Iraq’s problem of sectarianism

Sunday 04/09/2016
Members of Iraqi Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces marching in Baghdad

In the 1970s, Iraq witnessed a wide-ranging renaissance in a number of fields, accompa­nied by a major expansion in its energy sector and a rise in its national income. It was during this period that Iraq opened up to the broader Arab labour market, with hundreds of thousands of Arab workers migrating to the country to work in a number of growing industries, including building and construc­tion, services, agriculture and manufacturing.

Baghdad seemed like a city resurgent, thanks to Iraq’s growing economy. There was a genuine desire to see progress in Iraq across all fields, from higher education to health services. In addition to welcoming others, Iraqis were also travelling abroad to study and work.

This situation changed, of course, following the 1979 Islamic revolution in neighbouring Iran and the ensuing Iran-Iraq war. The rise of a sectarian regime next door at a time when Baghdad was seeking to put aside sectarian and ethnic considerations represented a major threat to Iraq’s resurgence.

What we are seeing in Iraq today cannot be further from this. There is no attempt in Iraq to build a political system that serves a national democratic project based on respecting human rights and equal citizenship, away from tribal, ethnic and sectarian affiliations.

Iraq, as we knew it, has been annihilated, its vital industries destroyed. This can be traced to the US policy towards the country, even dating to the 1991 Gulf war. Following this, the UN-imposed harsh sanctions on Iraq that ensured the country would not be able to recover.

The 2003 Iraq war and the well-documented mistakes of the post-war period, not least the United States’ controversial de-Ba’athification policy and the disbanding of the army, completed the job. In the post-war period, the United States backed Iraqi opposition parties, including Shia groups with ties to Iran such as former prime minister Nuri al- Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Following a costly eight-year war with Iran, it is unbelievable that Tehran was allowed such access to Iraqi politics. De-Ba’athification enshrined sectarianism and revenge in Iraqi politics, with many Sunni Muslims find themselves victim to a policy that even the Americans have acknowledged was not used correctly.

“The mistake I made was to turn this [de-Ba’athification] over to a small group of Iraqi politicians and they then broadened it. I think that hurt us because it gives the impression that we were prepared to carry out a really wholesale de-Ba’athification of the entire society and that was clearly not our intention,” said Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, in an interview on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war.

When the Americans backed the Shia parties and moved to internationally protect the Kurdistan region, it confirmed that the idea of equal citizenship, away from sectarian and ethnic considerations, was a thing of the past.

Today, following the Iran nuclear deal, it is clear that there has been a major shift in the balance of power. America is no longer interested in Iraq, beyond how this affects the fight against terrorism. It is Iran that has taken the lead in Iraq, as can be seen in the presence of the Iran-backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

As for the millions of people who have been internally and externally displaced and the huge damage to the country’s infrastructure, these issues have not been resolved. Iraq is facing in light of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) challenges that are only exacerbated by the current sectarian political situation.