IRAQ IS AGAIN "ON THE VERGE OF CIVIL WAR"
By Pierre Puchot
** Authoritarianism of the prime minister, lack of an opposition, clientage, war in Syria, proliferation of arms, and fragmentation of the state... Everything is combining in this month of Ramadan to plunge Iraq into a level of violence the country has not seen since the end of the American occupation **
July 21, 2013
Traditionally marked by repeated attacks and assassination attempts, the month of Ramadan this year is seeing a level of violence that Iraq has not seen since the end of the American occupation. On Saturday evening, a series of coordinated attacks involving ten booby-trapped cars in Baghdad's shopping streets, which are majority Shiite, caused at least 60 deaths and wounded more than 190. On Wednesday, thirteen people were killed and eleven others wounded in the attacks. With more than 3,000 dead since the month of April, Iraq has fallen back to the level of violence seen in 2009.
"I won't say that we're already in a civil war, but the figures are not good," Francesco Mott, the U.N. human rights mission official in Iraq, said last week. On the website of Brookings, an American think tank, a quick comparison with the drop in the number of victims recorded over the past five years confirms this remark.
[INSET: Graph of estimated number of Iraqi civilian fatalities by month, May 2003-May 2012. Total estimated Iraqi civilian fatalities by year: 2003-7,300; 2004-16,800; 2005-20,200; 2006-34,500; 2007 23,600; 2008-6,400; 2009-3,000; 2010-2,500; 2011-1,578; 2012 [through May]-531.]
In Iraq, a week no longer goes by without a series of attacks killing several dozen people. "If the number of victims continues to grow at the present rate it will reach more than 5,000 by the end of the year," estimates Francesco Motta. In Iraq, "the more deaths there are, the greater the chances of reprisals and seeing the situation get out of control," he says.
How can it be explained that despite the American withdrawal and a prime minister in power since 2006, the situation in Iraq is worsening again? Engaged in a process of broad-scale militarization, the country is facing a political, religious, and geographic fragmentation that is undermining the foundations of the state.
We're not yet in a situation like that of 2007, during which 30,000 people died violent deaths in Iraq according to U.N. statistics that are markedly higher than those of Brookings. Four years later, the massive arrival of American reinforcements and the mobilization of armed men within the Sunni tribes to fight groups linked to al-Qaeda had contributed to bringing the number of victims down to 2,771.
Must we conclude, as both a French military officer and a French consultant explain, that Iraq today can only be governed by a strong, centralized military power? "I don't understand how you can produce that sort of argument, given that violence was at its height under the American occupation," says Loulouwa Al-Rachid, an Iraq specialist and consultant. "Whether the Americans deployed their troops on Iraqi soil or whether they withdrew them, that has very little influence today on the violence in Iraq, which has its own logic and its own dynamics. To say that only a strong centralized power could reestablish security is an illusory wager. It is impossible today to recentralize power in Iraq. And the violence is rooted in the political system. It has become a mode of regulation, in parallel to the play of institutions."
Since December 2011 and the withdrawal of their troops, the United States has maintained on the ground a rather opaque political and military presence. The American embassy in Baghdad, whose surface area is greater than that of the Vatican, employs several tens of thousands of people. Large numbers of military advisers and technical experts continue to work in Iraq, both in training Iraqi security services and in gathering intelligence.
At the same time, Iraq is rearming: in 2012, the Iraqi government ordered more than $14 billion in military supplies from the United States. In total, between the security forces and the tribal militias, today nearly 800,000 Iraqis are bearing arms.
Unlike the Egyptian military, the Iraqi army remains divided and very unpopular, because it has symbolized repression ever since the state was created. In 2013, Maliki's Iraq is both a weak state, unable according to the prime minister to prevent Iranian planes from flying over its territory to Syria, as the U.S. State Department demands, and a country where suffering is widespread.
Another destabilizing influence: the humanitarian situation. A million Iraqis are still refugees abroad and more than a million Iraqis inside Iraq are still internally displaced inside and cannot return to their homes. And contrary to what the prime minister wrote in the *Washington Post* in April on the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein, "every indicator shows that there has been a deterioration in the quality of life of Iraqis compared to twenty-five years ago," says Khalid Khalid, who measures the progress accomplished by Iraq in realizing the Millennium Development Goals for the United Nations Development Program.
[MAP INSET: Communitarian divisions in Iraq. Sunni, Shiite, Arabs, Kurds.]
THE SUNNI-SHIITE OPPOSITION AND ITS LIMITS
The dominant idea today in analyses is closely linking the return of violence and religious clashes. This is only partly true, because the religious dynamic does not explain everything.
Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, the social marginalization of the Shiites (about 60% of the population, the Sunnis representing a little less than 30%) had been a constant since the state was created in 1920. Moreover, in a letter addressed to Iraqis on April 28, 2003, the fallen former dictator said that "the faction in power in Iran is practicing hypocrisy and conspiring against Arabs and Islam with all of its typical malevolence." In this attack on Iran, it was really the Shiites that were the target, in accordance with a rhetoric of the times common to every large Sunni country, e.g. Mubarak's Egypt. This discourse has no real foundation in Iraqi history, at least since the American invasion, since "Iraqi Shiites were late converts," writes researcher Myriam Benraad in her work devoted to Iraq (L'Irak, in the series "Idées reçues," Le Cavalier bleu éditions, 2011) "and consider themselves above all Arabs and not Persians."
In Iraq, contrary to what is commonly thought, the Sunni-Shiite split does not necessarily determine political and military alliances, and rivalries are sometimes much stronger within the Shiite camp. Founded in the 1950s, the Islamic Dawa Party, which is Prime Minister Maliki's party, is an emanation of the religious establishment of Najaf, and has secularized bit by bit. Created by Iran, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, for its part, has largely fallen into the control of a great clerical family, the al-Hakim family. The "Sadrist" movement is also linked to a clerical family, the al-Sadrs, who are in competition with the al-Hakims. This is a nationalist and millenarian movement that has taken root above all in the poorer districts of Baghdad. In these three movements the political and religious cultures are completely different. At the political level, alliances between elements of these Shiite forces and the Kurds, or even certain Sunni parties, are regularly made in an effort to counter the prime minister, Maliki.
Much in evidence in Baghdad, violence is affecting both the Sunni regions, like Saladin Province, and Shiite regions, like Karbala Province. Divided between a majority Sunni population and a Shiite minority, the Diyala Governorate remains very unstable. The primary targets are above all the armed forces and political personnel. Attacks with booby-trapped cars, assassinations of army officials and members of provincial councils using guns with silencers... Practices have not evolved much in the past decade.
Since 2011, the rise of sectarian violence has remained broadly linked to the dimensions reached by the conflict in Syria. In western Iraq, the recurring violence is only the continuation of the clashes taking place in Syria. Government forces use the presence of fighters from Syria to justify securing the border in a manner that is sometimes extremely brutal, which leads to reprisals against the army. Outside Baghdad, one third of the Sunni population is concentrated in the governorates bordering Syria. The uprising against the régime of Bashar al-Assad, in conjunction with the fact that that conflict is taking a more and more sectarian turn, have engendered a greater solidarity among the Sunnis of both countries. In addition to allowing a weapons trade, the Syrian conflict has broadly reinforced this sectarian dimension of the violence in Iraq, which is turning particularly against the authoritarian government of the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
At the end of the spring of 2013, demonstrations of an unheard-of size took place in the principal cities of Iraq. Organized by Sunni activists, these social movements have transcended ethnic and religious divisions. Prominent among the demands of the demonstrators are: the liberation of political prisoners, the abolition of the death penalty and the anti-terrorist law, whose Article 4 allows the Iraqi state to detain political opponents, and the development of public services in neglected regions.
The discourse of the demonstrators was a combination of social and political demands that took special aim at the person of Nouri al-Maliki. In power since 2006, the prime minister has little by little established an authoritarian regime thanks to his hard work and political skill, but at the expense of political reconstruction and public liberties. With time, Nouri al-Maliki has built up for himself intelligence networks throughout the country, as Saddam Hussein did in his time. He controls his own special forces, which obey only him and terrorize the population. The supreme court is totally under his control, which will prove very useful for him if he wishes, as many believe is his intention, to amend the Iraqi Constitution in order to obtain a third term as prime minister. His son and cabinet chief, Ahmed al-Maliki, are already planning to succeed him in the not distant future.
A subtle tactician, the prime minister is succeeding at the tour de force of being at once the ally of the United States, which is seeking continuity at the top of the Iraqi state, and of Iran, which his happy to have an Iraqi leader who repeats their rhetoric about the encirclement of the Shiites.
Domestically, in his will to monopolize every lever of state power, Nouri al-Maliki has gone back on the Erbil agreement, which foresaw the creation of a union council that would keep watch over the executive power, and which would have helped unblock the political situations after the 2010 elections. That broken promise has greatly contributed to feeding the antagonism with Sunni Iraqis. All the more so, given that in 2009 the prime minister had succeeded in preventing more than 500 Sunni candidates from presenting themselves in the legislative elections, on the pretext of their Baathist past (the Baath party was in power until the fall of Saddam Hussein).
ABSENCE OF A POLITICAL OPPOSITION
Since the legislative elections of 2010, Maliki has committed a series of provocations with respect to the Sunni minority, like the arrest warrant against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who had to leave the country. Another warrant was issued against the minister of finance, Rafi al-Issawi, who in the end resigned in March 2013, leading to large Sunni gatherings in Mosul and Fallujah that were supported by the imams, political figures, and tribal chiefs.
Still, it was in 2013 that these players attempted to profit from the Syrian crisis in order to wrench concessions from Maliki, who finally gave in. The prime minister loosened the law on "de-Baathification," and adopted in June 2013 a text that extends the prerogatives of the governorates. Debated for several months, this law is, according to Loulouwa al-Rachid, another step toward the disintegration of the Iraqi state: "This is an institutionalized disintegration," says the political scientist. "In the Sunni demonstrations, the provinces threatened secession. They, in imitation of Iraqi Kurdistan, demanded the right to constitute autonomous regions. This is possible under the Iraqi Constitution of 2006, provided that the request be made by three governorates, and that it be approved by a referendum. The act of constituting an autonomous region increases the budget allocated by the central power."
The law adopted in June put an end to the Sunni autonomist demands, and for good reasons:
-- The text establishes that prerogatives for security belong to the governorates themselves: henceforward, the governor disposes of a direct authority over all the armed forces deployed in his territory.
-- The governorates get the right to oversee the natural resources beneath their soil, in contradiction to the Constitution, which states that these resources must be managed by competent ministries. The governorates also get a significant financial interest in each barrel of oil refined on their territory, and become sovereign in matters of investment.
Maliki's political management, and his will to maintain himself in power at any price, have caused an acceleration of the fragmentation of the Iraqi state, but also of the political realm, that is propitious to the development of violence.
For Francesco Motta, the U.N. human rights official in Iraq, "the political impasse in the country, the lack of vision of many political men, . . . are having a destabilizing effect" on Iraq. During the summer of 2012, a report of the NGO International Crisis Group analyzed in detail the deline of the principal opposition coalition, Al-Irakia, though two years earlier it had succeeded in leading in legislative elections, with 25.8% of the vote, more than Maliki's party.
Since then, the melting away of Al-Iraki has only been confirmed. "The head of the coalition, Ayad Allawi, proved that he had neither the resources nor the know-how to crystallize a strong opposition to Maliki around himself," explains political scientist Loulouwa al-Rachid. "For several reasons: his own camp, made up of rather heterogeneous groups, was divided... They called it a secular coalition, but it had within its ranks quite a few Sunni Islamists. The hard core of 'liberals' was counterbalanced by the tribal-Islamist forces, and the coalition is undermined by strong regional rivalries."
Since 2006, Maliki has put all of the state's resources behind his hegemonic ambition. The coalition opposing him was unable to resist, even though it was supported financially in 2010 by Turkey and the Gulf states.
But in this little game, too, Maliki proved himself skillful. Many of the coalition deputies showed themselves to be receptive to the financial advantages and ministerial posts that the prime minister dangled before them. Once in parliament, the coalition was soon inoperative, which undermined from within the vote of no confidence in Maliki, initiated after the legislative elections of 2010 but definitively abandoned after the refusal of the Kurdish party of Jalal Talabani to support it.
"Iraq today is governed by warlords and an oligarchy that has no collective project for the country, is not making progress toward its reconstruction, but rather is held together by one common goal: splitting up the loot," says Loulouwa al-Rachid. "The oil reserves are immense, the price of crude is high. Whatever the level of violence or the repercussions of the Syrian crisis, the Iraqi political class remains in solidarity, and will do everything to avoid the fall of an institutional system that is shaky, but that is profitable to them."
Organized in two phases, in April and June 2013, the last local elections have made definitive the complete dissolving of Al-Irakia, which has been overtaken by the emergence of Moutahidoun, the coalition of the Sunni president of the Assembly, Usama al-Nujayfi. Submerged in more than 10,000 candidates for the governorates' council posts, no party, including Maliki's, was able to attain a relative majority. Slowly, irremediably, the fragmentation of the country and its political class is proceeding. In Iraq, the settling scores through violence rather than politics is therefore going to continue to embody the norm, without any of the country's player being truly able to oppose it.
* * *
TO GO FURTHER
On the site of Le Croix, a cartography of the history of Shiism.
The new battle for Kurdistan's oil, on the website of the Guardian.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
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