More than half of the members of Iraq's parliament rejected for the first time on Tuesday the continuing occupation of their country. The U.S. media ignored the story.
On Tuesday, without note in the U.S. media, more than half of the members of Iraq's parliament rejected the continuing occupation of their country. 144 lawmakers signed onto a legislative petition calling on the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal, according to Nassar Al-Rubaie, a spokesman for the Al Sadr movement, the nationalist Shia group that sponsored the petition.
It's a hugely significant development. Lawmakers demanding an end to the occupation now have the upper hand in the Iraqi legislature for the first time; previous attempts at a similar resolution fell just short of the 138 votes needed to pass (there are 275 members of the Iraqi parliament, but many have fled the country's civil conflict, and at times it's been difficult to arrive at a quorum).
Reached by phone in Baghdad on Tuesday, Al-Rubaie said that he would present the petition, which is nonbinding, to the speaker of the Iraqi parliament and demand that a binding measure be put to a vote. Under Iraqi law, the speaker must present a resolution that's called for by a majority of lawmakers, but there are significant loopholes and what will happen next is unclear.
What is clear is that while the U.S. Congress dickers over timelines and benchmarks, Baghdad faces a major political showdown of its own. The major schism in Iraqi politics is not between Sunni and Shia or supporters of the Iraqi government and "anti-government forces," nor is it a clash of "moderates" against "radicals"; the defining battle for Iraq at the political level today is between nationalists trying to hold the Iraqi state together and separatists backed, so far, by the United States and Britain.
The continuing occupation of Iraq and the allocation of Iraq's resources -- especially its massive oil and natural gas deposits -- are the defining issues that now separate an increasingly restless bloc of nationalists in the Iraqi parliament from the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government is dominated by Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish separatists.
By "separatists," we mean groups who oppose a unified Iraq with a strong central government; key figures like Maliki of the Dawa party, Shia leader Abdul Aziz Al-Hakeem of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq ("SCIRI"), Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi of the Sunni Islamic Party, President Jalal Talabani -- a Kurd -- and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, favor partitioning Iraq into three autonomous regions with strong local governments and a weak central administration in Baghdad. (The partition plan is also favored by several congressional Democrats, notably Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.)
Iraq's separatists also oppose setting a timetable for ending the U.S. occupation, preferring the addition of more American troops to secure their regime. They favor privatizing Iraq's oil and gas and decentralizing petroleum operations and revenue distribution.
But public opinion is squarely with Iraq's nationalists. According to a poll by the University of Maryland's Project on International Public Policy Attitudes, majorities of all three of Iraq's major ethno-sectarian groups support a unified Iraq with a strong central government. For at least two years, poll after poll has shown that large majorities of Iraqis of all ethnicities and sects want the United States to set a timeline for withdrawal, even though (in the case of Baghdad residents), they expect the security situation to deteriorate in the short term as a result.
That's nationalism, and it remains the central if unreported motivation for many Iraqis, both within the nascent government and on the streets.
While sectarian fighting at the neighborhood and community level has made life unlivable for millions of Iraqis, Iraqi nationalism -- portrayed as a fiction by supporters of the invasion -- supercedes sectarian loyalties at the political level. A group of secular, Sunni and Shia nationalists have long voted together on key issues, but so far have failed to join forces under a single banner.
That may be changing. Reached by phone last week, nationalist leader Saleh Al-Mutlaq, of the National Dialogue Front, said, "We're doing our best to form this united front and announce it within the next few weeks." The faction would have sufficient votes to block any measure proposed by the Maliki government. Asked about the Americans' reaction to the growing power of the nationalists, Mutlaq said, "We're trying our best to reach out to the U.S. side, but to no avail."
That appears to be a trend. Iraqi nationalists have attempted again and again to forge relationships with members of Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House but have found little interest in dialogue and no support. Instead, key nationalists like al-Sadr have been branded as "extremists," "thugs" and "criminals."
That's a tragic missed opportunity; the nationalists are likely Iraq's best hope for real and lasting reconciliation among the country's warring factions. They are the only significant political force focused on rebuilding a sovereign, united and independent Iraq without sectarian and ethnic tensions or foreign meddling -- from either the West or Iran. Hassan Al-Shammari, the head of Al-Fadhila bloc in the Iraqi parliament, said this week, "We have a peace plan, and we're trying to work with other nationalist Iraqis to end the U.S. and Iranian interventions, but we're under daily attacks and there's huge pressure to destroy our peace mission."
A sovereign and unified Iraq, free of sectarian violence, is what George Bush and Tony Blair claim they want most. The most likely reason that the United States and Britain have rebuffed those Iraqi nationalists who share those goals is that the nationalists oppose permanent basing rights and the privatization of Iraq's oil sector. The administration, along with their allies in Big Oil, has pressed the Iraqi government to adopt an oil law that would give foreign multinationals a much higher rate of return than they enjoy in other major oil producing countries and would lock in their control over what George Bush called Iraq's "patrimony" for decades.
Al-Shammari said this week: "We're afraid the U.S. will make us pass this new oil law through intimidation and threatening. We don't want it to pass, and we know it'll make things worse, but we're afraid to rise up and block it, because we don't want to be bombed and arrested the next day." In the Basrah province, where his Al-Fadhila party dominates the local government, Al-Shammari's fellow nationalists have been attacked repeatedly by separatists for weeks, while British troops in the area remained in their barracks.
The nationalists in parliament will now press their demands for withdrawal. At the same time, the emerging nationalist bloc is holding hearings in which officials from the defense and interior ministries have been grilled about just what impediments to building a functional security force remain and when the Iraqi police and military will be able to take over from foreign troops. Both ministries are believed to be heavily infiltrated by both nationalist (al-Sadr's Mahdi Army) and separatist militias (the pro-Iranian Badr Brigade).
The coming weeks and months will be crucial to Iraq's future. The United States, in pushing for more aggressive moves against Iraqi nationalists and the passage of a final oil law, is playing a dangerous game. Iraqi nationalists reached in Baghdad this week say they are beginning to lose hope of achieving anything through the political process because both the Iraqi government and the occupation authorities are systematically bypassing the Iraqi parliament where they're in the majority. If they end up quitting the political process entirely, that will leave little choice but to oppose the occupation by violent means.