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Iraq's unlikely power broker

Author: Michael Moran
October 16, 2005


In politics, there are some voices you just don’t need to invite to the table—people or organizations with opinions so predictable that their presence is more likely to hinder progress than to help. For decades, the Arab League has been one of those players, an echo chamber for authoritarian Arab governments that could be counted on to detect the nefarious hand of “the Zionist entity” behind virtually any development in the Middle East.

The historical baggage carried by the Arab League—ejecting Egypt when it made peace with Israel in 1979, for instance—helps explain why the decision of the group’s secretary general, Amr Moussa, to go to Baghdad to organize a conference on Iraqi national reconciliation has barely registered in the news media. But Moussa’s trip is an important development, noticed or not.

Iraq’s Arab brethren, whose loud protestations of concern for the fate of the Iraqi people filled the airwaves before the U.S.-led invasion, have been conspicuously silent since Saddam fell. True, some members—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf emirates—were glad to see Saddam go. Ever concerned for their own necks, however, the Sunni cliques who rule most of the Arab world dared not seriously engage on the topic of the insurgency, which is widely regarded by the Arab masses as a legitimate fight against a brutal foreign invader.

For the Arab League to wade into the fray at this point is significant for several reasons. It suggests that the wider Arab world is beginning to worry about the effects of a Shi’a-controlled Iraq as a proxy for Iran’s interests. Iraq’s Arab neighbors also know all too well that a major faction within the violent insurgency raging there is al Qaeda, an organization as happy to shed the blood of apostate Arab dictators as Westerners and Jews.

Perhaps most encouraging, though, it appears that the Arab League and its members are beginning to believe they will have to come to terms with some version of democracy in their midst.

“This really reinforces what the U.S. is already trying to do,” says Ken Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service. “Obviously, these states are mostly led by Sunnis, and there is a major concern among them that Sunnis in Iraq have been marginalized.”

Given the Sunni bent of the Arab League, one might reasonably ask, why would anyone outside Iraq’s already embattled Sunni minority sign on to a national reconciliation conference organized by Arab League? Yesterday’s vote on Iraq’s draft constitution was, after all, supposed to be the formalization of just such a compact—an agreement in principle about sharing power and resources among the country’s Shi’a, Sunnis, Kurds and other factions. So what could Moussa bring to the table?

For the Kurds, who are enjoying influence in Baghdad undreamed of before Saddam’s fall, there is no great desire to see Iran rule Iraq by proxy—an attitude that Moussa may be able to exploit.

Moussa may also seek to bridge the gap between the Shi’a majority currently holding the balance of power and those Sunnis who, to date, have refused to have anything to do with them. As Katzman notes, there is some fear among the newly empowered Shi’a that the negotiations over the constitution may, in the end, turn out to be a debate about which form of government will be toppled by the insurgents when the Americans leave.

“There’s a view in some places that the insurgency is having some success, and maybe now the Arab League feels it will have a bit of leverage on the Kurds and Shiites,” Katzman says.

The insurgents themselves extended some “street cred” to Moussa’s project last week when they attacked a convoy carrying his advance team in Baghdad. The attack killed three police officers escorting the convoy, and Moussa vowed not to let it prevent him from pursuing the initiative.

Then there is Moussa himself, who is no run-of-the-mill Arab bureaucrat. A former Egyptian foreign minister described by Time magazine as “the most adored public servant in the Arab world,” Moussa has breathed new life—or perhaps just some life—into the inert league. Viewed as something of a rival by his old boss, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, Moussa has refused to go softly into the Cairo nightlife. The league’s decision to endorse a 2002 Saudi peace plan that would recognize Israel’s right to exist may not have seemed like a great leap forward, but it broke new ground in the Middle East.

Some definitions might be useful at this point. The Arab League should not be confused with the Islamic Conference, a far larger organization whose membership extends far beyond the Arab world to include such nations as Indonesia, India and Iran. Nor does it represent “the Muslim world.” The Arab League is confined to those states run (though not exclusively populated) by Arabs, geographically taking in the region from Morocco to Iraq’s border with non-Arab Iran.

Among Arab League members, Iraq is by far the least ethnically homogeneous. About 80 percent of Iraq is Arab, with the remaining 20 percent made up mostly of Kurds, plus other minority groups. But Shi’a Muslims greatly outnumber Sunnis in Iraq, and many Shi’a are suspicious whenever the rest of the Arab world claims to care about their fate. In essence, Katzman says, the Shi’a tend to view Moussa as the leader of the “Sunni League.”

Since taking his post in 2001, Moussa has refused to be pigeonholed into the “rejectionist” role his predecessors embraced. On Iraq, he has repeatedly countered the Arab argument that the American presence is to blame for everything. Answering a question from an Arab television reporter about the insurgency earlier this year, he noted that “there is another cause for the violence, namely, the manipulation of sectarian and religious tendencies.”

This has not endeared Moussa to Arab League member governments, and for them and others, the idea that the league can step into Iraq and address this second “cause for the violence” is hard to imagine. But the effort itself is seen in Washington as an important first step toward creating the ultimate fact on the ground: a recognized, self-sufficient Iraqi democracy.

“It’s a positive development where the Arab League has decided that they are going to send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad and to show their support for the Iraqi people,” State Department spokesman Scott McCormack said. “We would certainly encourage the Arab League as well as its member states to think about other steps that they might take to support the Iraqi people.”

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