A new Iraqi leadership may not succeed in holding the country’s fissiparous communities together, writes Salah Nasrawi
Even as the countdown to select a new Iraqi leadership began this week, doubts remained about whether a new government would be able to turn the beleaguered nation away from the abyss which threatens the country’s very existence.
Iraq continues to grapple with the scale of a military victory by jihadist-backed Sunni rebels who have overrun cities and captured huge swathes of land and the Kurdistan Region’s stated intention to break away from Iraq after it grabbed vast territories and energy resources.
Leaders of the country’s divided ethno-sectarian factions have begun the process of forming a new government following the 30 April inconclusive elections which they hope will end the political stalemate that has frozen decision-making.
On 15 July, the parliament elected a new speaker. Under Iraq’s constitution the parliament has two weeks to choose a president who then has four weeks to nominate a prime minister. By an unwritten understanding, a Sunni holds the position of speaker, a Kurd has the presidency, and a Shia is prime minister.
In theory, with some horse-trading and allotment of cabinet portfolios and government jobs, this should give Iraq its best chance to break the deadlock and start a new political process which is hoped will stop the country’s collapse.
Yet, many Iraqis are cautious about predicting any radical change in the policies of any new government that comes to power in Baghdad. Government is at the heart of Iraq’s failure, and the two elected governments since the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, always dominated by Shia politicians, have had rotten sectarian agendas.
The ouster of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime in the US-led war empowered the long-oppressed Shia majority, upending the nation’s sectarian balance and marginalising the Sunni community. Ethnic Kurds emerged as the winners with an autonomous region and an equal share in power and resources, thanks to the federal status bestowed on the enclave.
As part of this process, Iraq’s main rival groups have been so entrenched behind their maximal goals that they have refused to make concessions on power and resource-sharing that could stabilise the fragile country.
Having long being marginalised by successive Iraqi governments, the majority Shia community has been determined to maintain control of the government, security forces and national wealth.
Since Saddam’s downfall, the Shias have feared the Sunnis would continue to view them as weak and incompetent and likely to be overwhelmed by one major defeat. The Kurds have never been satisfied by the semi-independent region enshrined in Iraq’s post-Saddam federal constitution. They want to achieve their historic ambitions of statehood by taking advantage of the country’s troubles.
After they took control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and some 40,000 extra km of land outside their northern enclave last month, they have felt stronger and closer to achieving their national enterprise.
The Kurds have made drastic demographic and political changes on the ground in the territories they control that will make life for Arabs and Turkmens more difficult. Like minorities in the Sunni rebel-controlled areas, non-Kurdish communities, such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkmens, now fear that because of the de facto Kurdish supremacy they will be powerless if the Kurdish Regional Government decides to impose a solution.
The Kurdish leadership is already making plans for a referendum on independence and its participation in the new government would only be symbolic, proving the Kurds’ point that the Baghdad government is a failure.
Sunni politicians are, meanwhile, left in an awkward situation. Most of the Sunni towns are now under rebel control and Sunni lawmakers seem to be out of touch with their constituencies.
After the takeover of their areas, Sunni tribal and insurgent groups have made common cause with the terror group, the Islamic State (IS), to topple the Shia-led government. The IS and its allies are carrying out large-scale atrocities, including summary executions and extrajudicial killings of prisoners and detainees, and they are damaging livelihoods and property, making communal coexistence impossible.
Most Christians, Shia and Turkmens in Mosul and other areas which fell to the Sunni rebels have abandoned their homes and belongings and fled in terror after IS militants enforced Sharia, or Islamic Law.
On the other hand, Iraq’s communities are politically divided and there are tensions within their ranks that have already led to infighting. Many Shia refuse to grant Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s demand for a third term.
Many, including members of his own Shia alliance that comfortably won the April elections, now see Al-Maliki’s departure as essential to national reconciliation efforts. The Kurdish leadership also seems to lack consensus on many national issues, including the best timing for declaring Kurdish independence. Leaders of Kurdistan’s second largest party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are less enthusiastic than Barzani’s Democratic Party of breaking up with Iraq.
The Sunnis are divided too. Fighting has already broken out between Sunni rebel factions. Few believe a compromise is possible between jihadists seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate and secular members of Saddam’s former Baath Party.
Last week, Sunni leaders in exile who met in Jordan vowed to topple the Shia government through a “legitimate revolt.” Around 300 Sunni clerics, tribal leaders, insurgent commanders and businessmen also hailed the Islamist uprising led by IS militants, portraying the violence as a fight-back against an oppressive Shia-led government.
The key question, therefore, is whether any new government will be able to meet these and other challenges, or whether it will simply reproduce Iraq’s chronic confessional problems. So far there seems to be no solution to Iraq’s ethno-sectarian conflict. There is hardly any doubt that Iraqi security forces will be able to restore normalcy and stability in the Sunni cities overrun by the rebels even if Iraq’s army would be able to roll back militant gains.
A US military assessment of Iraq’s security forces has concluded that the army and the police are incapable of protecting civilians and that many units are deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shia personnel backed by Iran.
Last week, scores of women were slaughtered in an apartment in Baghdad, allegedly for being prostitutes. The local and international media reported that the mass killing was carried out by gunmen belonging to a Shia militia working as a moral police force to enforce an Islamic code of conduct under the nose of the regular police. Such crimes, whose perpetrators often go unpunished, pose a threat to Iraq’s precarious stability.
With ambitious efforts to end Iraq’s quagmire now often seen as a fool’s errand, and as the country remains divided with half of it already out of the government’s control, the question remains if Iraq can be saved.
In other circumstances, an inclusive government, as some have been suggesting, could work. But conditions to deliver successes for such a government do not exist in Iraq. As the experiences of the last two partnership governments have showed, Iraq’s confessional power-sharing system is fraudulent in its current form, as it weakens the state, fragments the nation, and introduces a cycle of clientelism and corruption which hinders nation-building.
Some have been suggesting “soft partitioning” as the only realistic solution to leading Iraq to safety. Establishing a new political system of three loosely confederated entities for Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, they argue, would stop Iraq’s turbulent collapse.
Yet, with a history of deep mistrust and so much bloodshed and bigotry, even a negotiated partitioning could be out of reach, at least for the foreseeable future.
In short, Iraq seems to be doomed for to a long period of Somalization, a process unleashed by the US-led invasion in 2003, that will break up the country while preventing its chaotic spill-over into neighbouring countries.