The enemy next door
Desperate to win a third term in office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is turning up the rhetoric against his neighbours, writes Salah Nasrawi
Last week, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki invited dozens of foreign representatives for a conference in Baghdad in a bid to enlist international support for his government’s efforts in combating terrorism.
Al-Maliki used his lofty rhetoric to press on his guests the idea that the unabated violence in Iraq was driven by foreign fighters and sought international help to curb the flow of funding to terrorists from Iraq’s Arab neighbours.
Internally, Al-Maliki has been in a fighting mood recently, charging his political rivals with aiding terrorism. The counter-terrorism conference seemed to be designed to put his foreign audience on notice.
Nonetheless, in both cases Al-Maliki has seemed to be trying to shore up domestic and world support for his faltering government just as the 2014 elections season gears up.
The Iraqi organisers said that Al-Maliki’s government would present evidence to the conference that “certain countries” supported terrorism on Iraq’s soil, but it was not clear if in fact it did.
Earlier, Al-Maliki had accused neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Iraq, and the Gulf state of Qatar of backing militant groups in Iraq and across the Middle East as well as terrorism worldwide.
“They are attacking Iraq through Syria and in a direct way, and they have announced a war on Iraq, as they announced it on Syria. Unfortunately, this war is on a sectarian and political basis,” he told the French television network France 24.
“These two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian, terrorist and security crisis of Iraq,” he said.
Yet, as the conference ended it became clear that the delegates were not interested in buying Al-Maliki’s argument that Iraq’s problem was that of terrorism alone.
A final statement only paid lip service to Baghdad, suggesting instead that Iraq should “forge a national strategy to fight terrorism based on legal and national bases and resolve all social, economic and cultural disputes.”
Al-Maliki has in the past blamed unnamed Arab neighbours for interfering in Iraq, but by accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of declaring war on the country he has now made a bold play to turn up the heat on the Sunni Arab countries by implicating them in destabilising Iraq.
As the elections loom, Al-Maliki seems to be using the confrontation to consolidate the public behind his rule, tapping into the deep well of emotion about the Iraqi Shia in the past suffering at the hands of their Sunni neighbours.
The direct attack on the Sunni Gulf governments comes as Iraq is gripped in its worst prolonged period of bloodshed since the US-led invasion in 2003, with some 2,000 people killed already this year.
Al-Maliki’s accusations came shortly after Saudi Arabia unveiled a new counter-terrorism package that punishes those who fight in conflicts outside the kingdom or join extremist groups or finance them.
Under the new law, those who join such groups or support them could face up to 30 years in prison.
By implicating Saudi Arabia publicly in the conflicts in Iraq, Al-Maliki apparently wants to take aim at the kingdom’s measures by trying to portray its anti-terrorism discourse as hypocritical.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq is believed to have drawn in hundreds of young Saudis who have joined the Al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. This has been responsible for most of the terrorist attacks and is now battling in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
Riyadh has repeatedly denied sanctioning the influx and has threatened to prosecute those Saudis who have joined the terrorist groups. It was quick to reject Al-Maliki’s accusations and condemned them as “aggressive and irresponsible.”
Two of Saudi Arabia’s allies in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, also came to its support. While Bahrain denounced the Iraqi move, Abu Dhabi summoned Iraq’s ambassador to protest against the accusations that Saudi Arabia has been supporting terrorism in Iraq.
However, Al-Maliki seems to have soon found solace in GCC divisions over how to deal with Islamists around the region.
Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar recently as the gas and oil-rich emirate refused to join the GCC’s anti-terrorism strategy.
Seeing tensions rise between the Gulf Sunni allies must have suited Al-Maliki’s ploy perfectly, as they serve his intentions to portray them as supporters of terrorism.
On the other hand, Al-Maliki seems to have been emboldened by US support for his government’s anti-terrorism drive, including the new delivery of American weapons and ammunition to the Iraqi army to fight against Sunni rebels.
This week, the US embassy in Baghdad said Washington had sent 100 Hellfire missiles to Iraq, along with assault rifles and ammunition, as part of its anti-terrorism assistance to the country.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the embassy said the delivery was made earlier this month in order to help bolster Iraqi forces fighting Al-Qaeda. It also promised to send more weapons in the coming weeks.
Al-Maliki seems to be capitalising on reports about strained US-Saudi relations over a host of Middle East issues, including the war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear deal. The US-Saudi relationship has deteriorated, as the Saudis have expressed reservations about the Obama administration’s policies towards Syria and Iran, both of which are close allies to Al-Maliki.
US President Barack Obama will travel later this month to Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to discuss Saudi arming of rebel groups in Syria seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Here again, it would make sense if Al-Maliki planned to exploit the frayed relationship between the two old allies by revelling in the alleged hypocrisy of his Saudi adversaries.
Meanwhile, Al-Maliki will probably also be further encouraged by the recent reports that Iraq has increased its oil production, news that could ease US concerns that oil prices will not go upward.
The International Energy Agency unveiled on Friday that Iraq’s oil output had jumped by half a million barrels a day in February to average 3.6 million barrels a day.
Iraq said in December that it would target oil production of 4.1 million barrels a day this year.
By increasing Iraq’s output, Al-Maliki, probably in collaboration with his Iranian allies, may hope that Iraq will be able to challenge Saudi Arabia’s grip on the world market and ease pressure on crude prices.
All in all, the Iraqi premier seems to be playing the terrorism card both domestically and externally to re-emphasise his version of the troubles in Iraq.
What al-Maliki wants both Iraqis and the world to believe is that Al-Qaeda terrorists are the only reason for the deteriorating security situation in the country as he continues to consolidate his power.
By his standards, it is the enemy next door and foreign agendas which are fueling the sectarianism in Iraq and not the marginalisation and exclusion of Iraqi Sunni Arabs.
Iraq’s sectarian split has escalated considerably over the past year. While Al-Qaeda remains a real threat in Iraq, al-Maliki’s hard-line positions and some of his extremist allies keep on fueling a larger Sunni insurgency.
Iraq’s conflicts have been driven principally by widespread discontent among the country’s Sunni Arab minority, which has been complaining about the government’s mistreatment and demanding changes to the post-Saddam political system, which they say has favoured the Shias.
Tensions have been mounting between Iraq’s two Muslim sects since December 2012 when Sunni protesters started weekly anti-government marches across Iraq.
Since January, Iraq’s western cities have seen fierce clashes pitting government security forces against Sunni insurgent groups.
Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi and its key city of Fallujah have effectively moved out of the Iraqi government’s control, with Sunni tribal forces taking command of both of them.
In recent weeks, the clashes with the security forces have spread to other Sunni-populated provinces, exacerbated by the recent fighting in the Anbar province.
Sunni anti-government rebels now claim that they have formed a unified command, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, to be in charge of the rebellion.
Many local tribal councils, headed by former senior Saddam army officers, have been formed in Sunni-dominated provinces and are said to be coordinating attacks against Iraqi security forces and officials.
This may not yet be the high point of an overall Sunni rebellion in Iraq, especially for most Sunni Arabs who are still seeking a political solution to end their grievances.
But the Sunni revolt is drawing a deeper dividing line in Iraq’s politics and poses one of the biggest challenges to the country’s unity.
It is Al-Maliki who seems to be unwilling to grasp the reality and to try reconciliation, preferring instead to interpret the Sunni uprising as an instance of foreign-instigated terrorism.