Today, the situation in Iraq is reminiscent of the events that led to a virtual civil war in 2006—at least in the opinion of former US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who published an article in the Washington Post a few days ago. Regardless of the extent to which America is responsible for the events in Iraq and their outcome, many agree with this view, and believe that that Iraq is already on the edge of an abyss. Should it fall in, Iraq could possibly find itself facing worse conditions than ever before. This is especially true in light of growing sectarian and regional complexities, such as attempts by elements within Al-Qaeda to extend their foothold between Syria and Iraq, harming the situation in both countries.
The latest provincial elections were accompanied by clashes and bombings, revealing—and perhaps deepening—the current crisis in Iraq. Electoral participation, which did not exceed 50% and went as low as 33% in Baghdad, reflected the tense political situation. The government is divided, and the criticism being directed at Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki by his opponents and former allies regarding his unilateral decision-making gives the impression that he wants to establish a new dictatorship and that his policies will further entrench sectarian divides. The decision to postpone elections in the two largest Sunni provinces, Anbar and Nineveh, merely serves to amplify sectarian issues. Indeed, this led some to accuse the prime minister of intentionally provoking extremism by continuously ignoring the demands of protesters and demonstrators, and resorting to the use of excessive force against protesters at Fallujah and later Hawijah. These responses left dozens of protesters dead, including children, as reported by international organizations. Similarly, a number of military personnel were killed.
Maliki claims that he has been patient with the protests and sit-ins, and that if these protesters had been in another Arab country, they would have been subject to aerial bombardment. This is strange and inaccurate rhetoric, considering his use of violence against demonstrators and his suppression of protests against him since the demonstrations in Baghdad over two years, stretching until the Hawijah sit-in. This represented a wink and a nudge from Maliki, particularly as he made this statement to a Syrian news channel; he is one of those supporting a regime that truly does bomb its people from planes. Alternatively, if he was trying to prepare the ground for such action targeting protesters, then it matters little that protesters are now being killed by bullets, while those in Syria are being killed by shells.
Maliki also sought to connect internal protests with external influences, saying that the events are tied to “some sectarian policies in the region.” He thereby completely failed to acknowledge that his policies are responsible for the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, and are polarizing the country along sectarian lines. The reality is that—despite repeated warnings of sectarianism, calls for partition and attempts to disrupt Iraq—his policies are a contributing factor. His government is based on sectarian participation and union, and his policies further contributed to mobilizing Iraq’s Sunnis. These policies even created animosity among some of his Shi’ite allies, especially those who are aware of the importance of building partnerships in order to ensure that Iraq avoids sectarian warfare and further bloodshed.
It is striking that Maliki’s view of the protests was consistent with the Iranian perspective, which classified the events as “regional polarization.” In this context, there were a number of news reports that the Iranian minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, had warned of plans to “preoccupy the resistance front with internal disputes and crises” when he met with Shi’ite leaders in Baghdad last month. He also called on these leaders to take note of schemes that targeted Iraq or Syria, and highlighted the importance of regrouping.
Maliki was clearer, when, in an interview with the Associated Press, he warned that if the Syrian opposition are victorious, “there will be civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq.” An analysis of this speech and his discourse implies that Maliki believes the fall of the Assad regime and the rise of the Sunnis in Syria will lead to a strengthening of Iraq’s Sunni community, and, following that, a sectarian war. Such discourse does not solve Iraq’s crises; rather, it only further complicates them, placing them firmly within the framework of regional and sectarian alliances and polarization.
Although the crisis in Iraq is being affected by events in Syria, this does not mean that the former is a result of the latter, particularly as the Iraqi crisis preceded the Syrian one by a number of years. Maliki, who ignored the demands of Iraq’s Sunnis and their complaints of marginalization and exclusion, entrenched the sectarian tensions in the country. He failed to establish the rule of law—something he named his own political party after. He did not succeed in engendering an atmosphere of security, stability and freedom, in which Iraqis could be prosperous. He was preoccupied with political maneuverings, and sought to control all security services and military institutions. Maliki should have been devoted to creating an environment of civil peace and increased political participation in the face of any attempts to divide Iraq along sectarian lines. Worse still, he stood up to defend the Syrian regime, which has previously been accused of exporting terrorists to Iraq.
Iraq, which has paid a massive price by all accounts over the last ten years, is not in need of sectarian tensions and divisions, which are susceptible to international involvement. The way in which the government dealt with the recent events increased the calls for Sunni secession—an option that does not solve the problem. It should be noted that in the past, when a Shi’ite territory in the south was announced, this approach was rejected by Sunnis. Some of them, however, still have a sense of frustration and marginalization.
Iraq is in dire need of political leadership that transcends personal calculations and immediate gains. Only then—through unity and cohesion—can the nation be rebuilt and strengthened. It should be open to all parts of society, and confront everything that contributes to sectarianism. The alternative is a gradual slide towards civil war and fragmentation.