Prime Minister Nuri-al-Maliki has rejected the proposal of a ‘national salvation (or unity) government to bail Iraq out of its current existential crisis. He claims this would be unconstitutional and undemocratic. The United Iraq Alliance (a Shia coalition) won 92 federal parliamentary seats in the recent elections which was 73 seats short of a majority. This was the largest bloc. But he is unable to get the needed 165 seats to form a government.
The Sunnis will not accept a government led by Maliki. His own powerful coalition partners, including al Hakim and al Sadr, do not agree with his apparently excessively sectarian approach to governing Iraq. He is said to have the backing of Iran. To a certain extent he has. But he was never the preferred choice of Iran. That is why the US backed him because they wanted to outmanoeuvre Iran in Iraq while leaving Iraq in 2011 under a supposedly ‘stable and empowered’ government. That is why they ignored his sectarian excesses.
The US determination to secure the overthrow of the minority Alawi government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria succeeded in nothing but eliminating the Syrian-Iraqi border through which Isis and other militant Arab Sunni groups were able to infiltrate Iraq. But where did the recruits and resources for Isis come from? Who organised and financed them?
Recruitment centres for Isis exist in Pakistan where the majority of the underclass youth are unemployed, impoverished, insulted, humiliated and ‘brainwashed’. They are easily recruited by organisations who share the same patrons with our government and ‘deep state’ institutions. They ‘hide in plain sight’ just like some notable ‘guests’ did in the recent past.
The UK government worries about 300 British ‘jihadis’ who may have gone to Syria, and if not martyred, may return to their ‘homeland’ seduced by ‘radical Islam’. We are nonchalant about the prospect of at least ten times that number finding their way back to Pakistan to combat elite/official corruption, deceit and betrayal. Meanwhile, we are busy formulating strategies to ‘project power’ against Indian hegemonic ambitions and against Afghan attempts to resist our hegemony. Why, oh why are our prayers not answered? We feel so abandoned! And burdened by begging bowls filled to overflowing!! Under such weight, and to be held so lightly!
Back to Iraq. Have the Kurds emerged as the real winners? They have taken advantage of the Iraqi security debacle in the face of the Isis advance towards Baghdad from the west and the north. They have grabbed the disputed oil rich city of Kirkuk and its surrounding areas. But this is the one issue that actually unites Iraqi Arab Sunnis and Iraqi Arab Shia. They will not concede Kirkuk to the Kurds. Could this drive the Kurds of Iraq towards declaring an independent Kurdistan? Unlikely. The Kurds today have the best possible deal. They have complete autonomy in Iraq including the Pesh Marga – their own military. They also have a veto at the centre on any issue of national importance, and especially on any issue that impacts on their interests.
This is what Quaid-e-Azam sought. Had the Congress leadership been wise enough to respond positively there might have been a very different political narrative in South Asia. Should the Kurds feel compelled to opt for the ‘Pakistan option’, an Arab-Kurd civil war over Kirkuk will inevitably ensue. Would this ethnic civil war exacerbate or ameliorate the raging sectarian conflict? Kirkuk will become Kashmir just as Abyei has in Sudan.
Moreover, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would find itself ranged against the combined hostility of the Arabs, the Turks and the Iranians. Even the US, despite Israel’s urgings, might find the prospect of supporting the Iraqi Kurds against such a powerful if contingent regional alliance simply not worth the expense and consequences. Could the Iraqi Kurds depend on other Kurds coming to their assistance? If the Turkish Kurds were to do so they would take over the leadership of the Kurdish cause from the Iraqi Kurds because they are more in number.
Moreover, they would jeopardise their hard won gains within Turkey. They would be as reluctant as the Iraqi Kurds to embrace such a scenario without the fullest possible backing of the US – which would simply not be forthcoming against its biggest Nato ally. The Iraqi Kurds are not so stupid to forfeit their best option which they have already achieved – even if they may eventually have to compromise on Kirkuk.
Is Iraq likely to break up? It could happen even though I believe it is unlikely. The break up option would not suit any of Iraq’s external patrons despite their mutual competition and rivalry. Iran would not wish to become the hub of a region wide Sunni-Shia and Arab-Ajam civil war. The Shia are only 15 percent of the regional population. The Arab Sunnis of Iraq have no oil unless they can retain control over the Mosul region extending to Kirkuk. The Kurds do not wish to be locked in an existential battle with the Turks and Arabs arrayed against them.
The Shia of Iraq are self-sufficient in terms of resources. But were they to secede from Iraq they would get involved in a lethal and ultimately fatal conflict with the Arab Sunnis over Baghdad which was established by Arab Sunni rulers and was the seat of the Abbasi Caliphate. No, the people of Iraq are condemned to stay together despite their disputes and fault-lines exacerbated by external manipulation, influence and conquest.
Is democracy the answer? But what is democracy in Iraq’s circumstances? It cannot be validation for sectarian rule. Just as in Pakistan it cannot be validation for corrupt, irresponsible and incompetent rule cloaked in constitutional norms and electoral practice. Democracy is neither majority rule nor minority rule. It is inclusive, participatory and institutional governance based on a shared sense of national identity, and a vision of national development that is less articulated and more practiced and implemented.
More than 90 percent of Iraqis would respond positively to the question: do you feel and want to remain Iraqi if circumstances permit? A definite minority would respond positively to the question: do you see merit in the policy approaches and justifications articulated by your political rivals and opponents? Uncertainty and possibly pessimism would inform the answers of the majority responding to the question: do you see a way out of this mess? They would like to respond that a way out is possible but they cannot see any one or any party leading the way.
Could an effective regional consensus develop in support of a more or less united, democratic and stable Iraq? The current international scene does not offer much encouragement. The US and its allies are dedicated to regime change in Damascus and Tehran. The political centre of gravity in the US might be moving towards the Republican lunatic right. The Arab Sunni regimes are dedicated to regime change in Baghdad and the preservation of anti-people and externally dependent power structures at home.
The Isis is a joint creation, locally in response to Maliki’s (and al-Assad’s) refusal to placate Sunni opinion at home or in the region, and regionally as a result of US intelligence operations emanating from surreal and savage visions taking hold of an increasingly frustrated, disoriented and dangerous global hegemon. (There are American strategists who actually like this image.)
Militant and extremist responses to western hegemony also represent the continuing ideological and political victory of passion over reason in the world of Islam. This is largely due to the failures of traditional and modern Muslim elites to deal with disparities of power that are largely the product of the western ages of discovery, reason, science and technology, and human rights. They superseded the Age of Faith in Europe several centuries ago when there was an essential strategic stalemate between the World of Islam and the World of Christianity.
The stasis that informs the World of Islam today also informed the World of Christianity for centuries. How did the west break out? Through trauma induced philosophical and political evolution that opened the gates to alternate paths. Have we not been traumatised enough? Islam never triumphed through stasis, which only set in when faith was politically and institutionally counter-posed to the search for secular knowledge and innovation. The ravages of the Mongols and the Europeans still devastate us.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and India.