Thursday, May 10, 2012

The deepening crisis of sectarianism in Iraq

How does the continuing spread of sectarianism threaten Iraq’s political stability?  No longer are Iraqis talking about implementing a democratic transition.  Instead, they are increasingly resigned to their inability to challenge Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s inexorable march towards imposing a new authoritarian regime on Iraq.  A key component of that effort is the manipulation of sectarian identities.

Having coopted members of two of the main opposition parties, the al-Iraqiya coalition and the Badr Organization, Maliki has effectively precluded any effort to pass a vote of no confidence in the Iraqi parliament.  Gradually opposition parties feel that they will need to wait until the next scheduled elections in 2014 to rid themselves of the heavy handed prime minister.  However, will elections be rigged by that point in such a way that Maliki (like Russian leader Vladimir Putin) will be able to remain in power indefinitely?

The excellent online Iraqi news source, Niqash (May 3), reports that the governments of Iran and the United States have entered into a tacit agreement to support Maliki and keep him in power. Whether this is an overstatement of US and Iranian policy is hard to say.  What is clear is that the Obama administration has had very little to say publicly about some of the disturbing decisions recently taken by the Maliki regime.

Maliki continues to push the sectarian envelope.  The most recent result of these policies is a diplomatic crisis with Turkey which threatens to grow out of hand.  Infuriated by comments in mid-April by Turkish prime minister, Recip Tayyib Erdogan, that Maliki’s “self-centered” policies had increased political tensions among Iraq’s three main ethnic groups, the Iraqi leader branded Turkey a “hostile state” which is unjustly interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. He likewise accused it of seeking to impose its “hegemony” on the entire Middle East.

Never one to avoid exploiting a good crisis, Malik has turned his spat with Turkey into an attack on the Kurds and the KRG leadership as well.  If he was angry with Erdogan’s criticism, Maliki was equally upset by remarks by KRG President, Masoud Barzani, who accused Maliki of institutionalizing a new dictatorship which threatens “the unity of Iraq.” 

These problems come on the heel of Turkey and the KRG giving refuge to Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, who Maliki accuses of running death squads in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 (accusations which have been known for several years but only now are being acted upon).  Hashimi is under court indictment in Iraq and supposed to stand trial in Baghdad (al-Hayat, May 1),  This week Interpol issued a “Red Card” which effectively places Hashimi on its most wanted list of fugitive criminals.

In his fight with Erdogan  and Barzani, Maliki has sought to blame Iraq’s economic problems on the KRG and Turkey.  According to Maliki and his close ally and former oil minister, Husayn al-Shahristani, the KRG is “stealing” large amounts of Iraq’s wealth by secretly exporting oil from the north and failing to send the proceeds to Baghdad for national distribution.  Thus the KRG is breaking the law (see al-Hayat, Apr. 30).

Maliki has encouraged his allies among the provincial governors in Iraq's majority Shiite provinces in the south to denounce both the Kurds and Turkey.  al-Najaf governor, Adnan al-Zurfi, has organized a conference of governors to censure Erdogan for his comments but, more importantly, to organize a boycott of Turkish products being sold in Iraq.  Indeed, large numbers of Shiite tribes in the south have already committed to this boycott.  While the proposed boycott is economically inconsequential for Turkey, the use of the KRG and Turkey as scapegoats for problems which Maliki refuses to address further erodes hopes of national reconciliation.  He further alienates the Kurds and, by extension, the Sunni Arab community as the crisis is increasingly viewed as one pitting Iraq’s Shiites against the Sunni Arabs and Kurds. 

That the Maliki regime tolerates massive corruption and nepotism and has failed to supply Iraqis with needed services is lost in the larger political calculus which is only about the prime minister deepening his authoritarian control.  Recently, Maliki used the courts to strip the independent corruption commission of its ability to issue reports and had its function transferred to the Interior Ministry which, of course, he heads (see al-Hayat, Apr. 10).

As Maliki systematically eliminates the power of all independent organizations that could challenge his authority, the Kurds become a convenient whipping post to deflect attention away from his own destructive policies.  Supposedly, the Kurds explain why economic and social conditions are so bad in southern Iraq.  If only the KRG would turn over the oil wealth that is owed to the central government, then the conditions of the Shi’a populace would improve.

As Husayn Jamal al-Din, head of the Iraqi Democratic Trend (al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati al-Iraqi) in al-Najaf pointed out to al-Hayat (Apr. 30), Iraqis in the south have never lived under a true democratic government and have little understanding of the term.   Instead, they increasingly are coming to associate “democracy” with the personal venality of individual politicians. In other words, Maliki’s sectarian policies are undermining the development of a democratic political culture in Iraq.

Maliki’s sectarian policies obviously have important regional implications.  His cozying up to the Islamic Republic of Iran is deeply worrying to Turkey which fears a spread of sectarian violence pitting Shiite and Sunni radicals in Syria and Iraq.  Lurking in the background and further stoking sectarian tensions is the ongoing “Cold War” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These political developments should not be seen as pitting  “good guys” against  “bad guys” (and indeed it’s notable how few if any women politicians appear in this narrative).  Turkey is itself pursuing an increasingly authoritarian form of governance under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recip Tayyib Erdogan.  Everyone knows that the KRG is not reporting accurate figures to the central government on the amount of oil it’s extracting and selling from oil fields in the north.

The real problem is the deterioration of the political situation inside Iraq as evidenced by the increased harshness of political rhetoric, Kurdish threats to secede from Iraq and declare an independent state, and the spread of violence throughout Iraq’s Arab provinces. Maliki’s sectarian policies only throw more (no pun intended) oil on the fire

One key question that Iraq’s increasing crisis situation raises is: where is the United States and what is it doing to use its influence to bring pressure to bear on Maliki to desist from his destructive policies?