x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

In a turbulent region, signs of hope in Iraq

There are reasons for cautious optimism in Iraq, despite the perils of factionalism and fragmentation.

With all the turmoil in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, one may be forgiven for losing sight of events in Iraq, the Arab nation with the dubious distinction of being the most dysfunctional.

Those who watch Iraq no doubt will notice it perched at a difficult juncture, presenting both positive and negative indications about trajectory.

The good news includes the decision this week by the Supreme Federal Court, Iraq's top court, which ruled unconstitutional controversial legislation to prevent Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki from seeking a third term in office.

The ruling was based on the decision being the sole domain of either the cabinet or the president and not Mr Al Maliki's political rivals in the legislature, who passed it. The end result, however, is both to confirm the primacy of the rule of law and ensure the decision about whether he deserves to continue in the top job stays in the hands of voters.

Another bit of good news came with the announcement that the government will be reviving the Awakening Councils, giving a nod to greater inclusion of the Sunni minority by the Shia majority in power in the battle against Al Qaeda militants.

The importance of this is best demonstrated by the alternative scenario: that of the Sunnis creating a state within a state in the same way that Hizbollah has done in southern Lebanon.

Hizbollah's participation in the Syrian civil war for the Assad regime, and particularly the way that has caused the fight to spill back into Lebanon, demonstrates the dangers of groups creating enclaves within a state rather than being part of it.

Ordinary Iraqis continue to pay the price for the politics of division fostered by the nation's factions in the uncertainty that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein more than 10 years ago.

As Egyptians are now finding, it is far easier to inflame differences than to foster reconciliation.

This is all welcome news after months of violence in which the casualties from bombings and assassinations reached levels comparable to the darkest days of the American occupation, when civil war raged in all but name.

In Iraq, there is justification for very cautious optimism. The trajectory is far from assured but one need only look at neighbouring countries to see what is at stake if the advocates of division triumph over the unifiers.