Desert Democrats of Mesopotamia

Posted: Apr 06, 2005 12:00 AM

As I write this column Tuesday morning, the well-deserved wall-to-wall coverage of the Pope's death seems to have obscured from view Iraqi news of an impending success in forming an Iraqi national unity government. Here is the agreed-to line-up, as reported by the Washington Times this morning.

 There will be a Sunni Speaker of the National Assembly, a Kurdish president, a Shia prime minister, and Sunni and Shia vice presidents. The Foreign Affairs ministry will go to a Kurd, the Defense Ministry to a Sunni, and Oil, Interior and Finance Ministries to the Shia. "They are still juggling with the names (of the ministers)," said the Dawa Party spokesman. "In the coming week, we will hear more about the names of the strong candidates."

 Various other tricky controversies have been resolved or partially resolved. The Kurdish peshmerga militias, which have been the more or less independent military arm of the Kurdish faction, will be considered part of the Iraqi armed forces, "but will be commanded and deployed by the Kurdish regional government," according to the report in the Times.

 On the all important matter of who gets what oil revenues, the different factions agreed "in principle" that oil revenues will be distributed evenly among all Iraqis "with special attention going to communities that were deprived under Saddam, such as the Kurds, Marsh Arabs and Shiites of southern Iraq." They have not yet agreed on the exact numbers, and one can see rich ground for vigorous debate.

 For instance, while the Kurds have unambiguously been severely discriminated against and had oil resources taken from them (and murdered in vast numbers) by the Hussein regime, economically, they were able to build a thriving economy in the last years of that regime under the protection of the Anglo-American no-fly zone. Doubtlessly the Kurds will base their claims on what has been wrongly taken from them. Others may argue for revenue distribution based on current economic conditions.

 One of the other great disputes seems to have been largely resolved, at least to the extent that they have agreed on the mechanism for resolving it. The Hussein regime had expelled thousands of Kurds from their historic, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The current tentative agreement calls for the repatriation of Kurds expelled from the city and "redrawing the administrative boundaries of the governate to its 1968 borders." That was the year that Saddam annexed pieces of Kirkuk to other, Sunni, governing units.

 After all these human movements are completed, there will be regional referenda to determine whether they wish to be administered by Baghdad or the regional Kurdish authorities.

 These would be very impressive negotiations for a mature democracy. Senators Harry Reid and Bill Frist would be throwing their arms out slapping themselves on the back on television if they could achieve a small fraction of such agreements in the Senate this year.

 While the United States Senate -- the greatest deliberative body in the world, as they call themselves -- is moving toward the "Nuclear Option" in order to confirm some judicial nominations, the Desert Democrats of Mesopotamia are negotiating like 19th century wing-collared, top-hatted and tailed English statesmen. And our politicians don't labor under the burden of 4,000 years of blood feuds, no historical experience with anything other than dictatorship, and the daily bomb and mortar attacks of terrorists, criminals, insurgents and prior regime last-ditchers.

  This must be an invigorating moment to be a cultural anthropologist. Is it possible that the art of negotiation, evolved to the level of an art form in the Middle Eastern bazaars over the centuries, is being adapted to substitute for their lack of parliamentary debate experience, much as the cat's predatory skills, formed before there was man, turned out to be perfectly adaptable to survival in the back allies of human cities?

 However they are managing it, the Iraqi politicians are moving deliberately and shrewdly toward the formation of a viable democratic government -- despite the jeering of the Washington pundits. For almost two years now, I have regularly appeared on television political talk shows with most of the Anti-Bush Brigade of Washington wise guys and gals. While many of them probably had never even heard of Sunnies, Shias and Kurds until the Iraq War, they all professed to be quite certain that these ancient divisions would surely lead Iraq into civil war after Bush's blunder of overturning Saddam.

 Their beating hearts seemed to catch the rhythm of the insurgent's bomb blasts -- their countenances looking increasingly more satisfied as the pace of the bomb blasts and their predictions of civil war came into an unholy unison. Of course, disloyalty, defeatism and demagoguery were the farthest things from their minds. They were just reporting without fear or favor -- or facts. I'm sure they will be delighted at the impending success of the Iraqi people in forming a democratic government -- and how that will reflect well on our president -- and will promptly admit how wrong they have been these last two years.