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Iraq: Criticism Of U.S. Senate's Partition Resolution Echoes Across Arab World

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> (RFE/RL) October 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate's passage of a nonbinding resolution calling for a formal separation of Iraq's 18 governorates into three autonomous regions that would reflect the country's largest ethnicities has sparked a massive outcry both inside Iraq and across the Arab world, with critics suggesting the United States has overstepped its role in Iraq.

The resolution, co-sponsored by Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) and Senator Sam Brownback (Republican, Kansas), passed last week with a bipartisan vote of 75-23, calling for a decentralized, federal system in Iraq with a limited role for the central government.

In a statement posted to his website on October 1 clarifying the intent of the resolution, Biden noted: "First, the Biden-Brownback amendment does not call for the partition of Iraq. To the contrary, it calls for keeping Iraq together by bringing to life the federal system enshrined in its constitution.... Second, the amendment is not a foreign imposition. Iraqis already have made the decision to decentralize in their constitution and federalism law." Moreover, he contended, "the amendment will not produce "bloodshed and suffering" in Iraq."

Arousing Sunni Sensibilities

Nevertheless, criticism of the bill has filled editorial pages across the Arab world, and has widely been interpreted as an imperialistic attempt to decide both Iraq's and the region's fate. Iraq's neighboring Arab states, which are dominated by Sunnis already threatened by the rise of a Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, viewed the resolution as an attempt to further solidify the fragmentation that exists in Iraq today, and by association, influence the future shape and composition of regional states.
Radio Free Iraq talked to Iraqi politicians and people on the street for their reactions to the Senate resolution.

The reaction also gives insight into the enormous sensitivity felt in the region to the U.S.-led invasion and the events of the past 4 1/2 years, and how those events have affected the collective psyche of the Arab world and its self-identity, which is deeply rooted in honor, pride, and respect. When Saddam Hussein's regime fell and Sunni Arabs lost their leadership role in Iraqi society, Arabs across the region, whatever their feelings toward Hussein and his regime, believed their honor had been trampled on.

The Shi'ite ascension to power and subsequent events, including the dissolution of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Army and the Abu Ghurayb scandal, only furthered the impression that the U.S.-led coalition intended to humiliate Sunni Arabs and dominate them.

In a September 30 editorial titled "Iraq is not an American State," Egypt's state-owned daily "Al-Ahram" praised the Bush administration's stand against the resolution, saying support for the resolution would have led to new "foolish and catastrophic actions" that would speed up the fragmentation of Iraq and spark a wide-scale civil war. The Senate should know "that such a matter is the right of the Iraqis alone, and not the right of the U.S. occupiers of their lands -- unless Congress considers Iraq a new U.S. state," it continued. "It is no justification [for the Senate] to claim that this will speed up the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The ones who got these forces trapped in Iraq have to search for a way to hasten their withdrawal other than tearing the Iraqi people apart."

Syria's state-run English-language newspaper, the "Syria Times," carried a commentary on October 1 titled "Divide and Rule," which alleged: "Devastating and dismembering Iraq, plundering its wealth and imposing U.S. hegemony on it and the entire oil-rich and strategic Arab region are integral parts of the war strategy of President George W. Bush" and his administration.

Outrage Over Kurdish Support For Resolution

The Kurdistan regional government's (KRG) support for the Senate resolution also sparked indignation from Arabs both inside Iraq and across the region, and has only compounded the long-held impression by some Arabs that Kurds are divisive and deceptive, and outsiders to the region.

On September 28, the KRG issued a press release praising the resolution, and the U.S. government's support for federalism in Iraq. "The people of Kurdistan, who have struggled for decades to achieve democracy and freedom, see in federalism the promise of stability and freedom from dictatorial regimes. We welcome this significant resolution in support of federalism, which guarantees the survival of Iraq on the basis of voluntary union," the KRG statement noted.

Whether the KRG intended it or not, the statement was interpreted by Arab media as another attempt by Iraq's Kurdish leadership to break away from the Iraqi republic.

Zuhayr Qusaybati, writing in the pan-Arab daily "Al-Hayat" on October 1, criticized the Kurdish leadership, saying Kurds "wasted all the sacrifices they had made for decades in facing Ba'athist repression and lost [the region's] empathy...when they applauded the 'nonbinding' plan to divide Iraq."

Qusaybati accused the Kurds of falling into a trap set by U.S. senators, who through their declaration, have concocted their own Balfour Declaration, a reference to Britain's 1917 declaration of its support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The declaration paved the way for the eventual establishment of the Israeli state.

Qusaybati expressed the fears of Arabs across the region that a formal division of Iraq would spark instability across the region, and as with the Balfour Declaration, would have untold repercussions. Any division of Iraq, Qusaybati claimed, "will ignite the spark of sedition and wars in the entire region." He further argued, "If Iraq is turned into another Balkans, then this will be followed by transforming the entire region into another Iraq."

Inside Iraq, the influential Muslim Scholars Association, which supports Iraqi insurgent groups, issued a statement criticizing the KRG, and attempted to incite insurgents to take up arms against the Kurds in retaliation for their support of the resolution.

In a statement posted to its website on October 2, the association called Kurdish support for the resolution a "blatant defiance of the sentiments of millions of Iraqis" as well as a "defiance of Arabs and Muslims." The association blamed the Kurds for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, contending the Kurds "colluded with the occupiers in all their schemes and accepted to be the occupiers' partners in the killing of more than 1 million sons of this nation, in destroying the country, and in putting 27 million Iraqis on the road to the unknown."

The statement further claimed that Kurds have carried out "ethnic cleansing in several Iraqi cities, especially in Mosul and Kirkuk," and liquidated religious scholars, tribal elders, and other scholars through assassination in recent days. The association said it believes the Kurds are noble people who do not accept the crimes it alleges the KRG and the Kurdish peshmerga militia are responsible for. In what appears to be a bid to further incite Sunni insurgent groups to violence against the KRG, the association warned Kurdish politicians that "injustice does not last," adding, "ancient and modern history offer many examples with lessons for those who wish to learn."

Iraq's Arab Media Rejects Resolution

Commentaries by Iraqi Arab writers rejected the resolution and like the regional Arab press, tended to portray the resolution in terms of an imperialistic attempt to influence the country's future shape. An October 1 editorial published in the Iraqi Hizballah newspaper "Al-Bayyna" echoed sentiments expressed in other mainstream Iraqi media that suggested the resolution's hidden motive was to kill the federalism project in Iraq.

The editorial claimed observers "believe this decision raises many questions concerning its timing, intention, and hidden objectives. First of all, we have to say that this decision is completely unacceptable to all Iraqis, except those who falsely believe that this decision supports the provisions of federalism in our constitution. They don't realize that this decision is a dishonest attempt to confuse federalism and division; consequently, this decision will abort the attempt at federalism."

In one of the more moderate reactions to the resolution, "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" Editor in Chief Isma'il Zayir wrote on September 30 that the intense reaction to the resolution, seen in the fiery speeches of politicians, "only serve opportunists." The daily's assessment of the resolution was that it was based on the presumption that Iraq is a united state, which supports federalism as laid out in the constitution.

Moreover, Zayir wrote, the resolution should be interpreted as a suggestion, and not be used by politicians as a weapon to support their personal or political goals. "We need to have a clear image about what we really need in this country," he observed. "Those who seek sectarian and ethnic division in this country have succeeded.... Baghdad has been divided according to the desires of those [Iraqi groups] who caused this fighting."

Zayir suggests Iraqis focus on the ways in which they can bring the old social harmony back, saying, "These questions are for those [politicians] who use rhetoric while they kill people with one hand and smile to the satellite channels with the other hand."

...While Government Distances Itself

Iraq's Shi'ite-led administration, struggling to build Arab regional support, appeared acutely aware of the political damage caused by the U.S. resolution. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh sought to distance the government from it, telling state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on October 2: "The government and the Ministerial Council is really surprised [by the resolution]. How can a commission from a different country discuss issues relating to another country and relating to the elected and constitutional agencies in that country although this commission is not authorized to do so.... This is an issue that the Iraqis and the constitutional agencies can decide on."

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a similar statement a day earlier, telling reporters in Baghdad: "I do not approve of any Iraqi side praising partition plans as we totally reject this idea in the first place. They said they welcomed federalism. If federalism is what they really meant, why not? Federalism is after all, stipulated in the constitution.... As for partition, this is not acceptable."

Regardless of the intent of the Senate resolution, it has been used to further alienate Arab states, and add strain to already tense ethnic relations inside Iraq. The Iraqi Turkoman Front, a party with close ties to Turkey, took the opportunity to comment on the resolution by claiming it would establish its own region and seek Turkish military support to that end, should partition be implemented.

While it is probably true that some Iraqi politicians have twisted the Biden-Brownback amendment to fit their own agendas, it is also the case that the country is far from ready to implement federalism as envisioned in the constitution. For Iraq's politicians, more looming matters take precedence. Federalism did not appear overnight in the United States, and given the challenges at hand, it certainly will take time to evolve in Iraq.
Searching For A Way Forward
A boy looks out from his Baghdad home (AFP)

LOOKING BEYOND AL-MALIKI: RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo led an RFE/RL briefing about the changing political landscape in Iraq, focusing on efforts to gain the upper hand in the event that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki falls.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
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THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.