by Ted on January 12, 2006

Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leader on Wednesday rejected making major changes to the new Constitution, diminishing Sunni Arab hopes of amending the charter to avoid being shut out of the nation’s vast oil wealth.

Sunnis were reluctant to sign on to the Constitution last fall, fearing that provisions granting wide powers to autonomous regions would leave oil in the hands of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. Sunnis dominate in western and much of northwestern and northcentral Iraq, but the oil lies beneath Kurdistan and parts of southern Iraq that one day may be subsumed in a semi-independent region controlled by Shiites…

“We will stop anyone who tries to change the Constitution,” said Mr. Hakim, whose party has close ties to Iran. “Many of the people who voted for us were promised federalism in the south,” he said, referring to the form of government allowing for semiautonomous regions. He said Kurds, who joined Shiites to form the current ruling coalition, “agree with us about this condition, and we will continue our strategic coalition with our Kurdish brothers.”

I don’t have any non-obvious comments, but I thought that this story deserved a little attention.



saurabh 01.12.06 at 1:46 pm

Not to quibble, but wouldn’t Sistani be the most powerful Shi’ite leader, not Abdul Aziz al-Hakim?

I have a non-obvious question that you can non-obvious comment on: why does it seem like the U.S. has no problem with this state of affairs? They seem to be making absolutely no diplomatic efforts to encourage detente between the Shi’a/Kurd axis and the Sunni. Either (a) they have no control over the dynamics in Iraq, or (b) they like the current state of affairs, or (c) they lack more imagination than I thought.


steve kyle 01.12.06 at 2:16 pm

c. they lack more imagination than you thought.

Corollary: Civil war about to intensify


Adam Kotsko 01.12.06 at 2:33 pm

It’s like the goal is to make the Sunni parts of Iraq the new headquarters of international terrorism.


Ted 01.12.06 at 3:01 pm

Well, I doubt that the Administration likes the current state of affairs. But we’ve got a delicate balance between exercising our authority and respecting the soverignity of the new government. If the U.S. were to simply force the governing Shia/Kurdish alliance to do the Sunni’s bidding, there’s not much use pretending that the new governing body controls their country, or even their own government. And if the factions don’t believe that they can achieve their goals through the new government (because the US will just overrule decisions that we don’t like), they’ll be likely to abandon the ballot box and devote their energies to civil war. That’s probably a little oversimplified, but it’s my understanding.

I suppose that they have decided that the only way to a breakdown into civil war is to support the fledgling government, right or wrong. Although it seems like the Sunni population is going to be systematically screwed by the other factions, prolonging their insurgency, I can’t say that I have a better idea.

Plus, Sistani is not an actual member of the government.


CharleyCarp 01.12.06 at 3:24 pm

It’s not like the notion of amending the Constitution brought a majority of Sunnis out to vote in favor of its ratification. Why should Hakim feel bound by a promise he didn’t make, to give up power that protects his community, to people who’s past and present doesn’t suggest that they have his community’s interests at heart.


Doctor Slack 01.12.06 at 4:10 pm

why does it seem like the U.S. has no problem with this state of affairs?

I’d put it a little more simply than Ted does: the U.S. really has little choice at this stage. The price of deflecting the development of a broadly Sunni-Shia nationalist insurgency was to accede to Shia demands for a political process that would establish a basically Shiite state (excepting Kurdish territory in the north). They made this particular bed a while back.


otto 01.12.06 at 4:51 pm

“Mr. Hakim, whose party has close ties to Iran.”

Has someone asked Hakim or the Voice of Sistani what they think of a possible US or Israeli attack on Iran?


abb1 01.12.06 at 4:59 pm

Maybe they’ve been promised to rule Iran too. Sistani, Khamenei – what’s the difference. Gotta think out of the box.


joejoejoe 01.12.06 at 10:33 pm

I’m still waiting for the final vote totals from the December 15 election. The initial report said the count would be complete in two weeks. Here we are a month later with no final tally. What gives?


praktike 01.13.06 at 3:30 am

Sorry to blogwhore, Ted, but I thought your readers might be interested in this analysis.


Ron F 01.13.06 at 4:08 am


Sistani may not be an “actual member of government” but he assuredly is Iraq’s “most powerful Shiite leader”. The NYT are simply wrong on this.


Brett Bellmore 01.13.06 at 6:36 am

“Although it seems like the Sunni population is going to be systematically screwed by the other factions,”

Not having rose petals scattered in your path does not constitute being “screwed”. The Sunni have actually been treated much better to date than their behavior would warrant. The degree of restraint shown by the other groups has been remarkable.


abb1 01.13.06 at 7:19 am

What could the phrase like “treated much better to date than their behavior would warrant” mean when applied to a more or less ethnically/geographically defined demographic consisting of several million people?


J Thomas 01.13.06 at 8:38 am

Abb1, I believe we can agree that the jewish population of europe was treated somewhat worse during WWII than their behavior would warrant.

Since we can agree on one case, it might be possible to agree on the other. The sunnis have not been subject to mass artillery and airstrikes, except in a few cities. Their refugees have not been put into camps they cannot leave, except in a few cases and temporarily. They have not been subject to death squads on a large scale yet. They have not been forbidden to take part in the government unless they showed an interest in politics before the occupation. Etc.

Clearly they *could* be treated much worse. How bad would it have to get before we agreed it was worse than they deserved? Brett doesn’t think it’s gotten to that point yet.


abb1 01.13.06 at 9:26 am

OK, to clarify: I do understand that an ethnic group of 5 million people may, unfortunately, be treated as a whole one way or another, better or worse; what I don’t understand is the ‘they deserved’, ‘their behavior would warrant’ part.


jet 01.13.06 at 9:30 am

As a for instance, how did the Turks treat an “ethnically/geographically defined demographic consisting of several million people” that wouldn’t stop supporting a terrorist insurgency?


abb1 01.13.06 at 9:40 am

I just don’t know what it means “wouldn’t stop supporting a terrorist insurgency“, when applied to an ethnic group. Do they have a genetic defect of some sort?


Doctor Slack 01.13.06 at 10:00 am

jet, you’re perilously close to jumping the shark, dude: how did the Turks treat an “ethnically/geographically defined demographic consisting of several million people” that wouldn’t stop supporting a terrorist insurgency?

Can we conclude from this that you’re defending Turkish treatment of the Kurds, say, or the Armenians? Or by the same logic, that you think Saddam’s Anfal campaigns were a good thing?


jlw 01.13.06 at 10:05 am

People, people.

How silly and pointless this debate will seem after the U.S. successfully marches into Tehran and reinstalls the popular and legitmate monarchy.


J Thomas 01.13.06 at 2:27 pm

Abb1, not actually supporting the argument I probably can’t defend it adequately. But the way I understood it, it’s quite legitimate to say that a whole ethnic group *doesn’t* deserve some particular collective treatment. Once we go that far then the rules of english grannar (subtly different from rules of logic) imp[ly that perhaps they *do* deserve some *other* particular treatment.

So Brett Belmore was suggesting that the treatment they’re getting — which he didn’t mention includes airstrikes, refugee camps to get away from the airstrikes, ID cards and checkpoints, death squads etc, was much better than they deserved. Presumably he wouldn’t think they deserved the treatment european jews got in WWII, so we’ve established a couple of bounds and the treatment he thinks they deserve would fall somewhere between them. (Ignoring that it’s multidimensional.)

I find it hard to come up with a statement about treatments that populations deserve. A first guess might be “treat them all alike” but you surely don’t want to treat noncitizens the same as citizens, or second-class citizens the same as first-class citizens. And there are some gruups where it’s fine to invite them to Fourth of July pork barbeque, and others it isn’t as friendly.

I’m real unclear what ethnic etc groups deserve when their claima about what they deserve conflict so much with other groups’ claims about what *they* deserve.


roger 01.13.06 at 2:30 pm

There is a world of difference between the crimes of massacring Armenians (a crime that, to be fair, seems to impress Westerners quite a lot more than the continuous series of crimes against Turkic peoples in Russia and the soviet union in the last hundred fifty years) and the struggle against the Kurdish guerillas. Even a Kurdo-phile like Hitchens admits that the head of Turkey’s Kurdish guerilla group in the 80s was certifiably psychotic. While restrictions on the Kurdish language, etc., are violations of human rights, I don’t see them as being on a higher level than, say, the violations of the rights of Irish Catholics in Ulster. And somehow nobody is demonstrating against England.


abb1 01.13.06 at 2:59 pm

Even with non-citizens vis-a-vis citizens – I don’t think you can argue that as a group they ‘deserve’ to be treated worse than citizens. You buy your wife a fur coat for christmas and only a pair of gloves for your aunt – but not necessarily because she deserves tough treatment.


Ray 01.13.06 at 3:39 pm

“I find it hard to come up with a statement about treatments that populations deserve.”

Actually, its quite easy. “Individuals don’t deserve to be treated solely as members of a population”. European Jews were treated worse than they deserved, because they were treated as nothing more than members of a group. Brett is arguing that its okay to punish some people in Iraq for the crimes of other people – and being punished for someone ele’s crimes is worse than anyone deserves.


jet 01.13.06 at 4:06 pm

Doctor Slack,
What are some successful, Doctor Slack approved, historical examples of insurgency reduction?

Would you prefer the FBI and criminal investigative teams be sent into Sunni areas and habeas corpus be granted?

My point was that the Sunnis can expect to be dealth with harsly if the US removes its “gentle” hand.


jet 01.13.06 at 4:09 pm

I guess the real point of contention was the term “deserve”. I had guessed this was just a poor choice of wording, and that the real meaning was of a general assumption of a normal response to growing terrorism. But if we are focusing on “deserve” then of course no innocent “deserves” to be lumped in with cold blooded murderers when it comes time for punishment. But it is quite the norm for innocents to have risk shifted to them when it comes time to deal with those same e-vile people.


abb1 01.13.06 at 5:11 pm

Well, in a sense what Brett is suggesting is no different than Bin Laden’s justifying 9/11 by saying that the US citizens are responsible for foreign policy of their government. If this is the concept we should accept, then we should accept it for the both sides.


Doctor Slack 01.14.06 at 2:42 am

Roger, your point about equating the Turkish Kurds with the Armenians is well-taken. I don’t see them as equivalents, but I see both of them as ignominious.

jet: What are some successful, Doctor Slack approved, historical examples of insurgency reduction?

Now, that looks almost like an outright dodge. Which, I suppose, shouldn’t surprise me; it’s all very well to talk tough from behind a keyboard about how such-and-such people should expect to be “dealt with harshly”… until you come to realize the sort of company it puts you in.

But you know what? I’m not willing to let you off the hook. I will answer your question, happily, but only after you answer mine.

To repeat (I’ll modify slightly to take the Armenians out of the equation):

Can we conclude from your post that you are defending Turkish treatment of the Kurds? Or by the same logic, that you think Saddam’s Anfal campaigns were a good thing?


Doctor Slack 01.14.06 at 2:44 am

. . . but I see both of them as ignominious.

Ghastly wording. I see both examples as ignominious.


Brendan 01.14.06 at 6:51 am

Ah so many points, of which the key is: is ‘blogwhore’ now a word? Kewl (now also, apparently, a word).

Anyway I thought people might be interested in David Hirst’s view of this and other things: (I guess I’m now blogwhoring). Hirst has always been one of the sharpest of middle eastern commentators, and his views although they may (or then again may not) turn out to be too pessimistic, should probably be taken into account.

The money shot: ‘Iran will be the main beneficiary of US failure and the long-overdue accession of the Shia majority, its coreligionists, to political ascendancy in Iraq. The increase in regional clout it derives from this will be used at America’s expense. The mullahs have long been readying themselves for a great reckoning. With their new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, readiness seems to be mutating into active desire. He and those around him believe that only the US stands in the way of Iranian regional dominance and that the US, seen as defeated in Iraq, is now a “sunset power”.’

Also: ‘On the other hand, no one invested greater expectations in the Iraqi adventure than Israel. US success, it thought, would transform its strategic position. But with US failure, Israel will grow more repressive against the Palestinians, and more ready for military action against Iran. Should the US itself deal with Iran in the same violent and partisan fashion as it did Iraq, the adverse consequences of that new adventure will outstrip those of the earlier one. For there is no reason to doubt that Iran’s response, from both itself and its strengthened Shia and Islamist allies in the region, will be the devastating one it constantly promises.’


jet 01.14.06 at 10:47 am

Doctor Slack,
I had put together a comment about how only a ponce would ask someone if they approved of how the Turks and Saddam dealt with those groups, but couldn’t believe it was a serious question. Apparently I should have posted it.

Perhaps you should re-read, or just read, my other posts. I had assumed no one would use the word “deserve” to actually mean that the Kurdish people, those who were defenseless and had nothing to do with the insurgencies “had it coming”. Rather “deserve” was a poor choice of words meaning the Kurds could expect Turkey and Saddam to respond in a brutal, unjust, and entirely evil manner as they did.


Doctor Slack 01.14.06 at 11:44 am


So, you would regard similar treatment of the Sunnis as brutal, unjust and entirely evil — be it by the US Army or Shiite proxies? It’s just that it kind of looked like you were trying to imply the Sunnis should smart enough not to resist and that such treatment would be justifiable as insurgency reduction.

Now, the answer to your question. Modern governments have three possible answers to the problem of guerilla warfare:

1. Collective punishment (which is usually only effective if you’re willing to imprison, kill or run off entire populations),

2. An overwhelming political advantage (allowing a government to infiltrate, isolate and dismantle an insurgency), or

3. Muddling through with some awkward mixture of conventional and “unconventional” tactics until one side or the other tires (in cases of occupation vs. native insurgencies it’s usually the occupier).

Going into a situation where you need (1) pretty much makes for a war criminal unless you have some overwhelmingly urgent security threat to contend with. Finding situations in which (2) will work is exceedingly difficult: the only two examples I know of in the 20th century that involved major Western powers were the British in Malaya and the Americans in the Phillippines, and both worked because the insurgent movements came pre-isolated . The Iraq adventure has so far contained elements of (1) and (3) — with often bizarre and usually unpromising results — and virtually nothing of (2) [the current “political process” was not only pretty much forced on the Americans but is reported to have played out largely in the isolated, cut-off world of the Green Zone — which is why disputes over Iraq’s “Constitution” have the feel of kabuki theatre to me].


Brett Bellmore 01.15.06 at 10:52 am

J. Thomas, there is no subtle distinction here. If it’s logically coherent to speak of a group being treated badly, despite the manifest fact that the members of that group are recieving disparate treatment, then it’s logically coherent to speak of the group not being treated worse than “they” deserve, despite the manifest fact that their own deserts differ from one to the next. If one position is crap, so’s the other, they’re opposite sides of the same coin.

Do not complain that “the Sunnis” are being bombed, when bombs fall on a specific building in a specific town, if you do not want to hear that “the Sunnis” are harboring terrorists, when one neighborhood somewhere harbors a half dozen terrorists. I’m allowed to operate at the same levels of abstraction as you guys, am I not?

We are not treating “the Sunnis” in any way at all. We’re dishing out the bombs and infrastructure repairs in a locally detailed manner. Don’t pretend otherwise.


J Thomas 01.15.06 at 11:27 am

Brett, you seem to be suffering the illusion that we aren’t treating the different ethnic groups in iraq differently based on their ethicity.

Can you make that claim with a straight face? The US Marines make no such claim.


abb1 01.15.06 at 1:20 pm

But I’ve read that in Fallujiah 40% of all buildings were completely destroyed and 20% have major damage; all of the population is required to carry ids and submit to retina scan. Other towns and villages are wrapped in barbed wire; death squads, arbitrary arrests, etc. This is not “bombs fall on a specific building“, far from it. This is holding general population responsible for acts of individuals; punishing, terrorizing, intimidating civilians to achieve political and military goals. It’s terrorism, simple as that.


Brett Bellmore 01.15.06 at 7:38 pm

J, you seem to be under the illusion that the different ethnic groups aren’t behaving differently. I’m simply demanding the right to operate at the same level of abstraction you are. That some Sunnis aren’t oppressed is as deadly to your abstraction, as that some Sunnis aren’t harboring terrorists is to mine.


abb1 01.16.06 at 4:28 am

Why would different ethnic groups be behaving differently? Do they have a gene that makes them behave differently than other ethnic groups would behave under the same circumstances?


jet 01.16.06 at 10:03 am

Doctor Slack, did you say “Shiite proxies”? Please put down the meth pipe and come back to reality. You must be on some sort of 7 day bender to believe the US could start or stop a Shii’te civil war with the Sunni’s (or rather it becoming a larger one).

But to answer your meritless question, yes, if the US treated the Sunnis like Saddam and Turkey treated the Kurds, that’d be pretty bad. Same for the Shii’tes. But you kind of out yourself as an unbalanced enemy of reality when you say things like “Shiite proxies”. Because as the rest of us know here on planet Earth, the US desparetely doesn’t want a civil war in Iraq and if the Shiites started a civil war, they certainly would not be the US’s proxies.


J Thomas 01.16.06 at 10:15 am

Brett, I’d say we were beating a dead horse at this point except you keep on neighing.


Doctor Slack 01.16.06 at 1:29 pm

Jet: But to answer your meritless question…

Sorry, dude, I wish we lived in a time when it would be unusual for various sorts of war supporters to write off the Sunnis in just such a way. Unfortunately it isn’t so. But I’m pleased to hear you’re not of that school.

Because as the rest of us know here on planet Earth, the US desparetely doesn’t want a civil war in Iraq…

It even more desperately doesn’t want a general insurrection against the occupation of Iraq, the possibility of which prompted the whole current political process to begin with. The decision to risk civil war by creating an ethnically-riven military and government was made a long time ago — and if you think those insitutions are meant to act as anything but proxies for American power, you’re kidding yourself.

“Unbalanced enemy of reality”? Seems to me I’ve heard phrases like that before, usually levelled at people who doutbed the various rationales offered for the Iraq invasion and raised warnings that it would probably end in disaster. You’ll have to forgive me if it doesn’t carry much wait for me, from you, in this context.

[The “meth pipe” reference is a nice touch, though… but surely it would be more applicable if I were a red stater? Okay, okay, low blow.]


jet 01.16.06 at 4:47 pm

Doctor Slack,
In the year 2006, I put it beyond the realm of possibility for the US to support a Shiite civil war against the Sunnis. If Shi’ite militias start terrorizing Sunni civilians at random, it just isn’t politically feasible for the US to continue supporting them.


J Thomas 01.16.06 at 11:54 pm

Jet, supposing that Shia militias (and secret police) do continue terrorizing sunni civilians in 2006, what do you think the US should do instead of supporting them?

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