Finally, Some Good Sunni Federalism

It will be interesting to see whether Joe Biden dares to embark on a discussion of federalism during his current visit to Iraq, which began yesterday and is intended to mark the end of the US military involvement in the country. Unlike the situation during previous visits, there now exists in Iraq something that Biden used to call for back in 2007: Sunnis that demand federalism for their own areas.

The problem for Biden is that the sudden emergence of federalism in Sunni-majority areas is a totally unexpected development that must have taken the Obama administration by surprise. Today, Sunni interest in federalism is an anomaly; a sign that something went seriously wrong during the still unfinished government formation process subsequent to the parliamentary elections in March 2010. Anything other than admitting that Sunni pro-federal sentiment is a sign of crisis would be an unfaithful account of US Iraq policy from 2009 to 2011.

American sources certainly don’t seem capable of detecting the anomaly. Biden keeps telling us he is eligible for Iraqi citizenship because of his efforts. (Oddly enough, he always quotes American sources as authority for this claim.) The New York Times today hails his “seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Iraq’s tribal politics”.

The ugly reality of today’s Iraq is that in the context of increased Sunni calls for federalism, constitutional provisions are ignored by both opponents and proponents of federalism in Sunni areas. Illegal attempts at sub-governorate separatism seem to multiply. The Americans, for their part, elegise on Iranian influences in the shape of nasty militias but seem oblivious to the fact that they themselves gave Iran precisely what it wanted in Iraq in late 2010 in terms of a prime minister appointed on the strength of a sectarian Shiite coalition and an ethno-sectarian political framework more generally.

No matter how Joe Biden may try to spin it, it is not a pretty sight.

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