Iraq: Sectarianism, Oil and the War in Syria (Part 1/2)

Maliki treats the breakdown of order in Iraq as a challenge to his rule.

Iraq has certainly experienced a turbulent decade. The US-led invasion in 2003 which culminated in the ouster of long-time ruler Saddam Hussein was a game-changer in Iraq's history. Subsequent efforts by the Coalition Provisional Authority, under the leadership of Ambassador Paul Bremer, led to the dismantling of key institutions of the Ba'athist power structure on which Hussein relied, including the Iraqi army.

In 2005, a new constitution — which many argue is flawed — was approved, establishing the Republic of Iraq as a "single federal, independent and fully sovereign state" with Islam as its official religion.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rose to power in 2006 and is serving his second term in office.

Al-Maliki's premiership is far from uncontested, especially as Iraqi Sunnis have accused him of discrimination and favoritism toward the Shi'a community, which the prime minister himself is a part of. Antigovernment protests that began in late 2012, predominantly by but not only limited to the disenfranchised Sunni community, turned violent last year. In 2013, Iraq witnessed its most violent period in over five years with a significant increase in inter-communal conflict.

Experts and different players in Iraq are divided over what caused this flare-up in violence. In April 2013, al-Maliki stated that sectarian conflict had returned to Iraq "because it began in another place" of the region. His statement was seen as a reference to the civil war in Syria, which is about to enter its fourth year.

Iraq, a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has large oil reserves which are unevenly spread across the country. As of January 2013, it also held the 12th largest natural gas reserves in the world, with over 60% being located in southern Iraq. 

Situated along some of the region's key fault lines, Iraq's future is likely to determine some of the wider issues and conflicts in the Middle East.

Fair Observer's Middle East Editor, Manuel Langendorf, speaks to Chris Zambelis, a senior analyst specializing in Middle East affairs for the risk management group Helios Global. Langendorf and Zambelis talk about the causes of violence in Iraq, the players involved, and the country's potential in the world energy market.

Manuel Langendorf: While international media attention is mainly directed at the situation in Syria, Iraq has witnessed some of the bloodiest months in its recent history with anti-government protests, a resurgence of suicide bombings, and a general increase in inter-communal conflict. What is behind this flare-up in violence? Earlier this year, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki argued that sectarian violence had returned to Iraq due to a spillover effect from Syria. Is this the reason?

Chris Zambelis: The reasons for the notable upsurge of violence in Iraq are manifold and are based on internal Iraqi and regional geopolitical factors. According to most authoritative estimates, in 2013 Iraq experienced its worst bout of protracted violence since 2008. Based on the latest indicators, 2014 portends to be as bad if not worse than 2013. We have to consider the numerous domestic social, political and economic factors behind the violence. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who heads the Shi'a-led Islamic Dawa Party and the political parties and independents that make up the Shi'a-led State of Law Coalition, has engendered widespread opposition among a large segment of Iraq's Sunni Arab population. This reality is best demonstrated by the actions of those residing in Anbar Province and other parts of western Iraq.

Many Sunni Arabs feel marginalized by what they see as a campaign led by al-Maliki and his Shi'a allies to permanently undermine their influence in Iraq. While having to endure the authoritarianism of the previous Ba'athist order just like all Iraqis, Sunni Arabs tended to dominate the old institutions such as the public sector and security services, while Shi'a Arabs and Kurds, among others, faced widespread persecution. 

The tide has now turned: Shi'a Arabs, who constitute the majority of Iraq's population, have come to dominate post-Ba'athist Iraqi society. The arrests of many high-profile Sunni Arab political, religious and tribal figures opposed to al-Maliki, including individuals associated with the previous Ba'athist order and various Sunni Islamist movements, have also inflamed tensions. The resort to violent crackdowns against public demonstrations by Sunni Arabs, who continue to agitate against Baghdad in places such as al-Fallujah and al-Ramadi in Anbar Province, has likewise raised the political temperature. 

The Iraqi prime minister is also seen as having abandoned any attempt to engender support beyond his core Shi'a Arab demographic base in favor of an agenda characterized by sectarianism and revenge. Many Sunni Arabs view the Iraqi security forces as personal instruments of al-Maliki and his allies, essentially extensions of the many Shi'a militias that emerged across Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

This community also perceives al-Maliki as having no regard for their grievances and concerns. These are valid concerns considering al-Maliki's penchant for attributing expressions of dissent and political organization by Sunni Arabs to Ba'athist or radical Islamist militancy. It is against this backdrop that we have seen calls by numerous factions for autonomy and even the outright independence of Anbar Province (and other regions of Iraq).

Furthermore, it is important to remember that Iraq is scheduled to hold national elections for the Council of Representatives in April. There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the upcoming elections and al-Maliki's aspirations. 

In January 2013, Iraqi lawmakers voted to bar al-Maliki from contesting a third term in office, by instituting a provision on term limits on those serving in senior government posts. Yet a decision by Iraq's Supreme Court in August in that same year overruled the law on term limits, enabling al-Maliki to seek a third term. Not surprisingly, al-Maliki has come to be viewed as being increasingly autocratic and corrupt. 

To add another layer of complexity to the situation in question, a notable segment of Shi'a Arabs, particularly those loyal to the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have likewise taken to the streets in a show of force against al-Maliki. Some members of al-Maliki's own political coalition have also criticized his actions in recent years.   

Langendorf: How are regional dynamics such as the Syrian Civil War affecting Iraq?

Zambelis: The civil war in Syria is certainly impacting Iraq's domestic scene, and this leads us to the regional geopolitical factors in play. It is impossible to separate the events in Iraq from regional developments. The advent of the Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — the successor of the Islamic State of Iraq that has since injected itself into the conflict in Syria — and its rapidly expanding influence across Anbar Province and other parts of Iraq continue to raise tensions. 

Al-Maliki and Iraq continue to stand by the Ba'athist regime in Damascus. Many forget that the prime minister spent many years in exile in Syria. Members of Iraqi Shi'a militias are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside the Ba'athist regime's security forces. The Iraqi government is also widely known to be providing critical economic and other support to Syria (despite its official denials). It also enjoys close relations with Iran, another key supporter of the Ba'athist regime in Syria. 

The Sunni Arabs of regions such as Anbar Province, which happens to border Syria, tend to sympathize with the Syrian opposition, armed or otherwise; many members of this community share tribal and kinship bonds with Syrians across the border who are engaged in active combat against the Ba'athist regime. 

Led by Saudi Arabia, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that are lending military, diplomatic and economic support to the Syrian opposition have also spoken out against al-Maliki (and Iran) on behalf of Iraqi Sunnis. From their perspective, supporting the Sunni Arab-led opposition against al-Maliki weakens Iraq's capacity to stabilize itself and project power. 

Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members (and non-member producers) are not happy about the prospects of competing oil suppliers such as Iraq (and Iran) coming back to international energy markets, because such an outcome will diminish their relative importance to consumers. It is also a means to undermine Iraq's support for the Ba'athist regime in Damascus and to undermine Iranian influence.

Langendorf: Why is the situation in Iraq so neglected?

Zambelis: With most of the world's attention transfixed on Syria, Iraq appears to have lost its luster as a news headline. In many respects, events in Iraq, aside from the community of specialists and other informed observers, are seen as yesterday's news, so to speak. 

I think this is also partly to do with the exit of US and international forces from Iraq, at least from the American perspective. That said, I think we will be hearing more about Iraq as the situation continues to deteriorate.        

Langendorf: What is the Iraqi government doing to address the deteriorating security situation? What is their response missing?

Zambelis: The al-Maliki-led government has resorted to applying heavy-handed measures, essentially a mix of intimidation, repression and counterinsurgency. The prime minister is treating the breakdown of order as a challenge to his rule as opposed to a broader security problem affecting all Iraqis. 

This approach promises to exacerbate matters even further because, in many respects, Iraq is still fighting its own civil war. These tactics are sure to alienate Sunni Arabs, paving the way for increased inroads by violent extremists such as ISIS and similar factions. It has also occurred at the expense of genuine dialogue and institution building. 

Ultimately, Iraqis — irrespective of their political, ethnic, religious, tribal, regional, economic or class-based identities — will need to arrive at a political agreement.  

*[Note: Read the final part on March 24. The opinions expressed here are the interviewee's alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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