Friday, August 8, 2008

In Iraq, Regional Politics Heats Up

The Washington Post's top two reporters in Iraq today provide an excellent analysis of the current political alignments and tensions in Iraq. Violence, though still much too prevalent as suicide bombings continue, is down compared to two years ago. But does that mean (as McCain and others in the GOP insist) that the Surge "worked"? No - at least, not if one compares the results with the originally stated intentions. The expressed hope was that if US troops could strong-arm a reduction in violence, the various political and sectarian factions would take advantage of the breathing space to work out their differences within Iraq's new "democracy" - and that the central government in Baghdad would emerge as the legitimate power in Iraq. That's not happening. Instead, Iraq's southern (mostly Shiite Arab), western and northwestern (mostly Sunni Arab), and northern (mostly Kurdish) regions are each seething with tensions as local actors reassert themselves, and as issues as old as Iraq itself (tribes v. central government, Kurds v. Arabs, Sunni v. Shiite, Iraqi nationalists v. foreign occupier and its perceived proxies = the British and the Hashemites 1920-1958, now the US and the Maliki government) continue to fester.

Remember that the US's original hope in 2003 was to oust Saddam, install "our own" Saddam-lite (elections were not on the original agenda), cow Iran into submission and perhaps even regime-change, and open the spigots on Iraq's oil, to the greater glory and profit of the US oil majors - and to the benefit of the US automakers. If things had worked out as Bush-Cheney had first imagined, Detroit would still be rolling those SUVs off the assembly lines, and gasoline would be under $2.00 a gallon.
In Iraq, Regional Politics Heats Up
Jockeying Grows Among Groups, and Within Them, as Violence Gradually Gives Way to Power Sharing

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto LondoƱo
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 8, 2008; A08

BAGHDAD -- A growing number of Iraqi groups are choosing to pursue their agendas through politics instead of bloodshed, a trend that has helped bring down levels of violence. But as Iraqis leave behind the sectarian cataclysms of recent years, ethnic and regional political disputes in several parts of Iraq are becoming more pronounced.

In the south, ruling Shiite parties are vying for electoral power against loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Shiite tribal leaders. In the west, Sunni tribes are challenging the political control of established Sunni religious parties. And in the north, ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens are in a struggle for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"What we have now is people who know how to use weapons and who now want to play politics," said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni legislator. Even so, some leaders seem unable to decide whether to trust their fortunes to the ballot box.

The fight over Kirkuk is proving to be particularly intense. The dispute over power sharing in the ethnically mixed city triggered an attack by a suicide bomber and ethnic clashes that killed 25 people there last month. This week, Iraqi lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on legislation for provincial elections, placing in doubt the timing of the vote and slowing political reconciliation.

"There is no doubt the violence will increase in Kirkuk if its case does not get solved," said Khalaf al-Elayan, a Sunni lawmaker who heads the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, part of the largest Sunni political bloc.

Iraqi lawmakers and U.S. officials say several factors are behind the shaky transition to more robust politics. Militant groups are tired of fighting U.S. forces and are joining the political process as a way to survive. With the Bush administration in its last months, Iraq's political parties, sensing the possible end of the U.S. presence in Iraq, want to consolidate their political standing. Others view political ascendancy as a way to exert pressure on U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

The central government's power is weakening as Iraq's tribes, sects and ethnic groups consolidate power in their own regions. They want to deepen their grip in the upcoming elections, which are expected to make provincial leaders more influential.

The elections are especially vital to Iraq's disenfranchised Sunnis, who boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005. Political groups are coming forward to compete with traditional parties for the community's leadership.

Last month, in the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, once the nexus of the Sunni insurgency, the newest political player emerged. Leaders of al-Nassir Salah al-Din Army, a Sunni militant group, declared they would renounce violence and form a political party called the National Front of Iraq's Liberals to compete in elections. "We found out that armed action will not get the United States out of Iraq," said Majid Ali Enad, the group's leader. "After five years of directing painful blows to them, they did not budge from a single meter in the country."

The National Front and other onetime insurgent groups will join a bitter struggle for power between established Sunni politicians of the Iraqi Islamic Party and upstart leaders of the Sahwa, or "Awakening" council, a U.S.-backed tribal alliance whose popularity has grown following its success in combating the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"Entering the elections is to change the current reality in our area, the domination of the Sunni spectrum by the Iraqi Islamic party," said Effan al-Issawi, the top Awakening commander in Fallujah. "They are unworthy of leading the Sunnis."

Political observers viewed the recent decision by the Iraqi Islamic Party and other Sunni groups to rejoin the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an attempt to preserve influence. The party and the other Sunni groups make up the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc.

"They have lost the trust of the people and their base in those areas," said Alusi, the independent Sunni legislator. "They are very nervous."

In recent weeks, the province has seen attacks on Iraqi Islamic Party offices and officials, as well as those targeting Awakening leaders, providing a glimpse of what could unfold as elections near.

In Shiite areas, nationalism is the new mantra as leaders of Iraq's majority community compete to promote themselves as representatives of all Iraqis. Shiite politicians are looking beyond the provincial elections; national elections are scheduled for December 2009.

Last August, Sadr, the Shiite cleric and populist leader, ordered his Mahdi Army to observe a unilateral cease-fire, and this year he ordered most of the militia to renounce violence and instead provide social services.

The cease-fire is widely viewed as a key reason for the drop in violence, but tensions have risen among Shiite groups. Iraqi government forces, whose senior commanders are loyal to Sadr's Shiite rivals, have launched numerous crackdowns against the Mahdi Army, prompting accusations from Sadrists that Maliki and other Shiite parties in the government were trying to weaken them before elections.

Some observers say the Sadrist movement and other militant groups turned to politics as a survival mechanism. "People who were using violence have been hit pretty hard," said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.

But others believe that Sadr's refusal to fight is part of a calculated strategy to regain popularity and reemerge with even greater power. In the last election, many of his followers boycotted the vote. "In past years, these parties used sectarian strategies," said Nadim Jabiri, head of the ultra-religious Fadhila Party. "Now, it's about nationalist agendas."

The Sadrists' main rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an influential political party in Maliki's coalition, is spending millions to build mosques and schools and care for orphans. The Sadrists are maintaining public graveyards and providing aid to displaced families.

In the southern city of Basra, tensions among rival Shiite factions are "going to possibly entail Shiite-on-Shiite violence as we get into electoral politics," a senior U.S. Embassy official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters in a briefing last month.

For months now, Kurdish groups have competed in the political realm to further their interests. Their opposition to Iraq's central government controlling Iraq's oil revenues has helped block the passage of a national hydrocarbons law, viewed as vital to reconciliation.

Last month, Kurdish lawmakers boycotted a vote that called for allocating equal numbers of provincial council seats among Kirkuk's three main ethnic communities -- Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen. The legislation setting rules for the provincial elections was approved by parliament and then vetoed by President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd.

The Kurds want the city to become part of the mostly autonomous Kurdish region, but their rivals fear they will be disenfranchised under Kurdish rule and want Kirkuk to remain under central government control.

In Kirkuk, Arab leaders say the passage of the vote was proof that they have gained power by joining the political process. "Now we have started to feel that our voices have started to be heard again," said Borhan Mizher Al-Assi, an influential tribal leader and an Arab representative on the council of Tamim province, where Kirkuk is situated.

Awakening leaders say they are mobilizing politically to ensure that the city's Arab population is adequately represented. But Hussein Ali Salih al-Jubori, a top Awakening leader, said they worried that Kurdish security forces "could take the side of their political parties."

Some Kurds are predicting further instability if the electoral legislation is not altered to suit Kurdish demands. "If this law is not canceled, and a mechanism is not put in place to merge Kirkuk into Kurdistan, then we will isolate Kirkuk from the rest of Iraq," said Mohammed Kamil, an influential Kurdish politician in the city. "We will stop our full cooperation with the government in Baghdad, which is a popular demand."

As the number of political groups grows, some are concerned that politically inexperienced tribal leaders and former insurgents could soon wield power over provincial budgets and security forces. "We don't have a good system," said Othman, the Kurdish lawmaker. "A lot of the people are not very qualified."

He added: "If better security is not accompanied with reconciliation and a reduction of unemployment and the citizen doesn't see a change in his life," Iraqis may ultimately give up on politics and return to violence to accomplish their goals.

Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Qais Mizher, Saad al-Izzi, Dalya Hassan and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad, and other Washington Post staff in Fallujah, Kirkuk, Najaf, Tikrit and Baqubah, contributed to this report.

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