President Bush, in recent speeches and appearances, has stressed the importance of Iraqis putting aside their differences and agreeing to support a national unity government. There are several reasons this is a questionable tactic.
For starters, having the president of the United States deliver this opinion is a constant reminder to Iraqis that the United States is an occupying force, that this Iraqi government is not fully sovereign in its own territory, and that any future government will have limited actual sovereignty so long as the United States has a substantial number of troops in the country and is counted on to provide a significant amount of security. In addition, there are reasons to doubt whether a strong national unity government is a workable way to deal with the problems governing that particular piece of Mesopotamian territory.
It has become all too familiar to Americans who follow Iraqi issues, but it’s worth a reminder. The country as currently constituted was cobbled together by the British after World War I from provinces that the previously ruling Ottoman Empire had chosen to govern as three separate provinces. Thus there are Kurds in the north, Shia Muslims in the south (constituting a majority of the entire country) and Sunni Muslims (the ruling class under Saddam) in the center, with other minorities and many mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods and towns to complicate matters.
A straight majority-rule democracy in Iraq would give the Shia, who have plenty of valid grievances from the past and the present, fairly complete control. The governance problem is to permit majority rule without encouraging suppression and oppression of minorities. Beyond a few reassuring words the United States has not confronted this problem openly and honestly.
The obvious solution short of outright partition is something like federalism (though there must be a term with Islamic history that means much the same) with a relatively weak central government and a great deal of local autonomy. Getting there is complicated by the fact that there are no working oil fields in the central, mostly Sunni region, so Sunnis would have to have great confidence to agree to oil revenue-sharing agreements.
There’s evidence, beginning with the agreement Sunday to form a national security council outside the framework of the largely American-designed constitution, that the Iraqis understand this much better than the American government does. Having Americans repeat that the fantasy of putting aside differences for the sake of national unity is the only acceptable course discourages more realistic approaches and delays the day when Iraqis take full responsibility — and accountability — for their own political future.
Perhaps it is necessary for U.S. forces to provide a semblance of security a while longer. But the sooner the United States removes itself from the governance of Iraq, the sooner Iraqis will have to take that responsibility on themselves. That’s the outcome toward which U.S. diplomats and military leaders should be working.