Sectarian divisions undermine the multi-party political system that replaced Saddam Hussein's dictatorship
Iraq is still far from establishing peace, stability, democracy and prosperity
Next month general elections are due to take place in Iraq. It will be the fourth time in 15 years that Iraqis vote in multi-party elections since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime in April 2003. Undoubtedly this is a remarkable achievement in a country that, prior to 2003, last witnessed a multi-party general elections, albeit with limitations, in 1957 under the monarchy which was overthrown by a military coup in 1958. However, Iraq is still far from establishing peace, stability, democracy and prosperity. The Iraqi people were liberated from the previous ruthless regime but they had to witness more sufferings, albeit of a different nature, in the past 15 years.
The regime change of 2003 was possible thanks to the invasion of Iraq by an international coalition force headed by the Unites States. The military Operation Iraqi Freedom swiftly lead to the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces. A series of measures followed to decide how to run Iraq in the absence of the pre-invasion authorities. The international Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was established and then US president George W Bush appointed Paul Bremer as its leader with unlimited authority. Soon Mr Bremer approved the creation of the interim Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). The council members were chosen by Mr Bremer from among Iraqi groups and individuals who had supported the American invasion of Iraq.
Hopes to create the basis for establishing a free peaceful and democratic Iraq were quickly diminished by the emergence of a destructive insurgency against the coalition forces and their Iraqi allies. The insurgency gradually turned into a Shia-Sunni conflict that by 2006 threatened to engulf Iraq in a sectarian civil war. But thanks to a combined effort, the US-led international coalition and the newly established Iraqi forces, supported by Kurdish Peshmerga in the north and Arab tribes in the south, helped to avoid civil war.
However even during that period, political changes in post-Saddam Iraq were taking place to shape the future of the country. In 2004, the CPA formally handed over authority to a transitional Iraqi government. A National Assembly was elected with the specific task of drafting a permanent constitution. In 2005, the drafted constitution was approved by popular referendum and the first general elections were held.
The newly elected parliament elected the president and the prime minister. Real power was, and still is, concentrated in the hands of the latter, including the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A consensus by all political groups was agreed upon to allocate the post of prime minister to the Shias, president to the Kurds and parliament speaker to the Sunnis. The irony is that the consensus based on sectarian divide, which was meant to be a solution to stabilise the political and security situation, turned out to be the heart of all problems. The status quo opened the door for regional powers to interfere in Iraq’s affairs, some less, others more so.
Different groups in Iraq allied themselves with different regional powers. Undoubtedly Iran emerged as a significant player in Iraq. Many outsiders fail to appreciate the nature and extend of Iran’s role in Iraq. Iraq is more and more controlled by a dominating Shia religious and political class closely tied to Iran’s Islamic Republic. The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) are formed on purely Shia ideology doctrine similar to that of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. No wonder it is closely advised by Iran’s powerful Al Quds Brigade commander Qasim Sulaimani. Many commanders of PMF, including its head Hadi Al Amiri and his deputy Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis served in the past alongside Mr Sulaimani in the Revolutionary Guard. The PMF is now considered by law an independent military force parallel to the Iraqi army. Following last year’s controversial independent referendum the PMF was used as the main force to confront the Kurdish Peshmerga and took back Kirkuk and many other parts of the disputed territories that were under Kurdish rule.
Despite the recent minimisation of tension between the central government and the federal Kurdistan region (KR), a mountain of issues remain disputed between the two sides.
The Kurds are not the only component of Iraq who have serious problems with the Shia-dominant ruling establishment. Sunni Arabs feel they are marginalised and treated as second class citizens. Remarkably during the process of drafting the constitution in 2005, the representatives of Sunni Arabs strongly opposed the article stating that Iraq is a federal state. But now desperation has driven them to make a U-turn by demanding their own Sunni federal region similar to the KR. However, they don’t go as far as a majority of the Kurds opting for independence from Iraq. In other words, neither Kurds nor Sunnis would like to change the status quo by granting them more power to self-rule.
So quo vadis Iraq? Fifteen years after Operation Iraq Freedom, Iraqis still ask the burning question about the future of their country: can a united Iraq survive? Last year a report on the future of Iraq was published by the Iraq Task Force, a group founded a year earlier by the Washington-based Atlantic Council. The group consisted of many politicians, academics and experts. In conclusion, the authors of the report offered a series of recommendations to the US administration. One recommendation stated: "It is in the interest of our national security that we do our best to help bring about an Iraq that is independent, stable and prosperous: one at peace with its neighbours; one reflecting legitimate and effective governance and one strongly inclined to cooperate closely with the United States in the Middle East and beyond."
Many Iraqis are not so optimistic and not convinced that such a goal can be achieved without changing the status quo. And change is not coming at least for the next few years. For the fourth time, next month’s elections will be fought between political blocks formed on sectarian bases.
Kamran Karadaghi is an Iraqi Kurdish journalist, political writer and the former chief of staff to former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from 2005 to 2007