Analysing a Fragmented Iraq

Chaos and unity in a fragmented Iraq
By Roger Owen | September 28, 2007

WHAT GENERAL PETREAUS and his master, President Bush, would like us to believe is that recent American policy in Iraq can be seen as a military success but a political failure judged in terms of the inability of the country’s sectarian leaders to unite. What they cannot see is that the two are much more closely related than they are willing to admit.

One factor is that by arming and financing the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province as local militias, the American military is both recognizing the lack of central government control and helping to undermine it still further. But there is much more to it than that.

The major reasons why sectarian leaders cannot come together to create a united leadership for a united Iraq is that, rather than being able to control their followers outside the Green Zone, they are now, to a larger extent, controlled by them.

How and why this came about can be summed up under two related reasons. One concerns the long history of the devolution of local power by British and American authorities, first to the Kurds, then to those Iraqi sectarian parties that won a majority in the provincial elections in 2005.

In the case of the British in particular, control over the local administration and the police was simply handed to whichever Shi’ite party, or coalition of parties, gained the most electoral support. The same happened in the northern provinces, for example in the Mosul region, a process that greatly added to sectarian fighting in and around the city itself as a result of the fact that the Sunnis, by boycotting the election, had excluded themselves from the official political process.

The second, increasingly important reason is the fact that, as in the case of Lebanon during its own civil war, there were enough economic resources scattered around the country for local warlords who controlled them to maintain their own loyal militias and civilian constituencies without having to rely on the leadership’s financial support.

These included such tangible assets as police stations and armories, as well as economic assets like oil pipelines or refineries, electricity substations able to route local supplies, ports, and vital roads where traffic coming in and out of Kuwait in the south and Jordan and Syria in the east could readily be taxed, used for the smuggling of drugs and weapons or both.

Circumstances of this type provided an impetus to the fragmentation of sectarian cohesion as well. The intensity of the struggle to control local resources often pitted one Shi’ite group against another, a process sometimes further encouraged by politicians at the center as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to use the provincial police forces controlled by its Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council allies against the Mahdi army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr and against those of the Fadhila movement.

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