Salah Al Nasrawi صلاح النصراوي: Iraq’s ultimate deadlockA new Iraqi leadership may…: #Iraq’s ultimate deadlock A new Iraqi leadership may not succeed in holding the country’s fissiparous communities together, writes Sa…
The Kurds’ endeavours for a national home may be reaching culmination, but the future remains uncertain, writes Salah Nasrawi
Over the last few weeks, Iraq’s Kurds have been consolidating their power by grabbing more land and oil resources in northern Iraq, taking advantage of the political turmoil and an escalating Shia-Sunni conflict.
The Iraqi Kurds have also withdrawn their ministers from the national coalition government, severing their only remaining political ties with the Baghdad government and capping their struggle with the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi leadership to reestablish themselves as a free nation.
In a fresh sign of a breach with Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region has reportedly now started printing its own national currency to be used in Kurdistan once the enclave is officially declared a separate state.
By any standards, these measures demonstrate that the Kurdish moment has finally arrived and the long-awaited dream of setting up an independent Kurdish state is becoming a reality.
Yet, there are still tremendous doubts as to whether the Kurdish goal is achievable and sustainable.
The escalation comes amid fears that Iraq will head further towards chaos if leaders of the country’s divided communities do not soon make progress towards naming a new government following the 30 April elections.
Iraq’s parliament failed this week to reach an agreement on who would be the country’s next president and prime minister.
The Kurds have already seized the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in addition to vast territories in three provinces, nearly doubling the size of the land they have controlled in their self-ruled region since 1991 when the United States and Britain imposed a no-fly zone to protect them from the army of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
With Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani calling on the Kurdish parliament to prepare a referendum on independence, the vigorous new acts have put into perspective the Kurdish strategy of breaking away from Iraq by exploiting the country’s woes and whenever possible triggering a larger national conflict.
A closer look at this approach, however, reveals that the Kurds are using Iraq’s political chess game to capitalise on their opponents in Baghdad by imposing their rules for the endgame.
This strategy is clearly backed by cunning tactical and long-term planning to exploit post-Saddam conflicts to push the independence scheme forward.
In the latest phase of the recent crisis, Kurdish ministers said they were boycotting the national government after Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned the Kurdish Regional Government in Arbil for allegedly giving refuge to “Islamic State extremists” and Baathists.
When al-Maliki named his deputy, Hussein al- Shahristani, to serve as acting foreign minister in place of Hoshyar Zebari, one of the Kurdish ministers walking out of the cabinet, the Kurds seized two oil-production facilities in Kirkuk province and expelled the Arab staff while keeping the employees of Kurdish and Turkman ethnicities.
The two fields are among the main wells producing oil in Iraq, which now produces 400,000 barrels a day.
Last month, the Kurds sent their troops in to capture Kirkuk and vast amounts of land in three provinces that they claim are part of their autonomous region. The moves came following the collapse of the Iraqi army after Sunni rebels led by Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) militants seized large swathes of territory.
Like in any tug of war that aims at capturing hearts and minds and diverting attention away from a drive to seize land and resources, the Kurds have tried to justify their moves by putting the blame squarely on al-Maliki and inflating his mistakes.
When they seized Kirkuk, the Kurds’ pretext was to fill a security vacuum after the Iraqi army had abandoned its posts, and when they seized the oil fields they were acting pre-emptively to stop the government from destroying the installations, they said.
Zebari was removed from his post by al-Maliki and did not walk out in protest against the prime minister’s remarks as he had claimed, demanding an apology from al-Maliki.
On Sunday, Kurdish lawmakers stayed in Arbil and did not attend a parliamentary session scheduled to name new leaders who could help to hold the nation together and confront the Sunni onslaught that has overrun much of the country.
They claimed that an Iraqi Airways plane which should have carried them to Baghdad had remained grounded by the capital’s aviation authority.
The Kurds may be trying to make a case for their statehood, but such moves raise the question as to whether they are using cloak-and-dagger diversionary tactics in order to put al-Maliki and the Shia leadership in the dock while taking the aggressive steps needed to jump-start their project of a national homeland.
The approach of holding al-Maliki responsible for Iraq’s current crisis is a foregone conclusion. The Kurds have also long complained that they are the “victims” of the Arabs and the central government in Baghdad.
What is important this time round, however, is the timing of the triggering of the stand-off, which has seemed to be determined by political expediency as Iraq has gone up in flames.
The Kurdish strategy for post-Saddam Iraq was to keep the central government in Baghdad weak. During discussions with the Pentagon on the role of the Iraqi army before the US-led invasion in 2003, Kurdish leaders insisted on a small and a lightly armed defense force following Saddam’s fall.
Later, they pushed the US occupation authorities to dissolve the Iraqi army and snubbed attempts to provide the new army with sophisticated weapons. The pressure seems to have worked, since some 11 years later the poorly armed and trained Iraqi army was not able to withstand two offensives, one by the Sunnis and the other by the Kurds.
The Kurdish strategy is well-known, and its success in changing reality on the ground has been predictable as Iraq’s political and security crises have continued to spiral and the Kurds have done nothing to stop the country sliding into the abyss.
As the Baghdad government has remained trapped by the raging Sunni rebellion, the Kurds have continued to gain strength and build their national enterprise in what they may want to call the “State of South Kurdistan.”
Barzani last week called on the Kurdish parliament to make preparations for a referendum in the territories captured by his troops in order to annex them to the Kurdish Region.
He also said a referendum on Kurdish statehood was expected within months. Leaks from media close to Barzani have suggested that the design of a new Kurdistan currency has been finalised and is ready for printing.
The Kurdish leadership’s determination to expedite the declaration of a national state continues to capture newspaper headlines. Ham-fisted analyses have also appeared in the western media in support of the “moral” claims of a Kurdish state.
Yet, even sympathetic allies who believe the Kurds have powerful points to make for self-determination have been reluctant to endorse Kurdish statehood.
The question of how a Kurdish state could undermine stability in the region has vexed successive generations of historians, politicians and diplomats. Such geopolitical objections still exist, and redrawing maps of the region would certainly unleash a geopolitical earthquake that could have far-reaching implications.
The idea of statehood is tempting, especially for nations that have suffered under foreign occupation and domination or do not want to be ruled by others. A Kurdish state separated from northern Iraq is a very different process from decolonisation, however, or even separatist moves in Scotland in the UK or Catalonia in Spain and Flanders in Belgium.
A Kurdish state would be a geopolitical firebomb that would necessarily explode into a raging regional conflagration.
Kurdistan already has many of the trappings of an independent nation, such as its own flag, government, parliament, army, sports teams, and distinctive national identity, following decades of rivalry with the central government in Baghdad. Going the whole way now may not be politically and economically feasible.
With the Kurds spread out over Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, an independent Kurdish state would have two painful paths to pursue: either to trigger pan-Kurdish national ambitions for a Greater Kurdistan, or seek protection from a powerful neighbouring nation to safeguard its territorial integrity.
While the first option would trigger the turbulent fragmentation of three other key Middle East nations, the second would just be a change to the name of foreign subjugation. This would hardly be an “independence” that was truly worth the trouble.
*This story was first published at Ahram Weekly
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.
As their rebellion continues to capture the headlines, the question remains what Iraqi Sunnis are up to.In the second of a three-part series , Salah Nasrawi explores how Iraq’s key communities’ have forged their positions and perspectives in post-Saddam Iraq.
“Most of the Sunni leaders were living in another world. They were in a weird state of denial. The Sunnis continued to behave as though they were Iraq.” Nothing better sums up the dilemma of the Iraqi Sunnis following the United States-led invasion of Iraq and ouster of former president Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003 than these few words of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations envoy to Syria, who played a key advisory role in forming Iraq’s first government after the invasion.
For most of the last decade Iraq’s Sunni minority has stubbornly refused to come to terms with the post-Saddam reality that has enabled the country’s Shia majority to come to power and transcend the past in order to build a future for all Iraqis.Most Sunnis boycotted the referendum on the post-Saddam constitution on the grounds that it was a recipe for the end of Iraq as a unitary state as it allowed confessional groups, or provinces, to set themselves up as autonomous regions under a federal system.
The Sunni mood of rejection, fuelled by policies of exclusion and discrimination exercised by the newly empowered Shia-led government, has become a policy choice that was first displayed in dismay and opposition and later became actions of violent resistance to culminate in a persistent rebellion.
By maximising their goals and resorting to violence, the Sunnis alienated moderate secularist Shias who could have partnered with them in a political alliance to challenge the Shia religious groups that took advantage of Sunni extremism to hold onto power.
Since the seizure of Mosul and several other predominately Sunni cities last month, plunging Iraq into a new cycle of sectarian war, the question that has bewildered analysts has been the nature of the Sunni strategy to further their cause amid Shia mobilisation to stall the Sunni advance and retake the captured towns.
It is well understood that the policies of marginalisation of the Sunni community by Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, which have isolated the Sunnis politically, are a main factor behind the revolt. But doubts remain whether resorting to all-out sectarian war spearheaded by the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will allow Iraqi Sunnis to regain their previously dominant role in Iraq’s politics.
Instead, it is feared that the Sunni offensive will only deepen the sectarian schism, further entrench the Shias, and send Iraq down the path of fully-fledged civil war.
The Sunnis face tough questions about their military and political strategy. Baghdad, a city of six million people the majority of them Shias, is unlikely to fall to the Sunni rebels. After absorbing the shock of the defeat, the government forces have also launched a counter-offensive to take back the cities lost to the insurgents.The deployment of newly bought Russian-made Sukhoi (Su-24) bombers and US manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft will drastically shift the military balance in favour of the government troops.
The Iraqi army may not succeed in putting down the Sunni rebellion, but the conflict could trigger a protracted and costly civil war similar to that taking place in neighbouring Syria.The Sunni threats to expand to Baghdad and the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala have already inflamed Shia fears and led to mass mobilisation in Baghdad and Shia cities.Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Shia religious leader, has urged all Shias “who are capable of carrying arms to join the government” in the fight against the rebels. With sectarian mobilisation on the rise, hostilities are expected to simmer to a boil and spread across Iraq.
A key mistake committed by the Sunnis is their alliance with ISIS in their drive to fight the Shia-led government. Although the partnership with the murderous organisation, responsible for killing thousands of civilians, mostly Shias, dates back to the beginning of the Sunni insurgency, the new alliance will put the Sunnis at the mercy of the terrorist group.The declaration of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq by ISIS this week with temporal and spiritual sovereignty will further complicate the sectarian conflict.
One problem is that the Sunnis will be held responsible for the gruesome atrocities which the group is perpetrating in territories under its control, including the summary executions and extra-judicial killings of Shia civilians, police and soldiers, which will deepen sectarian animosity and create a backlash against the Sunnis across Iraq.
Since ISIS spearheaded, the offensive dark sectarianism has swept many parts of Iraq, and there are already reports of Shia reprisals against Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere. In recent days there have been reports of Iraqi police killing Sunni insurgent prisoners in their custody and the sectarian killing of Sunnis in Baghdad.
A second problem is that the Iraqi Sunnis have different goals from those of ISIS, which now wants all Sunnis to pledge allegiance to its “caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Few among Iraq’s Sunnis are expected to make such a vow, and many have fought ISIS before and are unlikely to endorse either the group’s fanatical strategy or its hard-line tactics.
While some Sunnis will continue to aspire to take back control of the government in Baghdad, most only want an end to their alienation and mistreatment by having an equal share in the power and resources either of a federal or of a unitary Iraq.
Sooner or later, the onslaught on the cities and threats to seize more will prove to be an expensive war of choice boding ill for Iraq’s Sunnis. By taking their anti- government protest movement to a full-scale war, Iraq’s Sunnis are risking not only peace and stability but also the country’s unity.
The Iraqi Kurds have already exploited the turmoil and seized land populated by Sunni Arabs, planning to annex it to the autonomous Kurdistan Region. There is a real danger that the insurgents will end up positioning the Sunnis in a resource-poor canton in the so-called Sunni Triangle in western Iraq and resulting in the de facto partitioning of Iraq.
Seen from this perspective, Iraq’s worsening sectarian conflict and the involvement of the ISIS jihadists will have far-reaching implications not only for its people and its neighbours but also for the Islamic world at large.It may ignite the long-anticipated war within Islam, pitting Shias against Sunnis, on the one hand, and moderate Muslims against radicals, on the other.
The Shia-Sunni split dates back to the 7th century when Prophet Mohamed died and a debate emerged about who should succeed him as leader of the emerging Muslim community.The Shias felt Mohamed’s successor should be his cousin and son-in-law Ali Ben Abi Talib, while the Sunnis chose one of his faithful disciples and argued that a prominent Muslim leader who would follow the Prophet’s traditions should be chosen by consensus.That political debate and struggle for power has led to a sectarian rift which since then Muslims have never been able to heal.
In Iraq, the Sunnis held power since the British occupation following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Historians point to the role played by the British authorities in empowering the Sunni elite as a new political class at the expense of the majority Shia population.
By helping the minority Sunnis to dominate the Shias and ethnic Kurds, the British helped set the conditions for today’s sectarianism. While the Sunnis continued to pride themselves on being the guardians of Iraq’s unity, Shia disenchantment with Sunni domination and Kurdish secessionism grew.
Many would now argue that the United States aggravated the situation when it invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, helping empower the majority Shias through the sectarian-based political process it launched. The same US-engineered system allowed the Kurds to have a federal region, which they gradually and relentlessly turned into a semi-independent entity.
Shia political forces worked through their monopoly of power and control of the security forces to consolidate power and did little to initiate a process of reconciliation and inclusion. As a result, the Sunnis felt that they were without effective political representation and subsequently the biggest losers in post-Saddam Iraq.
Yet, Iraq’s problems are not simply the results of the failure and follies of US policy and the rise of the Shias and the Kurds’ secessionist ambitions. They are also the inevitable consequences of the Sunnis’ maximalist strategy, militancy and lack of a sense of direction and leadership. The Sunnis have always needed a political compass and roadmap that would define peaceful and democratic alternatives and allow them to voice their grievances and push for full partnership in a multi-sect political process.
There are many secularist and nationalist Shias who are opposed to the exclusion of the Sunnis from government and reject Al-Maliki’s sectarianism, authoritarianism and heavy-handed style of government. The Sunnis have common ground with these Shias, who want to build a shared future with their Sunni counterparts. Unfortunately, the Sunnis have failed to reach out to these moderate Shias and make statements about their readiness to work jointly to achieve national goals.
The Sunnis need to work for justice in a participatory political system that includes all sects and ethnicities, but in order to do so they have to come to terms with the Shias and the Kurds. As Brahimi rightly noticed, they need to acknowledge reality and stop defining themselves as the only true Iraqis, dismissing the Shias as traitors and “Iranian stooges.”
The ultimate solution to Iraq’s problems is a political one, and the Sunnis cannot pursue their goals through violence and territorial gains. The Sunnis refused the idea of power-sharing among Iraq’s ethnicities following Saddam’s downfall, claiming that the new political system would herald the break-up of the country.Now by seizing cities, they have drawn the lines of a little “Sunnistan.” Worse still, they have put it under the rule of a terrorist group that has declared it to be a Taliban-style mediaeval caliphate.