Thursday, 14 March 2013

Iraq a decade later

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the United States-led war in Iraq. A decade ago, President George W. Bush would have already sent a number of aircraft carriers towards the Persian Gulf and his advisors and planners had begun to select ground targets for their impending “Shock and Awe” first strikes.

The United States military is no longer based in any formidable size in Iraq. Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided the United States would not stay in his country, although approximately 4000 U.S. troops are still stationed in two bases in Iraq.

The last American soldier stepped across the border to Kuwait on December 18, 2011.
Kurds shout anti-governemnt slogans in Kirkuk, northern Iraq. MARWAN IBRAHIM AFP/Getty Images
All these years down the track Iraq has been dragged through fire and pain, crawled over the hot coals of sectarian violence, and felt abject despair. As a result hundreds of thousands of people do not breathe with us anymore and many Iraqis departed their war-torn country through no wish of their own.
Only after Saddam Hussein was deposed was it realised Iraq’s ethnic tensions were simply dormant, not ameliorated.
Uncovering the ferocity of Sunni and Shia hatred and Kurdish autonomous ambitions is obvious in hindsight, but the devolution of Iraq into areas of influence cut along purely ethnic and sectarian lines is truly shocking.
In 2003, the Middle East geopolitical dynamic transformed. For decades Iran and Iraq struggled for domination, neither quite being able to pull ahead.
So when the Americans destroyed Iraqi military power and then removed their own enormous strength from the region in 2011, Iran was left as the region’s dominant conventional military force.
Shia Muslims in Iraq are supported politically by the regional hegemon, Iran. Iran’s population is majority Shiite which fits nicely with Iraq’s large Shiite population. After the U.S. withdrawal, Tehran filled the influence vacuum by building Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party into power in Baghdad.
Even the internal Iraq dynamics changed considerably. The Kurdish enclave to the north, isolated by the Baathist regime, became almost self-governing following the American invasion.
The Kurds do sit atop large energy deposits but are only grudgingly included in Baghdad’s politics. Kurdish people are not exactly popular throughout the Middle East.
With political infighting being what it is, any complete accommodation of every ethno-sectarian groups’ wishes is difficult. In order to halt a wider conflict and retain Shia power, Mr al Maliki is playing off the Sunnis and Kurds against each other.  
The Sunnis, seen as affiliated with Hussein, were cut off from the political process after the invasion of 2003. The then new Iraq government, consisting of mostly Iranian-backed Shia, was keen to keep the Sunnis on the political outskirts. However, neither the Sunnis nor Shia wish to see Kurds gain more political power.
Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Courtesy The Middle East Magazine
To reign in the increasingly autonomous Kurds, Shia-dominated Baghdad decided to include the Sunnis after 2007. It was assumed a dispute between Shia and Kurds over oil rights in Iraq’s north would frustrate their political ambitions in Baghdad.
However, things have not worked out quite so smoothly for the al Maliki government. Sunni political parties won the most seats in 2010 and tried, unsuccessfully, to conveniently align with Kurdish groups at the time.
Simultaneously Kurds began asking for greater security responsibility in their traditional lands leading Mr al Maliki to agree to talks with both groups to defuse the tension but issues remain.
Future political stability in Iraq depends on three ethno-sectarian groups agreeing on a direction for their country and avoiding returning to violence. 
The Kurds wish to export their energy to the world, but can’t do so without Baghdad’s approval; their lands are a long way from any logistical hub.
Sunni Iraqis are demanding equality in a skewed political system essentially controlled by Tehran.
Between the last ten years of ugly fighting and a long legacy of animosity, the Sunnis and Shia will continue to struggle for dominance in Iraq. While the Shia does have the backing of a somewhat waning Iran, the Sunni unrest leaking out of Syria could jeopardise the relative calm in Iraq.
A rise in Sunni-led violence would threaten each group in largely the same ways. None wish a return to the bloodshed of the last decade. The Shia-led government faces a future in which playing the Kurds and Sunnis against each other might only loosen the tensions, rather than break them.
Keeping the two groups divided internally will go some way in avoiding a conglomeration between them, but there is no quick fix available.
Strictly speaking, the future of Iraq is not going to be shaped by people with a vision to unite the country. Sectarian differences are too deep for any Shia, Sunni, or Kurd to overcome. Each will try to pull Iraq in the direction best serving their interests, at the expense of the others.
Ultimately, Iraq’s sectarian splits were only uncovered a decade ago when Americans walked in, not created. Unless the various groups find some common cause, Iraq will remain a broken country.

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