Global Policy Forum

Identity Carved

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By Reidar Visser

September 10, 2009


In an op-ed published in August, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius - whose work is often a bellwether of prevailing moods in Washington - expressed concern over his recent discovery that the government of Iraq was "desperately vulnerable to pressure, especially from neighbouring Iran". Citing defected Iraqi security officials who believe that Iran secretly orchestrated the recent bombings in Baghdad to put pressure on Nouri al Maliki, Ignatius went on to suggest that Maliki was so firmly in the hands of the Iranians that "the prime minister uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel".

There are good reasons to scrutinise the Iranian role in Iraq, but any serious discussion of Tehran's influence must also acknowledge the ways that American actions have helped open the door for Iran, whether deliberately or not.

Paranoia about Iranian influence in Iraq has been a staple of American commentary since 2003. But it has produced a series of perplexing contradictions, since America has chosen to systematically empower and do business with exactly those Iraqi Shiite politicians who have particularly close ties to Tehran - a tendency seen at key junctures such as the formation of the Iraqi governing council in 2003 and the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution in 2005.

Ignatius himself, in fact, had sung the praises of one such pro-Iranian politician in an August 2005 column, where he waxed lyrical over Ammar al Hakim, the son of the late Abd al Aziz al Hakim and today the new leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Ignatius recognised that Hakim had certain connections to Iran, but did not hesitate in singling him out as "the Shiite card in the Iraqi poker game". He went on to describe Hakim as a "remarkably articulate man, with the spark of curiosity in his eyes and a presence that we in the United States would call star quality". Ignatius concluded by proposing a "strategic alliance between Najaf and Washington" to cement relations between the US and the Shiites of Iraq.


Today most analysts, including many in Washington, agree that emphasising sectarian identity - "playing the Shiite card", in Ignatius' terminology - is Iran's preferred method for maximising its leverage in Iraq. For his part, after having been treated for three years by Washington as its special partner among Iraq's Shiites, Ammar al Hakim is now playing a leading role in putting this Iranian strategy into operation: he is working to recreate a Shiite-dominated alliance for the next parliamentary elections, though this time with a veneer of Iraqi nationalism aimed at tapping into the anti-sectarian sentiment that seemed popular with voters in the local elections in January. Washington has now pinned its hopes on the idea that Maliki can resist Iranian pressure to join Hakim's Shiite alliance by appealing to a national, nonsectarian agenda.

But even if the United States now seems to recognise how an ethno-sectarian framework plays into Iran's hands, specific American policies continue to bolster the sectarian status quo - thereby marginalising the very nonsectarian trends that are a declared American policy objective. One example is the proposal revealed last month by Ray Odierno, the top US general in Iraq, whereby the Americans, along with troops from the central Iraqi government and forces belonging to Kurdish federal authorities, will jointly police a string of territories in northern Iraq considered "disputed" by the Kurds (who want to annex them to the federal region of Kurdistan). The plan seems to reflect the latest anxiety among Washington think-tankers - that an Arab-Kurdish conflict over territory is the next potential Armageddon in Iraq. But while the Odierno plan may well originate from the best of intentions, its reception in Iraq suggests that it may be yet another nail in the coffin of Iraqi nationalism, and thereby also help consolidate Iranian interests in Iraq, albeit more indirectly.

In practice, the Odierno plan is helping isolate Maliki from the nationalist and secularist constituencies that he is now supposed to win over in order to be something more than just a Shiite strongman. In governorate after governorate in the affected areas, local politicians have rejected the Odierno scheme, portraying it as a dangerous recognition of land grabs by the Kurds (who, naturally, instantly embraced the plan), and a green light for the partition of Iraq. Importantly, these reactions represent a universal pattern across the Nineveh, Salahaddin and Tamim governorates, comprising Arabs, Turkmens, Christians, Shabak and even some Yazidis.

These are mixed but Sunni-dominated areas where local politicians fully support the central Iraqi government, call for more Iraqi security forces and defend the 2005 constitution - precisely the sort of values Maliki should be looking for if he is sincere in his declared ambition to reach out beyond his own Shiite core constituency. But the politicians here also think that it would be far too extreme to embrace the Kurdish interpretation of what constitutes "disputed territories". That term was deliberately left undefined in the 2005 constitution and the 2004 transitional administrative law (only Kirkuk was explicitly mentioned) and the Kurdish demands - which form a shopping list of both realistic and highly unrealistic irredenta, many of which rest on no serious historical foundation whatsoever - are only one side of the story. Other Iraqis believe many of these areas are not "disputed" at all, but they now fear that the Odierno scheme of joint patrols will effectively mean a recognition of the Kurdish view.

Where does Iran fit into this battlefield, which mostly straddles areas of northern Iraq where relatively few Shiites live? Twenty-five years ago, on October 10, 1984, in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, a remarkable article appeared in the Liwa al-Sadr newspaper in Tehran. The newspaper was published by the party of the Hakim family, then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had been set up in Iran in an attempt by Khomeini to gain control of the Iraqi opposition. The article heaped praise on the Sunni Islamist movement of Falluja, which was commended for bravely resisting the secular regime of Saddam Hussein and upholding Islamic values - including a ban on alcohol. The article highlighted both the contribution of the Fallujans to the uprising against the British in 1920 as well as the refusal of these Sunni Islamists to serve in the ongoing war against Iran. Today, Iran's main goal in Iraq still appears to be to prevent any resurgence of Iraqi nationalism: As long as it does not translate into irreconcilable extremism of the al Qa'eda variety, Tehran prefers the articulation of "Sunni" rather than "Iraqi" identity in the central and northern parts of the country. Provided that the overarching framework remains ethno-sectarian - Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds sharing power - Iran will always enjoy the upper hand through its clients among the Shiite majority.

Today Tehran is not only looking to strengthen the Shiite alliance and maintain its long-standing ties to the Kurds, but also to identify tacit partners among the Sunnis that are willing to play the role as defenders of "Sunni" (or, if need be, "tribal") rather than "Iraqi" interests. So far, the potential partners that stand out are tribal groups in Anbar (one of these has already been enrolled in the new Shiite-led alliance), as well as the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), an Islamist group with historical roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In recent statements to the Iraqi press the IIP has openly appealed to specifically Sunni sentiments, saying they want the "Sunni Arab street" to vote as a unified bloc come election time. Crucially, while alliances between groups like these and Shiite parties will have the appearance of multi-sectarian lists, they will not seek to transcend ethno- sectarian identity. Rather they will cultivate sub-national identities, providing Iran with a permanent sectarian trump card that can always be played.

To the Iranian regime, the Iraqi situation would be problematic only if Shiite Islamists began participating in genuine cross-sectarian alliances with parties like the secular Iraqiyya, Hiwar, the Iraqi Constitutional Party, the Hadba movement in Mosul or the new, explicitly cross-sectarian party being formed by the Sunni former speaker of parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani and the Shiite Nadim al-Jabiri, formerly the leader of the Fadila party.

Forget about the conspiracy theories and the alleged Iranian crew of Maliki's private jet: If the Iraqi premier signs up to the Odierno project and abandons his potential allies north of Baghdad, it will mean that he is boxed in more than ever before. The likelihood of him succeeding on his own as an Iraqi nationalist will diminish dramatically; instead, there will be stronger prospects of some kind of future alliance between the Kurds, the IIP (or any other Sunni sectarian party prepared to step in) and the Shiites (whether in two quasi-national blocs or as a single, overtly sectarian ticket).

The Americans, always worried about Maliki becoming too strong, constantly harassed by strong Kurdish lobbies in Washington, and with a fond weakness for several IIP leaders, will be very happy. So too will Tehran.



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