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Who is the Enemy Today?
The Haunting Spectre of Sectarian Strife

4 March   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

My first intuitive reaction to the bomb attack of 22 nd February on the Golden Mosque in the largely Sunni city of Samarra, some 135 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, was one of serious trepidation. By attacking this Al-Askariyyain shrine, one of four sacred places for the Shi'ites in Iraq, the irreligious aggressors had crossed yet another Rubicon. So I prayed that Newton's third law of physics - for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction - would not kick into political action in this instance. But I was alarmingly wrong, and the tit-for-tat violence and desecration of mosques in Mahmoudiya, Babel, Karbala, Amara, Madain, Tala'far and many other parts of Iraq that followed the defiling of this sacred place of worship proved that Iraq is teetering perilously close to civil war.

Indeed, many an observer of this once-fertile land would infer that the mosaic of different communities in Iraq has begun to unravel along ethnic, confessional and tribal lines. In fact, such a disintegration of society was one of the main fears of those who were opposed to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the growing schism betwixt Sunnis and Shi'ites now threatens to tear the whole country apart. If such a low-intensity conflict were not prevented from escalating into an all-out civil war, not only would Iraq be destabilised further, but its after-effects could also spread far beyond its own borders. The Shi'ite south would be propelled into the political orbit of Iran, the Kurdish north would claim independence, and in the process draw Turkey into a confrontation, and the oil-free western and central Sunni areas would be left impoverished and become a potential home base for terrorists.

Faced with ever-growing sectarian violence, let alone rabid demagoguery by politicians consolidating their own positions at the expense of the national interest ( al-maslaha al-wataniyya) , institutional restraints have begun to erode, and the wisdom of eminent religious leaders - such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - are falling on deaf ears. Over a period of at least three years, the secular centre-point in Iraq has largely vanished as it has been sucked into the black hole of identity politics.

Just consider for one minute the images that were carried across our television screens worldwide after the bombing of the Golden Mosque. They showed incensed Shi'ites attacking Sunni Arabs whilst failing to distinguish a whole community from the Samarra bombers. With a weak-willed and inadequately resourced central government, many Shi'ites turned instead to the ferocious and brutal sectarian militias run by different parties who unleashed a violent flow of killings against Sunni mosques, mullahs and civilians. Although Sunni insurgents - who do not represent the majority of Sunnis in Iraq - are responsible for some of the most heinous forms of violence to date, they alone could not have crafted this desperately dangerous situation that is prevalent in Iraq today. A portion of the blame must also go to over-ambitious Shi'ite political leaders who in the past year have thwarted constitutional compromises and given members of their party militias key posts in the government.

One Iraqi blogger, Zeyad, posted the following poignant entry on 24 th February:

What kind of nation are we? What kind of nation kills its intellectuals and academics, its doctors and healers, its women and children, its clerics and preachers? What kind of nation blows up churches and mosques, hotels and schools, funerals and weddings? We have left nothing sacred. Yet we have the insolence to accuse others of offending us, of vilifying us.

So what is the alternative to such bloodbaths? How can Iraq be spared the insurgents who are wreaking havoc as well as those who are retaliating with bloodthirsty brutality?

With retributive justice rampant, the future looks unsettling. In Roman law, such acts of violence and counter-violence were known as lex talionis (or the law of retaliation), whereby societies not bound by the rule of law would take vengeful retribution on the person(s) who caused the injury. But a growing body of modern international legal commentary recognises that even such laws and moralities were self-limiting and consisted more of a sense of pharasaic legalism than an unfettered discretion to retaliate against all and sundry. After all, limited retaliation would also stoke a potentially endless cycle of violence with nefarious results for whole societies.

I believe that the way forward today is the formation of a national unity government comprising Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds - and if possible, with all the five largest electoral coalitions in the country. Otherwise, it would be impossible to establish peace when hatred and distrust have been raised to such a high pitch by sharp-shouldered and small-minded manoeuvring over the formation of a new government. History has taught us that outside forces cannot create democracy in a country when its own citizens refuse to create it for themselves, and no number of conferences or concordats on national reconciliation would yield dividends if the people do not show the good will and resolve for it.

So how can Iraq harness such tendentious proclivities? The incumbent prime minister, along with his allies within the Shi'ite constellation, should open up to the other parties and allow them responsible posts within any future government. Sunni leaders should take part in a government by acknowledging that they are a minority of the population and that their significant input cannot be overplayed indefinitely. The Kurds in the north - whose system of governance today is the most articulate one in the country - could use their 53 parliamentary seats to withhold support for the formation of any government that is not broad-based and representative of the whole Iraq. Once constituted, the coalition government should then focus every effort to restore a sense of national identity as well as address the Iraqi topmost priorities on personal safety, jobs and reliable access to basic amenities such as electricity and fuel (that are contributory factors to the sense of vitriol and disenchantment).

Furthermore, and as I indicated in my article Minorities & the Iraqi Constitution: What Next? in SOMA on 17 th February, a number of substantive changes must also be made to the constitution once the process is re-opened thirty days after the newly-formed government assumes office. Such constitutional amendments would include a revision of key articles concerning the nature of federalism, the distribution of proceeds from oil sales and the underpinning of minority groups' and women's rights. As the London-based Minority Rights Group International and other international non-governmental organisations have stated in the past, this constitution, rather than being the glue that binds the country together, has become both the prescription and blueprint for its dispersal.

Moreover, the US Administration should explicitly state its intention to withdraw its troops from Iraq. However, any such drawdown should be gradual. Although American troops are more part of the problem than they can ever be part of its solution, they are nonetheless preventing even further ethnic and sectarian violence from spiralling out of control. As Joost Hiltermann, director of Crisis Group Middle East Project, told Reuters on 26 February 2006, "Iraqi leaders say they want Americans to leave, but they really don't want that to happen. The Shi'ites need the Americans to keep them in power, and the Sunnis need the Americans because they are scared of Iran".

I can perhaps appreciate just a little some of the human passions that have been unleashed in Iraq ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But it is time now for passion to join hands firmly with reason. As the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran wrote once in an admittedly different context, "For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction". If self-interested secular and religious groups use raw passion to defeat attempts for a fully inclusive process that still remains a sine qua non for stabilisation, Iraq would continue its slide toward anarchy. So are Iraqis willing to inflict such disasters upon themselves, and can the international community - including the European Union with its neighbourhood policies in the region - afford to watch idly as Iraqis crack their country? I think not, and it remains the civic duty of every responsible Iraqi - whether Kurd, Sunni, Shi'ite or other groups - to draw back from the brink.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   4 March


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