<a href="http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/middle-east-focus">Middle East In Focus</a>
The violence in Iraq in 2013 was the worst in five years. Yet it was the recent dramatic events in the Anbar province that finally captured the attention of the international community. With al-Qaeda elements controlling parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, many have come to fear that the unrest in Syria has indeed threatened to destabilize the rest of the region. For most observers, however, what we are seeing in Iraq is a direct consequence of the Iraqi government’s policies — particularly Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s policy of discrimination against the minority Sunni population. Ironically, it is Sunni politicians who are now calling for a more regional division of authority — a federal Iraq — even though for some Sunnis a regionalization could be economically detrimental.
For the Peninsula’s editorial staff, there are no doubts that the developments in Syria are the immediate source of instability in Iraq. According to a recent editorial by the UAE daily, “Predictions that Syria’s civil war could explode into a regional conflagration and could degenerate into multiple battlefronts are coming true. Our region and the world received with shock the news that Al Qaeda-linked militants have taken over parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, the strategic Iraqi cities on the Euphrates river....The rise of Al Qaeda in Syria and the fighting between jihadists and opposition rebels will only help strengthen the hands of Bashar Al Assad, who has always claimed that those fighting against him are terrorists. And the fall of Fallujah or any other city will weaken Nouri Al Maliki. Countries in the region need to act in unison to exterminate this terrorist scourge.”
That argument, however, might be an overly simplistic one. For some, at least, it minimizes the responsibility of Iraq’s prime minister, who, according to a recent Khaleej Times editorial, must act soon in order to reverse “a serious crisis of governance. The development of militants’ taking over the western cities of Fallujah, Tarmiya and Ramadi just goes on to suggest that terrorism and revulsion are deep rooted, and the problem is yet to be addressed....It goes without saying that Iraq continues to serve as a hub for terror-related outfits as they moved into this Arab country from Yemen, Afghanistan and parts of eastern Africa. The mushrooming of extremist elements and their gradual penetration into the body politik of Iraq is a dangerous sign for its long-term stability and sovereignty. It is here that the Maliki administration has to act selflessly and impartially to establish the writ of the state and ensure rights to all the communities in an unbiased manner.”
The Saudi daily Arab News also urges Maliki to engage positively with Iraq’s Sunnis and to stop treating them as second-class citizens: “Few Iraqis will look back upon 2013 with any pleasure. Moreover they will be viewing the new year with rising apprehension as under the aberrant leadership of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, their country slips into ever greater violence and confusion....The National Unity Government approved in December 2010 after inconclusive elections, was supposed to deliver tranquility and the return of prosperity. Yet from the outset, Al-Maliki showed himself uninterested in either the nation or unity....While it is clear that the Sunni community must root out the terrorists hiding in their midst, as they did once before in a dramatic contribution to peace ahead of Iraq’s first general election in 2005, Al-Maliki has to end his confrontation and baiting of Iraqi Sunnis.”
The problem is that, for many, Maliki is at the heart of the problem. In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat and later posted on Al-Arabiya, Abdulrahman al-Rashed argues that Maliki’s thirst for power and alienation of his political allies is mostly the reason why Iraq finds itself in the current predicament: “Maliki, as those who are interested in Iraqi affairs well know, is governing the country without the partners who helped him reach power....Subsequently, there is no real state anymore and what we see are simply his forces, services, investigators and government....al-Maliki has succeeded in one thing: increasing the state’s conflicts at all levels and between all groups. He believes that the destruction of the temple on top of the Iraqis will prolong his rule for a couple of years at least, under the pretext of the state of emergency. He is aware that it is impossible for him to be re-elected as prime minister due to the large number of enemies he made, whether Sunni, Shiite, Arab or Kurd.”
But, as The Daily Star’s (Lebanon) Fadel Al-Kifaee points out, the greatest danger to Maliki’s re-election prospects are most likely to come from his own Shiite camp rather than the Sunnis: “As Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepares to make a third run in the Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections, daunting challenges appear ahead. More than ever, Maliki stands as a divisive figure in Iraqi politics. His opponents are numerous and diverse, but the strongest opposition to his rule, both political and religious, comes from within his own Shiite community....Maliki’s major electoral threat comes from within his own sectarian-based constituency, namely from the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq....Maliki’s chances at a third term depend largely on the electoral showing of his two Shiite rivals, the Sadrists and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and their capacity to form an anti-Maliki alliance.”
Unfortunately, it might already be too late to remove the sectarian wedges from the Iraqi political arena. Al Hayat’s Hazem Al-Amin warns that many of the Sunnis who in the past opposed the regionalization of Iraq out of fear of economical disenfranchisement now consider such regionalization as acceptable: “At the beginning, the Arab Sunnis in Iraq thought the concept of regions aimed to divide oil wealth and would not be beneficial to them as less as two thirds of the country’s oil is in Basra and a little less than one third is in Kirkuk....The sense of Iraqi Sunni federal awareness was woken up today. Most statements which condemned Maliki’s campaign against Iraq included calls to revive the concept of ‘regions.’ The expression is a clear periphrasis of federalism in its Kurdish formula....The current Sunni call to establish ‘regions’ seems to be part of a move in which the entire region is restructured. The hypothetical Sunni regions — that is Anbar in the west and Mosul in the north — are geographically, socially and demographically connected to what’s happening in Syria — particularly in the north and east of Syria.”
Al Jazeera’s Salah Nasrawi believes regionalization, or even a Lebanon-style sectarian-based political system, would do very little to ameliorate the situation on the ground for the Sunnis, arguing instead in favor of cross-sectarian political alliances: “By running in the election on a communal line, Sunnis will risk deepening the sectarian divide and paving the way for institutionalizing confessional politics. A Sunni politician in the president's seat will give them a moral boost and satisfy the ego of some presidential hopefuls, but not real power. Seen from this perspective, Iraqi Sunnis' best bet is to continue their endeavors to build a multi-sect coalition with secular Shia. That might not put a Sunni politician in the presidential seat next year, but could, in the long run, be the perfect package to end polarization and bring about a truly national unity government.”
Regardless of what Iraq’s various political factions decide to do in the future, it will not change the current dire situation on the ground, which is why so many in the region are calling for immediate international action to address the ongoing violence in the country: “It is sad and tragic that violence in Iraq surged in 2013 to its worst level in five years. Iraq Body Count (IBC), a Britain-based non-governmental organization that tracks violence in Iraq, has stated that one has to go back to 2008 to find comparable levels of violence....The continued violence and deaths go on to prove that the Iraqi authorities and the international community are not doing enough to address the root cause of violence in the country. There should be a concerted global action to save the country, which is paying a heavy price for a war that was launched on the basis of lies that it had weapons of mass destruction.”
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