x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Political crisis in Iraq undermines fragile security

Yesterday's violence in Baghdad shows that the country's political divisions remain as deep as ever.

Iraq has not had a peaceful year in quite a while. The violence was so bad in 2006 and 2007 that the past few years have been good by comparison, despite the occasional bombing of a mosque or a neighbourhood. This had been, after all, the most peaceful 12 months since 2003.

Even the fractious, messy political process has been cast as a promising sign that conflicts were being resolved in parliament rather than the street. But the tragedy yesterday, when dozens were killed in coordinated attacks, put both the peace and the politics in doubt.

The recent allegation that the Sunni vice president Tareq Al Hashemi has organised sectarian death squads - whether true or not - has brought that violence directly into the upper echelons of government. As a National reporter in Baghdad noted in an online post yesterday, people on the street in Shia neighbourhoods that were bombed quickly blamed the vice president. (The preliminary judgement of many analysts was that the coordination and nature of the bombings indicated an Al Qaeda hand in the attacks.)

Sectarian anger - among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds - has long been divided along ideological and geographic lines. It is an irony that this recent crisis began within one day of the final departure of US troops, but that is not as significant as some claim. These divisions have always been there, aggravated by Saddam Hussein, and are the single greatest threat to a unified Iraq.

The infighting between Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and his rivals, and the arrest of political adversaries, has drawn comparisons to Saddam's Baghdad. Iraqiyya, the prominent political bloc that includes many key Sunnis, withdrew from government on Saturday.

Mr Al Maliki's incontrovertible efforts to sideline Sunni and Kurdish members of government makes this situation all the more dangerous. The charges against Mr Al Hashemi are serious, but no one believes that Mr Al Maliki's government can impartially investigate and prosecute the case. The simultaneous persecution of another senior Sunni politician, Saleh Al Mutlaq, compounds the impression of a sectarian purge in Baghdad.

It would be unwise to rush to judgement in these case, but clearly political divisions are making this more difficult. At the least, it's probable that groups such as Al Qaeda that wish to see the country destabilised are taking their cue from the strife.

Iraq's leaders do have a genuine security crisis on their hands, as yesterday's violence reminded. Political infighting has left them woefully incapable.