Many current media reports depict Iraq in a despairing light. They cite increasing violence and sectarian tensions, as well as the lack of visible signs of social improvement, to argue that the country is in a downward spiral. A wave of anti-government demonstrations in parts of northern Iraq reinforces a sense of widening division among Iraqis that holds out the prospect of a descent into civil war. The alarm seems even more justified when some protesters directly call on neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to assist them by providing weapons.
Why is this happening? One view is that Iraqis' sense of exclusion from the political landscape and mistrust of politicians have fostered the illusion that only outside involvement can resolve their problems. The limits of “democratic” Iraq, in this interpretation, are severely affecting internal and external relations and policies. Another view is that even ten years after the United States-led invasion and subsequent conflict, the country is still in a transitional phase. Wherever the truth lies, Iraq needs national unity in order to prosper and to improve its people's livelihoods and everyday security. In turn this may require a form of democracy that is carved according to the needs of the nation as a whole.
This is easier said than done, for Iraq's recent history makes it difficult to speak of a unified country. Even any talk of nationalism tends to be given negative connotations, particularly by Kurdish Iraqis. Thus, in an attempt to avoid an adverse reaction and as a counterbalance to sectarianism it may be better to adopt the term “Iraqiness”.
This is not fanciful, because there remain strong connections between Iraqis of various backgrounds. Iraq has for much of its history been a tolerant society in which many different ethnicities and religions lived together peacably, and only in recent decades has this changed under pressure of intense strains and suffering. The current trends of division within Iraqi society along religious and ethnic lines are understandable in this context, though if they continue they carry the danger of embedding animosity and perhaps fragmenting the country.
Such outcomes are possible but they are not inevitable. It is trite to say that Iraq is a country of vast wealth; the oil reserves are well documented, and just one aspect of economic potential. With diversification of the economy many other sectors could flourish, not least agriculture. Iraq’s wealth also lies in a cultural heritage of which citizens should be the proud guardians. Indeed, the most important if often forgotten elements of Iraqiness are the people themselves. Iraqis long had a reputation for being well educated, as well as for resilience and tolerance. These traditions continue to have their effects and could still be a resource for the development of society.
The volatile current situation imposes more suffering on Iraqis, millions of whom have died in recent decades. But Iraq's future will be best secured not by seeking external assistance from actors pushing their own agendas, but by finding internal commonalities and principles that promote harmony regardless of religion or ethnicity. In the end, the people need to decide the future of Iraq together. As long as a sense of Iraqiness survives, there is potential for the country to overcome its problems and shape a unified future.