Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Iraq afire

As Sunni protests against Iraq’s government continue, the country seems to be heading for a sectarian cliff, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s government is in disarray. The president of the country has been reported to be clinically dead, and both the parliament and cabinet are dysfunctional. With no budget yet agreed for 2013, and with its constitution a matter of opinion and its political elite at loggerheads with each other, Iraq has reached an impasse.

For months, the country has been gripped by its worst political crisis for years, with Iraq’s three main ethnicities bickering over a power and wealth-sharing structure formulated by the United States following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 and making Iraq into a federal and plural state.

Almost since the day that the last US troops withdrew from the country in December 2011, Iraq has been gridlocked by a series of political crises and military standoffs between Kurds, Shias and Sunnis that has incapacitated the divided nation.

The conflict in neighbouring Syria, where a Sunni-led uprising is trying to oust a regime backed by Shia Iran, is whipping up confessional tensions across the region and raising concerns about a relapse into intergroup strife in Iraq just over a year after the last US troops pulled out.

Over the past three weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis have staged demonstrations in a show of anger against Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, whom they accuse of monopolising power and marginalising their community.

The protests started in Iraq’s Sunni heartland of Anbar province and then spread to other provinces where Sunnis form majorities. Later the protests moved to Baghdad, where demonstrators gathered at a main mosque in the mostly-Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiyah and two other districts.

The protesters cut the main highway that links Iraq with neighbouring Jordan and Syria, and on Monday Iraqi troops fired shots over the heads of hundreds of protesters trying to gather in a public square in the northern city of Mosul.

The protesters have been demanding a halt to what they perceive as the mistreatment and marginalisation of Sunnis. They have called for an end to the arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws and to the prolonged detention and human rights violations against prisoners, particularly of women held in government jails.

The demonstrations, the largest in Iraq since the US-led invasion, pose a new challenge to Al-Maliki, who is already embroiled in a long-running dispute with Iraq’s Kurds over oil, land and revenue sharing.

Efforts to defuse a standoff between Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces have stalled with both sides keeping massive forces on the disputed internal border.

The Sunni protests were sparked by the detention of ten bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafei Al-Essawi. The authorities said the bodyguards had confessed to involvement in assassinations, but Sunnis consider the arrests and alleged confessions as being part of a crackdown on their leaders.

In December 2011, several bodyguards of Sunni Vice President Tarek Al-Hashimi were also arrested. Shortly afterwards, a warrant was issued for Al-Hashimi’s arrest on charges of running sectarian death squads. Al-Hashimi denied the charges, but fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and then to Turkey and later Qatar.

The current Sunni protests have prompted Sunni lawmakers to call on parliament to sit in an emergency session to discuss the crisis and to adopt a set of demands including an amnesty for Sunnis jailed on terrorism charges and the rescinding of a law that punishes members of the former ruling Baath Party led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

The legislation, known as the de-Baathification law, was enacted by the US occupation authority and stated that senior government officials affiliated with the Baath Party were to be removed from their positions and banned from any future employment in the public sector.

In a further escalation, Iyad Allawi, leader of Iraqiya, a largely Sunni bloc of lawmakers, also called on Al-Maliki to step down from office, saying that the government should be dissolved and an interim government formed to supervise new elections.

Meanwhile, members of Al-Maliki’s bloc boycotted the parliamentary session on Sunday, depriving it of the necessary quorum. Instead, they called for dissolving the parliament and holding a new election, insisting that Al-Maliki stay in power to oversee the polls.

The Kurdish Alliance did not lend its support to the Sunnis in their demand to dissolve the parliament, apparently for fear of a potential political void. Ironically, Mahmoud Othman, a senior member of the Kurdish coalition, suggested that if the deadlock continues Iraqis should resort to the United Nations for help in resolving the crisis.

Othman did not clarify what he had in mind, but he was apparently referring to the UN mandate under Security Council resolutions to intervene in Iraq. Iraq is still placed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which gives the council power to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security”.

Shia politicians vehemently rejected some of the Sunni demands, such as releasing prisoners charged with terrorism offences or revoking the de-Baathification law. They said that should these demands be met they would allow Saddam loyalists to return to power and also send terrorists back onto the streets of Iraqi cities.

“If we [Shias] did this, it would mean the return of the old days and we would find ourselves marginalised and sent back to jail,” Khaled Al-Attia, head of the State of Law parliamentary bloc, told state-owned television, referring to Saddam’s marginalisation of the country’s majority Shias.

Even key Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, a rival to Al-Maliki who has voiced support for the Sunni rallies, rejected demands to revoke the anti-Baathification law. 

He also urged Sunnis to distance themselves from the Baathists after Ezzat Al-Douri, Saddam’s deputy who now heads the underground Baath Party, called on Sunnis to continue anti-government protests until Al-Maliki was ousted.

Al-Sadr even warned that his followers would capture (or kill) Al-Douri.

Al-Sadr’s staunch reaction may have been due to Al-Douri’s describing the Shias as “Safavids”, or being connected to the Shia dynasty that ruled Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries and at times controlled parts of modern-day Iraq.

The current crisis has unveiled the fact that the magnitude of Iraqi sectarian divisions is now enormous. It is not simply a question of Sunni dissatisfaction with the way the government has been mistreating them, but could reflect the reality that Iraqi Kurds, Shias and Sunnis have no experience of themselves as citizens of a modern state that is non-sectarian and not divided along ethnic lines.

Indeed, Iraq’s latest crisis underlines the failure of the political formula forged by the Americans in an attempt to solve Iraq’s Shia-Sunni sectarian conflicts and Kurdish secessionist movements. The two disputes have been major forces shaping modern Iraq since it came into being as a unified state in the 1920s.

Under the post-Saddam constitution drafted during the US military occupation, Iraq became a federal state, giving its provinces the right to create semi-autonomous regions.

While the Kurds declared their three provinces to be a region and gradually transformed it into a semi-independent entity, the Shias and Sunnis opted to stay with their existing provinces and remain parts of the central government in Baghdad.

Last year, local governments in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Salaheddin and Anbar threatened to establish themselves as self-ruled regions. A similar attempt by Shias in Basra a few years ago did not take off because of Baghdad’s opposition.

Recent events, however, have showed that both Shias and Sunnis are still carrying a legacy they do not want to shed. That feeling might be preventing the two Muslim and Arab communities from confronting not only the impact of sectarianism on their psyches, but also their strategic imperatives.

In this context, the US-made model of transforming Iraq into a democratic, plural and non-centralised system that would observe human rights and equality seems unsuccessful.

The recent conflict that has put Iraq on edge provides evidence that Iraqis are still suffering from endemic identity problems that make the shifts required for radical changes in values, attitudes and intercommunal relationships more difficult.

If such problems continue, the country could fall apart. The question is how soon this could happen.

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