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Talabani Calls for Jaafari's Resignation - Iraq Unravels

by Juan Cole (reposted)

Talabani Calls for Jaafari's Resignation
Iraq Unravels

President Jalal Talabani called Sunday for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari to step down. Jaafari is the leader of the fundamentalist Shiite Dawa Party and was chosen prime minister by the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite coalition that has, with allies, about 54 percent of the seats in parliament. Talabani's Kurdistan Alliance only has 75 seats. Talabani would have to put together a new coalition, of Kurds and secular or traditionalist Shiites that had a majority in parliament to engineer a vote of no confidence for Jaafari. It is highly unlikely to happen. The interim constitution under which Iraq is operating does not explicitly give the president many powers, and Talabani's predecessor was confined to a ceremonial role.

The significance of Talabani's break with Jaafari is actually more serious than mere parliamentary politics. Talabani is a clan chieftain, as is his sometime rival, sometime ally, Massoud Barzani. The political parties, the KDP and the PUK, are wrought up with clan alliances. The Kurdish tribal chiefs are announcing a break with the Shiite tribal chiefs. The always troubled and uneasy Shiite-Kurdish alliance was the I-beam that kept the house of Iraq standing. Talabani has just taken a blow torch to the I-beam, and it is not clear whether there is anything to keep the roof from collapsing now.

The "Sunni triangle" manages to be three lies. It is neither exclusively Sunni, nor the only place that Sunnis predominate, nor a triangle. (Kurds are also Sunnis). The Sunni Arab heartland of center-north Iraq is a vast area that includes Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninevah, Kirkuk, Diyala, Baghdad and Babil provinces. Most of these are somewhat ethnically mixed, and in one of them (Kirkuk) the Arabs are a minority. Baghdad and Diyala are about half Sunni Arab. Iraq only has 18 provinces, and these 7 are among the most populous and important. All of them see a good deal of violence (the problem is not "just in 4 provinces" as some keep writing). I'd say these seven provinces, which are frequently rocked with guerrilla violence, account for close to half of Iraq's population, i.e. have nearly 13 million inhabitants. And they include the capital, of 5 to 6 million! That area is not going to be quiet, probably for a decade.

What made the severe instability in the Sunni Arab heartland bearable was that the Shiite south and the Kurdish north were both much more stable and much less racked with violence, and were moreover allied with one another. Together they were some 80 percent of the population. You could build a country on such an alliance, even if the Kurds only wanted a loose federation rather than a real country.

And what made the Kurdish-Shiite alliance possible was their common opposition to the old Baathist leadership of the Sunni Arab community. Both the Shiites and the Kurds were seeking a new role in Iraq, which would not be defined by Arab nationalism inflected with Sunnism. Both had petroleum resources in their areas. Both had had unfortunate experiences with strong central government.

But with the Baath defeated, the two no longer have a strong common foe. They are not afraid of anything. They do not need each other. And the Kurds absolutely insist on annexing Kirkuk to their Kurdistan confederacy, even though Kurds are probably not a majority there. Kirkuk is where they oil is. It is what would make the Kurdistan confederacy viable, even rich. That it has lots of Arabs and Turkmen inhabitants who don't want to be in Kurdistan is of no moment in Sulaymaniyah and Irbil (Kurdish strongholds).

If the Kurdish-Shiite alliance is over with, then I suspect so is Iraq.

Countries are not supported by their military might. Their military might is a side-effect of their unity. When the political will of a country's elite fragments, the country falls apart. It happened in Lebanon. It is happening in Iraq.

Talabani may be throwing a fit. Someone will step in to mediate between him and Jaafari. Maybe they will patch it up temporarily. But the Kurds and the Shiites have broken. They will remember that. The only worse thing that could happen would be open warfare in the streets of Kirkuk between the largely Sunni Kurds and the Shiite Turkmen and Arabs.

The US military attempts to stop "infiltration" of foreign fighters at the Syrian border is useless, and the generals must know it. It is like charging water. I presume the intent is actually just to keep the pressure on Syria, which Washington dislikes. There has never been any correlation between this sort of military operation and the frequency of attacks. There is unlikely to be this time, either. But the Talabani/ Jaafari shennanigans raise the quetion acutely of what US soldiers in Iraq are fighting for. Are they dying so prima donna Iraqi politicians can strut and call one another out?

When the politics is failing, the political violence seems less important though no less tragic. Perhaps it has already attained its goal.

The entire lay leadership of the Anglican Church in Iraq is missing and feared dead after being attacked on the road between Ramadi and Fallujah while returning from Jordan.

posted by Juan @ 10/03/2005 06:26:00 AM   

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