x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iraq needs deep change to avoid sectarian war

Several factors have created profound resentment among Sunni Iraqis, anger that will not go away unless the political forces from across the spectrum agree on fundamental changes to the status quo.

More than 75 people died in Iraq on Friday in what observers called the deadliest single day in eight months. A series of bombings in Sunni-majority areas in and around Baghdad at the weekend were suspected to be in retaliation for attacks against Shias in the capital days earlier.

Bloodshed points in one direction: Iraq's sectarian tensions are reaching a boil. Without strong political leadership, new dark days of open sectarian warfare - reminiscent of 2006 - could be unavoidable.

Iraq's increasingly autocratic prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, has at times seemed more interested in perpetuating the crisis of identity politics than in stopping it. Mr Al Maliki's government has neglected Sunni areas - some say intentionally - by failing to provide services and investment. After Sunni tribal leaders fought against Al Qaeda during the so-called Awakening, the central government failed to integrate these fighters into the country's military and security services. Now, political and economic marginalisation of Sunni areas continues.

Today, Mr Al Maliki needs only look to the west, towards Syria, to see what dangers await uncontrolled fracturing along sectarian lines.

The security situation in Iraq is worsening amid a series of complex challenges, including the war in neighbouring Syria and Baghdad's worsening relationship with the Kurds, in the north. Extremist forces, with links to Al Qaeda, are also becoming stronger as Baghdad alienates Sunni Iraqis who once fought alongside the central government.

Iraq's constitution, signed in 2010 to ensure a balance of power among Iraq's ethnic groups, has created a political stalemate. In this stasis Sunni Iraqis say they are second-class citizens. These factors have created profound resentment, anger that will not go away unless the political forces from across the spectrum agree on fundamental changes to the status quo.

What Iraq needs desperately is a system of more decentralised governance, where Baghdad is not calling all the shots - and targeting political opponents. There is reason to believe that a system drawing on the principles of federalism, with stronger regional administrations, is one way that Sunnis, Shias and Kurds could find common cause.

Mr Al Maliki, as the April provincial election has shown, still has a strong base of support that cannot be ignored. But the demands of Sunnis - for greater representation in government and more development in Sunni-dominated areas - are legitimate. The essence of the issue is structural and requires a serious and long process of negotiations to agree on meaningful change.

But Iraqis have already waited a long time for stability. Unless it comes soon, Iraq once again risks slipping into the sectarian abyss.