October 28, 2011

The "Biden-ization" of Iraq?

صلاح الدين

Vice President Joe Biden just might have been ahead of his time. In 2006, then-Senator Biden was the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While in that position, he proposed that Iraq be divided into three separate regions along ethnic and religious lines. Specifically, he called for Kurdish, Shi'a and Sunni areas with a central government in Baghdad.

The Iraqi constitution allows for the formation of autonomous regions - the Kurds have already taken advantage of this and created the Kurdistan Region comprising the three governorates of Dahuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. Of course, the Iraqi Kurds often refer to the area as South Kurdistan. I was recently in Turkey, and one of the questions I heard more than once from the Turks (they are aware of my history with the Kurds in northern Iraq) was, "If the Kurdistan Region is South Kurdistan, then where exactly is North Kurdistan?"

In a surprising development this week, the provincial council of the governorate of Salah al-Din voted to form an autonomous region as well. The majority of the population of Salah al-Din - just over 900,000 people - is Sunni Arab, but there are also Kurds and Shi'a Arabs living in the governorate as well.

Interestingly, the Sunnis were originally against the provision in the constitution allowing for autonomous regions. They were concerned that the Kurds would form an autonomous region in the oil-rich north (as they did) and the Shi'a would do the same in the oil-rich south. Thus far, the Shi'a have not made any moves to form such a region, but they really don't need to - they easily dominate the government based on their numbers. The Sunnis feared that the Kurds and Shi'a would have sole access to the country's primary resource - oil - and freeze them out of the wealth.

What is driving the Sunnis in Salah al-Din to form an autonomous region?

The most recent aggravation between the Sunnis - most of whom live in the areas of central Iraq to the north, east and west of Baghdad - and the Shi'a dominated government is a massive arrest campaign targeting members of the outlawed Ba'th Party, the party of former dictator Saddam Husayn. The Salah al-Din governorate includes the city and environs of Tikrit, the area that was home to Saddam Husayn. The Sunnis believe that autonomous region status will shield them from the Iraqi security services.

In addition to the security crackdown in the governorate, the Sunnis believe that the central government in Baghdad is not allocating national resources fairly to the Sunni areas. They complain that the only city in Salah al-Din that is treated fairly is Sammara' because that city is the home of the shrines of the tenth and eleventh imams of the Shi'a sect. It was this shrine that was bombed by the late al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi, an event that triggered a civil war between the Sunnis and Shi'a. That bloody conflict lasted until the 'Anbar Awakening in which the local Sunni tribes turned on the mostly foreign fighters of AQI.

If the leaders of Salah al-Din think that forming an autonomous region is going to stymie the Iraqi security services from hunting down remnants of the Ba'th Party and Saddam loyalists, they are mistaken. The Shi'a suffered terribly under Saddam and the Ba'th and will not be deterred from hunting down anyone still wanting to be a Ba'thi.

Will Iraq go the way of the Biden plan? I doubt it. The Kurds have been autonomous for decades and have proven to be such a problem for central governments in Baghdad that it works better to allow them to be autonomous as long as they do not abuse it - as they have tried on more than one occasion. The Shi'a will probably not try to unite the southern provinces into a "Shi'a-stan" since their political alliance with the Kurds gives them the dominant political role in the country as well as key positions in the ministries and government organizations.

On the other hand, I am surprised that the Sunnis have not attempted to unite the Sunni heartland, but it probably would do no good even if they did. That said, who knows - maybe Biden will be right. The only - and major - difference is that the Iraqis will do this themselves rather than have the Americans do it for them.