Global Insight

May 29, 2013 4:09 pm

Global Insight: Iraq proves a lesson in the fall of Mideast regimes

Conflict pits Sunni against Shia and threatens to destabilise a boiling region

The terrible headlines from this troubled state at the heart of the Middle East have become all too routine. Scores of people are being killed some days – 712 during April alone, according to the UN – in a conflict that pits Sunni against Shia and threatens to further destabilise a boiling region.

So far, so familiar. Except the country in question is not Syria but its neighbour Iraq, which has this year slipped into a deadly crisis. At least 66 people were killed in a series of car bombs on Monday, another of the increasingly frequent bloodbaths in the battle between members of the country’s Sunni minority and Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. Many see the conflict as likely to worsen in the run-up to national elections next year, heightening fears of a wider territorial conflagration – and crushing any hope that the US military withdrawal from Iraq almost 18 months ago would leave behind a nation where the myriad ethnic and religious groups lived in harmony.

While lethal car-bombings have been a fact of postwar Iraqi life, the violence has surged in the past two months. One trigger was the deaths of at least 23 people in a raid by the Iraqi army on a Sunni protest camp in April, in what the government claimed – and activists denied – was a response to shooting by demonstrators. The camp was part of a movement that emerged in December in areas with large populations of Sunnis, who say they have been discriminated against and in some cases violently targeted since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled the Sunni-dominated dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

The camp killings and their aftermath are a sign that – while Iraq’s conflict has links to Syria’s – it is not primarily driven by the war there between Sunni-led rebels and President Bashar al-Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiaism. A more pivotal event for Iraq was the exit of US troops from Iraq in December 2011, which gave rein to domestic political tensions damped since Mr Maliki assumed office in 2006 as head of a coalition government carefully constructed out of the country’s various ethnic and religious interests.

In particular, Mr Maliki’s opponents – including Iraqi Kurds fighting to preserve the political and energy autonomy of their Kurdistan homeland – accuse the prime minister of becoming dangerously autocratic. While the premier’s supporters deny he is building a new dictatorship, many analysts say there are legitimate concerns over the way he has taken control of crucial security agencies and the manner in which his political opponents have been hounded. The Sunni public demonstrations erupted after the arrest of bodyguards of Rafia al-Issawi, finance minister and one of the top-ranking Sunni officials.

Syria’s crisis also plays its parts in Iraq’s troubles – and vice versa – via the western Iraqi border province of Anbar, a Sunni heartland. Jihadist fighters who once battled US forces there have been crossing the frontier to join Syria’s rebels, with al-Qaeda in Iraq claiming in April that it is bankrolling a leading anti-Assad militia known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The Maliki government says it has over the past week launched a military operation against alleged al-Qaeda groups and training camps in the western region, following a similar series of raids last year.

Iraq’s future now hinges in good part on the parliamentary election, where Mr Maliki has a chance to strengthen his hold further, though only if the security and political conditions allow a credible poll to take place. While his State of Law coalition scored solidly enough during April local elections, his government angered Sunnis again by cancelling the polls in Anbar and neighbouring Nineveh province on security grounds. An increasingly concerned US administration – which has traditionally backed Mr Maliki as its least bad option, despite his alignment with Iran – has been condemning the violence and calling for calm.

During Saddam’s time, Sunni-dominated Iraq and Alawite-ruled Syria were religiously mirror-image dictatorships, run by members of a minority sect who oppressed the majority and served a small kleptocratic elite. Iraq’s situation now is a lesson that the fall of such regimes is only a small first step to delivering the peace and fair treatment so many people in both these heterodox nations crave.

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