Many are wondering what a post-Nouri al-Maliki government will be like, but one thing that will stay the same are the ethnosectarian quotas. Many believe that the Americans created this system during the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). While the U.S. did institutionalize the concept, it actually came from the Iraqi opposition groups that were formed during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Starting in the 1990s a series of meetings were held in an attempt to unify the multiplicity of anti-Saddam organizations. Quotas were originally created to try to give proper representation to each one of the factions. Those quickly moved to be based upon sect and ethnicity, which was then taken up by the Americans in their attempt to build a new Iraq. Today these quotas continue to exist and are a major structural impediment to a healthy and functional government, because they create a divided administration that works at cross purposes with itself.
Left to right Jalal Talabani of the PUK, Zalmay Khalilzad of the U.S., Massoud Barzani of the KDP, Ezzidin Salim of Dawa and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of ISCI at 1992 Salahaddin conference where ethnosectarian quotas were solidified amongst the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein (Al-Ahram)
A series of meetings in the 1990s gave rise to quotas to incorporate the plethora of parties interested in removing Saddam Hussein from power. The first took place in March 1991 in Beirut, Lebanon, which was in part organized by Syria and Saudi Arabia, two of the major financiers of the Iraqi opposition. Over 300 delegates attended from 20 different parties. The result was the Free Iraqi Council headed by Saad Salih Jabr. Nothing much came of it however because the groups disagreed about who should have more influence, what percentage each party should have within the council, and voting rights. This reflected the fact that there were far too many organizations, many of which were personal vehicles for individuals with large egos. In June 1992 there was another conference in Vienna, Austria, which led to the creation of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) as an umbrella group. 160 delegates attended with the absence of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Dawa Party only sent observers. What was important about the meeting was that after the disagreements in Beirut, a quota system was initiated to try to give each major group some type of say. Islamist parties were given 35.3% of the representatives, democrats, liberals and independents 35.3%, Kurds 23.5%, and Turkmen 5.8%. During the meeting a 17 member executive committee was then put together that included Muhsen Dazai and Hoshyar Zebari of the KDP, Latif Rasheed and Saadi Ahmed Pit of the PUK, Akram al-Hakim of the Supreme Council, Ahmad Chalabi, and others. The INC quickly fell to divisive politics, leading Massoud Barzani to call for another get together in October 1992 known as the Salahaddin conference. Again quotas were set up for representatives with Shiite Islamists getting 33%, Kurds 25%, Arab nationalists 16%, Iraqi tribes, democrats and liberals 4% each, Assyrians and Christians and Communists 3% each, and Sunni Islamists 2%. 234 figures ended up attending representing roughly 90% of the anti-Saddam forces, and a plan was made to reform the Iraqi National Congress. First its National Assembly was expanded from 87 to 234, a 26 member executive council was formed, and a 3 man presidential council was made up as well. The latter two each had quotas. The presidential council was split between a Sunni a Shiite and a Kurd consisting of former general Hassan Mustafa Naqib, Mohammed Ibrahim Bahr Uloom, and Massoud Barzani, while on the executive committee a secular Shiite, Ahmed Chalabi was elected president, along with Hani Fakaiki a Sunni, Latif Rasheed a Kurd from the PUK, and Sheikh Human Hammoudi a Shiite Islamist of ISCI who were the vice presidents. Syria was not happy with the results of the meeting, and called its own in October 1992. Again a three man presidential council was formed made up of a Sunni, a Shiite, and a Kurd. Finally, in February 1993 another meeting of the INC was held in Irbil where a new consultative committee was created to represent the major groups. It originally had 10 people, but that was later expanded to 26. Once more quotas were implemented with Shiite Islamists getting 33% of the seats, Kurds 25%, Sunnis 7%, Turkmen 6%, Assyrians 3%, and the rest going to secular and liberal parties. What was originally created as a means to incorporate all the different anti-Saddam groups whether that was the religious parties or liberal ones or the communists or Kurds eventually became more and more based upon ethnosectarian categories. Hence in June 1992 only 29.3% of the representatives to Vienna were explicitly based upon ethnicity. That turned into 77% of the members of the Salahaddin conference in October, and 100% of the INC’s presidential council that was created there. The eclipse of the secular, democratic, etc. parties was due to two factors. First, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship had shut out and destroyed most of the Iraqi parties that had developed since the British Mandate and post-independence period. The Iraqi Communist Party for example went from one of the largest in the country to being hunted down by the Baathists in 1963 and 1968, and then being undone by an alliance with that very same party in 1973. With these traditional organizations being repressed more and more people began turning to ones based upon religion and ethnicity as two of the only avenues available within the country. This was spurred on by regional events and actors as well such as the Shah of Iran’s support for the Kurdish parties to pressure Saddam, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War that gave rise to ISCI, Syria’s backing of factions within Dawa, and the growth of Islamism in general in the 1990s. By the time the 2000s rolled around those ethnosectarian parties were some of the main ones talking and working with the Americans.
When the Coalition Provisional Authority was created in April 2003 it believed in the necessity of creating ethnosectarian quotas as well to try to ensure all the various groups were represented just like the earlier opposition meetings had, as well as to ensure that the Shiite majority would finally have its fair share in the new Iraq. It set up the 25 member Iraqi Governing Council with 13 seats for Shiites, 5 for Kurds, 5 for Sunnis, and one each for Assyrians, Turkmen, and women. These positions were all filled by individuals who had taken part in the anti-Saddam movement such as Mohammed Uloom who had been on the INC’s presidential council, Ahmed Chalabi the head of the INC, Jalal Talabani the head of the PUK, Massoud Barzani the leader of the KDP, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim from ISCI, and others. More than that these council members were then given control of ministries, which allowed them to pack them with their followers and become the basis for their patronage networks. This had the effect of institutionalizing the ethnosectarian system the Saddam opposition had already created on its own during the 1990s. Now it became expected that the top government positions would be handed amongst the major sects and ethnicities, and so would the government offices. This was a major cause for dysfunction as it created a government made of many parts that worked at cross purposes rather than committed to the prime minister. Hence there have been both opponents and supporters of the premier within each ruling coalition since 2005. It also meant government positions were distributed based upon party loyalty rather than competence. This trend continues to today. In July 2014 a new speaker of parliament and his deputies were elected. That followed the precedent set in 2005 when the first post-Saddam government was formed with the speakership going to a Sunni, Salim Jabouri of Mutahidun, while his deputies, Haidar Abadi of State of Law and Aram Sheikh Mohammed of Change were a Shiite and Kurd respectively. With the subsequent nomination of Abadi for premier he will have to put together a ruling coalition where the ministries will be split along ethnosectarian lines. It wasn’t the Americans who created these divisions, they just built upon what the anti-Saddam groups had been doing in the previous decade, and made it a practice that every Iraqi government would followed afterward.
Ethnosectarianism has become a dominant factor in Iraqi politics. It represents one of the main structural problems the Iraqi state faces, which constrains the development of democracy, and perpetuates divisiveness. It wasn’t just the Americans fault that the CPA came along and broke up offices and ministries in this way. It was the Iraqi opposition that originally came up with these quotas. The U.S. simply accepted this concept in 2003 and then used it itself. This system persists to this day and has become more entrenched. That doesn’t meant ethnicity and sect will always dominate Iraq as there have been times in Iraqi history where ideology was the driving force. It’s just that the major parties are now organized around identity politics. It will require them or a new political class to move away from these ideas for Iraq to change. Until then it will suffer through one dysfunctional government after another.
Al-Ahram, “Untying the knot,” 2/19/03
European Institute for Research On Mediterranean and Euro-Arab Cooperation, “Iraqi National Congress – INC”
Gunter, Michael, The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis, (St. Martin’s Press, 1999)
Katzman, Kenneth, “Iraq: U.S. Efforts to Change the Regime,” Congressional Research Service, 10/3/02
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Rabil, Robert, “Iraqi opposition: From conflict to unity?” Asia Times, 1/18/03
Al-Shamrani, Ali, “The Iraqi Opposition Movement: The Post-Gulf War Era 1990-1996,” Department of War Studies, King’s College, 2001
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Tyler, Patrick, “Iraq pieces together its first postwar governing council,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/13/03