With their hard-won empowerment under threat, Iraqi Shia now realize that it takes more than being in office to keep Iraq intact, writes Salah Nasrawi in the third of a three-part series on Iraq’s key communities in post-Saddam Iraq.
During some of the darker moments of their struggle to topple the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, exiled Iraqi Shia political groups would urge their followers to keep up the struggle for their causes and consoling them that Allah’s reward is awaiting Shia for their suffering and patience.
“And We wanted to confer favor upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors,” the exiled Islamic-oriented leaders would keep saying, quoting from holy Quran. To many of their followers the verse had become iconic, prophesying God’s ultimate empowerment of Shia after centuries of what they perceive as exclusion and persecution by Sunni governments.
Shia-Sunni division in Islam dates back to 632 AD when the death of the Prophet Mohammed triggered a power struggle among his companions. Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, one of Mohammeds’ closest friends as his successor and argued that a prominent Muslim leader who would follow the Prophet’s traditions should be chosen by consensus. Shia, on the other hand, believed that Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali Ben Abi Talib was God’s chosen and more qualified for the job.
That political debate and the power struggle it had initiated led to a sectarian split which Muslims have never been able to heal. For much of the last fourteen centuries the Shia-Sunni animosities topped the list of some times bloody conflicts that aroused ugly passions. While Sunnis remained the dominant political group, Shias who felt oppressed by successive caliphs and sultans had 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 majority Shia believed that they were robbed of power by the British colonial authority which energized the Sunni minority with the creation of modern Iraqin 1921 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The power arrangements helped setting the conditions for today’s sectarianism as Shia felt being betrayed and under successive governments they complained of injustice by Sunnis whom they accused of grabbing power and assign them a marginal role.
The idea of redressing perceived historic injustice and achieving their ambitions became ceneteral in Shia thinking as USefforts to invade Iraqwere put in high gear in 2002 to topple Saddam and the Bush administration sought support from Iraqi exiled 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 and to further their agenda in taking over the new government, exploiting the sect-based system which the Bush administration had set up. Iraqi Shia felt they had finally been rewarded for their persecution but they have yet to consolidate their newly gained political power with the huge resources now under their control.
But Iraq turned out as not an easy place for the Shia revival which upset the sectarian balance in Iraq for years to come. Their newly acquired power has become an unwinnable quagmire as a resilient Sunni rebellion continued to steam ahead and culminated in humiliatingly defeating the Shia-government’s one-million man army by seizing huge swaths of land a decade later.
The offensive by militants who have swept across much of northern and western Iraq since last month has been fueled in part by grievances among the country’s Sunni Muslim minority with Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki whom they accuse of mistreatment, discrimination, marginalization and exclusion.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunni neighbors seethed about Shia’s rising influence and have done very thing they could to stall their emerging power. Sunni Arab countries, which prefer Iraq to be ruled by Sunnis, felt threatened by a notion of an emerging alliance of Shia political forces in the Middle East, backed by a resurgent Iran. Subsequently, Iraqwas turned into a battleground for the new sectarian regional hidden war.
While Iraqi Shia faced massive challenges by domestic and regional enemies, many of their failures were the results of vast and terrible mistakes by their leaders. Shia elites’ main problem is that of failing to lead a successful transition in democracy and nation building following Saddam’s ouster. Instead of laying the ghosts of Iraq’s sectarian legacy to rest they let anew sectarian chapter to unfold.
From the outset Shia elites performance was so abysmal and underscored a huge gap between expectations and achievements. Iraq’s new confessional system required that its main ethnic and sectarian groups – Kurds, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims have to share power. Yet the ruling Shia groups restricted the boundaries of possibilities for privileged Shia and thus creating a failing sectarian oligarchy.
Iraqi Shia governing class remained busy reasserting itself at the expense of crafting an inclusive sustainable democracy that can co-opt other communities. The new constitutional process which enshrined pluralism and federalism to ensure power is shared between communities was turned into a sect-based majority versus minority governing system which contributed to the disastrous ethno-sectarian conflicts and their violent ramifications.
As a result, ethnic Kurds took advantage of 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 was is a clear manifestation of how Shia have fallen short of recognizing the nature and depth of Iraq’s problems and subsequently how to solve them.
Shia leaders’ other big problems are their incompetence, mismanagement, corruption, and indulgence in self-interests. Their lust for power, sectarianism and lack of leadership skills are largely responsible for Iraq’s poor governance and the failure of the transitional period. There are enormous evidence that many of Iraq’s problems stem from its political leaders who are exploiting the ethno-sectarian divisions in their favour to grab more power.
The Iraqi national state has been reduced to fiefdoms run by entrenched political groups. A decade-long failure in good governance and the 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 which have been designed to work on 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 transition has been the rampant corruption. Thanks to the systematic draining of state resources authoritarianism, patronage and clientelism permeated all levels of government impeding economic development, democracy and the rule of law.
Corruption in the security forces resulted in negative consequences on the political instability. One of the main reasons for the stunning collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosullast month was corruption. Many high ranking officers have bought their posts with money paid to politicians, and corrupt practices such bribery and extortion of protection money are epidemic. All these and other forms of corruption led to incompetence and low moral in the ranks and files 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 an over-all civil war that one should judge the Shia rule. Notwithstanding strategic challenges they have faced since they captured power, the Shia political elite have been primary responsible for much of the country’s misfortune. They did little to reconcile the contradictions between their grand ambitions and the commitments they made to build a united, democratic and pluralistic Iraq.
Sunnis have always derided Shia as being incompetent and good only for beating their chests, a reference to acts of mourning and lamentation for the martyrdom of their saint Imam Hussein at the hands of Umayyad Sunnis in the 7th century. While that remains derogatory diatribe and a kind of sectarian prejudice, Shia cannot but be accompanied by feelings of lose as they watch Iraqfalling apart.