Milestone year in Iraq
Violence and political deadlock exacerbated the chaos in Iraq this year, writes Salah Nasrawi
It has been another hard year for Iraq and it is not over yet. After suffering eleven tough years of political disputes and communal violence, Iraq entered 2014 with a major crisis that later escalated into a total turmoil.
With the country standing on a cross road, as civil war spirals, the question is whether Iraq will be able to cope with more turbulent years and their potential consequences or 2015 will be a decisive year for Iraq and its unity.
Early in the year violence soared when Sunni extremist insurgents seized large parts of Ramadi and Fallujah after government forces dismantled a Sunni Muslim protest camps. The crisis started in December 2012, when tens of thousands of Sunnis began protesting against what they saw as the marginalisation of their sect and demanded equal sharing in power and wealth.
By late December 2013, former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki was claiming that a protest camp in Ramadi had been turned into the headquarters of the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as IS was formerly known, and ordered a crackdown. As security forces backed by their Sunni tribesmen allies battled rebels in Ramadi and Fallujah, fighters attempted to take control of many Sunni–populated areas around Baghdad, unleashing a broader Sunni insurgency.
As the Shia-Sunni standoff soared, Kurdish relations with the Baghdad Shia-led government further deteriorated. The political Shia-Kurdish discord worsened after the two sides failed to resolve their lingering disputes over energy resources, budget allotments and territorial ambitions. The year has seen Kurds starting selling their oil independently from Iraq, a move widely considered as a further step toward Kurdish secession from Iraq.
In early 2014, however, Kurdish leaders started talking about breaking away from Iraq if their problems remain unsolved. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani warned that the Kurds will seek independence if the new relationship with Baghdad does not stand the test of time.
It has long been assumed that the failure of Shia and Sunnis to resolve their disputes would create conditions conducive for Kurds to break away from Iraq. That moment came after IS advance in mid-June and its capture of large swathes of Iraq territories. Kurds swiftly used the conflict and moved to expand their control over areas along their provinces.
The surge in the Sunni insurgency and worsening of Shia-Kurdish disputes deepened the ethnic-sectarian divide a head of a crucial parliamentary election which was scheduled for April.
The indecisive election results plunged the country in another crisis as an alliance headed by Al-Maliki was declared as having received the largest number of seats in the parliament. Kurds, Sunnis and many Shia groups refused to allow Al-Maliki to have a third term in office accusing him of being behind the worsening political ructions and sectarian violence.
When Al-Maliki finally stepped down under pressure, Iraqis pinned their hope on his successor Haider Al-Abadi not only to repair the dysfunctional government of corruption, cronyism and incompetence left over by Al-Maliki but to save Iraq from falling into the abyss.
A dramatic turn of events came in mid-June when the IS terror group and allied Sunni militants captured the northern city of Mosul in a lightening offensive. Soon IS took several other Sunni cities and declared a Caliphate that also included territories in Syria and sought to expand in the Islamic world.
One of the consequences of the IS’s rise and its threat to Baghdad and Shia-populated cities was the resurgence of Shia militia forces which took arms to fight back. Though the militias were reportedly involved in sectarian violations, including abductions and massacres against Sunnis, their role has become formidable in spearheading the fight against IS.
The turbulence, meanwhile, deepened Iraq’s refugee problem as hundred of thousands had to leave their homes following the IS’s onslaught to escape violence and sometimes war crimes. According to the UN refugee agency some 1.9 million have been displaced this year by fighting and the advance of Islamic State, adding to 1 million previously displaced, and 190,000 who have left the country to seek safety.
By any account, 2014 is another turning point year in Iraq’s history since the US invasion in 2003. Indeed, Iraq is unraveling more than three years after the US troop withdrawal, with this year being the country’s most violent since 2006-2007, the peak of the sectarian strife that followed the invasion.
The conflict has also worsened the human right situation in Iraq as the country saw more grave rights violations perpetrated by IS and the Shia militias that have reportedly led to the deaths of thousands of people. More than 10.000 people were believed to have been killed this year in violence across Iraq while thousands others have been killed in fight with IS.
Aided by the US-international coalition, Iraq may eventually defeat IS. But a military campaign may take several years and could be costly. Also, It could do the opposite: prolong the war, guarantee more human suffering, and serve the interests of IS and Shia extremists.
While the cost of the war against IS will be enormous, the most urgent question remains what are the impacts and the consequences of the dramatic events in 2014 on the direction which the country will be heading. Since the US invasion Sunnis have deeply felt excluded and marginalized. The standoff has deepened the schism between the two Muslim communities. This is why even if a sort of military strategy will defeat IS, the question remains whether Iraq will go back again to be a unitary nation.
There is a general consensus that the war against IS will repair nothing and that a political agreement is needed in Iraq; one that will ensure the creation of a new political structure that will replace the hopelessly dysfunctional ethno-sectarian based political system created by the Americans for the post-Saddam era.
Iraq is crumbling not just because violence is playing havoc in the country, but also because there has been no breakthrough in the sectarian deadlock that has paralyzed its government for so long. Iraq is a failed nation and one main reason for its dysfunction is because it is pillaged by its own corrupt and inefficient leadership.
Unless there is a working system that guarantees competence and transparency in the government and inclusion within a just state that will deal with all Iraqis as equal citizens, there will be no peace or stability in the country.
The United States and many in the international community have made getting an Iraqi government that is inclusive and credible as a prerequisite to help Iraq in the war against IS. They have been insisting on a comprehensive national reconciliation that will end the ethno-sectarian divide in order to provide additional assistance to beat back IS.
To help secure long-term stability in Iraq and reunite its people, such a proposal would need to go beyond the immediate communal and regional agendas; indeed, it would have to be a new grand bargain for a new Iraq. The current system based on sharing power between Kurdish, Shia and Sunni elites is increasingly proving to be meaningless, as they continue to produce sectarianism instead of genuine democracy and the rule of the people.
Human history shows that nations emerge from conflicts. Iraqis are no exception and they can face the challenge of reestablishing ethnic and sectarian coexistence after the destructive conflicts that have befallen their country. The question, however, are current Iraqi leaders ready to relinquish self interests and greed for a historic compromise that will allow Iraq to be ruled by all Iraqis.
Iraq is now three enclaves separated by geography, sectarian and ethnic identities. While Kurds have taken advantage of IS crisis to consolidate their semi-independent region, the gap between Shia and Sunnis is ever widening, highlighting the negative trends that serve as a catalyst to the implosion of the Arab-dominated part of Iraq.
In a situation like this where a political vacuum keeps ethno- sectarian divides persist, a process of reconciling the stakeholders around a new balance of power is not enough and a historic compromise has to be made in order change Iraq’s lots and deliver a true national unity and a genuine comprehensive inclusive system.
For Iraq’s civil strife, 2014 was the year when competing communities carried their sectarian and ethnic resentments to a high pitch, but could it be a turning point to subdue their maximalist tendencies and push forward for accommodation.Much will depend on Iraq’s political elites who should give up their violent ethno-sectarian approach to power.
Milestone year in Iraq