Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Losing Iraq

With their hard-won empowerment under threat, the Iraqi Shia realise that it takes more than being in office to keep Iraq intact, writes Salah Nasrawi in the third of a three-part series

Al-Ahram Weekly

During some of the darker moments of their struggle to topple the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, exiled Iraqi Shia political groups urged their followers to keep up the struggle for their cause, consoling them that God’s reward was awaiting the Shia for their suffering and patience.

“We wanted to confer favour upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors,” the exiled Islamist-oriented leaders would keep saying, quoting from the Holy Quran. To many of their followers, this verse became iconic, prophesying God’s ultimate empowerment of the Shia after centuries of what they perceived as exclusion and persecution by Sunni governments.

The Shia-Sunni division in Islam dates back to 632 CE, when the death of the Prophet Mohamed triggered a power struggle among his companions. The Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s closest friends, as his successor and argued that a prominent Muslim leader who would follow the Prophet’s traditions should be chosen by consensus.

The Shia, on the other hand, believed that Mohamed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali Ben Abi Taleb was God’s chosen one and more qualified for the job.

That political debate and the power struggle it initiated led to a sectarian split that Muslims have never been able to heal. For much of the last 14 centuries, Shia-Sunni animosities have topped the list of sometimes bloody conflicts that have aroused ugly passions.

While the Sunnis remained the dominant political group, Shias who felt oppressed by successive caliphs and sultans challenged the political primacy of the Sunnis, resulting in various revolts and a deepening schism.

In modern Iraq, the division reflected a deep political struggle, as the majority Shia believed that they were robbed of power by the British colonial authorities that energised the Sunni minority with the creation of the modern Iraqi state in 1921 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The power arrangements helped set the conditions for today’s sectarianism, as the Shia felt betrayed and under successive governments complained of injustice by Sunnis whom they accused of grabbing power and assigning them to a marginal role. 

The idea of redressing this perceived historic injustice and achieving their ambitions became central to Shia thinking when US efforts to invade Iraq were put into high gear in 2002 in order to topple Saddam. The then administration of US president George W Bush sought support from Iraqi exile political groups to provide a “national” cover for the conquest a year later.

With the collapse of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, Shia political groups wasted no time in taking advantage of the power vacuum to further their agenda in taking over the new government and exploiting the sect-based system that the Bush administration had set up.

The Iraqi Shia felt they had finally been rewarded for their persecution, but they had yet to consolidate their newly-gained political power with the huge resources now under their control.

But Iraq turned out not to be an easy place for the Shia revival that upset the sectarian balance in Iraq for years to come. Their newly-acquired power has now become an unwinnable quagmire, as a resilient Sunni rebellion has continued to steam ahead and has culminated in humiliating defeat for the Shia-government’s one-million man army by seizing huge swaths of land.

The offensive by militants who have swept across much of northern and western Iraq since last month has been fuelled in part by grievances among the country’s Sunni Muslim minority with Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, whom they accuse of mistreatment, discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunni neighbours have seethed about the Shia’s rising influence and have done everything they could to stall their emerging power. The Sunni Arab countries, which prefer Iraq to be ruled by Sunnis, have felt threatened by the notion of an emerging alliance of Shia political forces in the Middle East backed by a resurgent Iran.

As a result, Iraq has been turned into a battleground for a new sectarian regional war.   

While Iraqi Shia have faced massive challenges by domestic and regional enemies, many of their failures have been the results of vast and terrible mistakes by their leaders. The Shia elites’ main problem has been failing to lead a successful transition to democracy and nation-building following Saddam’s ouster.

Instead of laying the ghosts of Iraq’s sectarian legacy to rest, they let a new sectarian chapter unfold.

From the outset, the Shia elites’ performance was abysmal, underscoring a huge gap between expectations and achievements. Iraq’s new confessional system required that the country’s main ethnic and sectarian groups – the Kurds, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims – had to share power. Yet, the ruling Shia groups restricted possibilities to privileged Shia, thus creating a failing sectarian oligarchy.  

The Iraqi Shia governing class remained busy reasserting itself at the expense of crafting an inclusive sustainable democracy that could co-opt other communities. The new constitutional process that enshrined pluralism and federalism to ensure power was shared between communities was turned into a sect-based majority-versus-minority governing system that contributed to disastrous ethno-sectarian conflicts and their violent ramifications.

As a result, the Kurds took advantage of the Shia political elite’s mismanagement and inefficiency to work to advance their independence agenda, while Sunnis felt alienated, frustrated and threatened and sought refuge in a rebellion they hoped would reverse the Shia’s course.

The takeover of parts of Iraq by Sunni extremists in June, which fuelled the push for Kurdish independence in the country, is a clear manifestation of how far the Shia have fallen short of recognising the nature and depth of Iraq’s problems and how to solve them.

The Shia leaders’ other problems are their incompetence, corruption and indulgence in their own self-interest. Their lust for power and lack of leadership skills are largely responsible for Iraq’s poor governance and the failure of the transitional period. There is enormous evidence that many of Iraq’s problems stem from its political leaders who have been exploiting ethno-sectarian divisions in their favour to grab more power. 

As a result, the Iraqi national state has been reduced to fiefdoms run by entrenched political groups. A decade-long failure of good governance and long-standing confessional conflicts have mutilated into an existential crisis. The extent of these autocratic practices has turned democracy into a farce. The result is that Iraq’s legislative and executive branches of government, designed to work by consensus, have been dysfunctional and gridlocked in ethno-sectarian struggles.

One of the devastating effects emerging from the poor leadership and bad governance during the transitional period has been rampant corruption. Thanks to the systematic draining of state resources, authoritarianism, patronage and clientelism have permeated all levels of government, impeding economic development, democracy and the rule of law.

Corruption in the security forces has resulted in negative consequences for political instability. One of the main reasons for the stunning collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul last month was corruption. Many high-ranking officers have bought their posts with money paid to politicians, and corrupt practices such as bribery and extortion of protection money are epidemic.

All these and other forms of corruption have led to incompetence and low morale in the rank and file of the security forces which crumbled before a bunch of terrorists.  

It is against this background of how Iraq is becoming a failed state and plunging towards all-out civil war that one should judge Shia rule. Notwithstanding the strategic challenges they have faced since they captured power, the Shia political elite has been primarily responsible for much of the country’s misfortune.

This elite did little to reconcile the contradictions between grand ambitions and the commitments made to build a united, democratic and pluralistic Iraq.

The Sunnis have always derided the Shia as being incompetent and “good only for beating their chests,” a reference to acts of mourning and lamentation for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at the hands of Umayyad Sunnis in the 7th century CE. 

While this is a derogatory diatribe and a form of sectarian prejudice, the Shia cannot but feel sensations of loss as they now watch Iraq falling apart.

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