Grand bargain in Iraq?
The choice for Iraq now is either to continue a costly war or to embrace an historic compromise, writes Salah Nasrawi
Soon after he took office in July, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi, vowed that his security forces, working together with Shia militias, would beat the Islamic State (IS) group “in record time.” IS has seized large swathes of land straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.
Al-Abadi, whose predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki’s policy of excluding Sunnis gave rise to IS, promised he would end Sunni marginalisation and bring back peace to the war-torn nation through a programme of national reconciliation. He pledged to include Sunni tribes in the fight against IS and reintegrate disgruntled Sunni groups into national politics.
At first glance, Al-Ababdi’s declared way of battling the group may seem no different from US President Barack Obama’s strategy of putting Iraqi forces in the lead in the fight against IS while providing them with air cover, weapons and military advice.
Ultimately, the United States hopes that after winning the war against IS and regaining the lost territories Sunni tribes and parties will be given responsibility for policing their areas. The US plan also envisages a sort of self-rule for the Sunni provinces of the country after IS is defeated.
But the two approaches seem to sharply differ on some fundamental points, and it is hard to see if either one of them will be successful.
The US plan aims to create a local Sunni force that will take charge of security in the territories regained from IS and operate in coordination with provincial authorities. The force, to be called the National Guard, will be formed from disfranchised Sunnis, including loyalists of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and other insurgents.
The Shia-led government, meanwhile, has called for the suggested units to be part of a cross-sectarian force controlled by Baghdad. It has also planned to give official recognition to the Shia militias that have joined in the fight against IS.
In essence, Iraq’s Shias are not prepared to help drive out IS from Sunni areas in order then to give them back to the Baathists and other Sunnis who have been fighting the government. Many Shias also envision the new force as being a potential Sunni army that could threaten their power.
The Iraqi Kurds, who maintain their own Peshmerga forces, are also openly hostile to any plan to allow Arab troops to share policing of the oil-rich Kirkuk province and other disputed areas captured amidst the IS-triggered chaos. On the contrary, the Kurdish Peshmergas have been occupying areas which they have taken back from IS.
Another key difference is the role of Iran in Iraq. While Washington has excluded Tehran from the US-led international coalition against IS, the Shia-led government in Baghdad relies heavily on Iran in its war against IS. Shia leaders insist that Iran’s role in fighting IS is indispensable.
Bitter as the reality may be, Iran-affiliated militias are doing the most to fight IS militants on the ground in Iraq. Iran is the most important supporter of the Baghdad security forces, providing the Shia-led government with weapons, intelligence and advisors. Propaganda pictures of the commander of Iran’s elite Al-Quds Force and a key player in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, posing in battle against IS is clear-cut evidence of an Iranian-led coalition in Iraq.
Paradoxically, this means that there are two military alliances now fighting in Iraq, each with different goals and divergent agendas. The question now is not which one has a better chance of succeeding, but simply if the victory over IS will help the pill go down more easily in the Sunni provinces.
There is simply no getting round the fact that when the dust of this war settles, Iraq’s Sunni-dominated provinces will still have the vote.
As the past seven months have shown, the Sunni population has little motivation and many reasons to turn against IS, particularly in the absence of a viable and acceptable alternative.
Most Sunnis do not trust the Shia-led government, and they are sceptical about reaching a genuine power-sharing deal with Shia political groups. Also, the areas under the IS group’s control are predominantly tribal, and increasing social and tribal bickering and hostility is more visible than any unified enmity to IS.
Such a complicated situation also makes it much harder for any force from outside, such as the US-led international coalition, to retake areas from IS, owing to the difficulty of filling the void and forming new alliances with local communities.
On a larger level, Iraq is going through a crisis that is not simply one of a war against terrorism but also of the ethno-sectarian-based regime that the US occupation authority created after the invasion of 2003.
The Shias and Kurds are still haunted by Saddam Hussein and his brutal rule. The Sunnis, on the other hand, have developed a culture of insurgency driven by feelings of alienation in the post-invasion era that ended 80 years of Sunni rule in Iraq and led to the subsequent empowerment of the Shias.
In this political crisis, both the ends and means of the state have become objects of immediate struggle. A situation like this puts all the parties to severe tests of national identity, power and resource sharing, along with leadership and political adaptability.
Therefore, aiming solely at defeating IS, with the ultimate goal of bringing stability to the country, seems not only to be politically naïve but also counterproductive. The Sunni insurgency was of course a necessary condition for the rise of IS, but it was not only the security vacuum that allowed IS to exploit the situation.
Since the US-led invasion, Iraq’s Sunnis have felt excluded and marginalised. A lasting power-sharing agreement between the two Muslim communities has failed to materialise. This is why even if there is a military strategy that will defeat IS, the question remains whether or not Iraq can go back to being a unitary nation when there is no formula for a balanced and sustainable power-sharing.
Today, Iraq is really made up of three enclaves separated by geography and sectarian and ethnic identities. While the Kurds have taken advantage of the IS crisis to consolidate their semi-independent region, the gap between the Shias and Sunnis is growing wider, highlighting the negative trends that have served as a catalyst for the implosion of Arab-dominated Iraq.
Beating IS is unlikely to end this trend. To avoid Iraq’s collapse requires a much larger effort than the government or the outside world have so far pledged. Iraqis have to heal the wounds left by Saddam’s brutal legacy, the sectarian-based system orchestrated by the US occupation, and the blind rage and violence it has triggered.
In recent weeks the government has been talking about national reconciliation. Vice-President Ayad Allawi, entrusted by President Fouad Massoum to coordinate such efforts, announced on 21 December that he had outlined a blueprint for reconciliation, though past reconciliation attempts have failed dismally.
The Iraqis have reached a dead end in resolving their ethnic and sectarian disputes. The only alternative left is to fight a long and costly war that will end with the break-up of their country. But partitioning Iraq is not a solution as it will create three small, weak entities which will end up being annexed by their powerful neighbours or becoming their protectorates.
In a situation like this a historic compromise has to be found in order for all the communities to subdue competing sectarian and ethnic resentments, forestall the escalation of the conflict and fend off a Balkans-like scenario for the country.
It is now up to the Shias to make an offer the Sunnis cannot refuse. The Kurds should stop exploiting the Shia-Sunni divide to advance an independence that will be resisted by Iran and Turkey. The Sunnis should also shelve unrealistic demands and accept a generous autonomy that would link them with the Shias and the Kurds in developing a national identity broad enough to give them equal power in the country.
To help secure the long-term stability of Iraq and reunite its people, such a proposal would need to go beyond the immediate communal and regional agendas. It would have to be a grand bargain for a new Iraq.
This grand bargain would need to be a genuinely historic deal that would allow the rival communities to put their egos aside, abandon their past prejudices and seize the chance not only to save Iraq from IS, but also to preserve their country, one of the oldest in human history, for themselves and future generations.