Global Policy Forum

A Gentleman's Agreement in Iraq


By Sami Moubayed

Asia Times
April 5, 2005

The "gentleman's agreement" between the Shi'ites and the Kurds of Iraq following their success in the January 30 elections states that political office will be divided in the new Iraq according to confessional and ethnic lines.

The premiership, being the real decision-making job, will go to the Shi'ites, who compose a 60% majority. The presidency, which is going to become largely ceremonial in the post-Saddam Hussein order, will go to the Kurds, who make up 3 million of Iraq's 27 million. The Speaker of parliament, another ceremonial job whose duties are confined to heading and moderating parliamentary debates, will go to the Sunnis, who dominated political life under Saddam and feared isolation, or punishment, in the post-Saddam order.

Although they boycotted the January elections, the Sunnis are back in the political arena thanks to the appeasement efforts of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who insisted that they be part of political life in Iraq, claiming that they, too, suffered from Saddam's dictatorship.

This "gentleman's agreement" between the three main groups, criticized by many Arabs as the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, is in fact the safest formula to guarantee proper representation and minimize conflict between all parties in the new Iraq that is being created.

It mirrors the National Pact, another gentleman's agreement, formulated in Lebanon in 1943, giving the presidency to the Maronites, the premiership to the Sunnis and the job of speaker of parliament to the Shi'ites. The deputy prime minister and deputy Speaker of parliament, for example, are Greek Orthodox. This system helped guarantee the survival of democracy in Lebanon during two civil wars in 1958 and 1975-90. If administered properly, it can do the same for Iraq.

In Iraq, the gentleman's agreement states that the presidency will go to veteran Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the premiership to prominent Shi'ite politician Dr Ibrahim Jaafari, and the Speaker's post to Hajim al-Hasani, a Sunni politician who currently holds office as minister of industry under Allawi. The US-educated economist accepted the job, after much debate, on Sunday. His two deputies will be Dr Husayn al-Shahristani (Shi'ite), one of the most prominent opposition leaders under Saddam, and Arif Tayfour, a Kurd.

The deputies are due to meet again on Wednesday to name a president and two vice presidents. After that they will select the premier, and the National Assembly is then charged with writing a new constitution by mid-August.

The parliamentary meeting of March 16 fell apart because interim President Ghazi al-Yawer refused to head the new assembly, demanding instead to become one of the two vice presidents, a job that carries more political weight and prestige than that of Speaker.

The Iraqis must read the history of Lebanon correctly to administer a new Iraq on the Lebanese model of 1943. The troika that is being created today reminds us of the troika that emerged in 1943; Maronite Bshara al-Khury as president, Sunni Riyad al-Sulh as prime minister and the Shi'ite Sabri Hamadeh, who was elected Speaker of the Lebanese parliament in 1944.

Yet if not administered correctly, this democratic system can backfire on Iraq and lead to chaos, just as it did in Lebanon. In the mid-1950s, the Maronite presidency alienated the Sunnis and Shi'ites of Lebanon, who were Arab nationalists, by refusing to ally Lebanon to president Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt, the godfather of modern Arab nationalism. They demanded the removal of Maronite president Kamil Sham'un, and when he refused, took up arms against him and dragged Lebanon into civil war in 1958, inviting intervention from outside forces such as Syria, Egypt and the United States.

Tension continued to rise between the Maronites, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze throughout the 1960s, and broke loose in 1975 - more or less over the same reasons. The Sunnis, Shiites and Druze were allied to the Palestinian resistance based in Lebanon, as part of their commitments to Arab nationalism, while the Maronites were not, claiming that Arabism, and the Palestinian cause, were a burden to Lebanon.

On March 10, 1975, a group of Muslim politicians headed by Sunni prime ministers Rashid al-Sulh and Saib Salam, two of the finest and most popular Sunni chiefs of Beirut, and Druze chieftain Kamal Jumblatt, who was a fervent Arab nationalist and who had fought against Sham'un in 1958, issued a manifesto asking for a curb in the Maronite president's constitutional powers.

Sulh, Salam and Jumblatt resented the confessional establishment of Lebanon and longed for more power, arguing that by having the upper hand the Maronites were trying to marginalize the Muslim role in the state's decision-making. They further asked for more equal representation between Muslims and Christians in the armed forces, claiming that 75% of the military establishment were Christians.

Tripoli leader Rashid Karameh (the brother of current Prime Minister Omar Karameh) announced that in defiance of the National Pact of 1943, he would run for the office of president in the upcoming 1976 elections, and any Maronite wishing to nominate himself for the premiership was welcome to do so. The quarrel, fueled by outside parties, mushroomed and led to the outbreak of civil war on April 13, 1975.

History can repeat itself in Iraq. The Kurds, like the Maronites, might at one point alienate the Sunnis and Shi'ites with their policies, which are not committed to Arab nationalism, but rather to the preservation of their interests, power and autonomy as a Kurdish community. Some Iraqi Kurds, like some Lebanese Maronites in the 1970s and 1980s, have had contact with Israel, believing that this would advance their interests, although it alienated, and angered, the Sunnis and Shi'ites.

What would prevent the Sunnis or Shi'ites in Iraq, 50 years from now, from rising against the Kurds, just as they rose against the Maronites in Lebanon in 1975? Can the new Iraqi leaders prevent any regional (Syria, Jordan, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia) or non-Arab players (Turkey, Iran) from interfering in their affairs today, just as Syria, Egypt and the US interfered in Lebanon in the 1950s?

When a constitutional document was proposed by president Hafez Assad of Syria to Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt in 1976, demanding more representation for the non-Maronite communities, it was turned down as too little and too late. When asked by Assad what he wanted, Jumblatt replied, "To get rid of the Christians who have been on top of us for 140 years."

The Iraqis must not make the same mistake of the Lebanese in 1943. The Kurds and the Shi'ites must not alienate the general population to a stage where they would rise against them. The National Pact froze political power and representation at a specific point in history, where it happened that the Maronites were a majority in Lebanon.

Today, the Shi'ite Muslims are a majority in Lebanon, yet the presidency remains with the Maronites. If put up for a popular vote, Hezbollah secretary general Hasan Nasrullah would win more votes than any Maronite politician. The gentleman's agreement in Iraq safely assumes that the Shi'ites will remain a majority in Iraq. This is a fact. Yet the Sunnis and Kurds are likely to change in number within the coming years. The Kurds might drop to being outnumbered by the Sunnis (they are fairly equal today). Would this mean that a Sunni gets to become president of Iraq? Or a Kurd can be elected to become Speaker of parliament? The gentleman's agreement of Iraq must adjust to shifting power balances in the post-Saddam order, to avoid the dangers that the National Pact of Lebanon faced in 1975.

The Kurds are antagonizing everyone in the Iraqi political arena with their bold and ambitious demands, armed with the interim constitution of ex-US administrator L Paul Bremer, known as the Transitional Administration Law, which is rejected in principal by the Grand Ayatollah of the Shi'ites, Ali al-Sistani, because of its secularism.

In addition to disagreeing on who the new speaker of parliament would be, the Iraqi politicians who assembled on March 16 argued on several other crucial points. The main concern of the Kurds is that their autonomy will be threatened if the Shi'ites capture the state in Iraq. One main concern to all parties was the role of Islam in the new constitution, with some favoring a secular state, like the one under the Ba'ath, and others, mainly the clergy, insisting that Islam be made an official religion and the source of jurisdiction.

The Shi'ites and Sunnis are opposed to a Kurdish demand that 25% of oil revenues be allocated to the Kurds, that they be given a veto power in parliament, while arguing with them over the communal identity of the minister of oil. Some want him a Shi'ite, others want him a Kurd. Other debatable portfolios are defense, interior and finance. The Kurds are also demanding to keep their militia, the peshmerga, to defend Iraqi Kurdistan, and requesting that their autonomy be extended to include Kirkuk, a city that is an oilfield. The Kurds, who won 75 of the 275 seats in the assembly, came in second in the January elections, preceded only by the Shi'ites, who won a slim majority of 140 seats.

Giving Kirkuk to the Kurds would alienate everyone: the Sunnis, the Shi'ites and the small Turkmen community in northern Iraq. Allowing the Kurds to keep the peshmerga would also create problems, making it virtually impossible for the new regime to disarm any militia. In Lebanon, for example, when the war ended in 1990, everybody accepted that Hezbollah remain armed because it was not using its weapons against the Lebanese but against the Israeli occupation in south Lebanon. The peshmerga , unlike Hezbollah, is not a resistance movement anymore, now that the Saddam regime is down. It is the protector of the Kurds, inasmuch as the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr or the Badr Brigade of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim are protectors of the Shi'ites. Nothing justifies maintaining the peshmerga and disarming other militias, other than pure favoritism toward the Kurds. This is not democracy, and the Shi'ites and Sunnis will not accept it.

"It's time for the patient Iraqi people to be treated with the dignity that God has given them," were the words of the new Speaker of parliament, Hajim al-Hasani. This is correct, and it can only be done by giving equal representation to all sects and ethnic groups in the new Iraq that is emerging. The only way to achieve this is a Lebanon-style democracy. It is dangerous and destructive to think that one group should rule Iraq in the years to come, or have a highly favored status, either in reward for its support in the US war against Saddam, or in compensation for having suffered under Saddam.

Kurdish demands, if permitted to get out of hand, can have a very negative effect on the democratic culture that is emerging, and wreck the "National Pact" of Iraq. Everybody suffered under Saddam, Sunni, Kurd and Shi'ite, and therefore everybody should be rewarded equally in post-Saddam Iraq.

More or less, that is what is being done today. So far, those to show the highest wisdom have been the Shi'ites, who have repeated their calls for calm, democracy and cooperation with all in the post-Saddam order. They are seconded by the Sunnis, who, after a misguided decision to boycott the January elections, have finally plunged themselves back into the political system, shaking off accusations that they were beneficiaries of Saddam's regime. Last on the list, alas, because of their wild ambitions, are the Kurds

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