Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Tale of Two Iraqi Cities

CFR posts an inciteful, link-filled look at Kirkuk and Basra, two cities outside of Baghdad that are critical to any denouement of the Iraq debacle. This is prescription-strength reading, requiring any student of the issue to remain on task, open-minded and able to retain many details as a mural-sized image of post-trial-constitution Iraq is drawn.

Kirkuk, to which Michael J. Totten referred among his excellent sketches, is a Northern locus of power not under any meaningful control from Baghdad. Any discussion of Kirkuk seems to be a way of using code to speak of Kurds. As the rest of Iraq roils in civil war, the Kurds continue to wait patiently (as they seem to have done for generations, by the way) as the Arabs shoot their respective wads fighting among themselves. But Kurdish patience is like the a surgeon's wait, measured more in seconds than hours. The so-called "constitution," which mandates a package deal to proposed amendments, seems to be nothing more than a ticking political bomb. Ask any Kurd.

Basra, to the South, is a jewel in the Iraqi crown. Oil and a port from which ship it make this city more economically important than Baghdad itself. I have been following with sadness the ongoing complaints of violence and corruption in Basra by Fayrouz Hancock, whose blog is a wellspring of timely information about this part of Iraq. The CFR report doesn't mention it, but Basra is also home to a significant Chaldean Christian population who are having an increasingly hard time remaining safe as more powerful (read savage, armed and corrupt) forces struggle for control. From what I can gather these Southern Christians are not giving up but they are being hit hard with what violence-prone language calls collateral damage. [A short time ago I was reading about the exodus of Northern Christians to Syria as that part of the country devolves into a harsh polarization of non-Christian forces, all sides of which share a common disdain for Christians. Dr. Hadar says, "As the Middle East becomes more free and prosperous, linked to the west and hospitable to minorities and women, the higher is the probability that the Christians will continue to live in and even return from abroad to countries like Lebanon, Egypt or Syria. And vice versa, if the Christians sense that things are getting worse, that the Arab country they live in is losing its commitment to political, economic and religious freedom, they would tend emigrate from the Middle East."]

This is not quick and easy reading, but it is full of information. Someone who has not been doing his homework will find it tough going. But those of us who have been keeping up will find this CFR report a juicy new piece of meat.

The fates of Kirkuk and Basra may hinge upon upcoming efforts to revise the Iraqi constitution, a process which promises to be contentious. The main issues, explained in this Backgrounder, will be issues of revenue-sharing, de-Baathification, and, of course, federalism.

The regions, not the center, will decide
Iraq's fate, according to federalism advocates like CFR President Emeritus Leslie Gelb. Yet why should the Sunnis, Iraq's traditional rulers who predominantly reside in the resource-poor center, support the breakup of their country? Because, as Gelb argues, "running their own region should be far preferable to the alternatives: being dominated by Kurds and Shiites in a central government or being the main victims of a civil war."

CFR Adjunct Fellow Noah Feldman takes a different tack. He says the political process and the attainment of some power-sharing agreement must take precedence before anything else. "Once, security was going to enable politics," Feldman writes in the New York Times Magazine. "Now it is supposed to be the other way around:
politics will buy security."

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