Dec 22, 2011

What’s really going on in Iraq?

This week’s coordinated bombings in Baghdad are only the latest instance of growing sectarian tension in Iraq. The tone has been set by competition at the very heart of government, between Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki on the one hand and, on the other, Maliki’s deputy Salih Mutlaq and Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashimi, who are both Sunni. Their competition increasingly refracts regional tensions between Iran and Turkey on how to deal with the Syrian conflict.
Maliki is closely connected to the Iranian leaders, a fact that is increasingly relevant considering Iraq’s stated desire to mediate between the Syrian government and anti-Assad forces. An Iraqi delegation visited Damascus recently, ostensibly for this purpose. On the other hand, Iraqi Sunnis have strong ties with Turkey. Tariq Al-Hashimi particularly has a special relation with the leaders of Turkey’s AKP government – this year alone he has conducted several meetings with representatives of Erdogan’s government from Ankara.
Recent tensions between Iran and Turkey, on the Syrian issue and Nato missile defense, are affecting co-operation between Iraqi leaders, and Iran’s efforts to shift attention from Syria to Iraq is likely to exacerbate those challenges further.
The aspiration of the predominantly Sunni provinces of Salahadeen, Anbar and, more recently, Dyala to become more autonomous, if not independent of the central Iraqi governing authority, reportedly with Saudi-Turkish support, is another source of sectarian tension. Shi’ites accuse Sunnis of trying to divide Iraq, accusations that led Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia to intervene in Diyala, a province with a 20 per cent Shi’ite population.
All these developments are accelerating a situation of intense speculation. For example, following a recent trip to London by Jordan’s King Abdullah, rumors began circulating of a scenario in which closer ties are being forged between Jordan and Iraq’s restive Sunni regions in the west.
It’s also on the rumor mill that Mosul province, currently dominated by Iraq’s Sunni speaker of parliament Osama al-Nujeifi, will become a federal region under Turkish supervision. Arabs will leave Kirkuk, only Kurds and Turkmen will remain, and both Kurdistan and Turkey will share the oil revenues. Far-fetched as these ideas may be, they are exacerbating simmering sectarianism.
Paul Bremer once refered to Al-Maliki as the Saddam of Shiites, his autocratic approach to Iraqi politics is fueling the tensions of recent days. With meagre success in reducing violence during his early years as Prime Minister, Al-Maliki has in recent years strengthened his control over the government and security forces.
Now Al-Maliki is expanding his reach. Only one day after the United States’ official withdrawal from Iraq, he accused Tariq Al-Hashimi of being behind terrorist attacks in Iraq and officially dismissed Salih Mutlaq from his position as deputy Prime Minister following an interview with CNN in which Mutlaq described Al-Maliki as a new bad dictator while Saddam was a good dictator.
A source close to Tariq Al-Hashimi told me that he claims to have proof that Al-Maliki is the one who has used terrorism to strengthen his political hold, but that is holding on to that evidence for now.
Anxieties are surfacing among politicians in Iraq that Al-Maliki is trying to erase his rivals, including his Shiite allies. Al-Maliki denies the rumors saying that he supports a diverse Iraq with a wide range of parties in parliament. Time will tell if his strong hand in politics will advance a stable state or threaten it.
Kurds for now are trying to show themselves as a neutral party but, in reality, they are not. Historically, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has strong ties with Iran, including frequent visits to Iran. After the accusations against Al-Hashimi surfaced, he tried to meet with Talabani, but according to a source close to the president, Talabani refused.
Paradoxically, the other Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan region, met with Al-Hashimi and refused to surrender him to the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad. Barzani has strong ties with Turkey, including hosting Recep Tayyip in Barzani’s stronghold, the Kurdistan region’s de facto capital Erbil last year. Erdogan is the most senior Turkish official to have ever has visited Kurdistan, creating a regional game that even divides the Kurdish leaders in Iraq.
A radical political dilemma is looming in Iraq; the recent standoff appears to be just the beginning. This political dilemma might be either the warning bell of a bloody internal war with consequences unknown, or simply political jockeying in the wake of the US departure. Let’s see!

This piece has been publish with some editing first on The Majalla:
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