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The Right of Iraq to Self-Determination

 article about The Right of Iraq to Self-Determination
2007-02-21 16:59:36

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       The Inalienable Rights of Nations and Peoples

     – United Nations Declaration of Human Rights



The first and fundamental democratic right to fall with the invasion of Iraq was the right of a nation to self-determination. It was this right that underpinned the legitimacy and success of the American War of Independence, and is now trampled underfoot in its Imperialist dealings with all countries in the Middle East. It lies at the root of the impasse in the current crisis in Palestine, where both the US and Israel refuse to recognize the democratically elected Hamas government and is undermining the social stability of Lebanon, where they are , likewise, trying to subvert the legitimate social and electoral support for Hezbollah. Indeed, its contempt for the right of nations to self-determination pervades America's attitude to all the countries of the Middle East and is one key source of the hatred felt towards it by the Arab peoples. 


Whatever our personal opinion of what is the best or most suitable form of government, it is for the Iraqi peoples to work out and decide for themselves rather than our aspirations for them. It is their future.


The Humpty-Dumpty Empire.       

 Trying to hold together the disintegrating and blood-soaked pieces of former British colonies is a thankless task.. Even where people provide "solutions" to avoid their disintegration out of honest and well-meaning motivations, the internal and external forces of self-interested Imperial and sectarian participants too often shipwreck their plans.


The social calamities experienced by synthetic, British ex-colonies like Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland is a short list of Britain's "Hall of Shame," which should speak for itself. It is a picture of millions of lives lost in civil war, insurgency, sectarianism and terrorism. All of this has resulted from the divide and rule, sectarian tactics of British Imperialism, when creating and governing these pseudo-nations for their own strategic and economic interests. Iraq is now one such country in question.


Iraq has existed for less than a hundred years. It was artificially carved from the old Ottoman Empire. The name and the state of "Iraq" didn't exist until it was under British mandate in 1920, when it was established without any concern for natural ethnic or religious boundaries. It border were just part of what Churchill contemptuously called "drawing lines in the sand."  The very name Iraq is neither native nor Arabic, but a derivation from the Persian word "Erak", meaning, "lower Iran." 


As they did in Ireland, India and Malaysia (to name a few) the Brits ruled Iraq by leaning on one ethnic minority against the rest, in this case the Sunnis against the Kurds and Shias. Sunni tribal leaders made up the colonial administration and a Sunni Hashimite family from Mecca took the throne. Nominal independence was gained in 1932. In its short history, it has faced 11 uprisings and 4 major wars, all related to the same issues bursting to the surface today. It was inevitable that the country would simply implode as a result of US invasion occupation.


In truth Iraq is another "misfit" of Imperialism designed to secure foreign oil interests and play out balance of power politics. The same two concerns govern the invasion of Iraq today and its intended affect on process in the Middle East as a whole.          


Trying to stabilize and keep these man-made monsters together has been one of the principle tasks and failures of British and US imperialism since the countries gained independence. Consequently, in searching for a solution one has to determine if the monster can be stitched back together. If so, are the internal and external situations favourable to this being sustained and can they also provide a suitable quality of life for the people.


Therefore, before, we suggest any solutions to the Iraq dilemma, the first question to be posed is; should we try and keep this artifice together, and, secondly, should we work with important internal and foreign participants who are making efforts to achieve exactly this, but in their own, cynical self-interests.


Whatever solution is put forward, or becomes popular, one has to ask if it is only again temporarily plastering over fissures that will soon blow open again, given the current state of the nation and the influences of the regional and international environment? Will today's sticking plaster only temporarily subdue the subterranean build up of contradictions and unresolved problems, which will only haemorrhage out even more violently, in the not so distant future.  


Despite the artificiality of Iraq, most people sense that the break up of a larger political, social and economic unit into smaller parts is a regressive step. Thus, the most popular solutions are generally seen to be those that appear to find a compromise or bridge between the contradictory centrifugal and centripetal forces at work.


Discussions range from the need for a strong unitary state governed again by a dictator, to break-up into independent states. In the middle, and increasingly the dominant trend, is the notion of some form of federalization. This has been part of the constitutional preamble since early on, when ex-patriot parties and leaders returned to Iraq in 2003 and enshrined in the March 2004 Transitional Administrative Law, even preceding the current federalist constitution of November 2006.


Sectarian Federalism

Today's federalism in Iraq is a sectarian, Shiite "solution." It originated among formerly, exiled Shiite politicians and clerics and has never been an "Iraqi solution," i.e. a demand arising from among all sections of the peoples and corresponding to their common needs and aspirations. It has been supported by the Kurds, to favour the maintenance of their own autonomy, but its has been consistently rejected by the Sunnis, who see it as heavily favouring the political and economic interests of the Shiites. It has not even been a popular demand stemming from the body of the Shiite population.


Despite federalism being the platform of the larger government parties, there is considerable scepticism towards it among ordinary Shiites. They see first hand how parties are using it for Machiavellian purposes. Its most forthright proponent is the influential cleric and leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. His position is the most radical, calling for the merger of all the Southern governates into one Shiite "super-region." In general terms, the federalist « solution » provides for three autonomous regions in all their affairs of government with the exception of the national army and police and national defence. He is supported tentatively by Prime Minister Maliki, whose Dawa Party depends on him as the largest block in parliament.


Yet ironically, Maliki also depends on the Sadrist block of Muqtada al-Sadr, which until now has opposed federalism! Both the Sadrists and the Fadhila Party, which rules Basra, oppose federalism, more because they fear they would loose their power over local governates in the south, which, in a super-region would become politically dominated by al-Hakim's SCIRI. Muqtada al-Sadr goes so far as to call for unity between Sunnis and Shiites, while his Mehdi Army is responsible for the majority of sectarian murders and attacks on them. When it comes to political programs both al-Sadr and the Fadhila party could also easily switch positions on federalism, if it suited them. Such is the integrity of these individuals on any issues.


Who governs in the south doesn't depend on the results of the local elections, but whoever has the most powerful militia in town. Al-Hakim's Badr Brigades have power in some towns, but not the majority. The super-region "solution" basically suits the power lust of al-Hakim, who so far has found no other way to get full control over the south.


Federalism originated from above, not from below. It is a fabrication of opportunist, sectarian politicians, who have just about managed to scrape it into the constitution against the opposition of Sunni representatives, as well as some important Shiite parties. Indeed, the balance between the pro-federalist and anti-federalist Shiite blocks is very close. After all, their physical majority already ensures they have control over the oil in the south, even with the existing constitution.


Federalism has managed to get so far because of the failure of democracy and the lack of a clear, public end game on the part of the U.S. The other factor is the lack of alternatives. There is either the option of going back to dictatorship or a full-ahead course to independence. However desperate their situation, these are two roads which people still hesitate to take. Federalism in Iraq is not so much the exercise of self-determination, as the product of indetermination.


It would be wrong to give the impression that there is no grass root support at all for federalism. There is certainly an important section of the Shiite population in favour of federalism as a way to guarantee their stranglehold over some of the country's main economic resources. Hakim did secure the highest votes for a single party in the elections. But going by voting patterns is not a clear indicator of intent. Al-Hakim wins considerable votes just due to his important religious authority. Furthermore, in the referendum, the high turnout by Shiites was secured in no small part because the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a Fatwah ordering people to vote

Would Federalization Work?

Even if federalism isn't a mass grassroots movement today, it could become one, and remains the main political kid on the block. Arguing for a return to dictatorship or the prospect for all-out war that independence would bring is difficult. At the same time, the status quo is equally difficult to defend. Something has to be put forward and federalism is the most suitable to the machinations of the opportunistic politicians.


The simple argument of al-Hakim in favor of federalism is to point to the success of Kurdish autonomy. It is demagogy because he well knows that the situation in "Kurdistan" is quite different from other parts of the country. The Kurdish autonomous regional government has been successful for five key reasons, which differentiate it from the rest of the country (until now.) These are:

1) The greater ethnic and religious homogeneity of the region;
2) the independent economic potential of the oil revenues;
3) the lack of factionalism deriving from the long, historical, social solidarity formed in the struggle for independence;
4) greater socio-economic stability and unity; and finally,
5) these factors have allowed the region to have a more stable state apparatus with a popular government and security forces.

Some of the factors, especially one and twp have also been partially present in the oil rich Shiite south, which until now has experienced relatively less violence than Baghdad or the Sunni regions. Yet in the South, political in-fighting and the consequent disruption of the economy have now reached dangerous levels. Al-Hakim can make the simple point that if the current democratic structures are done away with (since they don't function any way,) then a new super, single governate of all provinces could bring peace and prosperity. This allows him to play on the legitimate frustration and disgust with both the local political militia factionalism and the central government. Put at its bluntest "you have everything the north has economically and more, all you need is the same autonomy and peace and prosperity is yours."


This is simply a lie. The problem is not whether the Shias have a "super region" or not. The Kurdish area is not a "super region" on this model. It is run on the basis of the same governate, decentralized democracy that the Shiites have in place. It is not one great centralized region where the governates have been abolished. They co-exist with a regional authority, army and police. The key difference is that there isn't the same level of political factionalism and militia rivalry that bedevils the south, and which is precisely the product of the machinations of politicians like al-Hakim. Shiite "federalism" is simply a dangerous attempt by opportunistic Shiite politicians to divert attention from their own failings and growing unpopularity, and to make up for this by demagogically winning an advantage over their rivals. 



In the absence of other alternatives the argument could catch on. But its potential appeal is limited to the Shiite south, because Baghdad and the mixed Shia/Sunni areas benefit from none of the advantages enjoyed by the Kurdish region, and, moreover, suffer from much of the militia misrule and factionalism found in the south. Their economies are in ruins. Indeed, the whole fabric of their society is in tatters. 


The purely Sunni areas are. They have little or no independent economic resources and lack any perspectives for the future. Furthermore, they are practically lawless. The old state machinery collapsed and has been replaced by the rule of the different insurgents and tribal chiefs. Unity between some insurgent groups is only preserved by the need for extra combined forces against the common occupying U.S. enemy. Rivalry is still fierce and ideological divisions stretch from Baathists and nationalists across the spectrum of groups to Al Qaeda. People mostly hanker for the days of the old regime and hope for a share in a unitary Iraq for economic reasons. But, at the same time, they live in distrust and dread of Shia domination and potential victimization and revenge for the past crimes of the old pro-Sunni regimes.


The workability of any proposal has to have the support or potential support of all sectors of the population. The only area where it is supported generally is the Kurdish area. There is still growing suspicion among Kurds over the question of a Shia "super region," which would increase overall Shiite power in Iraq and perhaps cause problems on wealth sharing and other questions at a national level. They would probably prefer to keep to a much weaker form of federalism for the Shia and Sunni regions. Yet, at the same time the status quo is beginning to eat away at the fringes of the Kurdish region and the disputed mixed belt around its border. Mosul faces escalating violence and Kirkuk is on the verge of civil war. It is increasingly obvious that "Kurdistan" cannot remain hermetically sealed from events infecting the rest of the country. 


But despite Kurdish support, if the concept of federalism fails to win support among the Sunnis, then it is unworkable as a national strategy. And why should the Sunnis support the creation of Shia "super region"? Clearly, their present fears of discrimination and punishment for the past will be even more poignant. Any lingering hope or confidence in the national government would evaporate. At the very least, if a movement for separation did develop, then they would demand their own "super region." This would mean a battle for every inch of disputed, mixed territory stretching from the Syrian border to Iran and right up north into the borderlands of the Kurdish region. 


The Sectarian Role of the United States.

Bereft of new ideas for a new epoch, the U.S. is falling back on the old methods of British Imperialism in divide and rule and the sectarian tactics to deal with counter-insurgence. In particular, they are surreptitiously turning to a method which was successfully employed in  Malaysia.


There the British forsook support among the population, as a whole, for leaning on the support of one ethnic group against another, in order to defeat the insurgents. The U.S. and U.K. are now doing the same with the Shias in Iraq. Behind the crackdown on Shia militias lies a deal struck with Maliki and al-Hakim (and, indeed even with Muqtada al-Sadr) to crush all Shia militia opposition to them, in return for their unequivocal support for the surge. After it is all over, Maliki and Hakim will be handed the Iraqi Army and police as part of their private army. As we go to press, British forces, together with army units sympathetic to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his Badr Brigades have attacked the incumbent Fadhila party, in an effort to hand Hakim the prize of Iraq's second city of Basra. Under the cloak of crushing "criminal elements," all "unreliable" Shia militias are being first moped up, before a real offensive is begun against the Sunni insurgents.


The reason is the US cannot lean upon the Shia majority, if it is not first stable and reliable. Once they have secured a loyal Shia "maharajah," they don't have to keep looking over their shoulders, while attacking Sunni insurgents. The American will then crush the Sunnis for the Shias. They will break the back of Sunni morale, crushing all who cannot be bought off and leaving Maliki and al-Hakim free to introduce their form of "federalism."


Similar style efforts are being tried with regard to Sunni collaborators. The American Ambassador and aids are busy at work discussing with tribal and insurgent Sunnis to strike a similar deal, which will then free the U.S. to focus on Al Qaeda. But this is less likely to work, as they are weaker than Hakim and the U.S. has little plausible to promise them in return 


So while the Iraqi government throws dust in the eyes of the world, talking of criminals and terrorists, the idea goes that the rank and file militants will be moped up and sectarian killings and insurgency will be brought down to minimum, "acceptable " levels. The U.S. will be able to withdraw with a face-saving solution and will be long gone by the time Iraq reaps the whirlwind, when sectarianism and insurgency recovers enough to plunge Iraq into a new all-out civil war. Or so the plan goes. 


Federation or Confederation?

However, by allowing the Shias to continue to pursue a federalist policy, and concentrating on the Shiite sectarians, the U.S. runs the risk of the Sunni insurgency spiraling out of control. While it concentrates first on closing down Baghdad, the U.S. forces are extremely overstretched in the rest of the country. There are already strong indications, that the surge is failing and a process of "Baghdadisation" is now spreading nationwide.


By adopting even a disguised sectarian support for a federalist government, the U.S. is sending a message to the insurgency and even to the Shiite militias, that there is simply nothing to loose. On both extremist sides a policy of total independence will be counterpoised to federalism. Indeed, in some ways it is more appealing and could begin to get popular support.


Complete separation and the creation of independent, homogenous Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states could appear to offer a permanent solution to sectarianism. Formal "police-able" borders could be established to substantially reduce sectarian deaths. Shiites would be rid of the age-old ghost of Sunni domination and Sunnis would be free of the menace of revenge. Since Sunnis would have nothing to loose and more to gain from leaving a federal Iraq, being independent would at least bring "negative" benefits. In many ways both sides would gain. Ironically, the biggest losers could be the Kurds who would be unlikely to hang on to their independence, as Turkey would probably invade, in order to quash the separatist appeal among its own Kurds. However, what might head-off such an outside intervention could be the creation of a new dual state of the federal union of Kurdish and Shia Iraq.


Furthermore, independence would only work if neighboring powers were prepared to intervene economically and not militarily. This would be especially the case for an independent Sunni state. Saudi Arabia would need to intervene economically in much the same way West Germany did, in order to reunify and stabilize East Germany - except in the case of Sunni Iraq, without there being a political union. Of course, much would depend on the strength of Al Qaeda, for this to be viable.

Perhaps the best solution for
Iraq would be not a federation, but a "Confederation of Independent States," in which the independent states negotiate a treaty on economic, political or military matters of mutual interest.  It could possibly draw upon the common historical links and the common trade routes, by naming itself the "Mesopotamian Confederation", the "Fertile Crescent Confederation" or the "Rafidan Confederation" according to the Arabic translation of Mesopotamia, that refers to the country of the Tigris and Euphrates.


The great problem is that getting to independence is the same as the potential consequences of federalization – it means wading waist high through blood and corpses. There would be genocidal ethnic cleansing as a mad grab for land, cities and towns took place. Worst of all would be the question of Baghdad, which would become another Sarajevo or 70's-style Beirut.


A Confederation of Independent States, on the other hand, could have Baghdad as its confederate capital, while each independent state would choose a new capital. The route to independence would have to be phased transition, with a U.N. negotiated settlement of boundaries and international aid for resettlement and development.


Indeed, just as much as negative developments influence the whole Middle East, the concept of confederation is something which could put something positive into the region as a whole with its great wealth and potential. A sort of Common Market, Free Trade Zone or the Middle East Union, similar to European Union, could act as an economic boost and also a strategic buffer against U.S. intervention and exploitation, as well as helping to undercut the dangerous growth of competing local imperialist powers.    


The Right to Self Determination

At the end of the day such "castles in the sky", as we propose, depend on what the Iraqi peoples themselves want and how they get their voices heard. Whether Shia, Sunni or Kurd they are all united around three basic needs and aspirations – security, revenue and freedom. An end to violence, the possibility of economic growth and freedom from the threat of persecution and discrimination. In the end they will choose to go with the system which appears to offer the likeliest possibility of achieving this. They may even have to test some out before moving to a more permanent solution. But under such exceptional circumstances, the route to self-determination must surely itself have to take on asymmetrical forms.


At the moment, the only place that self-determination can be realized is on the streets. People will vote with their feet and with their guns at a certain stage. This is the only way their voices will be heard and potentially the only way that new leaders can be thrown up from among the honest ranks of the Iraqi masses, of whatever creed. At a certain moment, the current paralysis of the masses in the face of the violence will break down, and demonstrations and movements will arise of an intifada-like quality. The masses will lose their fear and decide to take matters into their own hands. This is the beginning of real self-determination and it needs no electoral frills or party buntings.


In the end, it is the will of the people which makes any system viable and workable. Our castles in the sky may not go much further than the pages they are written on. But in our own countries, we must educate and agitate on the basic right of all nations and peoples to self-determination and we must use it as a stick to beat our own governments. And, while we do so, the answer to that question of where now for Iraq, should not be too long in coming from amongst the Iraqi peoples themselves.


Stephen J. Morgan 20/02/2007



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