The Middle East Channel

Iraq's political fallout

Unlike other revolts underway in the Middle East, Iraq's uprisings have not yet escalated into a large-scale opposition movement by local populations against the central government. Rather, they remain disjointed responses by different groups to distinct local and regional-level problems. Iraqis in southern and central Iraq blame local provincial councils, alongside Baghdad, for lack of services and corruption, while populations in the Kurdish north lodge their complaints against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although localized, the uprisings have had important political consequences on the central government and the KRG. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's support base has eroded while the unity of the Kurdistan region has been further undermined. Relations between Baghdad and Arbil also are challenged as each political entity seeks greater control over territory and security it claims to be its own.

Indeed, Iraq seems primed to follow the path of other Middle Eastern states in turmoil. The weak central government is no more responsive to its populations than regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, or Libya. Since 2005, and despite the regeneration of oil revenues, Baghdad has been unable to sufficiently restore electricity, provide basic services, or engage in necessary economic development projects that benefit localities. Iraq also retains its Transparency International ranking as the world's fourth most corrupt country. Further, Iraqi youth have access to the social media and could mobilize masses the way their counterparts in other countries have done.

Unlike other troubled Middle Eastern states defined by decades of authoritarianism, however, the Baghdad government is relatively new and without a historical trajectory of repression. Even though the morale of democracy is undeveloped or even nonexistent in Iraq, the power-sharing system embedded in the 2005 constitution has checked the re-emergence of dictatorship by disempowering Baghdad and delegating many powers to the provinces. The regionalization of Iraqi politics, which further polarized ethnic and sectarian communities, has encouraged key political problems to be displaced from the central government to regional and local administrations.

Nuri al-Maliki also assured that the opposition would remain localized by keeping the protestors away from each other. During the demonstrations, for instance, he controlled communication services and set up road blocks so that protestors had to walk about five kilometers to reach the central square in Baghdad. These measures may not have deterred the demonstrations, but they shifted them to outlying localities. Residents in Basra, Fallujah, and Ramadi overthrew their provincial governments and burned down public buildings. Gunmen in Tikrit attacked their local government and took hostages. In Anbar, the sheikhs seek to remove the governor, provincial council chairman and operations centers commander.

The unrest has had political fallout in Baghdad. Maliki's power base has been further undermined as Ayad Allawi and Moqtada al-Sadr have threatened to withdraw support from the government. Even some members of Maliki's State of Law party have distanced themselves from the prime minister by forming a ‘White Block" in parliament and calling for Maliki's resignation if the situation does not improve in 100 days. Developing alongside these political rifts is the strengthening of the position of Ayatollah al-Sistani, who has taken credit for the non-violent nature of the demonstrations without really having been involved in them. 

As expected, Maliki has responded by trying to control and appease his challengers. While clamping down on protestors, he has promised political reforms and strengthened the state's distributive function through increased allocation of revenues for public goods and services.  Furthermore, he has attempted to co-opt western Sunni Arab tribes by negotiating an amnesty with the "Jihad Reform Group", an ensemble of five Iraqi resistance groups based in Syria. The tribe's perception (and distrust) of Maliki as a Shi'a with Iranian backing, as well as its lucrative trade along the border area, will hinder Maliki's effort to draw Sunni Arab tribes back into the state and to undermine Ayad Allawi's tribal support base. And even though Maliki has licensed the Sadrists' "Sit in against Occupiers" demonstration planned for April 9, he needs to assure that the event does not become violent or further erode his fragile government.

Similar events have transpired in the Kurdish north. The protests, which are still ongoing, have not only unleashed populations' pent-up frustrations with the KRG-party apparatus but also have reinforced fractures in Kurdish politics and society. While most Kurdish populations seek political reform, only those in Sulaimani have had the opportunity and interest to openly challenge KRG and Barzani family power. Political polarization between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was made evident after the PUK refused the deployment of KDP militia into Sulaimani, which attempted to quell a situation that its KRG partner has proven unable to manage.  

New fissures also have emerged between the KRG and its challengers -- Kurdish populations it now refers to as "Those Who Do Not Love Kurdistan". In fact, the entire opposition movement and protests have become highly politicized as old party feuds over leadership and control are intertwined with demands for real political reform. While the KDP and PUK accuse the opposition group, Goran, and demonstrators for being disloyal to Kurdish nationalism, Islamic parties that have joined the protestors in Sulaimani have permitted their mullahs to give sermons referring to the demonstrations as "a jihad against the KRG". These political tensions have widened the Badinani-Soran rift, or the geographical polarizations between regions, that has evolved alongside the aggrandizement of Barzani-family power and weakening of the PUK since 2006, making the possibility of a truly unified Kurdish government unlikely.

Furthermore, the protests have reaffirmed challenges between Baghdad and Arbil over political authority and territorial claims. During the initial demonstrations, for instance, Kurdish officials refused entry of four-star Iraq generals into a joint Iraqi-KRG peshmerga headquarters in Sulaimani. They also mobilized thousands of Kurdish troops to Kirkuk to securitize the city during and after Iraq's ‘Day of Rage', in which non-Kurdish communities raised further concerns about the KRG's overextension of its autonomy. 

Maliki and Kurdish president Mas'ud Barzani eventually negotiated the peshmerga's withdrawal; however, Baghdad continues to insist that all Iraqi forces be kept under centralized command while the Kurds assert complete control over their militia. Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jelal Talabani's public speech referring to Kirkuk as the "Jerusalem of Kurdistan", as well as the PUK's efforts to reshuffle positions on the Kirkuk provincial council to garner Turkoman support, has fueled Arab suspicions of Kurdish intentions in Kirkuk and stirred rivalries between the Kurdish parties.  

This impasse between Baghdad and Arbil is just one of several issues that will mark Iraq's political landscape after the US troop withdrawal. If further mishandled by local and outside actors, it could upset the volatile situation in Kirkuk and intensify local feuds.  For this reason, some type of third party monitoring, such as UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq) involvement, may be necessary to help neutralize the situation and prevent the outbreak of local conflict at the trigger line.

However, given internal governance challenges, pressing demands for stability and increased oil production, and the KRG's dependence upon external patronage for its survival, Baghdad and Arbil are unlikely to test their wills through protracted military confrontation at this time. A more likely scenario is ongoing political stalemate, whereby Iraqi and Kurdish officials begrudgingly tolerate each other and make political side-deals to quell potential unrest, consolidate their power, and assure economic gain.

Like other Middle Eastern populations demanding reform, Iraqi demonstrators will continue to pressure their leaders for better services, less corruption, and governments that govern. Maliki and Barzani, in turn, will become increasingly reliant on coercive and cooptive means of compliance to protect their power. Yet, as long as the weak federalist system is in place and Iraq is politically fragmented, this unrest will be channeled at the regional and local levels. Instead of a revolutionary outcome, Iraq's disruptive change may come more gradually, and alongside the struggle for power in Baghdad and over the nature of the Iraqi state.

Dr. Denise Natali is the Minerva Chair at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010) The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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The Middle East Channel

A congressional double standard on incitement

This week, in response to the highly publicized murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, a group of 27 U.S. senators signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to press Palestinian leaders to end "incitement directed against Jews and Israel within the Palestinian media, mosques, and schools." According to the letter, the grisly killings in Itamar (for which no suspects, Palestinian or otherwise, have been identified), "is a sobering reminder that words matter, and that Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel can lead to violence and terror."

As evidence for the allegation of pervasive anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian society, the letter cites a recent, official ceremony honoring Delal Mughrabi, a perpetrator of the 1978 coastal road massacre in Israel, as well as a payment of financial compensation made by the Palestinian Authority to the family of a deceased terror suspect.

Such actions are deserving of condemnation. But if it is indeed the case that "words matter" -and if the elimination of violent and dehumanizing rhetoric is, as the letter says, "critical to establishing the conditions [for] a secure and lasting peace"-then what can explain the senators' silence on the veritable carnival of hate and racist incitement against Arabs and Palestinians that has lately engulfed Israeli society?

Anyone who reads Israel's press these days will find it difficult to do so without chancing upon yet another outrageous example of such incitement. Be it the declaration of Rabbi Dov Lior, a senior authority on Jewish law in the Religious Zionism movement, that the offspring of non-Jews possess "genetic traits" of "cruelty and barbarism"; or an open letter signed by dozens of Israel's municipal chief rabbis calling on Jews "to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews"; or the wives of those state-sponsored rabbis urging Jewish girls not to date, work with, or perform national service in the company of Arabs; or even news of the publication of "The King's Torah," a theological text widely endorsed by settler rabbis that authorizes the killing of non-Jewish children and babies, since "it is clear that they will grow to harm us."

Could it be that the senators who so rightfully condemn the glorification of violence when it issues from an obscure Palestinian official are simply unaware of the multiple proclamations of such a prominent figure as Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party (a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu's governing coalition) and a former Chief Rabbi of Israel's Sephardi Jewish community?  "It is forbidden to be merciful to [Arabs]," Yosef was quoted as saying in 2001, "You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable." More recently, Yosef sermonized that "Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and all these evil people should perish from this world." "God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians," he said.

The poisonous effects of these statements are no less publicly available than the statements themselves, and of equal concern to anyone seeking "to establish the conditions for a secure and lasting peace." Polling has routinely documented the explosion of anti-democratic and militaristic sentiment in Israel, particularly among the youth population. In a Tel Aviv University poll released last year, 49.5 percent of Israeli high school students responded in the negative when asked whether "Arab citizens should be granted rights equal to that of Jews," while a majority of 56 percent said that Israel's Arab citizens should be ineligible to serve in the country's parliament. "While an overwhelming majority (91 percent) expressed a desire to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces," reported Haaretz, "48 percent said they would not obey an order to evacuate outposts and settlements in the West Bank." As recently as this week, a new poll was released attesting to the diminished importance of "democracy" among Israeli teens (only 14 percent of whom consider it a national priority), as well as unprecedented levels of reverence for Israel's military and a marked desire for "strong leadership" at the expense of minority rights.

Not surprisingly, this rising tide of racism in Israeli society has translated into both discriminatory legislation directed against Israel's Arab citizens and into violent hate crimes which, while not as gruesome as the massacre in Itamar, are more pervasive, bordering on quotidian.

As the New York Times reported last week, a law passed by Israel's Knesset on March 23 allows "that communities with 400 or fewer families [in the Negev and Galilee, areas with large Arab populations] may set up committees to screen potential residents for whether they fit in socially" - a statute intended to legitimize the barring of Israeli Arabs from Jewish villages. Yet another law, passed during the same legislative session, imposes financial penalties on state-subsidized organizations that would publicly mourn the losses incurred by Palestinians during Israel's 1948 war of independence. This flurry of anti-democratic legislation follows the successful attempt last year by Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman (who supports a form of ethnic population transfer), to establish a "loyalty oath" requiring non-Jews seeking Israeli citizenship to pledge allegiance to the "Jewishness" of the state.

Such legislation promotes the sense among Jewish Israelis that Arab citizens of Israel present a threat to the body politic, and to the physical security of Jews.  It is therefore no coincidence that Israel has recently witnessed a spate of violent attacks on its Arab population. According to the Israeli news website Ynet, a gang of seven Israeli youth, including a fourteen-year old girl, were arrested in December for reportedly "luring" young Arab men to Jerusalem's Independence Park, where the Arabs were "brutally attacked by the teens with stones, glass bottles and tear gas." Earlier this week, four Palestinian laborers were assaulted in the middle of the night by police after being falsely accused of raping an 11-year-old boy (the boy later admitted he had fabricated the story). "The police treated us like dogs, not like human beings," one of the Palestinians told Israeli Army Radio in an interview on Thursday.

But it should be made clear that the routine acts of violence against Arabs within Israel - and even the daily pogroms, or "price-tag" attacks, inflicted on West Bank Palestinians by rogue settler bands - are only the tip of the iceberg. The whole wide-ranging system of occupation in the West Bank, and the hardhearted policies that promote the economic asphyxiation of the entire civilian population in Gaza - themselves the most deadly form of "incitement" - are underwritten on the ethical and cultural plain by the growing disdain and racial animus against Arabs in Israeli society. On Thursday, Ynet reported that when "Asked how they feel when they think of Arabs, 25% [of Israelis polled] responded with ‘hate' and 12% responded with ‘fear.'" Is it any surprise, then, that Israelis have grown increasingly tolerant and supportive of government policies that undermine not only the prospect of peace and coexistence with their neighbors, but also their country's own, much vaunted democratic character?

The senators are correct to inveigh against Palestinian incitement. But doing so in the conspicuous absence of any assessment of Israel's own rampant and destructive incitement speaks to an agenda driven less by a genuine concern for the physical and moral well-being of Israelis and Palestinians than by domestic politics. Leadership - and peace - demands more than that.

Matt Berkman is a Research Associate at the U.S./Middle East Project, a policy institute in New York City.

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