Monday, September 30, 2013

Explaining The Political Factors Behind The Increasing Violence In Iraq, An Interview With Maria Fantappie, Iraq Researcher At The International Crisis Group

Violence in Iraq has escalated to the worse levels seen since 2008. The insurgency is making a comeback, while the central government is repeating many of the mistakes made by the United States after the 2003 invasion. The cause of this crisis is a breakdown in the country’s politics. Members of the Sunni community feel increasingly alienated from the government, because their national leadership has failed, their local politicians are ignored, Baghdad has focused the security forces upon their areas, and the protest movement has not achieved any tangible results. To help explain how this situation has led to the current security crisis is Maria Fantappie, a former visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center and currently an Iraq researcher for the International Crisis Group. You can follow her on Twitter @Maria Fantappie and the International Crisis Group @CrisisGroup.
(Abdul Raheem Yasir)

1. In 2009, Sunnis went to the polls after largely boycotting the 2005 provincial vote, and helped put a slew of parties into power. In 2010, many of those same voters came out for Iyad Allawi and Iraqiya, the Iraqi National Movement (INM) which won a plurality of seats in the new parliament. How did Allawi and the other members of the INM turn out to be as national leaders, and how did their performance affect their followers’ opinion of participating in politics?

The key for political success in Iraq is to branch out power from Baghdad into the provinces. Iraqyia leaders focused all efforts on the assignment of government positions in Baghdad, neglecting local officials and constituents in the provinces. This was fatal to the future of the list. Starting from early 2011, while Iyad Allawi persisted in claiming the premiership for himself and the implementation of the Irbil agreement in Baghdad, Maliki ingrained power in the provinces: governors were replaced, police chiefs sacked and Sahwa tribal militias deprived of their salaries. Sunni constituents felt disappointed by their national leader and left under the grip of the government security agencies. Their disappointment evolved into distrust towards the political process altogether. In their eyes, Iraqyia leaders appeared not dissimilar from others of different political colors: locked within Baghdad Green Zone walls and far from people’s concerns.

2. In December 2012, Premier Maliki decided to go after then Finance Minister Rafi Issawi of the INM by issuing warrants for some of his guards. Exactly a year before, a similar situation unfolded with Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi who ended up being convicted in absentia for involvement in attacks. Previous to that, selected leaders of the local security forces known as the Sons of Iraq faced detentions as well. How did these events shape Sunni views of the security forces and Maliki’s rule?

These arrests created the premises for conflict, shaping Sunni self-perceptions and their perception of the government. Sunnis started viewing themselves as victims —targeted by the security forces, excluded from state-institutions, persecuted as terrorists or Baathists —and the government as the source of all this injustice. Al-Issawi events brought these feelings to the boil, exacerbating perceptions of the government’s anti-Sunni agenda, serving the Shiite interests within Iraq and the Iranian agenda in the Middle East. Nine-months of political crisis have turned perceptions into reality. Now more than ever, Sunnis are what they feared to be—excluded, discriminated and criminalized —and the government close to the way they had accused it to be: repressive, discriminatory and bound to Iran’s agenda.

3. How did the regional environment and Syria contribute to the escalation of Iraq’s domestic crisis into a conflict?

The regional environment polarized Iraq along sectarian lines, reducing the space for negotiation between the government and protesters. Earlier in 2013, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the prospect of a Sunni power governing Syria nurtured Iraqi Sunnis hopes for a political comeback boosted the Iraqi Islamic Party aspirations to leadership and mobilized Iraqi Sunnis in protests. This, in turn, directly fed Maliki fears’ of the rise of Sunni radicals in the region pushing the government to assume a defensive position, close to Iran and the Shiite crescent in the region.

4. What divisions have emerged within the demonstrators, and have they been able to achieve any meaningful results?

The conflict evolved over a series of missed opportunities for dialogue from both the government’s and the demonstrators’ side. But the demonstrations’ failure to bring about political leadership gave the government one more reason to shun dialogue and persist in its immovable positions. Sunni tribes, clerics, Iraqi Islamic Party members and insurgency militants gathered into demonstrations against the government, because of a shared feeling of injustice. But protest leaders were often concerned with gaining legitimacy as prominent politicians, clerics, tribal chiefs and thus pushed forward parochial agendas rather than lobbying for the protesters’ demands. Among others, the Iraqi Islamic Party project of establishing a Sunni federal region divided the demonstrations square between proponents and opponents of federalism, and challenged the formation of any negotiation committee.
The Sunni protest movement was a symbol of the dissatisfaction with politics, but also allowed militants to gain more supporters as shown in this photo with black Al Qaeda in Iraq flags flying (AP)

5. How has the failure of national parties, arrests of leaders, and the protest movements inability to bring about changes in government played into the hands of extremists and the insurgency?

Above all, the government’s violent response provided Sunni armed groups opportunities to increase their recruitment and safe-heavens. On 23 April, the government’s violent crackdown on Hawija’s protest sit-in empowered the most radical voices among protesters and silenced those calling for dialogue. The government sowed hostility among Sunni tribes as it armed a new Sahwa faction, depriving others of their salaries, as well as among Sunni citizens, policing their neighborhoods and limiting their mobility. Baghdad lost Sunni local support and with that, the human intelligence needed to counter the re-emergence of armed activities in their areas. Insurgency cells who fought against the U.S. troops found fresh recruits among the frustrated Sunni youth and reactivated their operations in the Kirkuk and Salahaddin provinces. For the first time in years al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, can count again on local support.  Iraq’s al-Qaeda is now operating with impunity in western Anbar, across the Iraq and Syria border as well as in Syria under the name of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, gaining the support in Sunni areas, helping Iraqis and Syrians in their struggle against their respective governments, Baghdad and Damascus and the resurgence of Sunnis in the region. 

6. A major problem faced by the Sunni community since 2003 is the lack of unity. They have been split between armed struggle and participation in the government, between local and national politicians, nationalist and regional agendas, and other issues. Why do you think there have been so many divisions, and how could they start working together more effectively?

Sunnis do not necessarily need their leaders to ally on the basis of their belonging to the Sunni sect. What Sunnis need is what Iraqyia failed to provide them with: representative leaders. I see the existence of different ideological trends (e.g. Sunni secular and Islamist trends) as rather beneficial to the formation of inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic alliances that will help overcome a rather communitarian political system. Whether together or separately, both Sunni secular and Islamist trends should focus their efforts in effectively representing their base, reach out to provincial officials, help to define the demands of their constituents in the provinces and represent them in Baghdad central institutions.

7. These splits have allowed Maliki to play divide and conquer. Could you provide one or two examples of how the premier has been able to use that tactic, and why do you think he could face long-term troubles if he continues down that path?

So far, Maliki’s policy towards the Sunnis has been rather self-damaging.  Al-Issawi events unified Sunnis against the government, crashed the PM’s image as an Iraqi national leader and compelled him to seek even more U.S. and Iranian support to maintain power. The PM’s policy toward Sunni tribes is archetypal of the short-term benefits of a divide-and-conquer strategy. On February 2013, the government dismantled the Sahwa leadership and supported the formation of  new pro-governmental Sahwa corps— the New Sahwa —providing them with weaponry, salaries and privileges, leaving the former one with empty hands. Last May, al-Qaeda could expand its operations across the Iraq-Syrian frontier, mostly counting on co-operation, weaponry supplies and recruits of former Sahwa, now disenfranchised by governmental policies. In the absence of a radical change of approach, the government risks to further alienate Sunnis from the state, bolster Sunni solidarity with the Syrian armed oppositions, pushing them to cooperate with radical armed groups as a way to weaken the government legitimacy. If there is any way to insulate Iraq from the impact of the Syrian conflict and also for Maliki to secure his own power, this consists in an inclusive Iraqi state.

8. Rather than using greater force, what Iraq needs is some serious concessions and reconciliation to pull the Sunni community back to politics and away from the use of force. What kind of reforms should Baghdad consider?

In order to end violence, the government should win Sunnis back to its side. No security improvement will be reached without involving the Sunni population, security forces and tribes in fighting al-Qaeda and insurgency groups. A first step consists in dealing with outstanding issues that have generated the divide between the government and the Sunni population: deployment of security forces in Sunni populated areas, Sunni participation to the security forces, waves of arrests and exclusions upon alleged affiliation to terrorist groups and or Baathist regime. Also, Sahwa should return to be a united corps and ensured with monthly salaries. Any security plan should involve the co-operation with Sunni local officials, locally recruited police forces and Sahwa corps. Considering the number of missed opportunities to solve this conflict, it is legitimate to question whether or not the government ever made a serious effort to avoid reaching to the current level of violence.  
One of the major issues facing PM Maliki is whether he can put aside his immediate concerns and think long-term to hold onto power

9. Maliki would have to start thinking long-term to try to push for those changes. Right now he seems more focused upon looking strong in the face of the increasing violence, and preparing for next year’s parliamentary elections where he will face tough competition. Do you think he’s capable of putting aside those immediate concerns, and thinking big picture, which might assure him of a longer reign, and a more governorable country?

The lack of a legitimate Sunni leadership to ally with might turn into the prime minister’s biggest liability to a third term on power. The recent crisis delegitimized those Sunnis loyal to the prime minister and empowered a Shiite anti-Maliki bloc, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in particular. Last June, the formation of local councils proved that a Shiite anti-Maliki bloc is a winning formula. ISCI and the Sadrists forged an alliance, and together with the Sunnis’ Mutahidun list garnered the majority needed to rule out Maliki’s coalition from Baghdad governorate. An isolated prime minister will hardly succeed for a third term. If, before or after the parliamentary elections, Shiite groups will stand together against the prime minister, only an alliance with a strong Sunni group could ensure Maliki a third term.


Carnegie Paper, “Contested Consolidation of Power in Iraq”, February 2013

International Crisis Group, “Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State,” 8/14/13

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