The Magazine

Bush's Great Middle East Gamble

The best hope for Iran is winning in Iraq.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The war has in all likelihood greatly accelerated this evolution. What took 25 years in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria has taken around a decade in Iraq. Bad cultural analysis of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which probably comprises no more, and perhaps a lot less, than 20 percent of the country's population, was again egregiously on display before the October 15 referendum when President Bush made a telephone call to Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. This may have been a watershed moment for the United States--the high-water mark of what I would call the Sunni Stockholm Syndrome (the more the Arab Sunnis engage in violence, the more we try to placate their side). The president wanted al-Hakim to get the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant coalition within the Iraqi parliament, to delete from the proposed constitution the provision for "Shiite" federalism. This provision gives the Shiites in the southern provinces of Iraq the possibility of creating an autonomous zone similar to the Kurdish region in the north. The president's advisers had obviously told him that the Sunni antipathy for the constitution might diminish if the Shiites deleted the section about southern federalism, which the Sunnis saw as a prelude to a national fracturing that might leave them controlling very little oil (most known oil reserves are located in the north and south).

It was a foregone conclusion that al-Hakim would say "no" to the president. First, neither al-Hakim nor the Supreme Council had the power within Iraq's Shiite community to say "yes" even if they'd wanted to, and they obviously didn't. Two years ago, al-Hakim, the rest of the Supreme Council, and most of the traditional Shiite clergy led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani would have been appalled by the idea of Shiite federalism. Stomaching Kurdish federalism was hard for them. The Shiites, and the clerics in particular, considered themselves, not the Arab Sunnis, the true repository of Iraqi national sentiment, the historic defenders of national pride (the Sunnis, after all, gained power through British intervention, while the Shia fought unsuccessfully against the infidel invader).

There are several reasons why the Shia have changed their minds about federalism in the intervening two years: Envy of the Kurds, the spread of Basra's independent streak to the larger Shiite community in the south, oil greed, and the need for some of Iraq's more radical Shiites to try to build a home where the reach and power of the traditional clergy based in the holy city of Najaf has historically never been strong. But among the most important reasons is a growing fear that the Iraqi Arab Sunni community may have, just possibly, lost its collective mind. The insurgency, in particular the Sunni jihadist suicide-bombers who have unceasingly slaughtered Shiite civilians, have unquestionably taken a toll on Sunni-Shiite relations. The Shia now want to have some defensive depth, an autonomous area that they can wall off if all hell breaks loose in the country (and this definitely hasn't happened yet, despite the regular commentary in certain quarters about a civil war in Iraq).

President Bush's telephone call to al-Hakim was the last in a long line of U.S. actions that to most Shiite eyes probably seemed foolishly indulgent of a Sunni community that has so far shown very little desire to be absorbed into a democratic society. The Sunni Arab community has not just been at war with a foreign invader and its occupation (the Sunnis, after all, stomached the British after World War I who made it possible for them to gain power). As a community, the Sunnis have been opposed to the idea of a new political system that would deny them, at minimum, equal power with the Shia and the Kurds. At best, the Sunni Arab community has wanted to allot power on the basis of confessional identities, as the Lebanese constitution does.

The Sunni Arab community has in its DNA a love of centralized power, since only through centralized authority can it once again aspire to dominate the country. Go ahead and try to find statements from the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (Hayat al-Ulama al-Muslimin)--probably the organization that best represents the sentiments of the widest swath of the Arab Sunni population in Iraq--supporting the idea of democracy. At best, I've found commentary denouncing the grotesque slaughter of the Shia, particularly in mosques. This is certainly a sign of progress, since the Sunni Arab leadership in Iraq did not respond quickly or with much umbrage to the jihadist and insurgent shift in tactics, from gunning primarily for Americans to preying on the Shia deemed traitorous (that's all Shia, in the eyes of the jihadists; in the eyes of the insurgents, all Shia who work with the Americans or for the elected government).