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July 04, 2007

Breaking Apart at the Seams
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

There is a huge story in Iraq that is getting little to no attention in the American press.  The Iraqi government is essentially breaking apart at the seams and nobody is covering it.  The largest Sunni bloc in the government has been boycotting the cabinet and parliament for about a week now.  Meanwhile, Sadr, who holds the single largest bloc in parliament, pulled his cabinet ministers out of the government a couple of months ago.  Right now only 24 out of 37 members are showing up for cabinet meetings.  The situation is so bad that the BBC’s Jim Muir, in Baghdad, says that “Iraqi politics is in greater disarray than at any time since the 2003 invasion.”  Yikes.

Why is this important?  President Bush’s entire “surge” strategy is based on the premise that by improving security we can give the Iraqi government the political space it needs to make tough compromises and bring about reconciliation.  I don’t see how this happens when one third of the government is boycotting, one of Iraq’s two vice President’s is threatening to resign, and the other Vice President is arguing that:

Iraq no longer had a government of national unity comprised of Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds…  We haven't achieved anything after a year of participating in the government. We are depressed and sidelined, especially in terms of decision-making

On a side note, this also means that the much hailed “progress” on the Iraqi oil law is essentially meaningless.  The whole point of this law is to facilitate political reconciliation among Iraq’s ethnic factions.  It is the Sunnis who are most concerned that they aren’t going to get a fair share of the oil revenues because they live in resource poor parts of the country.  So the fact that they were conveniently boycotting the government when the law was “unanimously” agreed to by the cabinet is hugely problematic.  Naturally, Sunni lawmakers are now objecting to the law with Ali Baban a member of the Sunni bloc stating that “We greatly object to this law and I did not attend the cabinet meeting today.”  As far as I can tell, reconciliation does not mean waiting until the other guy storms out of the room in anger so that you can push your own agenda. 

This whole situation becomes even more absurd when you realize why the Sunni boycott started in the first place. Turns out there was an arrest warrant issued for a Sunni cabinet minister for his role in an assassination attempt of another Sunni politician in 2005 (Two of the target’s sons were killed but he escaped).  The Sunnis are protesting the arrest warrant by leaving government.  Urgh….

Update:  The National Security Network's assessment of the oil law.


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You just have a different emphasis- having read about advancement of the measure in the news this morning one might conclude things were going well. One article in the Newark Star Ledger with an LA Times byline says the Kurds and Sunnis might block the legislation but does not mention the cabinet structure of the moment and another in the NY Times goes half way through the article before mentioning that only 24 of 37 members were present and that passage of the legislation could be protracted if the Sunni don't show up.

Perhaps "nobody is covering it" because nobody considers that Iraq really has a government, in the sense that the term is normally used. In other words the American people aren't as gullible as they're often portrayed and journalists covering Iraq aren't unaware of this fact so they don't write about 'Iraqi government problems' and insult Americans' intelligence. On the other hand, perhaps the media is still selling the war as a great crusade for democracy, don't want to upset the US government and the publishers, and are continuing to write the same pap for the uninformed and uncaring. Let's see, I guess I'll go with number two.


Sadr does not hold the largest Shia block in the Iraqi parliament. The Sadrist Movement, which captured the largest single block of seats in direct elections, is second to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI) due to the apportionment of national seats. Moreover, Muqtada al-Sadr does not "hold" the Sadrist Movement which, as I'm sure you realize, was not named for Muqtada. He does command a great deal of influence over it, due no doubt to his (lessening) influence over the (fracturing) Mahdi militias, yet even this influence wasn't enough to prevent those seats from joining the UIA, lead politically by the Sadr family rival Aziz al-Hakim, and spiritually by it's rival al-Sistani. Far from being the barometer of Shia sentiment your post implies, the Sadrist Movement is a large minority within the UIA coalition which even now refuses to abandon it's role within the government - the parliamentary seats count for much more than it's positions in the cabinet, which in any event are not critical to the running of government.

I raise these objections because I often see Sadr's role in the Shia community exaggerated, sometimes greatly. Exaggerations in this case might lead one to believe that the Shia bloc is less committed to acheiving some sort of unity government than it is. It also tends to overstate the destructive dynamic of the Shia factions, contributing to the general miscomprehension about the "civil war" which now racks Iraq. If one looks clearly at the actions of the Sadrist Movement in this regard, one can see that symbolic acts of dissent against the government, while maintaining parliamentary representation (and thus legislative authority), do not represent a departure from government but rather participation in it.

The Sunni position is much more serious, in terms of their inclusion in government, as is to be expected given the reversal of Sunni fortunes generally (which for democrats is to be welcomed). Even here, the dissaffected Vice-President Hashemi "urged the United States not to withdraw American troops prematurely from Iraq." It should be noted that the degree to which the Sunni Accord Front had participated in government prior to the current walk out was due largely to the sense of many Sunni voters that they had been a great disservice in not being represented fully for the framing of the country's constitution. We should view the Sunni boycott of the oil negotiations in this light, rather than the absurd coverage of the boycott being due to an Iraq politian's visit to Israel.

The surge, insofar as it relates to any of this, is less to purchase "space for reconciliation" than to provide security in order to prevent this political drama from descending into outright conflict between militias - which, while not having yet fully developed, has certainly been more than hinted at. In that regard, the Shia walkout and Sunni boycott may just as much be evidence of the success of the surge than it's failure. The real evidence of effect of the surge will be the Coalition's ability to prevent Al Qaeda's and other terrorists from goading the militias and insurgents from large scale combat against each other.

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