In Iraq, Divvying Up the Spoils of Political War
BAGHDAD -- In today's telling, the description is as ageless as the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers: Iraq is a country of Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. To understand its politics is to begin and to end there, guided by its immutable truths.
It was, of course, never so simple.
The facile shorthand has always failed to appreciate the byzantine diversity of the place, where class, pedigree and even tribe often mean more than sect and ethnicity. Iraqis themselves still recoil at the notion of shaping their politics around the idea. American officials have never quite taken credit for their often decisive role in making that idea the axis around which politics here have regrettably revolved.
Perhaps that is why the negotiations these days over a new government are so pivotal to Iraq's future, seven years after the United States overthrew the old order.
Even to Iraqis, those talks are often mind-numbing in their tendency to deadlock; three months after an election, there is hardly any progress toward forming a coalition. But in the broadest terms, the decisions eventually made may determine whether Iraq adopts a system of quotas for running a Middle Eastern state that has been tried only in Lebanon, where its record is spotty (having failed to prevent, and was perhaps responsible for, two civil wars, along with a slew of occupations, invasions, crises and run-of-the-mill gridlock).
Iraq is writ far larger, though, with the stakes far greater.
For four years now, a Shiite Arab has been prime minister, a Kurd president, a Sunni Arab speaker of the Parliament. The precedent of a second time may be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. To a remarkable extent, the prospect underlies the negotiations, the bargaining, the horse-trading and the deal-making aimed so far at crafting a coalition.
"My dear," said Rafie al-Issawi, the deputy prime minister and a leading negotiator in those talks, "we want to escape the model of Lebanon."
Grimly, Izzat al-Shahbandar, a politician on the other side of the divide, wondered whether it wasn't too late. "We're headed in the wrong direction," he lamented.
Where Iraq ends up has implications for the fate of its increasingly unpopular political order, unable to deliver even basic necessities. It has ramifications far beyond its borders as well, in a region always more diverse than its reputation, where relations between majorities and minorities remain unresolved. In short, can democracy exist in countries where not all citizens feel equal?
As with so much in Iraq, the present draws on 2003, when L. Paul Bremer, the American proconsul here, formed the Iraqi Governing Council. The body was a bit of a sham, even to some of its own members; no one really agreed on what it was supposed to do -- provide a cover for the American occupation or help rule a collapsing state.
Far greater, though, was its legacy.
The United States was always simplistic in seeing Iraq, before the invasion, through the lens of sect and ethnicity. In that, it found like minds in members of Iraq's formerly exiled opposition, which largely operated according to the same calculus. Mr. Bremer relied inordinately on them to choose the Governing Council, and they demanded numbers commensurate with what they saw as their demographic weight. Sect and ethnicity was thus a key determinant of who was chosen. In the end, with those decisions, the United States, aided by the exiles, helped bring to post-invasion reality its own pre-invasion preconceptions.
"I honestly believe that we all share responsibility," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, one of the members of the body. He blamed Saddam Hussein's withering oppression of Shiites and Kurds for forcing the once-exiled opposition to coalesce the way it did; indeed, Mr. Hussein did much to reinforce Iraq's divisions. But, Mr. Rubaie added, "I think we fell into a trap."
In words at least, politicians have pledged to end the system of muhasisa, or quotas. The promise was a mainstay of the election campaign. ("Either quotas and corruption, or water, electricity and jobs," one poster read.) Many politicians lament its emergence as the political arithmetic, even as they work strenuously to reinforce it.
The negotiations today are a window on the resilience of that arithmetic.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi has called for the presidency to go to a Sunni Arab. Why, he asked, should it be reserved for a Kurd? (For their part, the Kurds have insisted that their candidate, Jalal Talabani, should indeed return.) The post of Parliament speaker, now held by a Sunni, is seen as the least prestigious; no one really wants that.
And then there is the position of prime minister, which everyone expects to remain in the hands of the Shiite majority, although not just any Shiite. A list led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, may have won the most number of seats. Yet he drew much of his support from Iraq's Sunni regions; "the representative of the Sunnis," Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, his friend and fellow contender for the post, called him.
"It's not up to the Sunnis to decide who is prime minister," said Mr. Shahbandar, an ally of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. "They know it's not their position. They know the political game. Quotas -- very, very regrettably -- still prevail."
A few years ago, a civil society group promoted an ad campaign in Lebanon, a country famously home to 18 sects, where the president is traditionally Maronite Catholic, the prime minister Sunni and the Parliament speaker Shiite. On billboards and in newspapers, the ads offered a dose of farce that didn't seem too farcical: cooking lessons by Greek Orthodox, building for sale for Druze, hairstyling by an Armenian Catholic, a fashion agency looking for "a beautiful Shiite face."
At bottom, the ads read in English, "Stop sectarianism before it stops us," or, more bluntly in Arabic, "Citizenship is not sectarianism."
Not everyone got the joke, in part because it struck so close to home.
Some defend the quotas as offering protection to minorities in a region with a poor record in treating its own. (Consider Shiites in Saudi Arabia, or Israel's treatment of its Palestinian citizens, much less those under occupation.) And indeed, Sunnis will always be assured one of Iraq's top positions, even though they are a minority. But others worry whether such a formula questions the very notion of citizenship, in which communal rather than national leaders represent their constituencies in bargaining that can become self-serving.
That is often the case in Lebanon. It could become the case here in an environment where leaders often seem most bent on dividing the sectarian and ethnic spoils, even as Baghdad endures a few hours of electricity in triple-digit heat.
No one speaks for the nation in Iraq. Perhaps there really isn't one.
"There will be a little something for everybody, probably," said Ryan C. Crocker, the former ambassador to Iraq. "It's going to be fairly inclusive among the elites. But the promises that are made, the deals that are dealt are really not going to involve any promises or commitments to make life better for people in Iraq.
"That's just not what the transaction is in Iraqi politics," he said.
By Anthony Shadid
New York Times