Sectarianism still dominating Iraqi politics

The years since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 have seen widespread disillusion with events in Iraq. Until the invasion, the largest and most credible of Iraqi opposition forces was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, based in neighbouring Iran and committed to the line of the late Imam Khomeini. The result was that many in the Islamic movement expected that after the traumas of the invasion, there would be a very real possibility of Iraq emerging as another Islamic state, based on the model of Iran, but reflecting also the fact that Iraq is a major Arab country, and one with a significant Sunni minority. The very real danger that SCIRI posed to US plans for Iraq at the time was reflected in the assassination of Baqir al-Hakim in August 2003, just months after the invasion. Unfortunately the leadership that succeeded him did not have his stature or credibility, with the result that SCIRI–ˆlost its leading position and it became far easier for the US to manipulate Iraqi politics than it otherwise would have been.

Looking at Iraqi politics now, the disappearance of the ideals of that time and the decline into sectarianism have been so total that it is difficult to imagine the hopes people had of Iraq back then. The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), as SCIRI renamed itself in 2007, has been central to recent political debates in the United Iraqi–ˆAlliance (UIA), Iraq’s ruling parliamentary coalition, but the terms of the debate have been so far removed from those of 2003 as to be unrecognisable. SIIC is effectively a junior partner to prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Daawa Party in the government established in April 2006, and Maliki is now demanding that the Daawa Party have a greater say in UIA strategy and policy. With the next elections to the country’s parliament due on January 16, the UIA has still not been able to publish a final list of the parties that will be part of its coalition for the polls.

The establishment of the Shi’i parties in power after the US invasion was not in itself particularly surprising, as the Shi’is constitute a majority of the country’s population. What was disappointing was how quickly the politics of the country split along sectarian lines. This was largely due to American policy, which identified the Shi’i parties as the most important factor in Iraqi politics and offered them power in order to divide the resistance along sectarian lines. Whether the Shi’i parties of the time should have fallen for this strategy remains one of the most hotly disputed issues in–ˆIraqi politics. What is certain is that the result was to isolate Sunni resistance groups, making it easier for the US to target them, and changing what should have been a struggle between occupied and occupiers into one between Sunni Iraqis and Shi’i Iraqis. The fact that Baqir al-Hakim was against political cooperation with the Americans was almost certainly a factor in his assassination, opening the way for other Shi’i groups to deal with the US.

Unfortunately, the US plans to inject sectarianism into Iraqi politics were greatly assisted by weaknesses on the Iraqi side. The Shi’i parties were only too ready to interpret the situation in sectarian terms, while the Sunni resistance groups, strongly influenced by salafi-jihadi impulses from abroad, were quick to target Shi’is on religious grounds as well as political ones. In terms of violence, it is certainly the case that Sunni groups started the sectarian warfare, long before Shi’i groups responded in kind. In political terms, however, the Shi’is must take the lion’s share of the blame for falling into the American trap and creating the political situation in which sectarian violence was almost bound to erupt. The recent bombings confirm that it is not over yet, and no-one in Iraq can disclaim any responsibility for it, regardless the identities of the perpetrators and victims in any specific atrocity.

Within the UIA now, part of the debate is on how far Shi’i parties should include and cooperate with Sunnis. The relatively secular Daawa Party favours an inclusive approach, while the SIIC, now lead by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and still rooted in the religious establishment in Najaf, prefers it to remain a Shi’i coalition first and foremost. This is largely because they define being Islamic in purely Shi’i terms, rather that the broad, inclusive, unifying approach championed by Imam Khomeini. The reality is that all in Iraq have left the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, and particularly Imam Khomeini’s commitment to unity between Muslim communities of all schools of thought, far behind.