Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Reconciliation at a standstill in Iraq

Efforts to renew talks on a political settlement in Iraq have largely ground to a halt, writes Salah Nasrawi

raq forces advance in Mosul but civilian toll mounts
Iraq forces advance in Mosul but civilian toll mounts

Early in December, Iraqi Shia cleric Ammar Al-Hakim travelled to neighbouring Iran for talks with the leaders of the Islamic Republic on a reinvigorated plan for national reconciliation in Iraq to end the country’s lingering political crisis.

Al-Hakim, who was accompanied by a large delegation from the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the main Shia ruling bloc, met with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials, some of them seen as Iran’s point men in Iraq.

A week before, Al-Hakim flew to Amman for similar talks with the Jordanian monarch King Abdullah II, this time to seek the backing of the Sunni kingdom for the reconciliation plan.

He also plans visits to other neighbouring countries, hoping that regional powers will help facilitate the project. He is seeking UN help to sponsor the reconciliation talks and the implementation of a final agreement.

The current leader of the INA, Al-Hakim has been proposing the plan in a fresh bid to bridge the chasm that opened up in Iraqi society after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein.

The scheme has not been made public, but a draft has been in circulation on Iraqi social networks which has not been disputed by Al-Hakim or his party, the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq (SICI).

However, the programme set out in this roadmap has yet to get off the ground. It has triggered an acrimonious debate, with scepticism from some Shia groups and a lot of recrimination from many leaders of Iraq’s Sunni community.

The multi-page document suggests a wide-ranging programme to bring communal accord, peace and stability to the war-torn nation through a new round of reconciliation talks.

Previous attempts at overcoming more than a decade of conflict in Iraq have stumbled as rival groups have failed to come to terms and have either trod carefully or have bickered over the details of reconciliation.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the new proposals will finally put the sharply-divided Iraqi communities on the path of national reconciliation and healing.

Under the plan, representatives of Iraq’s feuding communities at the proposed peace talks will sign “a historic settlement” that will end all communal disputes based on a “no victor, no vanquished” agreement.

The plan states that any agreement should be based on “the principle of a settlement guaranteed by the mutual commitments of the [political] parties [participating] in the political process, or those showing a willingness to join it.”

It also stipulates that any agreement resulting from the talks will be in line with existing “laws and regulations” and under the sole rules of the state authorities.

One of the strict preconditions set by Al-Hakim’s initiative is that there will be “no settlement or dialogue” with Saddam’s former ruling Iraqi Baath Party or the Islamic State (IS) group or other “terrorist or racist groups.”

The document makes it clear that signatories should pledge to “keep Iraq’s unity, sovereignty, and democratic and federal system” intact.

The plan entrusts the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) with the task of facilitating the process, helping to finalise the agreement and ensure its implementation.

But reactions to the plan have swiftly descended into colour-coded bickering, revealing the long distance Iraqis still have to travel in order to address the thorny issues that have so far blocked a national accord.

While most Sunni political leaders have been cautious about the terms of the plan, some have dismissed it altogether as non-starter. The Iraqi Forces Union, the main Sunni bloc, has expressed strong reservations about the plan and promised to introduce its own version of national reconciliation.

A key Sunni bloc, the Arab Coalition, led by former deputy prime minister Saleh Al-Motlaq, has ridiculed a precondition set by the Shia leaders that states that any political settlement should ensure that no more bombings will be carried out in Shia-populated areas of Iraq.

“If you want to stop the bombings, then go and sign it [the settlement plan] with Daesh,” the group said in a statement, using the Arabic acronym of IS.

Sunni groups and leaders who are not part of the ongoing political process have rejected the plan outright, insisting that it still excludes and marginalises their community.

The Shia response to the proposals has also showed that the community’s political factions and leaders are lacking consensus on the details. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has said he is in favour of “societal reconciliation,” a vague idea which probably means social care at the individual and local community levels.

Other Shia groups have insisted that reconciliation should only be with Sunni tribes that have joined the Iraqi security forces and the Shia-controlled Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) in the fight against IS.

Even Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was unwilling to give his blessing to the plan when he refused last month to meet with Al-Hakim when the later travelled to the holy city of Najaf seeking support from senior Shia religious leaders.

With the offensive underway to oust IS from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, efforts are needed to reduce underlying tensions and restore stability to the Sunni-populated areas of Iraq that were taken back from IS following its stunning advances in 2014.

While a military defeat of the extremist group is expected, this will not bring stability or an end to the violence in Iraq unless it is followed by broad reconciliation among its deeply divided communal groups.

The reconciliation is crucial in order for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged infrastructure and restoration of services in the liberated areas to take place and for the return of internally displaced people to happen.

Such a process will require Iraqis to move beyond surviving the turbulence of the last decade to lasting peace, stability and prosperity.

However, the greatest challenge to restoring social harmony in Iraq is the weak security that is believed to allow IS militants to stage dramatic attacks against civilian targets.

In recent weeks, Baghdad and other major towns and cities across Iraq have been facing a ferocious onslaught of IS attacks unlike anything that has been seen in years.

The deadly attacks have demonstrated the group’s ability to strike with startling effect, sparking widespread public anger at the government and its security forces.           

UNAMI estimates that at least 6,878 Iraqi civilians died last year in such attacks, with some 12,388 others wounded. It claimed that in the month of October alone 1,120 civilians lost their lives, 511 more than in the previous month.

Attacks such as the assaults on the towns of Kirkuk and Rutba in October have demonstrated that aiming solely at defeating IS as the only means of bringing stability to the country seems not only to be politically naïve but also self-defeating.

The demise of IS, and indeed the end of the Sunni insurgency, will depend largely on how far the country’s Shia groups are able to demonstrate a willingness to share power and wealth with the Sunnis in a democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian state.

Much of that will depend on a new social and political contract that will need to be worked out through a holistic reconciliation approach that will give Sunnis hope and a genuine feeling of citizenship.

But if the Shia-led government remains unable to address Sunni grievances and disregard their demands for equality and partnership, it will certainly be gambling with Iraq’s future by creating a generation of Sunnis with little political recourse except through another insurgency.

What the Shia leaders need to understand is that both the security vacuum and the Shia’s exercise of absolute control over the country’s wealth and power have been conducive to the post-US invasion Sunni rebellion that was exploited by IS.

Any political settlement, therefore, should be based on a formula for balanced and sustainable power-sharing in a newly stable state and unitary nation in order to replace the fragile one that has been created by shaping Iraqi society through conflict.

Al-Hakim’s proposals seem to fall short of that goal, and instead they try to maintain the status quo which will only make the doors for a reconciliation deal with the Sunnis close further.

In the meantime, UNAMI, whose head the Slovak diplomat Jan Kupis has been the main broker for reconciliation in Iraq, should come out with a more realistic plan after consultation with a broad spectrum of the Iraqi society, including members of the civil society, tribes, trade unions and intellectuals.

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