotiated Iraqi solution..

Negotiations in the absence of reliable population data is an exercise in preserving the status quo; the negotiating parties will always want to protect their own status, not the Iraqi character. If the US truly wants change in a democratic way then it should lay the foundation of true democracy: general census should come before negotiations.

It would be helpful to the political process in Iraq if the United States could provide an unequivocal statement about its sincere commitment to preserving Iraqi unity.

This statement and others can be interpreted as a call for a declaration of US position regarding centralism and constitutional reform, which I find unnecessary and counter productive, unnecessary because perhaps a large majority of Iraqis support centralism anyway and counter productive because such changes should be an internal matter and the position of an occupying force will invite and justify others to oppose it on the grounds of patriotism. We don’t want another stalled political process! From the US side, a position supportive of centralism after Biden’s plan for loose federalism could be seen as a reversal of policy. For what it’s worth, I criticized the Biden plan for suggesting a federation solution to Iraq’s problems without referring to the will of the Iraqi people, the same criticism is equally valid when the solution imposes centralism.

Clarify US aims in Iraq The US.. (should) not seek to stay on in Iraq in the case of a breakdown of the political process, but instead will make preparations for a new UN mandate.

A breakdown of the political process is not necessarily a bad thing, we should seek to define what may constitute a trigger for a UN mandate instead of trying to patch up a process that does not know how to manage change. To my mind a trigger was already set recently when some government officials, including the prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, declared that all ex-Baathists except those who were forced to join are not allowed to join the political process, which amounts to disenfranchising a large population of politically aware voters. Who will feed their families and will they be safe living in Iraq and who can tell which individuals were forced? These are questions set aside in the eyes of some. Other suggested triggers are: bad or partial census, which is planned for October 2009 and fraudulent parliamentary elections.

The report and the US administration build too much hope on the conduct of the local elections of January 2009, these elections are not the acid test of democracy. The promised census and parliamentary elections of later on this year should be the final trigger for a new UN mandate: either they run full and clean or the UN should supervise new census and elections in Iraq.

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