Confronting sectarianism in Iraq

Confronting sectarianism in Iraq
Comment: The gulf between what a significant number of Iraqis want, and what political elites and foreign powers are willing to give them, has never been wider, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
25 Jul, 2018
Demonstrations began in Basra before swiftly spreading to Najaf, Amarah and Baghdad [Anadolu]
It's five years since the Iraqi state violently crushed the Iraqi Spring, and seven months since the same Iraqi state claimed victory over the Islamic state group (IS). 

It ought to be of some consternation then, that Iraq in 2018 is one where the issues and protests that comprised the mostly Sunni-led Iraqi Spring are now gripping the Shia south, while IS is making an ominous return in the North.  

In post-war Iraq, the Sunni population was the most immediately oppressed group - they comprised a 'weak link', in that their relation to the state was weaker than that of their Shia compatriots.

Sunnis faced direct state discrimination; unemployment among Sunni populations was more ingrained, while their political self-determination was curtailed, and they remained locked out of civil society and government jobs, including within the security forces.  

However, as the current protests demonstrate, life for Shia Iraqis has not only remained dismal in the post-Saddam and post-occupation period, but it has actively deteriorated. 

Corruption is rampant and deeply ingrained, with the Iraqi elites enriching themselves out of the county's resources, particularly oil, while unemployment remains high, especially among young people. And even among many of those in employment, jobs are often underpaid and precarious.  

One-quarter of Iraqis live in poverty. Basic social services have been decimated by the siphoning of public funds by corrupt elites. Iraq has become a kleptocrat's dream. The process of this corruption can best be summed up by the fact that though Iraq is producing a record amount of oil, the living standards of its people are hitting new lows.  

Though Iraq is producing a record amount of oil, the living standards of its people are hitting new lows

It cannot be stressed enough that this status quo of sectarian kleptocracy was no inevitability for Iraqis freed from the fascist-like regime of Saddam.

In fact, though there were obvious differences between Baathist Iraq and its current state, under the US occupation many of the systems of the former were simply transferred to the latter, particularly the dynamic of sectarianism and corruption.

Saddam justified his rule on sectarian grounds, claiming the alternative to his fascism would be an Iranian-style Islamic revolution among the Shia majority.

Iraq has become a kleptocrat's dream

The economic conditions for Sunnis under Saddam were scarcely any better than for Shias, but they were effectively scared into accepting such a dismal status quo by the fear of ascendant Shia influence.  

Under the current system, a similar dynamic exists but with a simple switch in the demography - ruling elites expect the majority Shia population to acquiesce to their bleak conditions due to the threat of resurgent Baathism and/or Salafi-jihadism among Sunnis.  

In this sense, IS was a dream come true for the Iraqi elites. And without plundering the depths of conspiracy theories, the condition of sectarianism and its relation to poverty and hopelessness, both directly and indirectly led to the rise of IS.  

Read more: Can the Sadrist movement transcend sectarianism in Iraq?

This gets to the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Iraqi society: It is country that currently serves the interests of a small domestic elite and foreign groups. At the time of the US intervention in Iraq to battle IS, its military might was accompanied by superficial rhetoric about ending the sectarian dynamic that had birthed IS. But this was not matched on the ground in any concrete or plausible way.

Indeed, the US could all but watch as Iran, the other great foreign power that holds sway in Iraq, 
expanded its hegemony over the country via Shia Islamist militias swearing primary allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei before the Iraqi state.

Iraqi security forces use water cannon to disperse protesters who are angry
about a lack of jobs and basic services in the capital, Baghdad [AFP]

But the US' short-lived anti-sectarian rhetoric belied one of the original sins of its occupation of that country. Though the Bush administration loved to talk about 'exporting democracy' - holding up Iraq as the keystone example of this aspect of the 'Bush doctrine' - the reality was that its political system was rigged to encourage instability and a sectarian dichotomisation.  

This might seem like a counterintuitive policy by the US, but it's driven by the very same logic behind the British Empire's infamous 'divide and conquer' strategy.

A fragmented Iraq is an Iraq that can best fulfil the interests of the US

A fragmented Iraq is an Iraq that can best fulfil the interests of the US, relating specifically to its oil production and so-called 'energy security'. A unified Iraq - one ruled in the interests of Iraqis - might well find that US interests do not necessarily always align with the interests of its people.

I describe the system in Iraq as 'functional disunity', wherein the Iraqi electoral system has been crafted to ensure that sectarian blocs reign supreme, conforming not only to US interests in the country, but also Iranian ones.  

Contrary to the popular discourse of the US and Iran as irreconcilable enemies, the reality is that each must accept the presence of the other as part of the balance in post-war Iraq, even if the balance is now tipped in favour of Iran.  

Again, this is no kind of conspiracy – it's an informal collusion that has occurred in plain sight, such as during the 2010 Iraqi election when Iraqis had the audacity to vote for the non-sectarian al-Iraqiya movement, and the US and Iran both supported their man Nouri al-Maliki and his Islamic Dawa Party to subvert democracy and retain control.

It's of no surprise then, today that the forces crushing Iraqi protesters, 14 of which have been murdered so far, are the US-supported Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian-backed militias that, since the IS insurgency, have been given a free reign over Iraq, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi merging them ever-more with Iraq's formal security forces.  

Given the hegemony of Iran on the ground, it's also of little surprise that protesters have targeted these Tehran-controlled militias. They've also attacked the offices of pro-Iran groups such as the Islamic Dawa Party, Kataib Hizballah - and the notorious sectarian serial killers of Asayib Ahl al-Haq, who also ply their vicious trade against Syrians on behalf of Iran.  

At protests, it's common for pictures of Khamenei to be burned, accompanied by the now usual chant of 'Iran out'.

The first signs of something big stirring among Iraqis was the victory of Muqtada al-Sadr's Sairoun coalition, an anti-sectarian Iraqi nationalist alliance between Sadrists and Iraqi Communists, as well as other smaller secular Shia and Sunni groups, and it's no surprise that these protests have exploded during negotiations between Sadr and Abadi.  

The Iraqi electoral system has been crafted to ensure that sectarian blocs reign supreme

In the past, Iraqi politicians and movements have emerged on the scene, promising reforms against corruption, sectarianism and unemployment, only for them to be swallowed by the system, as happened to Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiya after 2010.

The gulf between what a significant number of Iraqis want and what the political elite are willing to give them has never been wider. This is precisely why Iraqis have been forced to take to the streets and partake in widespread civil disobedience against those parties, foreign and domestic, who clearly do not have their interests at heart.

The protests are dangerous because they challenge the logic not just of the post-war Iraqi state, but of the regional order of sectarian stratification and kleptocracy.

But herein lies the danger for Iraqis. With Syria in mind, we've seen just how far Iran is willing to go to defend its interests, with it support for Assad's rump state.  

We've also seen in the past that the Iraqi establishment is not only willing to use extreme force to crush peaceful protests, such as the 
Hawija massacre in 2013, but also that it has no care about its citizens - at least Sunni ones - being murdered en mass as 'collateral damage' in the fight against IS. The population of Iraq, which contains militias of its own, has the capacity to strike back.

Iraq is now at a precipice. Its elites and foreign backers must realise that the status quo of 'functional disunity' will continue to lead to permanent instability. This may take the form of opportunistic fascist groups like IS, or of progressive protests sweeping the country.  

IS' nihilism was just as much a product of Iraq's sectarian kleptocracy, as those who are currently protesting for lives worthy of living.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.