Thursday, 14 January 2010

"An Iraq of Its Regions" Cornerstones of a Federal Democray?

An Iraq of Its Regions
Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?
By Michael Rubin Middle East Quarterly Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Federalism remains a dominant political debate in post-Saddam Iraq, and while Western commentators often focus on Iraqi Kurdistan, in reality, Iraqi discussions are broader. Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, explains, "Villages, towns, and regions have shaped identities: the people of southern Iraq, for instance, often think of themselves as 'Qurnawis' or 'Basrawis' or just 'Southerners' rather than as 'Shiites' or 'Sunnis.'"

Indeed, Visser persuades us that the conventional wisdom that Iraq is an amalgam of three Ottoman provinces--one Sunni, one Shi'i, and one Kurdish--is wrong for that identity is more complex and disparate. Sorbonne historian Alastair Northedge fleshes out this point more with the definitive essay tracing the development of Iraqi identity prior to the Ottoman trifurcation of the region, while Richard Schofield of King's College London sketches a useful outline of the drawing of modern Iraqi boundaries.

Visser's introduction to An Iraq of Its Regions (Columbia University Press, 2008) is detailed and well-grounded in historiography. So, too, is his contribution on the two regions of southern Iraq. He argues persuasively that much of the Western media misinterpreted Iraqi Shi'i leader 'Abdul 'Aziz Hakim's demand for a single southern, federal region, and that discussion in southern Iraq revolves around two regions: the Basra-Amara-Nasiriya triangle and another in the Middle Euphrates region, although he also describes minor variations that arise from time to time.

Exeter University scholars Fanar Haddad and Sajjad Rizvi's contribution on fitting Baghdad into the federalist discourse pales next to Visser's work, but after a somewhat disjointed discussion of federalism in other countries and federalism "from above" as opposed to "from below," they persuasively show through interviews the fears that many Baghdadis have that federalism might lead to the dissolution of the state.

University of Haifa historian Ronen Zeidel reprises his thesis on regionalism around Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit in a separate chapter. Utilizing several Arabic histories and other sources, Zeidel writes a definitive, local history of Tikrit from the sixteenth century through the present day with a special emphasis on the rise of the Tikritis in the Iraqi military and power structure in the second half of the twentieth century. Zeidal shows that the primacy of Tikriti regional identity did not survive Saddam's overthrow, since Tikriti refusal to fight advancing coalition forces shattered regional solidarity. De-Baathification hit Tikrit hard. To cope, many residents subordinated the regional identity about which they had been so proud to a broader Sunni identity.

An essay by James Denselow, a doctoral candidate at King's College, London, is the only true disappointment in the collection. Rather than provide a survey of Mosul equivalent in depth to Visser's or Zeidel's contributions, Denselow substitutes historical background for a survey of secondary sources by authors like Avi Shlaim, Rashid Khalidi, and Juan Cole, none of whom ever visited Iraq and whose writing accordingly tends toward the polemical. Denselow's failure to address the consolidation of Mosul's identity after Saddam's fall, the struggles to reverse gerrymandering around Sinjar, Tel Afar's unique identity, and issues surrounding the resurgence across the border of Kurdish nationalism in Qamishli, the largest town in eastern Syria, are omissions that raise questions about why the editors did not seek revision before inclusion. Meanwhile, Denselow's discussion of the artificiality and porousness of the Syria-Iraq border is nothing new; his conclusion that "informed quarters" recognize that the Syrians have done their utmost to secure the border reads more like an academic's attempt to secure Syrian good will than a work of scholarly integrity.

University of Exeter historian Gareth Stansfield and his colleague Hashem Ahmadzadeh show a mastery of Iraqi Kurdish issues in a chapter that examines Kurdish and Kurdistani identities. The authors look both at the political debate in Iraqi Kurdistan--where the former term refers to ethnic identity and the latter is a way to signal equality in Iraqi Kurdistan for non-Kurdish residents, be they Turkmen, Chaldean, Assyrian, or Arab--and at the Kurdistani term's original pan-Kurdish overtones. Kurdish historical writing is notorious for unsourced claims and a retroactive imposition of nationalism. Both authors avoid this pitfall and provide a well-researched narrative, although Stansfield's penchant for vanity footnotes distracts. Still, "Kurdish or Kurdistanis? Conceptualising Regionalism in the North of Iraq" should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand Iraqi Kurdish politics.

Few edited collections have value greater than a single constituent essay. An Iraq of Its Regions is an exception--Visser and Stansfield have assembled a unique work that should become the handbook for any serious discussion of Iraqi regionalism.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.
Photo credit: Columbia University Press, 2008

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