Iraq's political crisis and the shadow of sectarian politics

As the US completed its official withdrawal from Iraq, a series of events stoked a political crisis that will push Iraq toward a precipice.
Rachel Kantz Feder
28 December 2011

Observers questioned the timing of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's audacious moves against two of Iraq's senior Sunni politicians, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak. All within days of the troop withdrawal, Maliki called on the parliament to depose Mutlak, who recently likened Maliki to Saddam, and the judiciary issued an arrest warrant for VP Hashemi's alleged involvement in terrorist activities. Kurdish officials have refused to comply with Maliki's request to remand Hashemi who subsequently fled to the Kurdistan-Iraq Region. Amid security deterioration, Iraqi politicians are left scrambling to address the impasse and salvage the national partnership government.

It is no coincidence that Maliki's manoeuvers came after and not before the US withdrawal; however this conflict has been brewing for months. Maliki has intensified his efforts to eliminate vestiges of the Ba‘th regime through new legislation, arrests, and purges, enraging Sunni politicians and their constituents. The profound disenfranchisement and marginalization of Iraq's Sunni populations has contributed to an increasing demand to establish autonomous regions in provinces where Sunnis constitute the majority. Though other provinces have raised the federalism option, Maliki and his allies view the push for Iraq's partition as a Sunni scheme to devolve Baghdad's power and resources.

On the eve of the US withdrawal, Iraqi politicians confronted an array of divisive issues and volatile flashpoints, not limited to what is viewed as Maliki's growing authoritarianism and its discontents. Inter alia, the challenge of formulating foreign policy vis-à-vis regional upheavals was another line added to Baghdad's list of sources of contention. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's potential downfall and the specter of a civil war on Iraq’s border posed a major foreign policy predicament for Iraq's divided politicians in November.

Iraq's abstentions from the unprecedented Arab League votes to suspend Syria's membership (Nov. 13) and to impose sanctions (Nov. 27) angered many regional leaders and highlighted Baghdad’s complicated position in the triangle of American interests, the Arab League's activism, and Iran and its ally in Damascus. Many observers viewed Iraq's stance on Syria in the contexts of both US-Iranian competition and regional sectarian dynamics, which are frequently conflated with geopolitical interests.

Prima facie one may have assumed that the graphic images of Assad's murderous crackdown were too close to home for the average Iraqi. Another Ba‘thist regime's brutal response to a domestic uprising seems like a natural cause for Iraqi identification with the Syrian opposition. Furthermore, Iraqis have not forgotten that Assad's regime permitted foreign insurgents to stream through the Syrian-Iraqi border, fuelling the worst years of their sectarian conflict in 2006-2007. Iraq was so irritated by Syria's perceived culpability in the prolonged violence that it submitted an official complaint with the UN Security Council. But even if many Iraqis do not see the Syrian regime as its kind and helping neighbor, the evolving regional upheavals, shifting alliances, and their implications for Iraqi domestic politics and security render the Syrian crisis one of the thorniest foreign policy issues since Saddam's fall.

Iraqi analysts posit that strategic thinking on the Arab League votes was as follows: had Iraq voted against the suspension of Syria's membership and the imposition of sanctions, the vote would have been interpreted as a staunchly pro-Iranian, sectarian-driven stance and an affront to US, Turkish, and Arab interests. Had Iraq voted in favor, the Iraqi government would have been seen as adhering blindly to American dictates, a perception that would damage relations not only with Iran and Syria but also with heavyweight domestic actors such as Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, an influential Shi‘i cleric and politician who has been unrelenting in his criticism of Maliki's relations with the US, even demanded that Maliki cancel his trip to Washington earlier this month. Thus, in an attempt to appease the US and Iran as well as other local players, Iraq refrained from casting its vote with either camp.

But no one noticed that Iraq abstained. The abstentions were interpreted through the prism of US-Iranian competition and regarded as another manifestation of sectarian fault lines in the region. Many western and Saudi media commentators defined Iraq's stance as a vote against US, Turkish, and Arab interests and unwavering support for Iran and Assad. They portrayed this episode as a harbinger of Iraq's firm sectarian-motivated alignment with Iran and an embarrassment to the Obama Administration for "losing Iraq to Iran."

The case for reading Iraq's position in terms of US-Iranian contest and sectarian dynamics is not inconceivable (although the Iranian-Syrian alliance is better characterized by geopolitical interests, not sectarian affinity). Surely US-Iranian discord and its impact on the region were a consideration in Iraq's decision to steer a neutral course and distance itself from the Arab League's punitive measures against Syria. Also, as pundits lament, Iran is expected to enjoy greater influence in Iraq at least in the short term. It will not be surprising if Iraq's Shi‘i led government draws closer to Tehran's orbit, especially if the regional political constellation and the Iraqi political scene continues to be shadowed by at least the perception of sectarian-driven politics.

This is not to suggest that the politicization of religious identity is an essentialist characteristic of the Middle East since time immemorial. But to disregard the increased manipulation of sectarian identities in regional developments today is unhelpful.

For example, days after Iraq abstained from the Arab League vote Muqtada al-Sadr was accused of sending his followers to crush the anti-Assad protest movement. Similarly, Iran's Revolutionary Guards were charged with aiding Assad's regime in the earliest days of Syria's crisis. The veracity of these allegations is not what is most relevant; rather these claims are indicative of heightened sectarianism. At the very least, they demonstrate local actors' belief that sectarian politics contribute to trouble spots in the region or that sectarian-based propaganda and slander is an effective tool against opponents.

While the regional political constellation and the politicization of Sunni and Shi‘i identities should be considered factors in Iraq's official stance, excessive focus on these aspects obscures the domestic dimension of its posture towards Syria. As the oft-cited dictum goes, foreign policy is ultimately local. Iraq's abstentions from the unprecedented Arab League votes were reflective of its profound domestic fissures and the fragility of its political process. They should be understood as the Iraqi Foreign Ministry's effort to stave off acute internal crisis and prevent a new round of violence, the likes of which could unfold as a result of Maliki's present showdown with his political opponents.

In light of the political stasis, simmering Arab-Kurdish tensions, and Maliki's centralization of power prior to US withdrawal, the last thing Iraq needed was to cast a vote for what has been regarded as the US-Sunni Arab alliance or the Shi‘i Iranian-Assad axis. A vote for either could have had an alienating effect on many Iraqis and threatened to upset the delicate political balance in Iraq.

In the first place, many Iraqis are underwhelmed by the Arab League. Some observers welcome the organization's coming of age – ostensibly a transformation that entails rejecting norms that indulged dictators' mass violence against their own people – but not all Iraqis are convinced that the Arab League has embraced universal values. Some view the Arab League as a hypocritical Sunni Arab club, which remained idle in the wake of atrocities committed during and after Saddam Hussein's rule. Skeptics criticize its double standards vis-à-vis the various Arab uprisings and point to its inconsistent position on Bahrain as a case in point.

Beyond these misgivings, politicians from across the spectrum have defended the abstentions in terms of Iraqi national interests, arguing that instability in Syria will create pernicious conditions for the entire region and especially for Iraq. Member of Parliament, Dr. Muwafaq al-Ruba‘ie, warned against repeated calls to overthrow Assad, lest his ouster plunge the Middle East into broader sectarian regional conflict. He implored leaders to refrain from foreign interference and to grant Assad time to comply with the demand for democratization.

There is a common perception that Assad's ouster will breed a civil war in Syria, which will reignite Iraq's sectarian conflict and drag the country back to its darkest days of sectarian violence. Some speculate that a Sunni-Islamist run Syria would embolden Iraq's Anbar province and encourage a stronger push for autonomy and/or heighten sectarian tensions. Meanwhile, influential sheikhs from this province have accused Maliki of authoritarianism and sectarianism and have expressed their willingness to join Sunnis in Syria should a sectarian civil war on the Syrian-Iraqi border break out. Others fear that Syria's Allawi minority, which is considered an offshoot of Iran and Iraq's Twelver Shi‘ism, could be subjected to revenge attacks that would in turn, fuel sectarian conflict in Iraq. Overall, politicians' official statements and the Iraqi press voice a deep fear that Assad's fall will result in a perilous vacuum with severe ramifications for Iraq's security and political process.

Another rationale set forth for the abstentions is the impact of sanctions on the Iraqi economy. Over the past two years in particular, Iraq has intensified its efforts to build bilateral economic relations with Syria. Iraqi officials have invested serious efforts to establish two joint Syrian-Iraqi free trade zones and have worked to increase the volume of trade and cooperation between the two countries. Some politicians have warned that because Iraq imports goods from Europe through Syrian ports, inevitably prices will rise in Iraq. Also, some politicians have urged the public to consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees residing in Syria. Articles in the Iraqi press have noted that they too will suffer from price increases and will not be able to receive their pensions and money transfers if sanctions on Syrian banks are enforced. Other political statements and editorials have urged Iraqis to recall their own experience and remember that the people - not the regime - suffer from economic sanctions.

Finally, some politicians have defended the abstention because they reject the "internationalization" of the Syrian crisis. They claim it only will benefit outsiders and suggest that the Arab League is acting as a tool of those who seek to legitimize another military intervention in the region. Muqtada al-Sadr has gone so far as to describe the punitive measures as a plot to weaken regional actors. He called on the Syrian opposition to negotiate with the authorities for the implementation of reforms and argued that their situation is different from others in the region. At pains to justify his own contradictory positions towards Syria and Bahrain, Sadr framed resistance to Assad as a distraction from what he believes should be their real objective: liberating their occupied land from Israel.

On the backdrop of political stasis and Maliki's campaign against his opponents, many politicians immediately distanced themselves from the government's position on Syria. Iraq's abstentions exposed the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to domestic accusations of engaging in crude sectarian politics, and VP Tareq al-Hashemi was a loud critic of what he defined as Maliki's decision to support Assad, not to remain neutral. He's questioned why Iraq fought the Iraqi Ba‘th Party, but is now supporting the Syrian Ba‘th regime against its people.

The mainly Sunni and secularist Iraqiyya bloc was vocal about its rejection of the government's stance. Its spokesperson condemned the Iraqi government's hypocrisy on Syria and Bahrain and alleged that the Shi‘i National Coalition has been taken over by Iran, while its representatives warned that the government's sectarian position will increase tensions between Iraq, the Gulf, and the Arab world. The Iraqi Islamic Party expressed its astonishment with the abstention votes and declared its support for the Syrian people as did the Kurdish Alliance, which called for regime change in Syria. Iraqi political analysts also accused the government and the Foreign Ministry of operating under Iran's influence and asserted that the "new Iraq" should be leading the condemnation of atrocities against Syrian demonstrators.

Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari denied these allegations and defended Iraq's independent decision-making process. He explained that Iraq's position is complicated both on a regional and domestic level and clarified that the Iraqi government is with the people of Syria, but supports gradual reform. In his view, Assad's immediate ouster will contribute to chaos in the region. Maliki also maintained Iraq's sovereign decision making, citing Iran's failed efforts to persuade Iraq to reject the SOFA agreement signed in 2008 and to force US troops to evacuate much sooner.

Prior to the present escalation, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry devised an approach that positions Iraq as the peace-broker between the Syrian regime and the opposition, and the Syrian regime and the Arab League. With the Arab League's blessing, Maliki sent a delegation to Damascus to negotiate an end to the hostilities. Apparently, this delegation was pivotal in persuading the Syrian regime to admit monitors, and since the Arab League has encouraged Iraq to assume an active role in settling "Arab problems within the Arab house." Before Maliki made bold moves against his Sunni opponents, Iraq's leadership initiative on Syria seemed poised to satisfy Arab leaders and perhaps bring Iraq a step closer to the Arab fold. However, now that Iraq is mired in its own political crisis shadowed by sectarian politics, the fate of the Iraqi initiative is unclear. Whether Iraq can play a genuinely positive role and remain in good standing with all of the involved actors remains to be seen. The only thing that is certain is that a political and security vacuum on Iraq's border will not advance unity and stability.

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