Saudi Arabia and Qatar ratchet up sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq

Iraq, a decade after the US-led invasion and one year after the end of the US occupation, is grappling not merely with an escalating sectarian crisis between the Shia-led government and an increasingly disaffected Sunni minority, but with an intensifying ethnic crisis fomenting in an increasingly defiant and heavily armed Kurdish Region.

In 1991 Saudi Arabia fiercely resisted the toppling of Saddam’s regime and played a major role in pressurising the US to turn its back on the popular uprising against Saddam’s tyrannical regime. In 2003, however, Saudi Arabia’s immense influence in the US was dramatically weakened due to the decisive role played by Saudi nationals in the 9-11 atrocities on US territory.         

Ever since the ousting of Saddam’s regime in 2003, the Saudi regime has adamantly refused to recognise the new democratic system in Iraq and has steadfastly maintained its determination not to have any diplomatic representation in Baghdad. Among the real underlying reasons behind the Saudi regime’s conspicuously emphatic hostility towards the fledgling democracy in Iraq, was and still is its deeply entrenched fear that the success of democracy in Iraq is an immensely harmful precedent, which would undoubtedly inspire its own people.

Another reason is a deeply-rooted animus against the Shia, which explains its fierce refusal to come to terms with the inescapable reality that the Shia in Iraq constitute the indisputable majority. The Saudi regime moreover accuses Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, and the Shia-led Central Government (CG) of giving Iran a free hand to dramatically intensify its influence in Iraq.

Since the 2010 bitterly contested national elections, the heavily Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc - which enjoys the full blown support of both Saudi Arabia and Qatar - has persistently accused Al Maliki and the Shia-dominated National Alliance of high-jacking the elections, despite the patently unambiguous Federal Court’s ruling permitting the formation of the biggest bloc inside parliament. The Saudi king has left absolutely no doubt where his sympathies lie, underlining his unequivocal backing for the Iraqiya bloc by personally meeting its head, Ayad Allawi, immediately before and after the elections. There is little doubt that the US final withdrawal from Iraq in Dec 2011, which coincided with the arrest warrant issued against Tariq Al Hashimi, Iraq’s Sunni Vice President, provided Saudi Arabia and Qatar with a golden opportunity to ramp up the message that Sunni discrimination would escalate dramatically.

Despite considerable geo-political concessions made by the Iraqi government on its stance towards Syria and Bahrain before the Arab League summit held in Baghdad in April 2012, in order appease the Saudi regime, Saudi Arabia appointed its ambassador in Jordan as a non-resident ambassador to Iraq, on the familiar grounds that Iraq was far too insecure and unstable. Even more disparagingly, both the Saudis and Qataris decided to restrict their representation to low level delegations.

As part of Saudi and Qatari relentless efforts to ratchet up sectarian tensions in Iraq, the Qatari Prime Minister, Hamad Bin Jassim, not only asserted that Qatar’s low level participation was aimed at highlighting Qatar’s fierce objection to the marginalisation of Sunnis in Iraq, but to add insult to injury the Qatari PM and afterwards the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud Al Faisal, offered Al Hashimi a formal red-carpet reception in Doha and Riyadh, even when Al Hashimi had been found guilty of terrorism allegations for which he had received a death sentence.

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been working hard to break up the Shia-Kurdish strategic alliance in Iraq, replacing it with a Turkish strategic alliance with the Kurdish Region (KR), headed by Massoud Barzani, a development which has not only dramatically bolstered the position of the KR in its tense confrontation with Iraq's central government (CG) over land and oil, but also more broadly ramped up ethnic tensions.     

Against this backdrop of growing sectarian tension, the arrest, in Dec 2012, of nine bodyguards of Iraq’s Sunni Finance Minister, Rafe Al Essawi and his accusations to the CG of marginalising the Sunni population, sparked protests that have swept through the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar, Nainawa, Salah Al Deen and Deyala - protests which, although they started spontaneously, nonetheless, have been swiftly taken up by a number of the Iraqiya bloc leaders and hard-line Sunni clerics, closely connected to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Iraqiya has made strenuous attempts to win over Muqtada Al Sadr’s vital endorsement, in order to spread these protests far beyond the Sunni provinces. This has involved them in a scramble to replace menacingly sectarian slogans, inlcuidng those of and Al Qaida, with more patriotic invocations. However Izzat Ibrahim’s – vice president during Saddam’s rule – ringing endorsement of the protests, followed by the Al Qaida’s spokesman’s ominous call on the protesters to take up arms, made it absolutely inconceivable for any Shia leader, let alone, Al  Sadr to urge the Shia to join the protests. Indeed, the demonstrations that have taken place in Shia areas have been by contrast highly supportive of Al Maliki’s government, and have categorically rejected any proposed alterations to either Iraq's terrorism or justice and accountability laws.          

The principal accusation of deliberately discriminating against the Sunni minority levelled at the CG holds no water for the following reasons:

-  Firstly, the Sunni minority has persistently held power since 1920. During the Baathist era, starting in 1968, and specifically under Saddam’s rule which began in 1979, Sunni power was further consolidated in Iraq. No wonder, the Sunnis regard the prominent positions given to them under the current dispensation – Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister and seven more ministries – as woefully inadequate.

- Secondly, with the exception of a single clash, which occurred on January 25, 2013 – five weeks after the protests commenced – between the army and the protesters, causing the death of eight protesters, the army has arguably been extremely patient and extraordinarily lenient. In comparison, the army has dealt far more harshly with protests in Shia areas like Basra, Al Nasriya and Al Diwaniyah. 

- Thirdly, in stark contrast to Sunni claims that Article 4 of the terrorism law has persistently been exploited to unfairly target them, in fact it was the Shia cities of Basra, Amarah, and Sadr city that experienced, in 2008, the harshest crackdown and strictest implementation of anti-terror laws.

- Lastly, in an unprecedented move, Iraq's CG swiftly established three committees, headed by prominent officials, to meet protesters demands. The CG is releasing thousands of prisoners and returning to work thousands of employees excluded from their jobs or receiving pensions. The protesters, however, have not only insisted that none of their demands have been fulfilled, but have dramatically ramped up their demands, calling for the dismantling of the constitution and the toppling of Al Maliki’s CG.

These developments strongly suggest that these protests are being spurred on by both internal and external parties, determined to dramatically escalate this crisis. The internal parties include the Iraqiya leaders, including the speaker of the parliament, Usama Al Nujayfi, the Finance Minister, and the head of the parliamentary bloc, Salman Al Jumaili, who are appealing for support on the basis that they are being targeted for standing up to the CG. They see these protests as an opportunity to force the resignation of Al Maliki, or at least for the recovery of ground lost to Al Maliki – particularly in the disputed areas with the Kurdish Region – whose tough stance against the KR has undoubtedly bolstered his popularity with Sunni-Arabs. The protests are certainly music to Massoud Barzani’s ears, current president of the KR, who has been increasingly alarmed by Al Maliki’s growing popularity among the Sunni-Arabs in the disputed areas. 

External parties include Al Qaida, which views the on-going protests as a golden opportunity for more radicalisation and ultimately an upsurge in recruitment. Just as important to Al Qaida is exploiting the army’s reluctance to tackle terrorist suspects in the Sunni provinces – fearing the ready-made accusation of targeting Sunnis – to re-activate the safe-havens that originally existed in the Sunni provinces.

For Saudi Arabia these protests are a dream come true: with Saudi Arabia’s popular uprising, which swept the Shia-dominated and oil-rich Eastern province, spreading to the Sunni heartland. The Saudi regime is increasingly using Iraq’s turmoil to convince its people that democracy eventually leads to instability, insecurity and ultimately civil war. The Saudi regime is seeking not merely to fend off any potential challenge by a democratic Iraq to its leadership of the Arab World, but also to ostracize Iraq by trumpeting these Sunni protests as irrefutable evidence from the horse’s mouth that Iraq is adopting a sectarian policy against the Sunnis.

Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are exploiting the protests in Iraq as a highly effective tool to divert Iraq’s CG attention away from pursuing a diplomatic solution in Syria, as well as silencing Iraq’s strident opposition to the concerted drive on the part of Saudis and Qataris, not just to finance and arm the Syrian opposition – more specifically, the extremist and hard-line Wahhabi Salafi, Jabhat Al Nusra, which is essentially Al Qaida’s branch in Syria – but also to pay salaries to the insurgents. While the Saudis and Qataris are fuelling these protests to keep Iraq’s CG far too busy to prop up the Syrian regime, the Saudi regime is also taking advantage of the resulting sectarian strife it is deliberately stoking in Iraq, Syria and Bahrain - to stave off dissent in its Sunni heartland, by demonstrating that it is not just the guardian of Sunni Islam, but also at the forefront of combating an existential threat from the Shia, namely Iran.        

Add Turkey's open hostility and a revitalised Al Qaida to these sectarian-ethnic conflicts and protests, and what you have is a modified last ditch attempt, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to achieve their overarching goal of destabilising and ultimately dismantling any fledgling democracy in Iraq. Yet, alarmingly, even if this ferocious all-out assault fails to restore minority rule, since the Shia are ready to fight tooth and nail to hold onto power and the CG is showing an unwavering determination, as of Feb 15, 2013, to thwart all attempts to march on Baghdad – then Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem determined to throw their support behind the Sunni drive to establish a Sunni Regional Government, similar to that of the KR, but under Saudi and Qatari complete control. If they cannot seize back control of the whole of Iraq, they seem hell-bent on making do for now with part of it.

About the author

Zayd Alisa is a Middle East expert, writer, human rights activist and democracy advocate. Find him on Twitter

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