Monday, October 31, 2011

(Elite driven) sectarianism is alive and well in Iraq

Despite public opinion polls and my recent focus groups with Iraqi youth that show a rejection of sectarianism, the behavior of Iraq's political elite threatens to undermine the gains that have made in the effort to implement a democratic transition. Sectarianism continues to manifest itself at the highest level as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki refuses to budge on his unwillingness to come to terms with Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiya Coalition which received the largest number of seats in the March 2010 parliamentary elections.
When the conflict between al-Iraqiya and Maliki's al-Da'wa Party first flared after the elections, the two Kurdish parties that dominate the KRG welcomed the split. Their reasoning was simple. If the Arabs fight it out in Baghdad, they'll have less time to devote to us. A power struggle in Baghdad would preclude a unified Arab front which would to try and block Kurdish interests.

Along the lines of the adage, "be careful of what you wish for," the Kurds have discovered that a dysfunctional government in Baghdad is actually not in their interest. Sectarian leaders often discover that, when you play with fire, you often get burned. The Kurds increasing unease with the stalemate in Baghad was evident in the Central Committee meeting of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that was recently held in Sulaimaniya (ses al-Hayat, Oct. 21). PUK leader and Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, expressed serious concern with the "uncertainty" surrounding a solution to the crisis pitting al-Iraqiya against Maliki's political alliance which seems to have no end in sight.

Even the Kurds, who seek a weak central government in Baghdad, realize the danger that exists if the present stalemate between Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi persists. Iraq's ability to defend itself, to develop its hydrocarbon wealth - oil and natural gas- and to create the necessary feelings of trust that will allow all of Iraq's regional and ethnoconfessional groups to work together to get the country moving forward are increasingly jeopardized.

Clearly, the fault here is not the Iraqi people but their ineffectual and narrowly partisan leaders. Whether as a result of pressure from Iran, or fears of being outflanked by populist elements such as the Sadrist movement, Maliki refuses to come to terms with Allawi and the members of his al-Iraqiya Coalition. Because al-Iraqiya won the majority of votes, it needs to be given a say in the daily functioning of the Iraqi government. As a primarily Sunni Arab coaltion, Maliki's unwillingnessl to bring al-Iraqiya into his government smacks of sectarianism among much of Iraq's populace.

By refusing to ceded any power to Allawi and al-Iraqiya, Maliki is stoking the fires of sectarianism. If he were a true statesman, he would put the interests of Iraq and the Iraqi people above his own sectarian partisanship.

A second indicator of the seriousness of sectarianism is the "struggle of the flags." Since the downfall of Saddam Husayn's Ba'th Party, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has refused to fly the Iraqi flag. It is nowhere in sight when one crosses the border from Turkey into Iraq, nor does it fly elsewhere in the KRG. Because the flag still invokes memories of Ba'thist Pan-Arabism, and inscription "God is great" (Allahu akbar) was added by Saddam Husayn just before the Gulf War of 1991 to attract support from Muslim majority countries, the KRG has been loath to have the flag flying in its Kurdish majority provinces.

However, the Kurds have used the symbol of the flag for their sectarian purposes. When Iraq won a Cinderellaesque victory in the 2007 Asia Cup beating Saudi Arabia, many Kurds raised the Iraqi flag to celebrate the vicotry, especially since Iraqi Kurds play on the national team. Nevertheless, those Kurds who had raised the Iraqi flag were threatened with imprisonment if they did not immediately remove the flag from their homes.

In 1996, during the height of the Kurdish civil war that pitted the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) against its arch-rival, the PUK, Masoud Bazzani, the current KRG president, asked Saddam Husayn to send tanks into the Kurdish region to help him stave off a military defeat by PUK forces. As the tanks of the Iraqi army proceeded north into the KRG, Iraqi flags adorned the roads. This was the same Iraqi army that had been involved in the infamous ANFAL campaign between 1986 and 1989 in which Saddam's forces leveled 175 Kurdish villages, destroyed the Kurdish agrarian sector and killed thousands of Kurds in the process.

The most recent crisis is the order that the Kurdish flag be removed from government buildings in the city of Khanaqin, a Kurdish majority town in Diyala Province, not far from Iraq's northwest border with Iran. The town suffered under Saddam's Arabization policies as many Kurds were killed and their homes taken over by Arabs. However, during the the 1940s, and 1950s, Arabs and Kurds in the Khanaqin region enjoyed good relations and many shared membership in local labor unions, particularly oil unions since the area has important oil fields.

Whether Maliki ordered the KRG's flag removed, or the order came from an official in the Ministry of Interior, the issue has become intertwined with Maliki's introduction of a oil and natural gas bill into the parliament that apparently caught the Kurdish bloc in the Council of Deputies (national parliament) off guard (al-Hayat, Oc. 17). The order to remove the flag led to demonstrations in Khanaqin by its Kurdish community and the formation of a Kurdish delegation to go to Baghdad to demand that the order be rescinded.

The Kurdish suggestion for a new Iraqi flag that would resemble if not replicate the flag used under the rule of General 'Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-1963), which used the ancient Mesopotamian star of Isis, is not unreasonable and is supported by many Iraqis. However, the "struggle of the flags" is really not about symbols but rather part of a larger power struggle between the Maliki government and the KRG. The winner's prize will be Iraq's vast hydrocarbon wealth (oil and natural gas).

Yet another example of the corrosive effect of sectarianism in Iraq is the decision of the Maliki government to dismiss 145 Iraqi professors at Tikrit University in Salah al-Din province, a province comprised primarily of Sunni Arabs. After the fall of Tripoli, former Libyan National Transitional Council prime minister Mahmud Jibril flew unexpectedly to Baghdad to inform Maliki that the NRTC had discovered that the Qaddafi regime was involved a plot with former Ba'thists to overthrow the Iraqi government.

It is unclear how serious the plot was since no documents have been released. Nevertheless, Maliki quickly moved to arrest many former Ba'thists. Because the party recruited a disproportionate number of Sunni Arabs, the arrests have strong sectarian overtones. The firing of professors at Tikrit University was particularly egregious because it is difficult to imagine that such a large number of academics at one particular university could have all been involved in a plot against the government. University professors are not know for their skills in organizing coups d'etat against the state.

Since almost everyone under Saddam was forced to join the Ba'th Party, the Iraqi parliament passed a law in 2008 amending the de-Ba'thification process to include only those who occupied positions that harmed other Iraqis. Clearly, the faculty members who lost their positions at Tikrit University were not in this category. The firings of the professors only enhanced the idea that Maliki was using the news of a plot to marginalize Sunni Arabs.

Aside from Ayad Allawi, who deos seem to want to create a government with a broad social base were he to become prime minister, most members of Iraq' s political elite suffer from sectarianism tendencies and promote policies that undermine inter-ethnic and inter-c0nfessional trust. Their behavior is motivated by their desire to increase their polticial power and enhance their economic wealth. Although Maliki himself has not been associatedwith economic corruption, he has done little to try and eradicate it.

As for Maliki, "the fish rots from the head down," as the adage goes. Not only is he failing to provide strong, civic leadership that could promote national reconcilaition - a key component of building the necessary trust to enhance security, political cohesion and economic development - but he is promoting policies that further inflame sectarian tensions.

Under these conditions, the ability of Iraq's political institutions to develop is severely curtailed. Prospects for implementing a democratic transition require effective eladership and a political culture of tolerance and political pluralism. Such a political culture represent the prerequisite for rebuilding the necessary trust that Saddam Husayn and his Ba'thist henchmen worked so hard to destroy in Iraq.

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