Iraq Is Still Held Back By Sectarian Violence and Politics
By Rend Al-Rahim
19 February 2013
What is holding Iraq back today is continued internal strife? Not since the worst days of Shia-Sunni warfare in 2006-08 has sectarian polarization in Iraq presented such a threat to the country's integrity.
In December, Sunnis in the western city of Ramadi held demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, ostensibly to protest the arrest of security guards working for Sunni Finance Minister Rafi' Issawi.
Since then, the demonstrations have escalated and metastasized. Having begun with demands for reforms, better services, release of prisoners, and repeal of anti-Ba'ath lustration laws, anger has now overflowed and demonstrators across the Sunni region openly demand the resignation of the prime minister, accusing him of sectarian discrimination and repressing Sunnis.
The Shia political leaders who came to power after 2003 were uniquely positioned to shape Iraq's future, yet they and Kurdish groups brought long-held grievances, not only against Saddam Hussein's regime, but more broadly against minority Sunni dominance, which had existed to varying degrees since the Iraqi state was established in 1921. (Those with longer memories say that the Sunni state oppression of the Shia has continued since the seventh century.)
Instead of promoting a unified Iraq, Shia leaders cast the narrative of change in terms of victor and vanquished, the rise of the oppressed against the oppressor, the majority gaining its rightful power. They were bent on redressing injustices inflicted on their community.
Shia leaders and the US occupation authorities, while proclaiming universal participation and inclusion, in practice lumped all Sunnis with the Ba'ath and with Saddam – resulting in draconian de-Ba'thification laws and the dissolution of the army, which were deemed vehicles and tools of the Sunnis. It was up to the Sunnis to prove their loyalty and their acquiescence to the new statutes – and their innocence.
The Shia had reasonable cause for fear and suspicion: prior to 2003, only a few Sunnis publicly opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, armed resistance quickly took hold in Sunni areas, allegedly to liberate Iraq from American occupation, but in reality as revolt against the new order.
When the constitution was drafted in 2005, Sunnis were slow to join the deliberations, and when they did, it was too late to reshape it in any material way to their advantage. Some Sunnis rejected the notion that they were a minority, with a few leaders claiming in private that they constituted 60% of the population. Mutual suspicions and fears, triumphalism, exclusion and rejection degenerated into a downward spiral that led to ugly sectarian warfare between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias in 2006.
Efforts at reconciliation, initiated in 2008 by the US military, attempted to integrate Sunni combatants into state institutions; these were grudgingly taken up by the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki, but their goal was confined to ending the raging sectarian conflict and pacifying the armed insurgency. Reconciliation talks were superficial, and never attempted a real dialogue about communal relations, mutual fears, grievances and aspirations.
Apart from rhetorical flourishes, there was no attempt to transcend sectarian politics. Sunnis wanted what the Shia would not give them: equal status in the affairs of state. Shia leaders saw little value in political reconciliation; as one prominent Shia legislator confessed, reconciliation only meant giving up some of their hard-won gains. Why should they be asked to do that?
Moreover, there was the continued suspicion that, deep down, Sunnis would never accept the ascendancy of the Shia and their right as a majority to hold power. Sunnis were welcomed into the fold only on sufferance, and on terms set by the Shia majority.
At a fundamental level, democracy has been distorted by a false definition of what constitutes majority and minority: in Iraq, these are defined by sectarian, not political affiliations. Thus, the Shia demographic majority will forever remain a political majority (as demonstrated by grand Shia alliances in the elections of 2005 and 2010), and the Sunnis will always be the political minority. The principle of equal citizenship and equal rights for all, irrespective of religion, race or gender, so often stated in the constitution, is terribly undermined by this interpretation of democracy.
The current standoff has been exacerbated by regional events, especially in Syria. While the Shia political parties have no great love for Ba'athist Syria, which in the past they have accused of supporting jihadists and covert Ba'athists in Iraq, they nevertheless fear the collapse of the Assad's Alawite regime. The Sunnis, on the other hand, draw moral – and perhaps political and logistical – support from the Sunni religious groups fighting the Assad government. Other regional tensions, including the rivalry between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran, complicate the situation further, making peaceful resolution of the crisis more difficult.
The lines seem to be drawn for a second round of sectarian-inspired violence that, absent a neutral mediator, threatens to undermine the unity of Iraq.