A Step Closer to Sectarian War

Iraq’s constitutional stalemate has cast a dead hand over the entire region and is smothering the Bush administration’s plans to resolve at least two major conflicts.

The gap is widening between the efforts and objectives of American policy-makers and power brokers and existing realities – and not only in Iraq. There, the goals of the US-mediated negotiations among the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Muslims conflicted not only with Sunni aims but contrasted sharply with developments on the ground.

Knowing this, the Sunnis spurned the concessions and compromises offered by Kurds and Shiites under US pressure. They saw that none would change the impetus that is reducing them to Iraq’s odd man out.

While President George W. Bush has often pledged to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity, federalism, which serves only the Kurds and Shiites with no benefits for the Sunnis, is already a fact of life in Iraq. The strides taken in the two major, oil-rich segments of Iraq, Kurdistan and the Shiite south, to achieve near independence can no longer be ignored.

1. Both are building large armies, each more powerful that the national military the Americans are striving to fashion. They are drawing trained Kurdish and Shiite fighting men away from the national force.

2. Both are cultivating autonomous ties with the outside world. Shiites, for instance, can now fly out of an international air facility quietly constructed in the southern town of Basra. The Kurds are already running their own airline from – not one but two – international airports they have built in Irbil and Suleimenayah, for direct flights to Middle East and European destinations. Neither needs Baghdad any longer for foreign air travel.

3. Nature located Iraq’s oil wealth in the Kurdish and Shiite regions. Both have their own independent exporting infrastructure. Neither has recourse any longer to Baghdad for marketing coordination.


Even watered-down federalism is unacceptable to the Sunnis


It therefore stood to reason that the leaders of the two top-dog communities on the 71-member constitution committee would do their utmost to ensure that the new constitution did not curtail their assets or slow their drive for self-rule under the catchall term of federalism. They even accepted the risk of the charter’s defeat in the October referendum – if it takes place. This is on the cards: the Sunnis only need to swing three key provinces, Salah e-Din, al Anbar and Diyala and they have a good chance of tipping the balance in a fourth too, Nineveh and its capital, Mosul.

The Sunnis have dug in as firmly as the Kurds and Shiites; for them, even a watered down form of federalism is unacceptable. Not a single Sunni leader in Iraq buys the current format; their 15 panel members fought hard not only to arrest it, but to achieve a sharp reversal and restore their control of the country and central government.

They see Iraq slipping out of their fingers as an Arab republic, but in present-day Iraq, they were crying for the moon.

But the Sunni factions are not the only losers in the battle for the charter.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq experts note that important figures and factions of Iraq’s pro-American coalition have been left out in the cold. Some are resentful of the excessive religiosity of the constitution’s terms; others of failure to address human and women’s rights and those of fringe minorities. Among them are secular anti-Tehran Shiites led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi; Kurdish allies of Washington non-partisans of president Jalal Talabani or Masoud Barzani. One such proponent is Barham Salah, a member of the incumbent Jaafari government and deputy prime minister under Iyad Allawi.

Set back too were Sunni moderates who were involved in the Allawi-mediation effort to bring the Iraqi guerrilla war (albeit not the al Qaeda campaign) against US forces to an end.


Abu Mazen hopes imported terrorist commands will shore up his regime


The breakdown of the quest for a consensus on the constitution dispels hopes of lowering the level of Sunni-led violence against American troops and thus shortening their stay in Iraq. It is more likely to act as a spur to further conflict. The massacre of a thousand Shiite pilgrims during a solemn religious procession at the Kadhimiya mosque in Baghdad Wednesday, August 31, notched higher the prospect of sectarian Sunni-Shiite war and put paid to the last hopes of an agreed compromise over the constitution.

Further to the west, Abu Mazen, instead of cracking down on terrorists and disarming their organizations, finds they are disarming him of the little political clout he boasts.

As in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority is breaking up into two or three segments – the Mahmoud Abbas faction that controls the Ramallah region of the West Bank, while a coalition of Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades, Hamas and Jihad Islami fights to topple him from the towns they control: Nablus, Tulkarm, Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron.

In Gaza, his domain has shrunk to almost nothing. Even after spending weeks in Gaza in deference to Washington’s instructions, his presence has scarcely scratched the political surface or arrested the breakdown of security. Hamas and its fellow hardline Palestinian organizations rule the roost, their behavior in Gaza far more aggressive than it is on the West Bank. The Hamas is in fact deeply immersed in creating a separate popular army. It is preparing to run ahead of the free-for-all to grab the Gush Katif real estate as soon as Israeli troops withdraw on Sept 15. Abu Mazen and his far from credible security police cannot hope for a look in.

Without waiting for this to happen, the first extremist Palestinian groups from Lebanon and Syria have arrived in the territory. Their presence will serve to further radicalize the Gaza Strip and build up the forces in opposition to Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority.

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