Iraq's Rising Tide of Separatism Ahead of US Withdrawal

Nuns pray in front of a statue of the virgin outside Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church (Sayidat al-Nejat) before attending a memorial mass held on 31 October 2011 to mark the first anniversary of a massacre of worshippers and priests in which 44 people were killed, including seven security forces. (Photo: AFP - Sabah Arar)

By: Alaa al-Lami

Published Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The imminent withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has fanned sectarian demands for regional autonomy amid renewed campaigns against former Baathist leaders and civil servants.

Analysts attribute the feverish rise of separatist currents among Sunni Arabs in Western Iraq to the recent purges of Baathist teachers from the education ministry and arrests of former officers and members of the party. Although there is near consensus among Iraqis blaming the American occupation for the country’s problems, sectarianism has begun to rear its ugly head as US troops say they are prepared to leave.

According to leaked government statements, the arrests came after Nouri al-Maliki’s government obtained documents from the new Libyan authorities allegedly claiming that the Baathists were preparing to overthrow the Iraqi government with Muammar Gaddafi’s support. Many political authorities have condemned these campaigns, indicating that they reek of sectarian prejudice. But al-Maliki responded, saying that the number of detainees in the predominantly Shiite Iraqi south exceeds the number detained in the Sunni west.

The Sunni political groups have rallied under the banner of regional autonomy. Discussions of autonomy are not new, but they have become more heated as the withdrawal of US occupation forces scheduled for the end of the year nears. This has some commentators saying the withdrawal will leave the occupation’s regional allies exposed and vulnerable.

Sunni regional politics have taken a new turn in recent weeks. The Salahuddin provincial council with its center in the city of Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s former village) have voted with an overwhelming majority to declare the province an administratively and economically independent region. Their justifications included the arrests of officers and Baath party members and their transfer to Baghdad, which would have been impossible if Salahuddin were autonomous. But some legal experts claim that no provincial assembly has the right to make such a declaration.

It appears that the governor of Nineveh province, which contains the city of Mosul, followed suit when he threatened his province would also declare itself autonomous. Similar pronouncements were made by Ahmed Abu Risha, leader of the Anbar Awakening movement, when he said that Anbar province was exploring the feasibility of autonomy.

The reactions to these developments have varied greatly. A minister from al-Maliki’s group, Jawad al-Bazuni, supported the Salahuddin provincial council’s decision because, he argued, “it will solve the province’s main problem.” But this runs counter to al-Maliki’s rejection of the decision, based on what he believes are sectarian motives, as well as efforts to protect Baathists. He described the Salahuddin province as “a fire burning beneath the ashes” and warned that this plan “will end in an unconstitutional partition of Iraq. It is our right to oppose this decision because it will be followed by cutting off the waterways and road between Baghdad, Mosul, and Kurdistan, which will be the beginning of separatism.”

The Baath party has issued a surprising response to the Salahuddin announcement. Though the council’s decision and statements by Sunni Arab politicians in other provinces were meant to express solidarity with the party targeted by arrests, the Baath launched a large-scale media campaign condemning the plan for an autonomous Sunni region. The Baath party accused prominent Sunni Arab politicians of leading “a dangerous plan to divide Iraq along sectarian lines.” While these accusations targeted figures originally supporting the autonomous zone — such as Iraqi Parliament head Osama Najifi, Anbar businessman Khanjar Khamis (the head financier of Al-Iraqiya party list), Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, businessman Saad al-Bazzaz — the Baath party interestingly spared Iyad Allawi and Saleh al-Mutlaq.

Many Baathist writers went to great lengths to condemn the project, as evidenced by the Baathist online newspaper al-Rashid describing representatives in the Salahuddin provincial council as having “a dark past.” They added that the council “betrayed former President Saddam Hussein, who made them the masters of Iraq. Now, today, they are betraying Iraq.” Many voices from within the ruling National Iraqi Alliance supported the campaign to root out Baathist professors and officers, while Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadr movement, has called for additional measures against members of the former ruling party.

These recent developments have revealed a new Iraqi reality. In their attempt to declare autonomy, Sunni Arab politicians have inadvertently created a unified Shiite region in the center and south of Iraq. The Kurds have effectively had an autonomous region in the north for almost two decades, and the Sunni Triangle will soon also gain autonomy. The remaining nine provinces in Iraq’s center and south, which are home to an Arab Shia majority, will form a de facto autonomous region. This has pleased many sectarian Shiite figures, after previous attempts toward autonomy were stifled.

Analysts consider oil a major motivator for the formation of an autonomous Shiite region. The area’s provinces contain the three largest centers for oil production in Basra, Nasiriyah, and Amarah, as well as the most agriculturally undeveloped region of Iraq, which suffered under the former regime. This has quickly made autonomy unattractive for many politicians and people in the country’s west, leading them to act coolly and rationally in rejecting the proposed plan for Sunni autonomy. After all, nobody can guarantee they will have an equal share in the oil and gas revenues if they do eventually choose to separate themselves from the oil rich South. Regardless, the western provinces have traditionally opposed regional autonomy or partition and have a strong nationalist political legacy.

The present realities in Iraq — including unequal distribution of natural resources and historical-ties among Iraqi Arabs who comprise over 80 percent of the population — might convince the greater majority to choose a path toward dialogue and inclusion. This could extinguish the flames of sectarianism that allies of the US occupation will inevitably ignite following the US withdrawal. Following this road may encourage some to abandon revenge and sectarianism, as well as their defense of the oppressive legacy and symbols of Baathist rule. If Iraq’s divergent political groups cannot unite, the dead will continue to rule Iraq’s living from the grave, fanning the flames of discord.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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