The Battle for Iraq is About Oil and Democracy, Not Religion!

This week, we'll be buried under a crush of analysis about an Iraq that's being ravaged by a religious civil war -- an incomprehensible war between "militants" of various stripes and "the Iraqi people." But Americans will be poorly served by the media's singular focus on Iraq's "sectarian violence." It obscures the fact that sectarian fighting is a symptom -- a street-level manifestation -- of a massive political conflict over what kind of country Iraq will be, who will rule it and who will control its enormous oil wealth.

And it obscures the great irony of the American project: that in that defining conflict over the future of the country, the Bush administration, with the support of Congress, has taken the same side as Iran's hardliners and the same side as the Sunni fundamentalist group called al Qaeda in Iraq. All are working -- separately, but towards the same ends -- against the wishes of a majority of Iraqis, who polls show want a united, sovereign country in control of its own resources and free of meddling by Washington, Tehran and other foreigners.

Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died violent deaths since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many of them as a result of the civil conflicts that have pitted Iraqi against Iraqi. But those conflicts have nothing to do with the differences that distinguish the different branches of Islam -- Iraq isn't struggling with a religious civil war.

Iraqis are fighting over fundamental questions about the future of their country. They're fighting over whether it will have a strong central government or be a weak confederation of semiautonomous states, over how soon and to what degree it will be independent of foreign influence, over who will control its massive energy reserves and under what terms they will be developed -- all of these things are tangible, concrete issues that are crucial in determining Iraq's future.

We refer to this central political conflict as one between Iraqi separatists and nationalists. Loosely speaking, separatists favor a "soft partition" of Iraq into at least three zones with strong regional governments, similar to the semiautonomous Kurdish "state" in Northern Iraq; they are at least willing to tolerate foreign influence -- meaning Iranian, U.S. or other powers' influence, depending on which group one is discussing -- for the foreseeable future; they favor privatizing Iraq's massive energy reserves and ceding substantial control of the country's oil sector to regional authorities.

Nationalists are just the opposite: They reject any foreign interference in Iraq's affairs, they favor a strong technocratic central government in Baghdad that's not based on sectarian voting blocs and they oppose privatizing Iraq's oil and natural gas reserves on the extraordinarily generous terms (to the oil companies) proposed by the U.S. government and institutions like the IMF. They favor centralized control over the development of Iraq's oil and gas reserves.

That's not to say that ethic and sectarian violence isn't real, or isn't a significant problem in Iraq. The point is that violence based on religious or ethnic identity -- Shiite or Sunni or Christian, Arab or Turkman or Kurd -- is an extension of these fundamental disputes over what the future of Iraq will hold.

Sectarian and political tensions overlap in a fluid, shifting dynamic. The Iraqi parliament began as an institution of largely sectarian coalitions, but over the past two years, as the occupation has continued to grind on, sectarian-based politics have become overshadowed by divisions between nationalists and separatists. The result of the media's singular focus on sectarian conflict is that most Americans are unable to grasp the changing terrain of Iraq's political landscape with anything approaching a sense of the context in which events occur.

Consider a recent development of some significance. At the end of August, five Iraqi parties -- representing Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds -- signed a "unity accord" or a "five-party manifesto" that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed was a sign of new movement towards national reconciliation. The White House said it was "an important symbol of unity in Iraq," and congratulated "Iraq's leaders on the important agreement." A spokesman for the Iranian government called it "productive and positive." The truth, however, was that it was an agreement among parties that had long agreed -- among five Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish separatist parties that had been loosely allied since at least 2000, when all belonged to the London-based Iraqi exile group called the "Independent Iraqi Democrats." All five parties were strategic allies in the 2002 "London Conference," preparing and justifying a U.S.-led invasion. The five parties have long supported al-Maliki's regime. In fact, they are al-Maliki's regime, but the commercial media never took note of that fact.

Similarly, most Americans remain largely unaware of the political tensions that have created an almost irreconcilable impasse within the Iraqi government. The U.S.-backed al-Maliki "government" -- the Iraqi cabinet -- is dominated by separatists, including Shiites like Abdul Aziz Al-Hakeem, leader of the pro-Iranian group SIIC (formerly SCIRI), and al-Maliki himself, representing the al-Dawa Party; Sunnis like Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi of the Islamic Party, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish autonomous government, representing the the Kurdistan Democratic Party. (Yes, these are exactly the same five parties that met last month and repackaged their old alliance as a new political victory.)

At the same time, Shiite (al-Sadr Movement, al-Fadhila Party), Sunni (the National Dialogue Council and the People of Iraq's Council) and secular (the National Dialogue Front and the Iraqi National list) nationalist groups -- along with a few Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi representatives -- have a slight working majority in the Iraqi Council of Representatives. The division between Iraq's governing coalition and a majority of its legislators explains why so many resolutions are accepted by the cabinet in one day, but spend months without being acknowledged by the parliament and vice-versa.

Also obscured by the media's focus on sectarian conflict is the massive divide between U.S. interests and the desires of most Iraqis on the most important issues facing the nascent state. Reached in Finland last week, Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the secular National Dialogue Front, said, "What we're facing in Iraq is a political war in which the U.S. is taking one side."

The clearest but not sole example of that is the controversial oil laws that the Iraqi government has struggled with for over a year. While the White House puts relentless pressure on Iraqi lawmakers to pass a law that throws Iraq's energy sector open to foreign investors, a recent poll found that almost two out of three Iraqis would "prefer Iraq's oil to be developed and produced by Iraqi public sector companies rather than foreign companies."

Reached by phone this week in Amman, Jordan, Khalaf al-Ulayyan, head of the National Dialogue Council, one of the key Sunni groups that pulled out of al-Maliki's cabinet last month, described a conflict that was anything but religious. "My party is one among many different Iraqi groups -- Sunnis, Shias and seculars -- who are working together inside the parliament to block the law," Ulayyan said. "This oil and gas law is a major threat to Iraq's future."

His comments were almost indistinguishable from those of Shiite nationalist Nadim al-Jaberi, the head of the al Fadhila Party, who told us by phone from Baghdad that his party favors a public referendum "regarding the oil law to prove that the majority of the Iraqi people are against this law." He added, "The U.S. is putting maximum pressure to pass the law."

On the issue of federalism, key lawmakers from both parties in Washington, along with a host of foreign-policy think tanks and media pundits, have called for partitioning Iraq into three semiautonomous regions in a loose federation. Iraqi separatists are happy with that for the obvious reasons: The strongest pro-Iranian groups want to have their Shiastan just as most of the Kurdish leadership want to keep their Kurdistan. The Islamic Party, the lone Sunni group in the bunch, is a staunch supporter of the occupation, opposes any talk of a U.S. withdrawal and supports Kurdish and Shiite separatists' aspirations.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is thrilled with the idea as well. The fundamentalist group, which had no presence in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, announced that it planned to build an exclusively Sunni "Islamic State" in the middle of Iraq; a "Sunnistan." And while the United States is claiming that its military operations in Anbar province have cut down on the violence there, the truth is that Sunni chieftains and other nationalists in Anbar only turned on the militants after they called for the creation of a separate Islamic state. That was months before the additional U.S. troops were on the ground.

Here, too, the separatist position backed by the United States is unpopular among Iraqis; a poll conducted last September found that majorities of all of Iraq's major ethnic and sectarian groups favor a strong central government in Baghdad (although even the most hard-core Iraqi nationalists understand the importance of the unique status of the Kurdish autonomous areas and don't object to the current system).

Of course, the most important issue facing Iraq is when and if Iraqi sovereignty will be restored. According to the poll cited above, "seven in ten Iraqis want U.S.-led forces to commit to withdraw within a year. An overwhelming majority believes that the United States military presence in Iraq is provoking more conflict than it is preventing." That view is shared by a (slim) majority of Iraqi lawmakers -- remember, nationalists have the upper hand in parliament -- but rejected by the al-Maliki government.

The contours of these very real and very important conflicts are vital to understanding where the American project in Iraq is and where it's heading. But Americans aren't being given the whole picture. Consider how a few recent stories out of Iraq look in the context of a political rather than religious civil war:

The Petraeus report's "progress"

Although many are already skeptical of general Petraeus' widely anticipated testimony about the supposedly improving security situation in Iraq, understanding the full range of conflict that afflicts Iraq makes the White House's claim that its troop "surge" has reduced violence even more dubious. As Paul Krugman noted last week, only sectarian killings count in the Pentagon's books:

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

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On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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