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Impediments to National Reconciliation in Iraq

Author: Lionel Beehner
January 5, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

National reconciliation between Iraq’s ethno-religious communities is seen as a necessary precursor to stemming the country’s sectarian violence. But its prospects look bleak. The trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, which was originally billed as an exercise in reconciliation, instead only inflamed sectarian tensions. Iraq’s factions also remain deadlocked over the distribution of oil revenues, issues of federalism, and the ethnic makeup of the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s cabinet is seen by Iraq’s Sunni Arabs as a puppet-state of Shiite militias, which by extension are seen as puppets of Tehran. Unless efforts at national reconciliation can convince Iraqi Sunnis to buy into a power-sharing agreement, experts expect a continuation of the current levels of internecine violence.

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What efforts at national reconciliation in Iraq have been made in the past?

Maliki announced a national reconciliation plan early last summer that contained a number of components, including an offer of amnesty to insurgents not guilty of targeting civilians; a reversal of de-Baathification laws that barred low-ranking former Baathists from reentering public life; a national reconciliation conference that includes all of Iraq’s warring parties; and a promise to purge key ministries (most notably the interior ministry) of officials affiliated with Shiite militias. A few of the plan’s components—de-Baathification, amnesty, a conference—were implemented but nothing of substance materialized.

Why have previous efforts at national reconciliation failed?

Experts point to a number of factors:

  • Maliki remains beholden to powerful behind-the-scenes actors like Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. cleric, and other powerful Shiite leaders, none of whom want national reconciliation with Iraq’s Sunni minorities. “They still think they can defeat the insurgency with the help of either the Americans or Iran,” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group.
  • Maliki’s reconciliation plan was flawed, Hiltermann says. Offers of amnesty were limited to Iraqis that had not participated in attacks against civilians or against coalition or Iraqi forces, virtually ruling out all insurgents or militia members. Moreover, the December 16-17 reconciliation conference lacked representation from Iraq’s most extreme factions, including Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Muslim Scholars Association, a powerful Sunni body with ties to the insurgency (a November 2005 reconciliation conference in Cairo also proved fruitless, particularly after the bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra, three months later).
  • These reconciliation efforts were orchestrated at the behest of U.S. officials to satisfy American public opinion and not seen as sincere by most Iraqis. Experts say the Shiite-led government has still not given Sunni minorities a genuine stake (i.e. restarting the constitutional review process) to involve them in the political process. “Eight months into its tenure and despite a string of promises, [Maliki’s government] has yet to take any meaningful step to promote national reconciliation, not even paying civil servant salaries in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province,” according to a recent International Crisis Group report. But it remains unclear what will be necessary to bring the Sunnis to the table. “Can there be a realistic deal on the table that all sides can agree to?” says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr. “Everybody wants national reconciliation in principle but nobody knows how to step down from their positions.”
What are the prerequisites to national reconciliation?

First, the government must establish itself as representative of the Iraqi people and prove effective at providing basic services, security, and jobs. “At the moment, this government doesn’t have the capability to deliver that,” says Hiltermann. Second, some form of constitutional bargain is needed. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) recommends that revisions to the constitution be made before reconciliation, but Hiltermann argues this should be reversed. “You need the political process first because the constitutional [reforms] are not going to yield any results.” That is, Sunnis are not likely to accept federalism written into the constitution or to cede control of oil profits; Shiites will not accept blanket amnesty or lenient reversals of de-Baathification; and Kurds will not sacrifice advances they have made on self-autonomy and the status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich and largely Kurdish city.

How can outside powers facilitate national reconciliation in Iraq?

Most experts agree national reconciliation cannot come about without external pressure from the United States. Washington, however, lacks credibility as an honest broker in Iraq among the warring factions. “The U.S. cannot broker this alone,” says Nasr. “Every time it steps in for one community, it alienates the other. The U.S. needs regional support.” The Saudis and Jordanians must bring pressure on the Sunnis to discontinue their current course or face a cutoff of support, says Hiltermann, adding that the same goes for the Iranians and Iraq’s Shiites. He recommends a regional conference that includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as Iraq’s six neighbors (Iran, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kuwait). He suggests a UN envoy be appointed to “shuttle” between the various states and assess what their shared interests are and how to leverage their influence over Iraq’s feuding parties.

What historical examples of national reconciliation may be applicable to Iraq?

A number of past conflicts have been resolved by various means of national reconciliation. The 1947 partition of India coincided with constitutional protections of minority rights, but of course led to bloodshed that cost thousands of lives. The resolution of Lebanon’s civil war included a redistribution of wealth in favor of less well-off Lebanese. Conflicts in Algeria (1991-1998), Guatemala (1960-1996), and Malaya (1948-1960) all ended with some form of amnesty being granted to combatants. In South Africa, those guilty of crimes during the apartheid period were brought in as part of the reconciliation process.Similarly, shortly after the fall of Baghdad there were muted calls from some U.S. advisers to establish a South Africa-like “truth and reconciliation commission” but the proposal was shelved. “You need some kind of justice,” says Hiltermann. ”So many Iraqi families don’t have a clue what happened to their loved ones.” The trial of Saddam Hussein was supposed to provide a public airing of the former regime’s atrocities but instead became embroiled in sectarian politics, culminating with the controversial execution of the Iraqi dictator.

Is reconciliation in Iraq expected in the coming year?

Probably not, given the level of sectarian tensions in Iraq. However, enacting a plan for national reconciliation is one of three prongs to Maliki’s new strategy (the other two are taking over security duties from coalition forces and mixing up his cabinet). Experts say the execution of Saddam, and the haphazard manner in which he was hanged, has only set back reconciliation efforts. “The two communities [Shiites and Sunnis] have moved further apart,” says Nasr. It remains unclear if the Shiite-led government will carry out the executions of the remainder of Saddam’s codefendants. Iraqis are also awaiting what strategy President Bush will unveil in the days ahead. Analysts do not expect him to advocate a regional conference, as the ICG and ISG reports recommend, but rather a “surge,” or temporary deployment, of some 30,000 additional U.S. forces to Iraq.

What effect might a “surge” of U.S. forces have on reconciliation efforts?

It depends on what the “surge” is intended to accomplish. “If it’s designed to merely destroy Sadr, it will not do anything except provoke the conflict,” says Nasr. Moreover, a surge of just 20,000 to 30,000 troops will have little effect on Iraq’s political situation, says Hiltermann. “If you bring 300,000 troops,” he adds, “now that’s a different story.” Should a surge of U.S. forces have any effect, it would be to embolden the Shiites not to compromise, thus delaying efforts at national reconciliation. Most experts agree a power-sharing agreement must be achieved by political not military means.

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