Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Analysis: Towards a New Iraqi Politics

Iraqi civil society activists want to get rid of old style top-down politics of exclusivity and intrigue.
By Rend Rahim

As a new era dawns for Iraq, one way or another, a growing number of Iraqis in exile are clamouring for a new type of opposition politics - not the abstractions of ideology superimposed on Iraqi reality, but pragmatic politics that arise from Iraqi particularity. After the demise of Saddam Hussein and his regime, Iraqis may tolerate the politics of personality and cliques for a while, but they will not be won over by old political models.


In August 2002, senior officials in the US government held high-profile meetings with representatives of six Iraqi opposition groups to discuss Iraq's future in the event of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.


The group of six, or G6 as it came to be called, comprised the two Kurdish parties, the PUK and KDP, the Shia Islamist movement SCIRI, the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord and the Constitutional Monarchy Movement. One of the goals of the meeting was to create greater unity within the ranks of the Iraqi opposition and to that end the G6 agreed with the US recommendation to hold a large and representative conference to bring the Iraqi opposition together.


After several postponements, and amid a great deal of bickering, the conference was finally held in London in December. Although attendance was high, with more than 400 Iraqis present, many considered that the outcome was far from satisfactory.


At the time, a good deal was written about disagreements within the G6 and the causes of the delay in holding the conference. News reports focused on rivalries, partisan dissentions and jockeying for personal advantage, and debates about the "independents", the amorphous multitude of Iraqis who wanted a presence at the conference


What did not receive enough attention from the press -or from US policy-makers- is a deeper, and far more important, disagreement within the Iraqi opposition about the fundamental politics of Iraq's future. This disagreement is not confined to the G6 but encompasses all Iraqis who take an interest in politics.


As early as September, in response to reports that the G6 was contemplating a conference of no more than 80 people, some 200 independent Iraqis in Europe, the United States and the Middle East signed a memorandum calling for the conference to be much larger in order to represent all Iraqi opposition forces. In a letter later that month, a small group of Iraqis again called for broad representation of independents.


The letter broke new ground in describing Iraqi expatriates, for the first time, as an "Iraqi civil society", inclusive of professionals and professional associations, human rights groups, NGOs, artists, authors, activists, community leaders and others. Drafted by Ali Allawi, Muwafaq el-Rubaei and myself, it asserted that the G6 represented narrow political views and could not possibly encompass the variety of political thinking that had developed among the several million Iraqis living outside Iraq.


The memorandum and the letter, and other similar writings from the Iraqi grassroots, revealed a fault line within the Iraqi opposition, between a broad Iraqi public and the leaders of the G6, that was quite different to the fault line within the group itself.


What was the source of this protest against the G6? Simply described, it was an outcry against the conventional top-down politics of exclusivity and intrigue, a call for more inclusion and transparency. It was a contest between an old and a new politics, between those who look back to Iraq's past for their convictions and modes of operation, and those who wish to look to Iraq's future for political inspiration.


Most of the criticism arises from the belief that the major Iraqi political groups today are embodiments of Iraq's past politics. They are rooted in the ideological conflicts of the mid-century, from the 1940s to the 1960s, when the notions of struggle, nationalism, and liberation from colonialism (European, Arab, and so on) became the cornerstones of Iraqi politics.


Arab nationalist groups and their Kurdish counterparts, the Kurdish parties active today, are outgrowths of these national liberation movements. Shia Islamist parties (also a movement of liberation from cultural colonialism, a return to "authenticity") took shape in Iraq during that period, although repression forced them underground and they thrived in the underground politics of the Iraq of the 1970s and 1980s. Whatever their current manifestations, the core beliefs of these parties retain the sense of siege that characterized politics in the mid-century. As a result, their methods are still those of subterranean movements operating in hostile environments. They manoeuvre warily and in secrecy. Their leaderships exercise centralized control. Their structures, decision-making processes and objectives are opaque - not only to other political groups, but also to their own constituencies.


The ideologies of the major nationalist, Islamist and socialist groups view Iraq as part of a larger whole, rather than as an end in itself, and at least on the face of it their agendas are extra-territorial. Arab nationalism defines Iraq by its role within a larger Arab qawmiya - nation - even if the dream of Arab political unity has been set aside. The Kurdish parties consider Iraqi Kurdistan part of a greater whole, and the region is referred to as Southern Kurdistan. Only recently have Kurdish parties begun to talk about their role in Iraqi politics. For Islamists, the platonic ideal of the polity is the Islamic umma, not the state.


These issues are not merely academic. Such extra-territorial ideologies dilute the notion of citizenship and detach policy-making from the specific needs of Iraq as a country.


The Arab Iraqi opposition in particular has failed to create parties or institutions along modern lines. Most of the groups are small cliques of individuals with shared interest, who rely on ad hoc arrangements and improvisation. There are no parties with a recognizable structure, a base of popular support, a declared political agenda, and an accountable governing body. With the single, long-standing exception of the Iraqi Communist Party, the opposition has also failed to build political organizations that cross ethnic lines.


It would be premature to require such political sophistication if it were not for the fact that the opposition has been active for at least 20 years - and has been basking in international recognition and support for 12 years.


The major problem faced by the Iraqi opposition is that Iraqi political consciousness has changed dramatically in the past decade. Interpreting Iraq through nationalist, ethnic and religious prisms is no longer acceptable to most Iraqis. Secretive and exclusionary politics that do not rest on a constituent mandate are also an anachronism, particularly to Iraqis outside Iraq, at a time when democracy and participation are the common coin of all politics.


Hence the overwhelming majority of Iraqis outside Iraq classify themselves as independents, resisting association with the political groups.


The Gulf war of 1991 was a watershed for Iraqis, both inside Iraq and in the Diaspora. In order to become politically engaged, they will need to see a new type of politics when Saddam Hussein's regime ends. For most Iraqis now, politics is intensely local: Iraq is a finite and complete entity, and its interests alone should be considered. Iraqi Arabs in particular have replaced nationalism with patriotism, and have adopted an attitude of "Iraq first, Iraq only".


Rend Rahim Francke is executive director of the Washington-based Iraq Foundation.