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Iraq Is About to Look a Lot Like Lebanon

By Ian Bremmer

Lost in the surge in violence that followed last month's attack on the Shiite al-Askariya shrine and the growing U.S. debate over troop withdrawals, an event took place in northern Iraq last fall that has much to tell us about Iraq's future. On November 29, the Norwegian oil company DNO announced it had begun drilling for oil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq under a production-sharing agreement with the Kurdish Regional government signed in June 2004. Sunnis complained noisily. Few others noticed.

Countries like Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and others have reintroduced the term "resource nationalism," the process by which central governments limit the leverage of outsiders in the management of their countries' strategic resources, into the lexicon of international relations. But as Iraq's Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds stake claim to their shares of the country's assets, Iraq is now well on its way to introducing a brand new concept: "resource sectarianism."

The world's largest oil companies remain hesitant to wade into the troubled waters of Iraqi politics. But as smaller companies leap at opportunities to cut side deals with the country's regional powerbrokers, the race to profit from Iraqi oil has now begun. Resource sectarianism in a country with such an uneven regional distribution of wealth-generating oil bodes ill for Iraq's future.

Chapter 4, Section 109 of the new Iraqi constitution asserts that Iraq's "oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people in all the regions and provinces." But what's on paper matters less than the facts on the ground. And then there is another vaguely worded constitutional provision which requires the central government to administer oil and gas extracted from "current or existing fields" in cooperation with the regional governments in which the oil is extracted. The Kurdish Regional Government says this provision means that it has sole jurisdiction with regard to new or unexploited fields on "its" territory. Iraq's Kurds and Shia dominate the oil-rich northern and southern thirds of the country respectively. The oil-poor Sunni of central Iraq, who voted overwhelmingly to reject the current constitution on just such fears, now watch warily as Kurds (and soon the Shia) court foreign companies and sell "their" oil.

Not to worry, say U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and others. The constitution can still be amended in the coming months. In fact, Shiite and Kurdish negotiators won some (marginal) Sunni support for the constitution last fall by promising them they would not have to wait eight years before they had a chance to revise the document. It cost Shia and Kurds little to make such a promise. Sunni won't likely have the political leverage to win a share of Iraq's wealth.

That's why the Sunni may never fully join the political process. They know the system is designed to favor the majority Shia and to protect the autonomy-minded Kurds, and that Sunni participation can only serve to endorse a process that will leave Iraq's erstwhile elite with precious little.

Iraq's constitution may be vaguely worded, but it does tell us something important about the country's political future: Iraq is about to look a lot like Lebanon. That country's sectarian governance ensures that leaders--elected largely along ethnic or sectarian lines--devote most of their time to dividing the country's wealth among competing groups, rather than to pooling resources, wealth, talent, and ideas for the good of the entire citizenry. Much of Lebanese politics amounts to a scramble among competing elites to ensure that no one group acquires the means to dominate the others. That is very much the pattern emerging in post-Saddam Iraq.

The sectarian model will leave Iraq vulnerable in two ways. First, Iraq's sectarian leaders believe they have a kind of political contract with their followers. Each sect's voters know they must turn to their own leaders for basic services, protection, and promotion. The leaders, in turn, believe they can rely on their ready-made constituencies to support them in national elections. But if these leaders take the support for granted and fail to deliver on their promises, their local constituents may turn to other, more radical, representatives to more faithfully and aggressively advance their interests.

Much of Iraq's current violence is driven by Sunni fear of majority-Shiite domination, and it's not difficult to imagine frustrated Sunnis abandoning leaders who are willing to join the political process who return from it empty-handed. For their part, if Shia believe political and economic privileges are being distributed unevenly within their communities or that their leaders cannot protect them from vengeful Sunni, some of them might turn to militia leaders and radical populists like Muqtada al-Sadr. Independence-minded Kurds who are dissatisfied with their leadership's willingness to play by the rules of Iraqi politics may turn toward more rejectionist candidates. The further apart the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish positions become, the more difficult it will be to hold Iraq together.

Second, sectarian politics and wealthy regional governments ensure a weak central government in Baghdad. Sunni and Kurdish resistance to Ibrahim al-Jaafari's continued service as prime minister continues to slow progress toward the formation of that government. When central authority is weak, the state is vulnerable to manipulation--even intervention--from outside. Just as Syria dominated Lebanon's politics for decades, Iran stands ready to exploit a divided Iraq. The centrifugal pull of sectarian politics and the absence of a strong national identity will leave Iraq open to many forms of Iranian interference--political, economic, even military--once U.S. troops have gone home.

There is a key difference between Lebanon and Iraq, one that raises the stakes substantially in Iraqi politics: oil. That's why the drilling in northern Iraq may well prove a turning point. Resource-rich Iraq offers more wealth to fight over and a powerful incentive for sectarian leaders to resist cooperation with one another.

That's particularly bad news for those who hope Iraq will soon offer a model of stable democratic governance in an increasingly troubled region.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His new book, "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall," is out from Simon & Schuster. He can be reached via e-mail at

Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group, the political risk consultancy. He is the author of The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, forthcoming this September from Simon and Schuster.

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