Iraq veering back to civil war as Shia rule with heavy hand

Analysis: prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has been light on powersharing with his nation’s Sunnis and Kurds

People gather at the site of a bomb attack in Baquba, about 50 km northeast of Baghdad yesterday that left   at least 43 people dead in one of the deadliest incidents in a month-long surge in sectarian violence. Photograph: Reuters

People gather at the site of a bomb attack in Baquba, about 50 km northeast of Baghdad yesterday that left at least 43 people dead in one of the deadliest incidents in a month-long surge in sectarian violence. Photograph: Reuters


Ever since the American invasion of 2003, the story of Iraq has been more and more the story of its three sectarian or ethnic components, its Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

Under Saddam Hussein, and his Sunni-minority regime, it was pure despotism, war and repressive violence that kept the country in one piece. But after the despot’s fall, the three were supposed to come together in the new, “democratic” Iraq of America’s making.

Under an ethno-sectarian powersharing system, comparable to Lebanon’s long-established one, the communities’ representatives were to engage in a continuous, institutionalised “dialogue” about each one’s portion of authority and entitlement within the whole. But Lebanon’s history has shown that, when it breaks down, such a system is apt to lead to civil war; and that is what it is now perilously close to doing in Iraq.

Dialogue of the deaf
The “dialogue” increasingly became a dialogue of the deaf – and of the very unequal. For, in this “democratic” Iraq, one community, the majority Shias – or, more precisely, one man, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – have emerged just as dominant, within the ruling apparatus, over the other two as Saddam and his Sunnis were in the former, despotic Iraq.

Maliki’s is essentially a Shia regime. And though he may be an “elected” ruler, he has turned into not much less of a despot than Saddam himself. Consummate manipulator of the grey areas of constitution and law, he has amassed a positively Saddam-like array of personal powers.

Last November, with the latest breakdown in the dialogue between the central government and the Kurdish “regional government”, he sent his army to the frontiers of the Kurdish region in a confrontation that could have led – as he put it – to a full-scale “ethnic war” between Arabs and Kurds. It didn’t. But if, since then, the tension has eased on Iraq’s ethnic Arab-Kurdish front, it has been steadily growing on that other sectarian Sunni-Shia, one.

Sunni flex muscles
It was in December that the Sunnis began their protest movement in their provinces of central and western Iraq. Its objective was to end the marginalisation and exclusion from public affairs which the Shia regime has inflicted on them, and restore their place in a genuinely representative powersharing system.

There were restraints on both sides. The protesters remained basically peaceable. Maliki opted for prudent containment. He seemed to expect they would eventually tire, and that the minor concessions he offered them would suffice to divide themand provide his government with a facade of Sunni participation.

But the uprising – largely spontaneous and “popular” in origin – persisted and expanded, and fell increasingly under the tutelage of tribal and religious leaders. On April 23rd, there came what may prove to have been a fundamental turning point. Government forces stormed a sit-in in the northern town of Hawija, resulting in 50 deaths, while helicopter gunships bombarded alleged Sunni insurgents in villages roundabout. The operation may have been designed to deter any resort to violence on the protesters’ part by hitting them first – and hard. If so, it had the opposite effect, and what Maliki calls the [Sunni] “sectarian conspiracy” began preparing itself for real war.

‘Burn their machines’
The Sunni provinces rang with calls for an “army of the tribes” to protect the “Sunni people”. The “Naqshabandi Army’”, led by Baathists and former members of Saddam’s Republican Guards, proclaimed itself patron of an armed “resistance” that was now “completing preparations to march on Baghdad”. The influential Sheikh Abd al-Malik al-Saadi – whom the protesters want to anoint as their spokesman – forsook his moderate tone with a fatwa declaring “self-defence” against attacking government forces to be a “duty”; “burn their machines”, he said, “and those inside them”.

After Friday prayers in Mosul recently, worshippers chanted “the people want a [Sunni] region”, after their imam told them that “we face three choices: end our protest and accept exclusion and killing at the government’s hands, establish the self-government of our Sunni areas, or take up arms for a sectarian civil war”.

If things come to that it will qualify as the second of its kind. The Sunnis essentially lost the first one in 2006-2007. This time, however, it will not be just an internal Iraqi affray, but one in which Iraq constitutes the central arena – along with Syria – of a much wider struggle as well. Maliki himself clearly sees it that way when he says that “sectarianism is an evil that needs no licence to cross from one country to another . . . and it has come back to Iraq from another place”.

By which he means Syria, where Sunnis form the backbone of the rebellion against the quasi-Shia, Alawite regime of Bashar al-Asad, and whom Iraqi Sunnis look upon as partners in their struggle against Maliki himself. And this is deeply worrying to him. For what is happening in Iraq and Syria perhaps marks a great turning of the tide in the “war of religion” which now, more than any other of its proliferating conflicts, is shaping the destiny of the Middle East.

Military solution
Like Asad before him, Maliki is toying with a “military solution” to his woes, despite the Syria-like horrors that would surely entail. Should that happen, it will be hard to imagine Sunnis and Shias ever coming together again in the kind of ethno-sectarian democracy America sought to install.

And harder still when one considers the latest action of the third component of the Iraq mix, the Kurds. The Kurdish Peshmerga seized territory around Kirkuk.

Six months ago it might have been enough to trigger that “ethnic war” that Maliki warned of. If it is unlikely to do that today, it is at least partly because Maliki has the more pressing business of another war in the making .

David Hirst is author of The Gun and the Olive Branch , an acclaimed study of the Middle East conflict