Iraqis and Kurds: a question of responsibility

Iraq's escalating crisis highlights the contrasting attitudes to the United States of politicians in Baghdad and the Kurdish region.

Hazem Saghieh
22 August 2014

Iraqi politicians, intellectuals, and media figures have for weeks been scrambling to level accusations against the United States. They are convinced that the US has failed Iraq and shirked its responsibilities vis-à-vis their country. Even when it finally intervened in the latest crisis, they argue, this came too late; moreover its purpose was primarily to protect Kurds, rather than Arabs, and Erbil, rather than Baghdad. In line with a familiar Arab habit, some went on to pontificate on how the Americans should pursue their own strategic interests (of which they are assumed to be unaware).

Washington can be criticised for a lot, including for its policy of retreat - in Syria as well as Iraq. Barack Obama’s doctrine can also be questioned very strongly over its ethical claims. However, it's certain that the Iraqis who today reproach the US are the least eligible to do so.

After all, it was Baghdad's politicians who secretly wanted US troops to remain in Mesopotamia while in public they outbid one another in urging that those troops should leave. This one-upmanship often took an accusatory form between Sunnis and Shi'ites, with people of each side boasting that they had sought the US withdrawal more strongly than the other. In fact, this was an extension of the reputational rivalry after the 2003 war, which ostensibly was meant to end suspicions that either group harboured ties to the Americans. In the eyes of the Sunnis, the new Shi'ite rulers were America’s allies; while in the eyes of the Shi'ites, it was the the Sunni "terrorists" who were America’s allies.

After a brief honeymoon following the US entry to Baghdad and the removal of Saddam Hussein, whom the Iraqis had been unable to topple since 1968, virtually no Iraqi recognition of US assistance to the country was voiced. Even the descendants of the Shi'ite religious families that Saddam had killed one by one proceeded, as soon as the American war turned them into rulers of their country, to gift a considerable part of Iraqi sovereignty to Iran. When Nouri al-Maliki was installed as prime minister in 2006, a post denied to Iyad Allawi despite the fact he led the largest parliamentary bloc, it was irrefutable evidence that Tehran had the upper hand in shackled Baghdad.

It was as hard to thank the Americans as it was easy to cede the country to Iran. The Americans, after all, do not fit the categories of Muslim or Shi'ite. Rather, according to the credo held by various radical Arab movements of all kinds, they are just an imperialist policeman and a "great satan": an abomination that should be avoided and rejected.

In the meantime, one of the world’s most corrupt regimes was built in Baghdad, where pilfering, nepotism, and abuse of institutions combined and competed with one another. Even the Sahwat - the Sunni "tribal awakening" movements funded by the Americans, which fought and defeated al-Qaida - could not be tolerated by a deeply and crudely sectarian regime. As for Nouri al-Maliki, who until 8 August 2014 led the regime in question, he constantly gave the impression of craving to emulate Saddam Hussein. 

Al-Maliki departed amid escalation of the war between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Kurds: a war between a clear enemy of the United States (an affiliate of the group that carried out the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington) and a clear friend of the United States. The Iraqi Kurds, for their part, did not hesitate or equivocate in thanking the US for toppling Saddam; did not say different things in public and behind closed doors; and did not within their ranks incite animosity to Washington or play any game of one-upmanship. As for what has been built in Erbil, non-ideal as it may be, it deserves to be protected far more than the monstrosity built in Baghdad.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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