The fear of the disintegration of Iraq is hardly breaking news. A persistent theme of the past 9 or so years of the new Iraq has been how to preserve unity and bring about true national reconciliation amongst a climate of deep mistrust.
Iraq in its transition to democracy may have achieved historical junctures but it has often stumbled to its milestones as opposed to a painless arrival at its new dawn.
More often than not, the major achievements in Iraq were underscored by heavy US pressure and much political jockeying and drama in Baghdad. As successive crisis”s have brewed, a semblance of calm were somewhat reinstated in the short-term by last minute dealings but too often at the expense of any long-term benefits. A policy of brushing key issues under the political rug always ran the risk of haunting the Iraqi political arena at some stage and just days after the US symbolic withdrawal from Iraq, another explosive crisis reared its ugly head in Iraq.
If the issues are been assessed at the surface then one can argue that current turmoil was instigated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki”s issuance of an arrest warrant against Iraq”s Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi and the subsequent ploy to sideline Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak from power. However, the water has been boiling on the sieve for several months and for one reason or another, it wouldn”t have taken much to tip sentiments over the edge.
Just take the current brittle coalition that was remarkably concluded after 11 months and set an unwanted world record. That in itself sums up all that is needed to explain the current upheaval and instability.
Even though Iyad Allawi”s predominantly Sunni-based al-Iraqiya group were the ultimate victors at the polls, they were threatened with been marginalised by al-Maliki”s Shiite Coalition. Months of wrangling ensured agreement on power-sharing but more through gritted teeth than true brotherly reconciliation.
Once al-Iraqiya didn”t get the empowered it demanded and real decision making authority, it was always a question of time before the political landscape would be rocked once more. Almost 2 years since the national elections, a number of key positions remain unfulfilled and still in the hands of al-Maliki in what was supposedly a temporary basis.
Turkish anxiety has dramatically increased by unfolding events, leading Ankara to go back and forth between Baghdad and Washington in recent weeks and warning about the dangers of an Iraqi disintegration. Although Turkey may have chosen to ignore reality for a while, the writing has been on the Iraqi wall for decades and particularly these past 9 years.
There is no danger of Iraqi fragmentation. It is already fragmented and now it”s only question of just how far the disintegration will go and regional countries must accept that reality sooner or later. Democracy has been fraught with difficulty in Iraq with voting along heavy sectarian and ethnic lines. Voting has been almost akin to a de facto national census than a true national voice gathering exercise.
While Turkey and neighbouring countries seemingly worked to promote national harmony and reconciliation in Iraq, ironically they have been responsible for the entrenchment of camps in Iraq.
Successive Shiite governments have swayed heavily towards Tehran, whilst Sunni groups, essentially marginalised from power from their heyday under Saddam Hussein, have worked to force a hand at the political table through the threat of insurgency or through jockeying in the political chambers. Turkmen have used the big brother threat, calling on the support of Turkey to ensure their cards on the table are not ignored, while for the Kurds it has been a case of not letting the rest of Iraq drag the prosperous Kurdistan Region down with them and at the same time building strategic ties to boost their autonomous status and growing economic clout.
How regional sectarian influence continues to grip Iraq can be seen with al-Maliki”s persistent support of the much maligned and under fire Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
This week al-Iraqiya kept up their boycott of Iraq”s parliament and cabinet accusing al-Maliki of monopolising power and not abiding by the terms that led to the eventual breakthrough of the current coalition.
Accusations of the centralising of power by al-Maliki is hardly new, it was a frequent criticism throughout the last election term.
With the importance of upholding calm and dialogue seemingly at large, a national conference has been proposed that should be held sometime this month. A national conference may save the day in the short-term as did the Erbil agreement but true concord may prove elusive once more.
No amount of political manoeuvring at the end of the day can paper over deep mistrust and animosity. Even if national elections were held early, the end game would be the same. There is no guarantee that Iraq would not end up at the same juncture after new elections are held whilst the key ingredients that continuously poison the political atmosphere remain.
As for now, it is unlikely that al-Maliki will relinquish his firm grip on power. While al-Maliki has been under intense domestic and regional spotlight, he may escape this current escapade largely unscathed. Al-Iraqiya have used the threat of boycott but with so many Sunni”s in their ranks badly scarred from the boycott campaigns of the previous campaigns, it is unclear just how far the loyalty of their MPs stretch.
The current political tension may have hurt al-Iraqiya further with 11 politicians already revoking their ties to the alliance. Al-Iraqiya MPs are mindful that further boycotts or spotlight may see more positions of power been relinquished to the powerful Shiite alliance.
The biggest danger is a coalition without al-Iraqiya altogether where al-Maliki musters support from Kurds and al-Iraqiya dissidents, a scenario that would certainly place sectarian tensions into overdrive. The recent spate of initiatives towards autonomy by predominantly Sunni provinces is an indicator of growing Sunni fear that preservation of local power aside, the may be confound to a running battle to avoid been sidelined in Baghdad.
The Kurds, who have attempted to remain neutral, once again find themselves with all the aces. Only with Kurdish support could al-Iraqiya spearhead a new government and only with Kurdish support could al-Maliki be ousted from government.
Logic would dictate that after many failed promises by al-Maliki towards the Kurds, including the lack of implementation of the vast majority of conditions that he signed up to as a prelude to Kurdish support, the Kurds would side with al-Iraqiya. However, the new crisis and the key Kurdish role of calming tensions, gives the opportunity for the Kurds to preserve al-Maliki”s seat and the current coalition, but no doubt with much sterner warnings and conditions for the Shiite Alliance and al-Maliki.
The fact remains that all too often al-Maliki has boldly reneged on agreements with Kurds and has simply gotten away with it, even as the Kurds have saved al-Maliki”s political skin on more than occasion. The issue of disputed territories remains as open and pertinent as ever, Baghdad remains at loggerheads with the Kurds on oil sharing and Baghdad has been hardly provided a positive endorsement of growing Kurdish strategic clout and prosperity. It is time for the Kurds to use their aces wisely.