Monday, March 17, 2008

The re-division of Iraq

Re-territorialising the Middle East was a crucial goal of the Iraq war. It wasn't just to take control of the oil spigot, but to do so in such a way that the geographies of resistance to the US and Israel were converted into pliable subordinates or assets. I am not talking about the more extreme neoconservative fantasies in which practically the whole region is converted into a system of pro-American free market states. They expected dividends from the conquest that would weaken Islamist and nationalist opposition and strengthen pro-American currents in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Not only that, but they would, by securing an alliance with Iraqi Kurds, be better placed to thwart wider Kurdish goals and strengthen the Turkish state. Transforming Iraq from a potentially powerful, large, Arab nationalist bulwark into a politically and spatially divided system of lily pads was an important component of this strategy. If it hasn't always been obvious that the US would engage in a bipartisan political strategy to divide Iraq into three effective mini-states, it was clear that US planners regarded the territorial division of the Middle East bequeathed by its colonial forebears as part of the problem. Perhaps they saw 2003 as being pivotal in the same way that 1918 had been.

At any rate, the Biden strategy has offered the occupiers a way out of the 'quagmire' that appears to be working, at least inasmuch as it reduces the problems that the US were faced with a year ago. By arming each side in the civil war that the US has helped create, using the Kurdish peshmerga as a counterinsurgency army, 'tilting' toward the Sunni 'Awakening Councils' and sponsoring the most sectarian elements in the south, the US has experienced a reduction in attacks on its troops and has seen less turmoil in the admittedly thin representative institutions that it has set up. Displacing a war of resistance into a domestic civil war has been useful in many ways, and enshrining sectarianism in brick and mortar gives it the appearance of an 'fact on the ground' of the kind that the Israelis like to establish. One manifestation of this was the announcement last year that there would be a new federal region set up, known as the 'South of Baghdad Region' encompassing all Shi'ite majority regions. Furious efforts were apparently under way to establish this, and it was due to start kicking in during April, when the US-driven federalist laws start to have effect. Under these laws, any area which wishes to be a federal region must have a referendum, with 50% turnout or more, and a simple majority in favour of the move. One would think that if they had pushed through the sectarian constitution in the first place, they could achieve the effective secession of the south. However, the resistance of Sunni and less sectarian Shi'ite groups such as the Sadrists may well have scuppered this plan (Who the hell do they think they are?). Further, it looks as if there may be competitors in the federalist field, with some pursuing a Basra region - if Basra opts out of the southern region, it won't happen. The new geographical units in which the occupied political economy of Iraq will be elaborated could this be a strong central state, three distinct regions based on ethnicity (hence the routine bouts of ethnic cleansing), or a cluster of micro-regionalisms. What will be unleashed in April, therefore, will be an intense political struggle. All of the ethnic cleansing, the sectarian political strategies, the death squads and kidnappings have been building up to this. How to best manage close-range US dominance? Who can profit most from it, and how? At what scale of political unit can one most easily exact rent in the process of occupation, and ensure advantages in the long run? There will be more blood, a great deal more, before those questions are answered.