x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

US strategy 'is creating divisions'

Efforts to heal dangerous divisions between ethnic and sectarian factions in Iraq are failing, the head of the country's parliamentary reconciliation committee warns.

Wathab Shaker, the chairman of the parliamentary National Reconciliation Committee, has criticised US involvement in Iraqi politics.
Wathab Shaker, the chairman of the parliamentary National Reconciliation Committee, has criticised US involvement in Iraqi politics.

The chairman of the Reconciliation Committee says attempts to bring opposing factions closer together may be worsening an already fragile situation and accuses Joe Biden, the US vice president, of being counterproductive. Efforts to heal dangerous divisions between ethnic and sectarian factions in Iraq are failing, the head of the country's parliamentary reconciliation committee has warned.

Wathab Shaker said powerful Iraqi politicians and "incoherent" US policy were not only undermining attempts to bring about rapprochement but risked deepening and entrenching a divide between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, and Arabs and Kurds. "The question is, are US polices contributing to reconciliation?" Mr Shaker, chairman of Iraq's National Reconciliation Committee, said in a telephone interview from Beirut.

"The answer to that is, since the Americans dissolved the Iraqi army their actions have been creating divisions. "To this day, I have not been able to understand American policy in Iraq. What we need to see is a real, clear dialogue with the decision-makers in the White House and that has just not been happening." Barack Obama, the US president, has assigned his vice president, Joe Biden, to oversee Iraq policy as American troops are drawn down, amid concerns the country could return to increased factional violence when American forces leave at the end of 2011.

In that capacity, Mr Biden has visited Iraq twice this year and has been involved in mediating internal disputes, including putting pressure on the Kurds to postpone a constitutional referendum that had angered Iraqi nationalists. Insisting he remains optimistic about Iraq's future, Mr Biden has met with senior Iraqi politicians and, during the initial push to conclude an election law, carried out what he called telephone "shuttle diplomacy" with parties in Baghdad.

That apparent success was, however, quickly undone when the proposed legislation was subsequently vetoed, plunging the election law into as yet unresolved chaos. During a previous visit to Baghdad, in July, Mr Biden had pointedly warned that America would be unlikely to remain engaged with Iraq if its leaders failed to settle their differences and reverted to sectarian violence. According to Mr Shaker, however, the US vice president's level and direction of involvement had already fallen far short of what would actually be required if political and social divisions are to be repaired. "Joe Biden came to Iraq and even through he was here with the job of supporting reconciliation, he did not meet with the head of the reconciliation committee or other key groups." Mr Shaker said.

"He just met with the governmental people and that is not going to be enough. Reconciliation must be between those who boycott the political process and those who take part, you cannot just meet one party, one side of the dispute. It is not that simple." The assessment that US intervention is actually entrenching ethnic and sectarian divisions is shared by Reidar Visser, a leading authority on Iraq.

Writing on the website www.historiae.org this week, Mr Visser warned the result of American contributions in Iraqi internal politics had been to shore up weakened alliances built on ethno-sectarian grounds - "in other words," he wrote, "a set-up that will serve to freeze those identity categories [rather than break them down]". For his part, Mr Shaker said he doubted if Mr Biden could ever truly help reconciliation because he had previously advocated the physical division of Iraq.

In September 2007, Mr Biden, then chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, championed a resolution that called for a federal state, with separate regions for Kurds, Shiite Arabs and Sunni Arabs. Kurds still favour such an outcome, but a rising sense of nationalism has ensured the vision of Iraq as a unified country with a strong central government is increasingly popular among a majority of political groups.

Most Iraqis do not want to see their country split into pieces. "Choosing Biden as the man to oversee reconciliation was not suitable," Mr Shaker said. "He was one of the first to advocate the division of Iraq and, for that reason, there is suspicion of him. He has a declared programme to deepen division, not to promote reconciliation." Major unresolved political issues in Iraq include oil legislation and a continued dispute over territory between the Kurdish regional government (KRG) and Baghdad, centred over Kirkuk.

The Kurds insist the city must be under KRG administration, while the central authorities say they should retain control. There is also continued controversy about the role of former Baath Party members in the new Iraq. Under the Iraqi constitution, the Baath Party is banned and, despite laws designed to vet low-level former Baathists and allow them back into normal life, critics say too many remain excluded and unable to put the past behind them.

They accuse the current ruling parties, particularly the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council and the Kurds, of carrying out an excessive anti-Baathist vendetta that will ensure an ongoing cycle of violence. Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, who earlier in the year softened his anti-Baath rhetoric, has since resumed a harder line and has warned against a resurgence of the Baathists in coming parliamentary elections.

Aside from US involvement, Mr Shaker said he had serious doubts over the desire of some powerful Iraqi factions to bring about a national reconciliation. "As reconciliation committee chairman, I can say that we had hoped to achieve more by this stage," he explained. "It is almost seven years since the invasion and there are still some key people in the decision-making process who are fighting against the reconciliation process."

He declined to name individuals, saying only that he was thinking of people "at the highest decision-making levels". Various Iraq political analysts and politicians - apparently including Mr al Maliki - warn that the Iraqi constitution itself serves to enshrine ethnic and sectarian differences and, as a result, is a fundamental obstacle to genuine reconciliation. It was approved by the Iraqi parliament at a time when Sunni Arabs were still largely boycotting the political process and when well organised - as opposed to popularly supported - Shiite and Kurdish blocs held a disproportionate amount of power.

Clauses of the constitution would need to be rewritten, Mr Shaker, a Sunni Arab, said. "Ultimately we need to make constitutional changes. We wrote the constitution in a rush. There are many gaps in it. "We wrote it in six months and have not been able to make any changes to it in the last four years. That is a real failure for our [the reconciliation's committee's] work." The intent among some of Iraq's political blocs to end their differences was, Mr Shaker said, clearly signalled by two points.

First, neither pro-government not anti-government factions had ever asked his committee to mediate as part of a settlement. Second, the resources allocated to the parliamentary reconciliation body were, he said, laughable. "Our annual budget is in region of two million Iraqi Dinar. That's less than US$2,000 [Dh7,345]. We don't have the money to pay for a typist." psands@thenational.ae