Iraq’s Elusive Reconciliation

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called today for forgiveness for former allies of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, saying “We must reconcile with those who committed mistakes, who were obliged in that difficult era to side with the past regime.”

“Today they are again sons of Iraq,” Maliki told a meeting of tribal leaders in Baghdad.

“We will reconcile with them, but on the condition they come back to us and turn the page on that dark part of Iraq’s history … What happened, happened,” he said.

The call for forgiveness comes five weeks after January’s provincial polls in which allies of Maliki, a Shi’ite and former opposition member who fled Iraq under Saddam and was sentenced to death in absentia, swept much of central and southern Iraq.

This is a welcome sentiment, but it remains to be seen whether it will be followed by real action on Maliki’s part. It’s also a reminder of the real challenges that remain for Iraq, the most immediate of which is the status of Kirkuk, and the deepening rift between Iraq’s Arab and Kurd population. I don’t think it’s overly cynical to see Maliki’s moves toward Sunni-Shia Arab reconciliation as girding up for an eventual Arab-Kurd confrontation.


Regarding the broader questions of Iraqi reconciliation, on Tuesday I attended a presentation at the U.S. Institute of Peace on a new report by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI),entitled More than Shiites and Sunnis: How a Post-Sectarian Strategy Can Change the Logic and Facilitate Sustainable Political Reform in Iraq. The report, which represents the consensus view of a number of distinguished Iraqi academics and professionals brought together by NUPI, maintains — as have I and others here at the Center — that the surge has created greater security but no genuine political accommodation in Iraq.

Moreover, the report asserts that Iraqi political reform continues to be stymied by legal processes that give inappropriate weight to ethnic-sectarian representation, at the expense of Iraqi nationalist currents. The report argues that this is a result of U.S. policymakers having empowered some of the most communitarian groups in Iraq — the two main Kurdish parties (the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — as the main U.S. partners in post-invasion Iraq. In my view, this is also supported by the accounts of both Paul Bremer and Larry Diamond.

This system, the report asserts, works primarily to the benefit of neighboring Iran by preventing the empowerment of genuinely nationalist Iraqi political voices. The report advocates a kind of “political surge,” wherein the U.S. uses its remaining leverage in Iraq toward making the 2009 parliamentary elections “a center-piece of a drive for reform” by ensuring their inclusiveness. Specifically, the report suggests that the U.S. “threaten sanctions against authoritarian practices by the Iraqi government” in the period leading up to the parliamentary elections. It also recommends that the U.S. “sharpen focus on the democratic nature of the election “by critically re-examining the Iraqi government’s designation of ‘terrorists,’” providing support for anti-terrorist activities “only on a case-by-case basis.”