Iraq’s media in the Sectarian crossfire

With sectarian tensions in the country running high, Iraq’s media may be adding fuel to the fire, writes Salah Nasrawi
The sharpening divide between Iraq’s Shias and Sunnis has given rise to sectarianism in the Iraqi media that many believe is increasingly turning nascent outlets into venues for sowing chauvinism and undermining nation-building in the ethnically split and violence-torn country.

The era after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein has brought unprecedented waves of enthusiasm for independent news organisations and triggered a boom in the local media that has given Iraqis free-for-all platforms on their new-found but troubling path to democracy.
However, 10 years after the US-led invasion of the country that toppled the repressive Saddam regime and was hailed as paving the way for democracy in Iraq, the mood has changed as Iraqis face the daily reality of their media suffering from serious professional and ethical problems, including shady ownership, political influence and bias.
Indeed, due to their flagrant bias and even the sectarian warfare they have found themselves engaged in, much of what has been left are merely the mouthpieces of various ethnic and sectarian factions and party patrons who use them for their own ends.
In recent weeks, and as the country has been mired in a deep Shia-Sunni conflict over power and wealth-sharing, concerns have been growing that the media is playing a negative role in deepening the country’s political crisis.
Whether by choice or by ownership agendas, Iraq’s media is widely seen as being driven into participating into the kind of sectarian shouting that many of the country’s politicians fear could be the trigger for renewed civil strife on street level.
Overall, the Iraqi media is now split into three camps, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish, each of which leans towards its own community. While the third is basically oriented to defending Kurdish interests, the Shia and Sunni camps remain engaged in sectarianism and political insult throwing.
Sunni-owned radio and television stations have been accused by Shias of partaking in the vocal fighting by presenting rumours or sectarian rhetoric and giving platforms for speakers and preachers to incite hatred.
Since the Sunnis started demonstrations in December to protest against perceived discrimination, orators at their public rallies have been accusing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s government of being “Safavids”, a derogatory way of saying that it belongs to Shia and Persian Iran and is not of Arab descent.
Another insult used recently at Sunni protests against Shia politicians is that the latter are “Alqamis”, a reference to the Shia chief minister to the last Muslim Abbasid caliph Ibn Alqami, who, Sunnis claim, betrayed the Sunni caliph and surrendered Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 CE.
Both accusations are meant to blame Iraqi Shias for the US-led invasion in 2003 and Iran’s increasing influence in the country afterwards.
Last week, many Sunni-owned media outlets reported that fliers signed by a Shia militant group had been distributed in some neighbourhoods of Baghdad ordering Sunnis to leave their homes. The same outlets had reported earlier that many Sunni activists had been assassinated by “silencers” in other neighborhoods.
On Sunday, Iraq’s media regulatory body sent a stern warning to the country’s media outlets that it would not tolerate sectarianism in their broadcasts. “They should rectify their discourse and stop the sectarianism,” Mujahid Abul-Leil of the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission was quoted as saying by several Iraqi outlets.
Al-Maliki himself has blasted certain unnamed television networks for providing platforms to his Sunni opponents, whom he has accused of using sectarianism to incite members of their communities against the government.
“I tell those speaking with sectarianism in the sectarian media… to keep away from it,” Al-Maliki told a conference in Basra in south Iraq on Sunday.
On the other hand, Sunnis have accused media outlets owned or financed by Shia political groups of lacking religious tolerance, with some of them going as far as to promote sectarian divisions. 
Many Iraqis accuse Al-Maliki’s Shia-led government of using the state-owned media to slander his opponents as either “terrorists” or “collaborators” with foreign countries.
Among the country’s mostly criticised outlets are Iraqiya TV and the Al-Sabah daily newspaper, which are run by the Iraqi Media Network, a national conglomerate funded by public money.
Although its director, Mohamed Abdel-Jabar Al-Shabout, a Shia journalist who is close to al-Maliki, has denied that the two outlets are government mouthpieces, he has insisted that the group is entitled to take up positions on key issues.
“The duty of the state media is to defend the society and to prevent its slipping into a civil war, to encourage dialogue, and to seek political compromises instead of military confrontations,” Al-Shabout wrote in an editorial in Al-Sabah recently.
“The state-owned media cannot be neutral. Neutrality should not come at the expense of objectivity and national interests. You cannot be neutral between chaos and order, or between war and peace, or between a state and no state,” he wrote.
The Network, which was meant to be a world-class media operation, was established by the US-led coalition to replace Saddam’s state-owned media and produce “fair and balanced news coverage” and function as a public-broadcasting service that would transcend political and sectarian divisions.
However, once leading Shia parties took control of the government following the 2005 elections, the multi-million-dollar body evolved into a propaganda tool for the government with a discernible sectarian bias.
One of the key accusations is that the group did not send reporters to cover the ongoing protests in the Sunni provinces, though Al-Shabout has said that this was out of fear that its reporters could be harassed or even killed.
The Kurds, who have been at loggerheads with the Baghdad government over resources and territory, are also unhappy with the group’s performance and accuse it of being a mouthpiece for Al-Maliki.
The controversy has underscored the troubled status of the Iraqi media, which many believe is a mirror of a country that has acquired the image of an ethnic and sectarian cauldron.
Since the US-led invasion, hundreds of media outlets, including satellite television stations, radio stations and newspapers, have sprung up, many of them owned or run by political groups touted as sectarian.
Dozens of TV and radio stations that now capture the Iraqi airwaves, and many more print publications that pepper Iraqi newsstands, are affiliated with political or religious parties that seek to advance their agendas.  
Some are reportedly financed or backed by Iraq’s neighbours, such as Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and some are accused of being responsible for boosting sectarianism in Iraq. Others receive lavish finance from Iraqi and Arab entrepreneurs who have business interests in Iraq.
Another outlet that is fuelling the sectarian divide in Iraq is the Internet, and many websites can be seen as ways of promoting the interests of sectarian groups.
As a result, Iraq’s media now reflects the country’s political and religious divisions rather than being a diverse and free media and a means to inform, educate and entertain people and act as an essential instrument of nation-building.
What is most disconcerting is that the Iraqi media and journalists are being caught in the crossfire of the country’s sectarian divisions and driven by warlords and self-centred politicians who are inflaming sectarianism for their own greedy interests.

يأخذ الكلام في العلاقات المصرية الايرانية عادة منحي مذهبيا‏,‏ اي في اطار اعادة انتاج خطاب الفتنة التاريخي بين السنة والشيعة‏,‏ وهو ما تجلي مؤخرا بشكل سافر في مناسبتين‏,‏ هما زيارة الرئيس الايراني محمود احمدي نجاد للقاهرة التي صاحبها الكثير من القيل والقال, ونص رسالة منشورة لعدد من المفكرين ورجال الدين الايرانيين معنونة للرئيس المصري محمد مرسي اثير ايضا حول مضمونها ودوافعها الكثير من الجدل الطائفي.
وبالرغم من صعوبة إنكار العامل المذهبي في صراعات المنطقة, سواء كونه حقيقة تاريخية, او عنصرا حاضرا في ازماتها الحالية, الا ان التركيز علي هذا الخطاب ومحاولة منحه الاولوية المطلقة علي العوامل الاقليمية المتفاعلة, يثير تساؤلات عديدة بشأن مبرراته وجدواه, وان كان الامر حقا يتعلق بنزاعات الهوية المتجذرة وقضايا التعايش, ام يتعداه الي مجمل وضع ومستقبل المنطقة في عالم ما بعد الثوارت العربية.
ما يثير المخاوف حقا هو عما اذا كان الخطاب المذهبي سيصب في مقولة الصراع داخل الاسلام الذي يتوقعه البعض كتحصيل حاصل للتغيرات الناتجة من صعود الاسلام السني وهيمنته علي المشهد السياسي وقواعد الحكم في بعض دول الربيع العربي, مقابل تزايد النفوذ الايراني والبزوغ الشيعي في المنطقة الذي تحقق بتميكن شيعة العراق من الدولة اثر الغزو الامريكي له.
ما أريد ان اشير اليه بشكل اكثر وضوحا هنا هو العلاقة الوثيقة بين الصراع الطائفي واحتمال تصاعده ومستقبل الثورات العربية وكيف ان العزف علي الاوتار الطائفية وتأجيج الفتنة السنية الشيعية سيؤدي بالنتيجة الي ضعضعة العملية التاريخية الجارية في عموم المنطقة لتحقيق اهداف الثورات وعلي رأسها وضع اسس الديمقراطية وبناء مجتمعات ودول حديثة متطورة علي انقاض انظمة الاستبداد والاستغلال والتخلف.
من هذا المنظور فان الصراع الحقيقي الجاري في المنطقة الان هو ليس بين اتباع مذهبين في دين واحد ويعبدون إلها واحدا وداخل شعوب تمتلك هوية وطنية وقومية جامعة, كما قد تظهره التشنجات والجعجعات والتطرفات المذهبية, بل هو في الحقيقة بين قوي المستقبل التي تريد ان تبني تلك المجتمعات علي اسس الحرية والعدالة والتقدم, وتلك القوي التي تريد ان تشدنا بعيدا الي وراء, وهي قوي موجودة داخل كل مذهب ودين تتضافر لاعقلانيتها وارتداديتها مع ما تحمله داخلها من اوهام الهوية لكي تنتج ذلك الشحن العدواني تجاه الاخر وللحداثة والديمقراطية.
ويظهر التاريخ الاسلامي عبر قرون طويلة ان قوي الغلو والانغلاق ومحترفي الفتنة المتحالفين مع التسلط والاستبداد بالذات هم الذين أججوا الصراعات واعتاشوا عليها لكي يحولوا الدين الحنيف من رسالة سمحاء قائمة علي اساس العدل الالهي والاحسان وتكريم الانسان واحترام حريته الي ملك عضوض قائم علي بيعة مشتراة, او نيابة ولائية مطلقة لا اساس لها في العقيدة.بل ولعل التاريخ يكتشف اكثر من ذلك وهو ان هلاك الكيانات الاسلامية وخراب العمران لم يأت من التنوع وحتي من الاختلاف المذهبي والعقدي, وانما من فساد الملك وجدب العقل عند اهل الرأي والاستشارة.
بايجاز فإن القضية المطروحة علينا الان كشعوب في هذه المنطقة ليست مواجهة سنية- شيعية بالمعني الفكري والاعتقادي, فذلك اصبح مكانه رفوف الكتب, بل هو صراع سياسي, ان لم يكن مقبولا فهو مفهوم, بين دول وكيانات علي المصالح والثروات والنفوذ والقوة, وهذا ما اثبتته التجربة العراقية وتبرهن عليه التجربة السورية وما يحيط بهما من استقطابات وتحيزات.واذا كان مطلوبا بقوة ايقاف تداعيات هلال الازمة الطائفية المآساوية تلك فمن الاجدر والاولي وقف اتساعه وتوظيفه باستدعاء اطراف ودول اخري في المنطقة وتعميمه لمنع ليس فقط المزيد من تشظي المنطقة وتقسيمها, بل الانهيار النهائي لها ككيان عربي- اسلامي.
ليس لدي أدلة قوية تدعم ما يقوله الرواة من ان هناك مؤامرة خارجية تحاول ان تستغل ثورات الربيع العربي بهدف تأجيج صراع سني- شيعي وتفتيت المنطقة من اجل بقاء اسرائيل وخدمة مصالح الغرب, ولكني مثل غيري لدينا ما يكفي من الحدس وسعة الافق والخبرة بان نري ان هناك تمثلات وممارسات تتيح امكانية الاقتناع بتلك النبوءات الكارثية.ما يمكننا رؤيته ببصيرة هو ان البعض منا قد يعمل, حتي دون قصد ولكن بحمية حاملي مشعل الدفاع عن الهوية, علي تقديم يد العون لمن يعملون علي ذلك السيناريو البغيض.
العلاقات العربية الايرانية بمجملها قضية اشكالية في تاريخ المنطقة المشترك بين الامتين اساسها هو وجود نسختين متعارضتين لديهما من هذا التاريخ.في العصر الحديث ضاعت فرص كثيرة لترميم هذه العلاقة واعادة بنائها علي اسس عقلانية ترتبط بمفاهيم الدولة الحديثة والعلاقات الدولية البناءة وحسن الجوار والشراكة في الاقليم او لم تأت بالنتائج المرجوة.
المرحلة القادمة التي ستختلط وتتشابك خلالها عوامل كثيرة في تلك العلاقات ستكون ضبابية وخاصة لحين حسم مستقبل الحكم وهويته لدي كل طرف. وحتي ذلك الحين سيكون ضروريا مواجهة تحدي العلاقات مع ايران بتفادي اطلاق العنان للوساوس والهذيان الطائفي, بمناسبة او بدونها, والاستعانة بدلا عن ذلك بآليات الحوار والمنابر الدبلوماسية المتوافرة وبالحفاظ علي المصالح المشتركة كجيران في اقليم واحد.

The Iraqi surge revisited

The surge remains America’s most famous and misleading myth in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

Nearly 10 years after the US-led war on Iraq, debate has been renewed about the so-called “surge”, the tactical US military build-up designed to tackle the country’s anti-occupation insurgency and cut US losses from a fight that its troops were losing.
What was advocated by the Bush administration as one of the invasion’s strategic master strokes is increasingly being shown as nothing but another strategic blunder in the disastrous war the United States waged on Iraq in 2003.
The current partisan row in the US Congress over the endorsement of President Barack Obama’s choice for Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, who opposed the surge while serving as a US senator, has also resonated in Iraq, which is embroiled in one of its worst political crises since the US withdrawal in December 2011.
On Monday, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt among a group of Sahwas north of Baghdad, killing at least 22 of the tribal militiamen and wounding dozens amid mounting sectarian tensions and pressures from Al-Qaeda on Iraq’s Sunnis to resume their insurgency against the country’s Shia led-government.
It was the latest attack in recent weeks against the Sahwas, also known as the “Sons of Iraq”, who were set up as part of the surge forged by US General David Petraeus, the US top commander in Iraq at the time, as part of a counter-insurgency strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Desperate to reverse American failures to end the Sunni insurgency in the country, former US president George Bush decided in 2007 to tackle the Iraqi insurgents by ordering a surge of US troops in the country.
The plans were met by opposition by many in Congress who were pressing the administration to begin to pull US troops out of Iraq.
The policy had two declared main goals. First, to bring the level of violence down by increasing US force levels in areas designated as hot spots and forging a tactical alliance with cooperative Sunni groups while shifting to a counter-insurgency strategy to fight Al-Qaeda and other insurgency groups.
The second goal was to promote reconciliation among the competing sectarian and ethnic groups in Iraq.
Shortly after taking command of the US troops in Iraq in February 2007, Petraeus declared that the switch to a counter-insurgency strategy was working, and by autumn 2007 US army commanders and administration officials were boasting that sectarian violence in Iraq had plummeted to levels not seen since the 2003 war, with falling military and civilian casualties.
Their evaluation was that the plans were giving Iraq a chance to climb out of civil war and were creating the time to allow Iraqis to work toward a national political accommodation.
That highly positive assessment gave the Bush administration a chance to redeem itself for the defeat it had suffered in Iraq and clear the way for a US exit from the country.
However, sceptics blasted the assessment as nothing more than an article of faith and another “mission accomplished” declaration, noting that neither goal had been achieved.
Many warned that the consequences of the failure would be catastrophic and would hinder rebuilding Iraq as a viable state, making such an outcome unlikely.
Part of the argument in the current discussions about the Iraqi surge in Washington’s political and media arena is that history has not yet said its final word about the achievements of the strategy.
Indeed, history has long judged the surge, like the war on Iraq itself, as not only the biggest misstep in American military history, but also as a political and strategic fiasco.
Since the beginning, this writer has argued in this paper that the policy was failing. In June 2007, only a few months after the plan was operational, I argued that Washington’s surge strategy seemed to be crumbling based on a careful assessment of all its aspects.
In December, as much of the US media were hailing Petraeus as a hero and as the “man of the year” for bringing victory in Iraq, I again wrote that Iraq was far from being the tranquil democracy that the United States had promised on launching its war, and that it was still wracked by sectarian killing, a stagnant government and deadlocked national reconciliation.
Barely a year after the last US soldier pulled out of Iraq, the nation today continues to see regular outbreaks of sectarian violence and almost daily terrorist attacks, including a wave of bombings this week that killed dozens of people, including Sahwas members.
Violence last year rose to levels not seen for more than two years, with the toll in the deaths of civilians due to the political violence reaching 4,471, according to Iraq Body Count, a monitoring group, or slightly more than the year before.
Iraqi Sunni insurgents are back at work, and they are targeting Iraqi Shias and people connected to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Al-Qaeda has stepped up its campaign against the Shias, and last week it urged all Sunnis to take up arms, leading to fears of civil war.
The Sahwas, controlling tens of thousands of fighters when they were part of the surge, crumbled after the government stopped paying their salaries and integrating them into the security forces.
Hundreds of the militiamen, many of them former insurgents, have been killed by Al-Qaeda, which considers them to be collaborators with the Americans and the Shia-led government.
A recent wave of rallies across the mainly Sunni areas to the north and west of Baghdad, including strikes and sit-ins, has sharpened the sectarian tensions. The Sunni protests were triggered by the arrest of the bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafei Al-Eissawi on 21 December on charges of terrorism and targeting Shias.
The protests raised speculation about the future of the violence-torn nation amid the worst political deadlock and sectarian divisions seen since the US troops departed.
The seven-week demonstrations seem to be a sign of regained Sunni confidence in the face of Shia domination since the US-led invasion that toppled the Sunni regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraq has remained gripped in its worst political crisis as the leaders of its divided sectarian and ethnic communities have failed to reach agreement on how to share power and government revenues.
The country’s Sunni and Kurdish leaders have accused Al-Maliki of violating the terms of a power-sharing deal he signed with rival political parties following inconclusive parliamentary elections in 2010.
As the political crisis in Iraq deepens, Baghdad has been embroiled in a long-running dispute over political participation, oil and land and revenue-sharing with the Kurds in the north.
Tensions between the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish region intensified following reports of a military stand-off between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and the Iraqi army.
As the Sunni protests continue and the violence escalates a year after the last US troops pulled out from Iraq, the beleaguered country has slipped into a state of ongoing and escalating political turmoil.
Corruption in Iraq is not only widespread and endemic, but also systematic and institutionalised.  Most of Iraq’s political leaders are believed to be involved in one type or another of corruption, kickbacks or embezzlement.
Some face corruption charges, including theft or mishandling of state property, nepotism and extortion.
If the objective of the surge was to build a stable and democratic Iraq before the US troop withdrawal, then all these and other mishaps are living testimonies of the stark US defeat in Iraq.
It is sad, disappointing and shameful that some US congressmen, as the handling of Hagel’s confirmation hearing has shown, have been engaged in political game-playing while ignoring Iraq’s ongoing tragedy that was caused by the US occupation.