Sectarian Tensions Remain as Iraq Prepares to Vote

It’s a measure of how much safer Iraq is these days that some 6,000 people jammed Baghdad’s basketball stadium last week to attend a public rally for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Two years ago, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian civil war, no one would have dared show up, but this warm-up for the March 7 election was a surprisingly relaxed event. The rings of police around the stadium didn’t bother to check for car bombs and gave only one brief pat-down for weapons at the entrance. Inside, al-Maliki, though the head of the Islamist Shi’ite Dawa party, introduced a cross-section list of candidates running for parliament as part of his State of Law coalition. Al-Maliki’s speech proclaimed that Iraq’s days of misery and mistrust were over. “We defeated the terrorists,” he said. “We defeated the militias. And we have begun reconciliation.”

But Iraq’s reconciliation process clearly still has a long way to go. A number of times during al-Maliki’s conciliatory speech, the crowd expressed its enthusiasm in an unabashedly sectarian vocabulary. “We are with you, Ali!” they chanted, referring to the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, whom Shi’ites believe was cheated out of the leadership of the community of the faithful more than 1,000 years ago in the original schism with the Sunnis.

Historians will debate the causes of Iraq’s vicious outpouring of sectarian violence after the American invasion in 2003 — was it a reaction to the suppression of religious identity under Saddam Hussein or an extension of the policies of American administrators who found it easiest to deal with Iraqis through a crude sectarian and ethnic prism? Whatever the cause, the sectarian leaders who prevailed in the elections enabled by the U.S. proved incapable of peacefully resolving their differences, which were instead settled in the streets. But as Iraq’s fragile new democracy matures, its ever divisive identity politics are becoming more complicated.

On the surface, there is a new spirit of national unity. All the political coalitions contesting Sunday’s election have at least some semblance of sectarian diversity. Even the most homogeneous of the big blocs pretend to be more diverse than they really are. For example, the Shi’ite Islamist bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, which critics suspect would like to spin off oil-rich Shi’ite southern Iraq into an autonomous region, includes one Sunni party from Anbar province. When asked, many average Iraqis say sectarian violence was something forced on them by outsiders, a bad dream from which they’ve now awoken.

But the legacy of postinvasion bloodletting won’t go away anytime soon. Almost every family in Iraq has been a victim of some sort of sectarian violence, and thousands of people are still missing. Meanwhile, many of the men and parties responsible for war crimes hold positions of power and are untouchable. “The government tries to stop prosecutions every step of the way, because its hands are dirty too,” says Daha Arwai, the head of a Sunni charity that looks after the children and widows of men murdered by sectarian militias. “Ordinary Iraqis now realize that sectarianism was something that was pushed on them by politicians. But ordinary Iraqis have nothing. Power is in the hands of the politicians. And if it suits their goals, they will bring the killing back.”

Indeed, Iraq’s politicians still play the sectarian card when it suits them. Last month, the Justice and Accountability Commission, a secretive government de-Baathification committee headed by prominent Shi’ite politicians, banned some 500 candidates — most of them Sunni and secular — from running in the parliamentary election, without ever showing any evidence that linked them to the Baath party. Some critics saw the move as a last-minute attempt by al-Maliki’s campaign, which had also been running campaign ads showing Saddam-era atrocities against Shi’ites, to reconnect with the Shi’ite political base. The move raised fears that Sunnis might once again boycott the election and that their alienation from it could once again translate into violence against the new political order.

So far, however, such fears have been misplaced. One of the largest Sunni parties, even after its leader had been banned by the de-Baathification committee, rescinded its call for a boycott. Most Sunnis have learned the hard way that money, security, jobs and power come from Baghdad, and they now want their leaders to play the game, even if its rules are less favorable.

That change may also be caused by shifts in the sectarian fault lines. Instead of Shi’ite-vs.-Sunni conflict, tensions now are mounting inside ethnic and sectarian groups. The duopolistic ruling parties of Iraqi Kurdistan find themselves under threat from a breakaway movement — Goran, or “change” — more interested in cleaning up politics in the Kurdistan Regional Government than in accelerating Kurdish autonomy from the rest of Iraq. And there’s been plenty of bad blood between al-Maliki and the fundamentalist Shi’ite parties of the Iraqi National Alliance ever since the Prime Minister sent the army to put down Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra in 2008.

Perhaps the biggest possible source of new instability, however, is the unresolved dispute between Kurds and Arabs over Kurdish-populated areas in northern Iraq that remain under the nominal authority of the Baghdad government — none more so than the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Arabs in Baghdad accuse the Kurds of illegally pumping oil and preparing to declare independence, while the Kurds suspect that the next Arab Prime Minister might try to consolidate power in Arab Iraq by taking a hard line against Kurdish separatism.

The key factor determining whether sectarian warfare of one form or another will revive in Iraq is the attitude of the country’s neighbors as U.S. soldiers depart. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has become a major battleground in the regional power struggle between Iran and Syria on the one hand and the U.S. and its Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia on the other. Right now, engagement remains the order of the day as the White House attempts to restart regional peace talks and holds open the possibility of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. But should U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate, the region’s powers will no doubt once again arm and fund willing proxies in Iraq to fight it out.

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