The manufactured sectarian politics of Iraq

The manufactured sectarian politics of Iraq
5 min read
05 May, 2016
Comment: Diversity is not at the root of Iraq's political crisis; it is, rather, the corrupt political system established by the US which is at fault, writes Laith Saud
Sadr's efforts to reconcile Iraq's Sunnis and Shias may be genuine [Getty]

The current turmoil in Iraq highlights the fact that the country's problems are not wholly rooted in its ethnic and sectarian diversity, as advocates for 'breaking up' Iraq have often claimed. 

For Iraqis, the country's current problems stem from the dictates of the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. For them, Americans, fixated on Iraq's diverse make-up, enshrined an incoherent political system based on ethno-sectarian quotas for parliament. 

Muqtada al-Sadr - an influential figure from an even more influential family - has ridden the waves of Iraq's turbulence to emerge untouched by accusations of corruption, though other accusations can be made of the relatively young man. Meanwhile, Iran's pestilent role in Iraqi politics remains plain to see, while the threat of Islamic State group has taken on a new face on the streets of Iraq.

Iraq's corrupt political system

In 2002, prominent figures in US foreign policy such as Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke and Madeline Albright asserted Iraq was an 'artificial' country that needed to be broken up. 

This narrative complimented the US's occupation strategy, which essentially aimed to pitch Iraq's various ethno-sectarian groups against each other, in order to bolster the 'need' for a continued US presence. In 2006, while Iraq's social fabric frayed under a brutal US occupation, American pundits claimed Iraq was at 'civil war', while conveniently forgetting the country was under (illegal) occupation.

After foreign forces overthrew Saddam Hussein, the US set up a government made of imported ex-patriots, many of whom had not been in the country for decades

After foreign forces overthrew Saddam Hussein, the US set up a government made of imported ex-patriots, many of whom had not been in the country for decades. On this list of politicians, who now appear villainous in the eyes of protesters storming the parliament, are none other than Nuri al-Malaki, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the late Ahmed Chalabi and Haider al-Abadi. 

Having been in exile for so long, these men had little knowledge of Iraq's problems, experiences or institutions.  The only common ground they enjoyed with fellow Iraqis was along the lines of ethnic or sectarian claims of solidarity. 

In other words, the aforementioned appealed to 'fellow' Shias in Iraq based on that identity, while Sunnis appealed to Sunnis and Kurds to Kurds. The former highly centralised and nationalistic Iraq - though recognisably despotic – fragmented into regions of competing ethnic and sectarian groups, who were once highly integrated. And though Western pundits claim this was inevitable, fracturing Iraq took a great deal of work, achieved by US policy, while Iranian backed militias cleansed Baghdad of its majority Sunni population, making the break-up of the country easier.

Iran and the US had a common interest in Iraq: Neutralising a major Arab power with strong tendencies towards Arab nationalism. Iran and Iraq fought a terrible and destructive war in the 1980s and seeing their neighbor weakened by a western invasion was a welcome development.

fracturing Iraq took a great deal of work, achieved by US policy

Meanwhile, the neo-cons who advocated the invasion of Iraq, in part, sought to consolidate Israel's prominence in the region by eliminating a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause. Iran and the US's shared interest in this respect goes back to the 1980s, when Shimon Peres lobbied on behalf of Iran in the US. 

Between the US and Iran, it was assured that Iraq's political system would never be robust and efficient, let alone free.  Iraq is repeatedly graded one of the most corrupt and violent places on earth. Its people often claim that the US and Iraq replaced one dictator with thousands of others, and for scholars of Hobbes, the dual irony of that statement is clear.

Al-Sadr, Iraqi nationalism and IS

So, at the heart of Iraq's political crisis is not its diversity, but rather the corrupt political system established by the US. Muqtada al-Sadr, someone who has remained in Iraq his whole life, could be seen to represent Iraqi vengeance.  Al-Sadr is a shrewd man; he fiercely fought the Americans, while working with the Iranians, who were themselves working with the Americans.

His family is well known for its nationalism, Muqtada's father resisted deferring to the marj’a (clerical hierarchy) in Qum and rivaled the most senior Iranian clerics; rumors abound suggesting Iran may have been responsible for assassinating Muqtada's father, rather than Saddam Hussein. Al-Sadr's militia was responsible for some of the worst atrocities against Sunnis from 2006-2009, yet he has insisted on Iraqi unity and nationalism. Understanding what al-Sadr really believes or hopes for, is complicated. 

IS has become synonymous with Sunnis in the Iraqi media

The latest drama to unfold in Iraq bares al-Sadr's fingerprints. He permitted his supporters to storm parliament in demonstration against Iraqi corruption. Al-Sadr ordered them to fly only Iraq flags and to refrain from displaying large pictures of Shia clerics, clearly an effort to cast this latest protest as a nationalist one, ostensibly open to Sunnis. But this is nothing new and only time will tell if al-Sadr is sincere in his efforts to reconcile Iraq's Sunnis and Shias. On Monday, al-Sadr flew to Iran, where he no doubt will negotiate with Iranian officials who desperately want to see him support the Iranian-backed regime in Baghdad.

One element standing in the way of Iraqi unity is IS. The group has become synonymous with Sunnis in the Iraqi media. Much of the corruption in Iraq is overshadowed by the security threat that is IS. But this narrative is beginning to change.

Throughout the region, IS is increasingly seen as more of a pretext than a centralised terrorist organisation with a singular vision. Iran and Assad have been accused of using IS to advance their agenda of consolidating power. In both instances, Iran and Assad need to divide the populations of Syria and Iraq to remain in control. 

With the regime in Baghdad under threat, many Iraqis are not surprised that once again, IS has bombed Shia mosques in Baghdad. Whereas previously, many Shias would seek security from the central government in Baghdad, more are now beginning to wonder if IS is actually tool of the government, or of Iran.                 

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

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.