Iraq may split into three in a sectarian bloodbath

By Ameen Izzadeen
The military success of the hardline Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq was shocking although it was in the making. The signs of a Sunni rebellion were there before Iraq exploded last week with ISIS capturing key Iraqi cities. The Nouri al-Maliki government misread the signals and took measures that only worsened the growing Sunni discontent.
Whatever the criticism levelled at Iraq’s US-made constitution, it has features that seek to give all Iraqis a say in politics. But in reality, the government structure reflects sectarianism with the president being a Kurd, vice president a Sunni, the executive prime minister a Shiite and the Parliament Speaker a Sunni while a majority of MPs are Shiites. This arrangement, some say, is aimed at national unity or inclusivity in governance and at muting the calls for federalism. But, there is little power sharing. Perhaps, only the Kurds got their pound of flesh. They welcomed the US troops with open arms and became an auxiliary force of the invading US troops in 2003. They were rewarded with autonomy. They run Iraq’s oil rich Kurdistan region like a virtual separate state. They have their own army – the Peshmerga. The Kurds defy orders from the Maliki government with regard to oil deals. Maliki decreed that it would be the central government which had the authority to negotiate deals with foreign companies. Tthe Kurds took no notice of this law and signed deals with international oil giants. Much of Kurdistan’s oil revenue remains in the region, with the Maliki government unable to exercise its power and bring the region’s oil industry under the central government’s control.
Iraq’s oil reserves are largely located in the northern Kurdish regions and in the Shiite south. The Sunni Arab areas in the country’s west and northwest have little oil. If only the Sunni areas had ample oil, just like the Kurdish areas, the Sunnis also would have staked a claim for greater political autonomy. The oil-less Sunnis therefore opposed the division of Iraq on federal lines, supported a strong central government and advocated that the country’s oil revenue should be shared equally among all the regions.
Yet, Maliki’s sectarian bias in matters of governance antagonised the Sunni minority. Even the US acknowledges this. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told a congressional hearing on Wednesday: “This current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together with the Sunnis, the Kurds, and the Shiites.”
Maliki’s police and military forces are disproportionately Shiite. He is being accused of gaining undue control over the police and the armed forces, using them freely against Sunni Muslims and other political foes, while allowing grave abuses in prisons and detention centres. His political witch-hunt saw Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi, a Sunni, fleeing the country to evade arrest. Charged with running Sunni death squads, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death in a move that further angered the country’s Sunni minority.
Speaking to Reuters from exile in Turkey, al-Hashemi said the violence in Iraq was part of a broader Sunni Arab revolt – and it was not just a rampage by ISIS.
“What happened in my country … is desperate people revolted. Simple as that. Arab Sunni communities over 11 years faced discrimination, injustice, corruption. We have about 11 to 12 armed groups, and they are being reactivated now. And we also have political parties involved, we have ex-army officers, we have tribes and we have independent people in fact,” he said.
Al-Hashemi warned that Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call for his Shiite followers to take up arms against the Sunni ISIS rebels would lead to an all-out holy war between the Shiites and the Sunnis.
Iraq’s Sunni leaders also allege that Shiite ministers in Maliki’s cabinet run militia groups which have their umbilical cord tied to Iranian intelligence outfits.
Maliki has said that his fight is with al-Qaeda, not with Sunni Muslims as a community. He rejects criticism that he is sectarian and insists that he is committed to end sectarianism in Iraq.
Though they are at each other’s throat and calling each other Kafir or infidels, Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis had lived peacefully for centuries. Together, they fought the British to gain independence. When the British occupied Iraq for the second time during World War II, the Iraqis fought as one and forced the Brits to flee. Sectarianism was no major issue; it was only an identity, nothing more. There was inter-marriage between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis. Iraq’s army had Shiite and Sunni soldiers and they had fought the Shiite Iran for nine years. Although Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, he was a secularist, a Baathist, an Arab communist. More than 30 of the 52 wanted Saddam era leaders in the so-called pack of cards the American had prepared were Shiites.
Sectarianism was a canker introduced to Iraq’s body politic by the United States and Britain – with the divide-and-rule strategy, the tried-and-tested tool that served the interests of the imperialists during the colonial era, being dusted and put into reuse.
The 2005 arrest of two British secret agents with explosives and detonators in Basra points to MI6’s role in setting off bombs in Shiite areas with the aim of triggering Shiite-Sunni enmity. Yet the Sunnis and Shiites in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq spoke of unity which they believed was the only way to defeat the imperialists. Only a few self-centred Shiite groups supported the Americans in the hope that the democracy the US was trying to introduce would bring in a Shiite government, for the first time in Iraq’s history.
The breaking point, however, came when bombs damaged the golden dome of the hallowed al-Askari Shiite shrine in the Sunni city of Samarra in 2006. Even after this, a majority of the Iraqis blamed the occupying forces for pitting the Shiites against the Sunnis to achieve their ulterior motives. Many Iraqis believed that once the occupiers left, sectarian clashes would end. But they did not. This is why many analysts say Iraq’s new political leadership led by religious Shiites has miserably failed.
Similarly, al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq is also a legacy of the US occupation. Just a few months before the 9/11 attacks, the US State Department’s country report had cleared Iraq of any involvement in terrorist activities. Indeed Saddam Hussein was an enemy of al-Qaeda. It was only after the US occupation troops and Blackwater mercenaries committed atrocities in Fallujah that a group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged. The Americans succeeded in defeating AQI only with the help of Iraq’s Sunni leaders. The US funded, trained and armed groups handled by these Sunni leaders to fight AQI.
After the US withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, the Sunnis were left in the lurch while Maliki’s security forces cracked down on Sunni dissent with harsh measures. There were allegations that the Iraq’s Shiite police committed rape, killings and human rights violations. It was against this backdrop that the ISIS evolved as a major force.
Its surprise military victories over US-trained Iraqi forces now threaten to split Iraq into three separate countries –for the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds. As the United States’ well-calculated delay in responding to the besieged Iraqi government’s call for military help gives ISIS more time and energy to consolidate, the crisis in Iraq is likely to explode into a major regional war involving Iran, Syria and Sunni Gulf countries. The US delay is perhaps connected to its policy not to hurt its Gulf allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE. The ISIS, it is believed, receives money from rich Gulf citizens with the connivance of their governments. Maliki this week charged that Saudi Arabia was financially supporting ISIS.
These Gulf countries have said the Iraqi government’s sectarian policies were responsible for the chaos that the country has been plunged into but desisted from condemning ISIS crimes such as executing hundreds of surrendered Iraqi security forces personnel. On the contrary, the media in the Gulf countries have accused Iraq’s Shiite militia men who have rushed to the frontline to fight ISIS of carrying out mass executions and committing rape and other human rights violations. Analysts say these Gulf countries officially distance themselves from ISIS; but behind-the-scenes, they are the main sponsors of the group. They began to play this Jekyll-and-Hyde role after the US refused to intervene in the Syrian crisis even though the Bashar al-Assad regime last year crossed the US red line – a reference to the use of chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries had hoped that the US would intervene in Syria and tilt the war in favour of the Syrian rebels – just as it had done in Libya in 2011. But when the US refused to intervene because of the rebels’ al-Qaeda connections, the Saudis and the Qataris stopped consulting Washington over Syria and started clandestinely supporting groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra.
According to an analyst, the rapid descent of Iraq toward sectarian civil war is an indictment of the recklessness, barbarism and incoherence of Washington’s foreign policy. This has created a sectarian tinderbox throughout the Middle East that threatens to drag the region into a bloodbath.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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