Is heightened sectarian tension threatening to escalate into civil war, shattering hopes of consolidating Iraqi democracy?
“Countries that are fanning sectarian divisions and conflicts will be responsible for each drop of blood that is shed,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week, pleading with political and religious leaders to stem growing sectarianism.
Erdogan telephoned his counterpart Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to express his concerns.
“Democracy will take a beating if the doubts being felt by partners in the coalition government transform into animosity,” the Anatolia news agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
The current crisis was precipitated by Maliki’s issue of an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, alleging that the Sunni politician was running a covert death squad. Hashimi has taken refuge in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
“There is no doubt (the arrest warrant) was choreographed to put down a marker, to eradicate any doubt over who was in charge in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal,” said Ali al-Saffar, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. As one analysis suggests:
Already seen as having autocratic tendencies in a country where most people have known little but dictatorship, Maliki has long expressed doubt about the efficacy of his brawling partnership government of Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
But the move to arrest [ al-Hashemi] and a demand that parliament remove Maliki’s Sunni deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, ignited a political storm that threatens Iraq’s shaky U.S.-backed coalition and, for some, has called into question Maliki’s commitment to any sort of democracy.
Maliki’s detractors, including former premier Ayad Allawi, claim that he is abusing state agencies for partisan purposes.
The intelligence and security agencies are a “virtual extension” of Maliki’s Shi’ite Dawa party, according to Allawi, head of the Iraqiya coalition, Osama al-Nujaifi, speaker of the Iraqi Parliament and Rafe al-Essawi, Iraq’s finance minister.
“The American withdrawal may leave us with the Iraq of our nightmares: a country in which a partisan military protects a sectarian, self-serving regime rather than the people or the constitution…,” they recently wrote in The New York Times.
With Iranian power growing as US influence declines, the Iraqiya bloc’s Allawi and other Sunni interests “feel totally exposed,” says Laith Kubba, Middle East program director at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. “The real problem is not an authoritarian president or prime minister, but the weak state and weak institutions.”
Maliki’s supporters insist that he is adhering to the rule of law, demonstrating the strength of those institutions.
“Even if Maliki wants to be a dictator,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shi’ite lawmaker, “he cannot because the constitution, which distributes authority, and even the cabinet decisions, are done by voting, and he has just one vote.”
While Erdogan did not name the countries responsible for stoking sectarianism, some observers claim that Maliki’s actions reflect Iran’s growing influence in the wake of the US military’s withdrawal, while others blame Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi regime, one analyst claims, is exploiting regional and sectarian divisions “in a desperate attempt to contain the repercussions of the Arab spring and postpone the arrival of its winds in Saudi Arabia.”
The Hashimi affair gives the Kurds “a momentous opportunity” to secure autonomy and a greater share of oil revenues. If they give the vice president up to Baghdad, the Kurds “could have everything for the taking,” claims one observer:
Hashimi, who hails from the former Baath regime, is hardly a Kurdish ally, and has outspoken ultra-nationalist views toward the country’s Kurdish and Shia population. The task of feeding Mr. Hashimi to Mr. Maliki is made even easier because Mr. Hashimi, a member of the Iraqiyah bloc that won last year’s elections but failed to foster a majority to govern, has little support from within his own bloc.
The incident has created a host of opportunities across the political spectrum, but it also means that the window of opportunity for the Kurds will close precisely when others commit themselves to exploiting the affair.
What is happening in Iraq? is it a prelude to civil war or politics as usual?
Join the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force and National Security Studies Programs for an in-depth look at Iraq in the shadow of America’s withdrawal, as well as the political and security outlook for Iraq and its neighbors.
Senior Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa
National Endowment for Democracy
Douglas A. Ollivant
Senior National Security Studies Fellow, New America Foundation
Former Director for Iraq, National Security Council
LTC Joel Rayburn
Military Fellow, New America Foundation and National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies
Co-Director, Middle East Task Force
New America Foundation
Thursday, January 12, 2012
12:15 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.
New America Foundation
1899 L St NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036