Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
Who exactly supports Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki -- besides us? (AP photo)

The media’s tragic misunderstanding of Iraqi domestic politics

ASK THIS | July 09, 2007

The conventional media narrative about Iraqi politics misses all sorts of hugely important factors. Robert Dreyfuss raises some provocative questions journalists should be asking about motivations, alliances – and whether the U.S. is backing all the wrong people.

By Robert Dreyfuss

The conventional wisdom is that Iraqis can’t get their act together; that Iraqi politicians are hopeless squabbling, fratricidal hate-mongers; and that there’s really no use trying understand what passes for Iraqi politics. The narrative continues like this: that Iraq’s civil war is hundreds of years old, with Sunnis and Shia killing each other since the dawn of Islam;.that Iraq isn’t really even a country, since its borders were arbitrarily drawn up by a cigar-smoking Winston Churchill in the 1920s; and that there is no chance that Iraq will meet the 18 so-called “benchmarks” that were enacted by Congress earlier this year because it’s impossible that Iraqis will ever forge a consensus that can hold their country together.

Is any of that true? Even careful consumers of news about Iraq would be hard-pressed to challenge any of it, since by and large the press has failed to ask the kinds of questions that might shed light on Iraqi politics and society: Is the real cleavage in Iraqi politics between Shia and Sunni? Or is it something else? Is it possible that the real division within Iraq is not the cut along sectarian lines, but one that pits Iraqi nationalists against separatists?

There’s a case to be made that a majority of Iraqis – both on the street and in politics, including members of parliament – believe in a unified Iraq with its capital in Baghdad. Among those who support that view are the vast majority of Sunni Arabs, who don’t want to be squeezed into an oil-poor “Sunnistan,” and a significant majority of Shia Arabs, who support Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc and the important, but usually ignored Fadhila (Virtue) party. When put together with the dwindling, but still important middle class and the secular bloc of voters represented by Iyad Allawi’s party, the “nationalists” achieve or are close to majority status in the parliament. If you count the extra-parliamentary forces, including the Sunni-led Iraqi resistance and some Shia fighters who disdain parliament, the nationalists have a large majority among Iraqi Arabs.

The “separatists,” meanwhile, are represented by the Kurds, who are scheming to win U.S. support for an independent Kurdistan, and the party that used to call itself the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is pushing hard for a Shiite super-region in the south that is widely seen as the first step toward a breakaway, Iran-allied “Shiastan” in the south.

Why isn’t the press making more of this? Why aren’t they asking American officials to explain why U.S. support mostly lines up behind the separatists, i.e., the Kurds and SCIRI? Why aren’t they asking whether SCIRI (and, for that matter, Al Dawa, the small party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) have much support left among the 60 percent of Iraqis who are Shia Arabs? Many observers have concluded that, if elections were held today, large majorities of Shia Arabs would back Muqtada al-Sadr and Fadhila, which is a quasi-Sadrist party – not SCIRI and Dawa. If so, why is the United States siding with SCIRI and Dawa against Sadr? Is that why SCIRI and Dawa are dragging their feet on holding provincial elections in 2007 -- because they know they’d lose massively?

Why aren’t reporters digging more into the two stunning votes in parliament this year: the first in support of bill that demanded that the United States set a timetable for withdrawal, and the second insisting that any Iraqi effort at the United Nations to extend the mandate that allows the United States to continue to occupy Iraq be subject to approval by the Iraqi parliament? (The UN mandate, which provides the legal basis for the American occupation of Iraq, expires in December.) It’s true that polling in Iraq, under wartime conditions, has only limited usefulness; still, polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis want the United States to get out of Iraq and that a large majority also believes in a unitary, nationalist Iraqi state.

There are three “no’s” in Iraqi politics that could serve as a basis for a consensus among Iraqi factions: opposition to the occupation, opposition to Al Qaeda, and opposition to excessive Iranian influence in Iraq. Most Sunnis, most secular Iraqis, and Shia supporters of the Sadr and Fadhila parties agree on all three of those. In addition, those parties have also taken steps in recent weeks to distance themselves from the feckless Maliki regime in Baghdad, either quitting or suspending their participation in both the Cabinet and the parliament. Yet, according to the New York Times, yet another U.S. review of its Iraq policy has concluded that there is no alternative to Maliki’s faltering coalition. Why is the United States so wedded to the Dawa-SCIRI-Kurdish alliance? Don’t they realize that any Iraqi government that depends on U.S. favor by definition can’t win support from the Iraqi people?

Reporters should ask: Can any government or political party that has American support succeed in Iraq? Or is American support effectively the kiss of death for an Iraqi politician? Corrupt and venal Iraqi leaders, squatting in bunkers in the Green Zone, might welcome American support and American money – but do they have any “street cred” whatsoever?

Lately, the United States has stepped up the propaganda blaming Iran for much of the violence in Iraq – and, undoubtedly, Iran’s secret services have their fingers in a lot of pies in Iraq. But it’s also true that the two politicians with the closest ties to Iran are SCIRI’s Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, now ill with cancer and passing the torch to his son, Amar Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, and President Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Kurdish party, PUK. (In the 1980s, the Hakims were hosted by Iran, and their paramilitary force, the Badr Brigade was owned and operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the ministry of intelligence. And in the 1990s, Talabani’s PUK made common cause with Iran against the rival Kurdish bloc of the Barzani clan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.) Why isn’t the media paying more attention to the Iranian connections of the Hakims and Talabani?

Despite recent U.S. efforts to recruit, arm and train paramilitary Sunni militia from the ranks of the Iraqi resistance, the vast majority of U.S. aid to Iraq’s police and army goes directly to the Shia forces associated with SCIRI’s Badr Brigade and the pesh merga militia of the Kurds.

Here’s a legitimate question: Is the United States arming all three sides of an Iraqi civil war? If so, rather than trumpeting U.S. support for the Sunni militia, wouldn’t it better to stop arming all sides? Why, if the United States begins to leave Iraq, should it arm one, two, or all three sides in a civil war? Why not let Iraqis sort that out?

The dénouement of America’s failed occupation of Iraq could be bloody indeed. But not enough reporters and news analysts are looking at the other possibility: In the wake of an orderly withdrawal over, say, the next year, might not Iraq’s nationalists join forces against the separatists and struggle to create a new center in Iraqi politics? As Zbigniew Brzezinski says: “The only Iraqis who want us to stay are the ones who will have to leave when we leave.”

question about Iraqi domestic politics
Posted by Geri Rhodes - member of a middle east study group at CNM
07/17/2007, 03:15 PM

I found your article helpful. Having just read The Shia Revival, I'd like to know if there's a comparable book from the Sunni point of view, one that comments on the so-called Shia/Sunni split.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.