Iraqi political elites have been wrangling over the issue of “regional autonomy” since early September when SCIRI introduced its push for the recognition of an autonomous southern Shiite region.
If the SCIRI move is viewed as part of an Iranian bid for power, then the battle lines that have formed over this issue may say something about the future of Iranian influence in Iraq.
An Iranian Push for Iraqi Shiite Autonomy?
Is Hakim acting as an agent of Iranian influence in this instance? I have no independent basis, at this time, for evaluating the “accusation.”
I do note, however, that Stratfor‘s September 6, 2006 report–“Iraq: Tehran’s Shiite Autonomy Solution” (subscription required)–does not hesistate to level the charge:
Combining existing provinces into federal zones would allow Tehran and its Shiite allies in Iraq to wield greater power over the Iraqi state by creating an additional layer of government…
SCIRI — led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who also heads the UIA — is the most powerful and pro-Iranian component of the UIA…
By rearranging the provinces into autonomous federal zones along the lines of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, the pro-Iranian Shia have found a way to consolidate their gains over power and the oil resources in the south. The Iraqi Shia and their Iranian patrons are trying to make regional autonomy the rule rather than an exception limited to the Kurds.
Iraq: America’s Gift to Iran? (Beats a Cake and a Bible)
Ever since the US “helped” Iraqi Shiites win political control of Iraq (formally, at least), critics have been accusing the Bush administration of essentially turning Iraq over to Iran.
The charge of aiding Iran is one of the chief arguments behind the notion of Bush administration “incompetence.” After all, the Bush administration is clearly hawkish on Iran. So the enhancement of Iranian influence would have to be an unintended consequence of foolish “democratization” dreams.
Right Zionists were ready with a response: Iraqi Shiites are no friends of the Iranian regime. Michael Ledeen, for example, predicted in the New York Sun at the start of the war:
If we understand this war correctly, the Iraqi Shi’ites will fight alongside us against the Iranian terrorists, for the Iraqis want freedom, and they know they will not get any from the mullahs in Tehran.
I have previously written about the Right Zionist idea of a so-called Najaf-Qom rivalry (especially here). The notion prompted Swopa at Needlenose to comment on Cutler’s Blog:
I’ve been reading about (and generally sneering at) this Qom-Najaf stuff since the fall of 2003. I’ve seen very little evidence of it being true.Sistani and the Iranians may have their differences, but they’ll work them out after the Shiite parties have cemented their control over Iraq, not before.
Given what he has said elsewhere about the vacuity of Iraqi sovereignty, I doubt that Swopa would say that the “Shiite parties” have now “cemented their control over Iraq.”
Nevertheless, with the current impasse over the issue of “partition,” we may now be at a moment when Sistani and the Iranians may have to settle their differences, one way or the other.
Needless to say, the Sunni political establishment is extremely hostile to any partition schemes. But, as the Washington Post and other media outlets have been reporting, several key Shiite forces have joined Sunni politicians in opposing an autonomous southern Shiite (let alone a Kurdish region in the north, based in Kirkuk).
Sadr is opposed. And, according to a Gulf News report, both the Shiite Fadhila/Virtue party and the Karbala-based forces of Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani are also opposed. None of this is shocking: each of these groups include militias that have clashed with SCIRI’s “Badr Brigades” militia.
So, in some respects, the key “swing” factor may turn out to be Sistani.
Where is Sistani?
The big, recent headline is that Sistani has essentially “retired.” We’ll see. I have my doubts.
The key partisans in the debate over partition certainly still seem to think Sistani matters.
The Kurds–who favor autonomy for Shiites as a way of enhancing their own autonomy leverage–were quick to suggest that Sistani supports partition. According to a Kurdish press report,
A representative of the revered Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayatollah al-Sistani has told Muslims attending Friday prayers in the southern city of Nasiriya that the Islamic faith sanctions federalism, and that it is the correct system of government for Iraq.
“Federalism is a form of governance that has had a place in the history of Islam and which it allows,” said Mohammed Baqir al-Nasiri.
But the Sunni opposition also claimed to have Sistani on its side. According to a September 13, 2006 report in the Washington Post,
[Iraqi Parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud] Mashhadani said Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, had ordered Shiite politicians to back off from the plan in order to prevent bitter infighting.
So, which is it?
Maybe it is too soon to say. The most recent news–a Washington Post article entitled, “Iraqi Parties Reach Deal Postponing Federalism“–is that the legislature may vote later this week on a resolution, but even an affirmative vote would essentially delay any actual autonomy moves until 2008.
Maybe this goes to Swopa’s point that any differences between Sistani and Iran will be settled later.
It may be worth noting, however, that Sistani’s key ally in the government–Hussein al-Shahristani, the Oil Minister–has been pushing back against autonomy moves.
Most recently, he questioned the validity at Kurdish oil deals. According to the Financial Times,
Hussein al-Shahristani, the oil minister, was quoted by the state-run al-Sabaah newspaper as saying: “The ministry isn’t committed to oil investment contracts signed in the past . . . by officials of the government of the Kurdistan region which were announced as contracts for investment and the development of oil fields”…
The latest dispute comes as Iraq’s parliamentarians on Sunday agreed to begin debate on the issue of federalism, but said they would delay the creation of any new autonomous areas for at least 18 months.
Can Shahristani’s move against the Kurds be taken as indicative of Sistani’s view of partition, more generally?
Is the delay of Hakim’s autonomy move a sign that Iraqi Shiites–along with Sunnis–will, in fact, resist Iranian influence in Iraq?
How will Hakim and Iran respond to the failure of the autonomy push?
The Brookings Iraq Index PDF quotes an International Republican Institute poll from June on this question:
Some people are calling for the segregation of Iraqis according to religious or ethnic sect. Do you agree or disagree with this suggestion?
66% strongly disagree. Only 8% strongly agree, and 5% agree. So even the Kurds don’t seem as enthusiastic as their leaders about partition.