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Iraq needs decentralized government

Mark Poyar | Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Even Ray Charles could probably see that the violence in Iraq has reached epic proportions. Barely a day goes by without multiple reports of bombings in crowded places, rocket attacks on mosques, abductions and disappearances of Iraqi civilians and general mayhem. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths due to violence since 2003 range anywhere from 50,000 to the hundreds of thousands. According to a poll conducted by the Opinion Research Business in 2007, one out of four Iraqis has had a family member murdered. In Baghdad where the U.S. presence is the most concentrated, one in four said they had a family member kidnapped and one in three said a family member has fled abroad. Iraq is hardly peaceful.

While people can and should argue about the wisdom and justification of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the fact remains that the U.S. is there and Iraq is truly a war-torn country. This is a fact and no amount of complaining that the U.S. should not be in Iraq in the first place will change it. Consequently, the U.S. should be asking what it can do to help decrease the bloodshed. Particularly, it should focus on what type of government for Iraq is most likely to stem the violence. To do so, we must first look at what motivates the violence in the first place.

Iraq is a large and diverse country. As of 2006, Iraq had a population of nearly 27 million people. Ethnically, Arabs make up about 75 percent of the population, Kurds make up about 15 percent and Assyrians, Iraqi Turkmen and others make up the remaining five percent. Nearly all of Iraq (97 percent) is Muslim. Of those, just over 60 percent are Shi’ite and fewer than 40 percent are Sunni. These religious denominations are also associated with different ethnicities which make the matter even more complicated. Shi’ites are comprised mostly of Arabs, Turkmen and Faili Kurds, while Sunnis are also composed of Arabs, Turkmen, and Shafi school Kurds.

From an American perspective, what is particularly confusing is that much of the violence in Iraq isn’t a result of conflicts between American troops and those opposed to their presence; most of the violence is due to infighting between different Iraqi factions, whether religious or ethnic. It seems odd at first that citizens of the same country who have lived alongside each other for so many years would start to attack each other, but a few quick facts about the relations between the groups explains much of it.

Saddam Hussein and his ruling Baath Party heavily favored the Sunnis at the expense of the Shi’ites and Kurds, even though the Sunnis made up at most 40 percent of the population. He gave Sunnis high positions in his government and kept the Sunni minority firmly in power, especially economically. Consequently, many Sunnis hailed Hussein as their leader and those not in power (the Shi’ite and Kurds) resented those in power (the Sunnis). In addition, Hussein had a well-publicized tendency to “crack down” on Shi’ite and Kurdish dissidents. In 1988, for example, Saddam began a campaign to exterminate the Kurdish people living in Northern Iraq, killing between 50,000 and 100,000. Just after the Gulf War, he killed between 60,000 and 130,000 rebellious Shi’ites. Incidents such as these caused tension between the factions in Iraq and are now overflowing in the form of violence between different sects. In particular, the formerly-oppressed Shi’ites blame the Sunnis for decades of oppression. They are fighting for control of the newly created government.

As Charles Rice pointed out last week (“Assyrian suffering overlooked in Iraq,” Sept. 26), the U.S. government is trying to force all the factions under the same powerful central democratic government rather than allow the separate groups to govern themselves. The problem is that in a democracy where the central government is powerful, the majority frequently tramples on the rights of the minority. As Rice showed, those now in power are abusing the Assyrians because the Assyrians don’t have the numbers to do anything about it. Giving the majority (the Shi’ites) the power through the central government over the rest of the population, (i.e. the Sunnis) when the Shi’ites want revenge for their oppression at the hands of the Sunnis, is a recipe for disaster. Such a policy will only lead to further violence and conflict between groups.

The solution is to create a republic like the one that the Constitution created: a federalist system of government. Nearly all of the power remained at the state level, rather than the federal level. The federal government’s powers were limited and defined. Consequently, the states were able to govern themselves largely without interference. Power resided at the local level – Americans not living in Virginia held virtually no power over those living in Virginia. In Iraq, because most local populations are of the same ethnicity or religion, each community would be mostly free to govern itself without interference from the majority via the central government. Sunnis would govern Sunnis at the local level, Shi’ites would govern Shi’ites, Kurds would govern Kurds. Shi’ites would have very little power over Sunnis. If each faction has little power over the other factions, there is little incentive to continue the fighting. A federalist system worked for the US and can work for Iraq.

Mark Poyar is a junior finance major and vice president of the College Libertarians. Their Web site is http://ndlibertarians.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at mpoyar@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.