The Iraqi government must address the scourge of sectarianism nourishing ISIS

Report: Written by Mushtaq Ahmed.

Despite the Islamic States’ military potency and stable finances, commentators have been confident of their eventual demise, either through military defeat or internal fragmentation. The former is likely to happen sooner: with the tenuous coalition of the Iraqi army Shfia militias and Kurdish forces, it is likely they will liberate Mosul in the next few months, due to the support of US Led airstrikes.

It is understood that the immediate priority has been on the military operations: with the liberation of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, being an important milestone. The future transition of Iraq however, depends on whether politicians can govern free of sectarianism. While Iraq’s strategic importance has made it the theatre of international geopolitics, it is the entrenched sectarianism, practiced both by Sunnis and Shias, which has given rise to ISIS. Without concrete political reforms, extremist groups such as ISIS will retain a reluctant constituency, vulnerable to exploitation in the next upheaval.

 Attack sectarianism: a simple solution that masks a seemingly insurmountable problem. Sectarian ideologies use religious mythology of Islam’s first schism to stoke fanatics – but make no mistake: it is sectarian politics that has transformed prejudice into violent hatred. 

 During Saddam Hussein’s reign, Shia movements – along with others who dared to dissent, were routinely crushed. Certain Shias reached prominent positions in the regime, yet resentment grew, and Hussein pursued a policy of creeping sectarianism to shore up his Sunni base in the face of debilitating economic sanctions. The US-led invasion in 2003, and the subsequent destruction of the security state unleashed sectarian forces: Abu Musab al Zarqawi pioneered Al- Qaeda in Iraq, practicing a fanatic hatred of Shia, which even worried Al Qaeda’s central command. This bought Shia militias back by Iran to the forefront. As well as an apocalyptic war to destroy each other, these groups attacked foreign forces: the ‘surge‘ of American troops and crucially the cooperation of the Sunni tribes in 2007-10, destroyed the insurgents as a serious force.

Following the ‘surge’, a period of relative calm by Iraq’s recent standards, Nouri al-Maliki remorselessly pursued sectarian politics. The leader of the Shia Islamist Dawa party packed his administrations with subservient allies, excluding Sunni and secular politicians.

Following the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, Maliki’s sectarian campaign intensified, as Sunni politicians at both provincial and ministerial level, were arrested. The administration ignored systematic corruption: with the Prime Minister’s close allies pocketing the state’s resources, it deprived citizens of basic services. Humiliated by the Shia dominated establishment, the Sunni tribes turned to ISIS for protection.

Now, two years after Baghdadi’s infamous proclamation of a caliphate in Mosul, the strategic city is likely to be taken by the anti ISIS coalition. The Iraqi government must begin a process of national reconciliation, purging the sectarianism, which nourishes groups like ISIS. 

In the next few weeks, the Iraqi security services must take a targeted military approach in Mosul.  ISIS will use human shields, but the military actions to defeat them must not alienate the residents of Mosul. Security and vetting measures to work out ISIS operatives must therefore be thorough, but proportionate – with a further expansion of temporary refugee camps needed to provide a safe haven for Mosul’s civilians, until the violence subsides.  

The Iraqi government must not tolerate abuses by Shia militias, who have been accused of killing innocent civilians in recent operations in Fallujah. As well as protecting civilians, this should be a part of a broader strategy to absorb, or better to permanently disband the different militias in the national Iraqi army.

 Beyond immediate military conduct, a new inclusive political settlement will be needed to unify Iraq. Most importantly, the current government – whatever its affiliations, must not resort to political repression. Maliki’s wide-ranging authoritarianism, which banned demonstrations, imprisoned political opponents and interfered with the Supreme Court, must be reversed. Therefore, credible cross section parties, which could challenge the actions of fanatics such as ISIS require an open environment to build an electoral base.

Although the post-Saddam constitution had many sensible articles: including the recognition of Kurdish as an official language, it failed to clarify the split of responsibilities between central and regional governments. Article 115 of the Iraqi constitution, which states ‘the priority goes to regional law in case of conflict between the federal government and regional governments’, has created confusion – with the Kurds allowing to operate as a semi independent region, while similar Sunni aspirations were rejected.

A new settlement should clearly delineate the split between central and local government, leaving the provision of local public services to the provinces: whilst ensuring the central government has the necessary powers to maintain security and conduct foreign affairs.

A political settlement should also distribute oil revenues more equitably, in line with needs of each region. Resource-rich Kurdish and Shia provinces will inevitably resist, however this would be a vital step in convincing Sunni regions that their grievances are being addressed, giving them a material stake in a stable Iraq.

Alongside a more inclusive political settlement, the government has to administer public services more effectively. Corruption is endemic worldwide, with only 5 countries ranking worse than Iraq in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index.

The result of corruption is futile: providing inadequate investment in infrastructure, schools and healthcare, as accountable by the elite, exacerbates the state’s resources. Exasperation at corruption transcends sectarian lines, with some supporters of ISIS citing an improvement in administration as a reason for their allegiance, and supporters of the prominent Shia cleric Al Sadr protesting against corruption. 

Iraq should heed the lessons from other countries that have tackled corruption by reducing red tape, improving government transparency and empowering an independent judiciary.

The purge of sectarianism is a generational struggle, which will define Iraq: if the government makes progress, Iraqi society may not combust along sectarian lines when the next crisis faces the country.


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