Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Are we seiing the end of traditional sectarian politics in Iraq?

Iraqi politics in Iraq has been undergoing some dramatic changes. These changes have become clear as a result of the efforts to introduce a vote of no-confidence in Nuri al-Maliki's government in the Iraqi parliament. While new fault lines have developed, sectarianism in its traditional configuration seems to be on the decline. What are the new political patterns and do they imply any radical departure from politics as usual in Iraq?

On the one hand, the effort to oust Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has generated significant support, including that of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), all the parliamentary members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Sadrist Trend and its parliamentary delegates, led by Muqtada al-Sadr and the al-Iraqiya Coalition.  The effort to oust Maliki has once again created a united front after al-Iraqiya split into three factions: Ayad Allawi ‘s core supporters, the “White Iraqiya,” which included parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi and refused to boycott parliament and Maliki's cabinet, and the “Free Iraqiya."

Opposing efforts to oust Maliki are an equally powerful coalition of forces, including Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, and tribal leaders, such as the paramount shaykh of the Dulaym, and the leaders of tribes around Mosul and Kirkuk. What is particularly interesting is the open conflict between Talabni and the party he nominally heads, the PUK (see al-Hayat, June 9). Tribal leaders fear that Maliki’s fall would open the way for the Kurds to assert themselves in the disputed areas along the so-called Green Line that separates the KRG from the north-central regions which are populated by Arabs and Turkmen.  The paramount shaykh of the Dulaym has argued that Maliki brought stability to Iraq after suppressing the Mahdi Army in 2008 and thus deserves to remain as prime minister.  These tribal leaders want a strong man in Baghdad who will protect their interests.

What is most interesting is the new coalition of political forces which has emerged.  Acknowledging that he has come under tremendous pressure to desist for supporting efforts to topple Maliki, Sadr nevertheless has remained resolute in his opposition to the Iraqi prime minister.  Sadr’s main concern is the spreading influence of the League of the Righteous People (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq) Sadr was incensed to learn that his forces were accused of giving support to Bashar al-Asad’s Ba’thist regime in neighboring Syria.  According to al-Sadr, these forces were actually members of the League of the Righteous People who were acting under orders from Iran.  The Sadrist Trend’s criticism of the Syrian regime and implicit backing away from its close ties to Iran, which seems more interested in the League, which is acting as its local proxy in Iraq, is a significant development if it persists.

That Sadr is now allied with what was once his arch-enemy, Ayad Allawi, is also quite remarkable given Allawi’s support of the 2004 attack by US forces on the Mahdi Army in al-Najaf when he was prime minister.  That Allawi and the Kurds have joined when it was the Kurds who played the role of kingmakers after the 2010 parliamentary elections which prevented Allawi from becoming prime minister is equally remarkable.  The alliance of Kurds with the Sunni dominated al-Iraqiya is also significant given the suspicions the Kurds maintain of Sunni tirbal elements who they often say as supported of the former Ba'thist regime

Do these new alliances mean the end of traditional patterns of sectarian politics in Iraq?  While it is hard to come to any hard and fast conclusions at this point, they do point to the fluidity of political cleavages and the impact of exogenous factors, especially Iran, on Iraq's changing political landscape.  Clearly, the current political divisions do not reflect the conceptual prism through which most Western analysts seek to impose on Iraq, namely a rigid divide between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. 

It is important to remember that Saddam Husayn worked closely with the KRG leadership during the UN sanctions of the 1990s to smuggle oil out of Iraq int Turkey and Iran.  This relationship developed after the Ba’thist regime’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s which resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of 175 Kurdish villages.

Barzani had no compunction about inviting Saddam’s army to enter the KRG to help him stave off defeat by the rival PUK in 1996 during the Kurdish civil war.  In return Barzani turned over opposition elements living in Arbil to Saddam’s intelligence services.  Of course, all anti-Saddam elements were summarily killed.

It is important to remember that in 2003 Muqtada al-Sadr stated that only those who were born in Iraq were entitled to make policy statements about Iraqi politics.  This was clearly an attack on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who was born in Iran, a call for Iran to not interfere in Iraqi politics, and an argument that Arab Shiite clerics should dominate the main Shiite religious institution, the al-Hawza al-‘Ilmiya.  Yet al-Sadr later went to Qum to enhance his religious credentials and developed close ties to the regime in Teheran.

When it comes to politics, power will trump ethnic and confessional considerations in all instances.  Whether the changing political alliances in Iraq will present an opening for democratic forces among youth, professionals, the educated middle classes and the upstart Gorran (Change) Party is doubtful.  The forces behind building civil society and promoting democracy in Iraq still are not well organized when compared to Iraq’s dominant and rapacious political elites.

Nevertheless, what the effort to oust Maliki demonstrates is that power is too diffuse and fragmented in Iraq to allow a dictator on the model of Saddam Husayn to reappear on the Iraqi political stage..  While few Iraqis are pleased with the state of politics today, at least the possibilities of protest and political organization are available to Iraqi citizens in a manner that would have been brutally suppressed under the Ba'thist regime.

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