Author: Emilio Giuliani / Muftah
Amidst an increasingly dire security crisis, Iraq’s national leadership continues to struggle with internal grievances and disagreements over the best way to move the country forward. From debates over federalism to arguments over who is to blame for Iraq’s rise in sectarian violence, the country’s top leaders are failing above all else to set a positive example. Instead of focusing on shared goals, Iraq’s political leaders remain preoccupied with their differences, a typical feature of inefficient politics. This inability to unite ideologically reflects wider sectarian divisions facing the population as a whole.
The growing wave of violence plaguing Iraq has become an increasingly pressing issue, particularly since extremist insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the jihadi group that was recently disavowed by al-Qaida, gained significant control over the western cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in recent months. The Iraqi government and local tribes are currently mounting a counter offensive against ISIL but the relative success of the group thus far has been unprecedented. The precarious situation in the Sunni dominated Anbar province where Ramadi and Fallujah are located underscores a national deterioration in security that is not slowing down. In January 2014, the death toll in Iraq was estimated to be at least triple that of January 2013.
It is clear that political reconciliation is a necessary precondition for ending Iraq’s seemingly never-ending cycle of sectarian conflict. But, incessant infighting among Iraq’s leadership only serves to exacerbate any effort toward an efficient and lasting resolution.
The good news is that reconciliation is not completely implausible, particularly since competing political parties continue to participate in government. The two largest blocs in government, the ruling State of Law Coalition and the secular Iraqiya list, are expected to somewhat dissolve in the upcoming parliamentary elections slated for April 30th. This will result in the formation of smaller, more cohesive parties instead of the current broad and fragile alliances between different ideological groups. The elections may fall on more sectarian lines, but it will push the most effective and long-sighted candidates to seek to win favor from voters beyond their base. Looking forward, the Iraqi leadership should expedite its reconciliation efforts with all those parties willing to make political concessions for the sake of lasting stability and peace.
While trying to combat increasing sectarianism and violence inside the country, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has faced pressures, from inside and outside the country, that have further complicated efforts to resolve these problems. Internationally, Maliki has been caught between developing greater ties with the United States and building a relationship with neighboring Iran. Domestically, the prime minister, who is Shi’a, has faced sectarian-fueled criticisms from Iraq’s Sunni leaders.
These two issues are intimately connected, as the Iraqi government continues to seek help from the U.S. government to deal with increasing violence inside the country. At the same time, uniting Iraq’s divided Shia and Sunni leaders is key to helping combat insurgent groups. The Iraqi government’s legitimacy domestically depends heavily on marginalizing extremist groups like ISIL while continuing to cooperate and work with the Sunni community at large.
Maliki and other top leaders in the Iraqi cabinet have continued to request additional resources from the United States to fight insurgents while simultaneously affirming they would reject any kind of foreign troop presence in the country. But, Maliki has also been criticized by the United States for ignoring the Iranian resources, weapons, and fighters passing through Iraqi airspace on their way to Syria to help bolster Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Resolving the government’s interest in building ties with Iran with its need for US support to combat terrorist groups will be key in moving the country forward.
On January 23rd, the Speaker of the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni official, Osama al-Nujaifi, visited the United States to discuss Iraq’s deteriorating security situation and to appeal for further assistance from the United States and the international community. Nujaifi’s comments on the pressing security situation in western Iraq and ongoing political disagreements among top tier Iraqi politicians revealed the tension and sense of urgency present amongst the Iraqi leadership.
Nujaifi acknowledged government shortcomings in moving the state forward but laid much of the blame on the current administration and Maliki’s ruling Dawa party, a Shia political group. Nujaifi contended that broken promises to Sunni tribes and the failure to facilitate discussion on greater autonomy for the western provinces were the root causes of the country’s ongoing political instability.
Maliki has correctly noted that countering the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in cities like Ramadi and Fallujah depends heavily on the support and cooperation of local Sunni tribes. While he has requested their help, their compliance depends on the willingness of their tribal and political leaders to once again ally with their Shia counterparts in the interest of defeating insurgent groups.
The Maliki government’s use of anti-terror brigades, which report directly to the office of the prime minister, has also come under heavy criticism from Sunni leaders for their unilateral and extrajudicial actions. Last month, Nujaifi’s brother and governor of the volatile Ninevah province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, accused the special forces of killing his nephew and placed blame squarely on Maliki’s government.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Deputy Prime Minister, argued that politicians are capitalizing on sectarian divisions and that political reconciliation is a more critical issue than dealing with al-Qaida’s encroachment and influence on Iraqi politics.
Regardless of the political motivations behind these and other similar statements made by Nujaifi, Mutlaq and other top Sunni officials, criticism and open dissent toward their Shia counterparts in government only serve to exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shia throughout the country. Reconciliation between Sunni and Shia leaders in the government, especially at the highest levels, must first occur before Iraq’s sectarian conflict stands a chance of dissipating.
For starters, Maliki and Nujaifi must stop arguing on clearly sectarian lines. Maliki should accept blame for deteriorating relations between the government and Iraq’s Sunni population and ensure that the government hold up its end of the bargain after striking deals to compensate Sunni tribes who fight against the ISIL. Simply paying the tribesmen is not enough, however. Given their pivotal role as defense units in the Anbar province, the government should also grant them greater authority and integrate them further in federal politics.
For his part, Nujaifi must stop blaming Maliki’s camp for the current situation, and help facilitate cooperation between Sunni leaders and the Shia-majority government in fighting sectarian violence and Islamic extremism.
While there may well be merit to many of the accusations made against Maliki, partaking in a constant blame game will only serve to further undermine the legitimacy and authority of the central government as a whole, at the expense of the safety and well being of the Iraqi people. Reconciliation is the only conceivable answer. While the specter of al-Qaida continues to loom, its presence can only be fought and eventually eradicated by a truly unified opposition.
The United States has finally started to take notice of the dangerous situation in Iraq and has acted more directly to help counter al-Qaida’s revival in Iraq, though continued political and logistical aid will be even more crucial looking further ahead. Washington recently sent Hellfire missiles and reconnaissance ScanEagle drones to Baghdad while additional pending U.S. legislation could see shipments of Apache helicopters over the next three years.
Despite the increase in U.S. military aid, Iraq has allegedly also signed several arms deals with Iran in violation of international sanctions, according to a recent Reuters report. If this is indeed the case, the United States and the international community will inevitably want to hold Iraq accountable and disincentivize such a back channel relationship. At the same time, the severity of the ongoing crisis and Iraq’s limited capacity to overcome it alone cannot be downplayed. It is therefore understandable that Iraq should look to multiple sources for assistance.
The ultimate goal, of course, is for Baghdad to become wholly militarily self-sufficient. Thus, resolving the current security situation should be an immediate priority so that Iraq move forward and focus solely on strengthening its military. Focusing only on purging militants and insurgents is a short-term solution. Unless the root causes are fully addressed, Iraq’s long-term problems will remain unsolved. Ensuring free and fair elections and promoting conciliatory dialogue between Iraq’s political leaders, irrespective of political party or ideology, is vital to the sustainability and durability of a prosperous Iraqi state.
The country’s leaders are directly requesting help in facilitating these political processes and the international community has an opportunity to assist them wisely and well. This opportunity should be taken advantage of, before it is too late.