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Old Elites Fighting Old Wars in Old Ways in Iraq | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Iraqi demonstrator flies an old Iraqi flag used between 1991-2004 as others shout slogans during a demonstration on January 18, 2013, in Iraq’s northern province of Kirkuk, criticising Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and demanding the release of prisoners they say are wrongfully held. (AFP PHOTO / MARWAN IBRAHIM)

In an address at the University of Basra last week, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki warned against “the threat of sectarianism.” Events in the past weeks give some credence to the warning. We have witnessed mass demonstrations in such Sunni-majority provinces as Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin. Even relatively quiet places such as Diyala and Kirkuk have indicated that the sectarian pot may be on the boil.

Since this is not the first time that Maliki warns of sectarianism one might wonder what role his government has played in creating this threat. Another important question is: How does Maliki propose to halt the drift towards sectarian conflict?

Maliki’s decision to dramatize the situation may be motivated by electoral calculations. In April Iraqis go to the polls in local elections with opinion surveys indicating great difficulties for the coalition led by Maliki. Because local governments have a good chunk of power under Iraq’s democratic constitution their control is important in shaping the national political landscape. Maliki may well want to mobilize his Shi’ite base ahead of local polls by harping on sectarian fears.

Doing so, however, might diminish his stature. Instead of acting as a leader for all Iraqis he would be recast as a sectarian chief. And that could transform the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2014, into a sectarian contest with incalculable consequences.

Maliki’s warning could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and doomsday scenarios predicting “the end of Iraq” are already on the market.

In recent weeks, the Kurds have reawakened secessionist dreams by talking of “a future in independence.”

Some observers see the visit to Moscow by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, and the warming up of his relations with Turkey, as signs that the Erbil leadership may be seeking international support for a breakaway referendum.

Ardent sectarian Shi’ites would not be too unhappy to see Kurds secede. That would cut Iraq’s Sunni minority population by almost half, leaving Shi’ites in an even stronger position.

Conservative Arab Sunni circles, including some tribes, might also welcome a Kurd-free Iraq. This is because, politically, Kurds have always represented a good chunk of progressive forces in Iraq. The remnants of the Ba’ath and kindred Sunni revanchistes would welcome such an outcome and try to use it as a pretext for claiming a mini-state of their own. Doomsayers claim that, if a chunk of Iraq goes, we would witness the end of Iraq as a unified nation-state.

Does this sectarian ballet reflect the deeper political realities of post-dictatorship Iraq? Or is it the product of choreography worked out by old sectarian leaders who have lost touch with reality?

My guess is that the old ruling elites of Iraq’s various communities are still fighting the old battles in the old ways.

Maliki is the product of the Dawa party, a Shia party that had to be sectarian to survive, living and partly living, under dictatorship.

What about Barzani and Jalal Talabani? They could not have led the Kurds without emphasizing Kurdish-ness in opposition to the Ba’athist ideology of pan-Arab supremacy.

As for most Sunni Arab leaders, it is not easy to shake off the myth that depicted Shi’ites and Kurds as “fifth-columns” seeking to sabotage Iraq from within.

The challenge for Maliki and other Iraqi political leaders is to transcend their respective sectarian pasts and discover, or re-discover, a new multi-ethnic, multi-faith Iraq governed by pluralism.

Those who fail the challenge would be scripted out by reality.

Because of his position as prime minister, Maliki has a crucial role to play. Rather than playing the sectarian card he should rise above petty politics to propose a national program to all Iraqis. Since sectarianism is partly fomented by outside powers, Maliki should re-balance Iraq’s foreign policy by toning down closeness with Iran, without provoking its hostility, while improving relations with Arab states worried about the so-called “Shi’ite Crescent”.

The idea of a mini-Shi’ite state in nine of Iraq’s provinces would produce an Iranian satellite, a modern version of the Nu’manite kingdom of the Sassanid times. That would deprive Iraqi Shi’ites of effective control over their destiny.

The Kurdish leaders would do well to realize that their people are more concerned about a credible project for economic and cultural development with social justice rather than a scenario for secession. The sectarian card might have been effective when Kurds were oppressed by despots in Baghdad. Today, the central government is present in its absence.

A small independent Kurdistan, landlocked in a chunk of Iraq, would not be able to maintain the relatively high living standards the Kurds have achieved over the past three decades.

As for Arab Sunnis, a return to tribal leadership means an historic leap backwards. The current Arab Sunni leadership has failed to secure a reasonable share of power in the context of a federal Iraq. More than other communities, Iraq’s Arab Sunni community needs new voices and a new leadership. Such a leadership could find relevance in shaping the future only if it offers a project for Iraq as a whole. After all, it was the Arab Sunni community that led the creation of Iraq as a nation-state after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

A mini-Arab Sunni state in four provinces could become an irrelevance or get annexed by Jordan or Syria provided it survives as a unified state.

Iraq’s Arab Sunni community has genuine grievances and these must be addressed. The fact that the Ba’ath victimized other communities more than the Arab Sunnis does not justify oppressing them today.

Today, Iraq’s various communities including Turkmen, Christians and Feylis. Their real difference notwithstanding, they resemble streams that must flow into the same river in order to survive. If they flow away they risk disappearing in neighboring sands.

A potent symbol in the coming elections could be a broom that promises to sweep away old sectarians.

For the first time since its creation Iraq is in control of its destiny. This is a precious chance that only madmen would want to miss.