Can Haider al-Abadi Unite a Divided Iraq?

Democracy is still a new process for Iraqis after decades of autocratic rule and life under military occupation. Embracing it as a governing system is accompanied by new difficulties and headaches. After each round of elections, conflicts emerge between the leaders of the multiple political blocs when it comes time to form a new government. The most recent political crisis broke out after the electoral victory of Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law Party, part of  Iraq’s largest political coalition, the National Alliance. According to the constitution and a ruling by the Iraqi Federal Court, Maliki should be asked by the president to form a new government. The heads of several major political blocs, however, were strongly opposed to a third term for Maliki. They warned of a possible civil war and the division of Iraq if he were invited to form a government. Malikis government was certainly not worthy of a third term. Now, with the support of the Iranian government a decisive factor, Haider al-Abadi has been asked by the president to form a government as prime minister.

But those who stood up against Maliki also have dirty hands. They claimed they were ready to pay any price to stop his reappointment.  Some even assisted the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) now investing spans of northern Iraq and naively colluded with them. ISIS went on to occupy the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh and Salahaddin, declared an Islamic caliphate, and call itself the Islamic State (IS) in the area of its control in northern Iraq and parts of Syria. In the Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS inaugurated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its Caliph. Shortly after, they began to commit unspeakable massacres of religious minorities in the region, the full toll of which is still unknown. Iraq is, once again, a serious issue for America and the world.

Iraq’s problems cannot all be solved by air strikes and aid drops. The current crisis is just one acute aspect of a deeper, systemic problem that will continue to cause trouble in Iraqand Americafor years to come.

Today’s Iraqi society is deeply divided into many factions, many of which are based on the political ideologies and agendas set by returned former-exiles from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and members of the former Iraqi opposition of the 1990s. The average Iraqi is part of a system in which there is no real engagement with or involvement of the people. It should, in some ways, sound somewhat familiar to many Americans, as our own system has faced and continues to face many of the same challenges.

The Political Class

This group of Iraqi society consists of supporters of political parties, members, and followers whose parents or family members were killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Though they only represent one-quarter of society, they make up about 80% of the civil servants in the ministries and have deep political influence in each ministry and department. Many of them do not have skills, experience or education to perform their jobs. Many of them have been known to present fake academic degrees. The chaos, disorder, mismanagement and corruption that seem to characterize Iraqi government are the consequence of these unqualified people being given significant positions through a system of political patronage that would make even Andrew Jackson cringe. Their aim is to perpetuate their own political control, with the effect that they are building an obsolete state with no chance of developing into a modern, well-educated society with freedom of speech and of opinion. This group does not want a divided Iraq of any kind, neither geographically nor administratively, because they would lose political influence and their monopoly on Iraq’s government resources. Nevertheless, they all support political and religious sectarianism in order to maintain their support and their own gains. They benefit from division.

The Moderates

These are the writers, professors, poets, lawyers, and other professionals who make up 10-15% of Iraqi society. Though highly educated, they have very little influence on the political process or ability to make changes to the system and have become disenchanted with the system. Earlier in Iraq’s transition, they participated in demonstrations and forums in an attempt to make politicians pay attention to their demands. The Iraqi political class does not support this group and tries to block their involvement because their voice in government and presence in the ministries would challenge or destroy their system of political patronage. Many of Iraqs moderates have already fled the country, a professional brain drain, because of threats and violence carried out by militias associated with the political parties. This group is generally against political or religious sectarianism and believe a stronger central government with devolved political and economic powers for all Iraqi regions will bring stability. They believe the capital, Baghdad, should remain a modern and secular city.

The Sectarians

According to some American analysts and diplomats, Iraq has to be divided into two main sectarian groups Sunni and Shiain order to save it from disintegration and civil war. For now, both sects rule the country side by side. Militant Sunni sectarians still believe Iraq is theirs to rule as an inheritance from Saddam. As the only Arab Shia-majority state, Iraq is viewed with suspicion or as a rival among members the Sunni-majority Arab League. Because of this, Iraq can only achieve peace and stability among its neighbors in the Middle East region by finding a consensus with and providing more autonomy and independence for the Sunni regions—but keeping them a part of Iraq. But after revolts in the Sunni-majority region of Al Anbar and the massacre of Sunni demonstrators at Al Hawija by Malikis regime forces, there will not be any solution soon as negotiations have stalled. This is a split amongst Muslims that has existed for centuries and dividing Iraq would not solve the problem and could, in fact, increase tensions between Iraq and its neighbors as they vie for control of pieces of the former-Iraq.

The Tribes

Iraq’s tribes today enjoy more freedom than they have for several decades. Saddam used tribes and tribal leaders to legitimize his regime and forced tribal leaders to sign loyalty oaths to him in their own blood. The consequence of the return of tribalism is a loss for civil society and modernity in many regions. Many rural areas have turned away from what they see as westernized, modern thought, inspirations, and the Western way of life, exhibited in cities such as Baghdad or Basra. The political parties, both Sunni and Shia, claim to support the traditional lifestyle and tribal law in order to win support. If the trend continues, any traces of modernity could disappear from the countryside and the divide between rural areas and cities will increase. This trend also means that increasingly tribal law is coming to dominate the lives of many more Iraqis, as opposed to a uniform judicial system. Such thinking is also fertile ground for the extremist ideology of groups such as ISIS. Since 1958, almost all of Iraq’s leaders came from rural regions in which tribal leaders possess all the influence, land, money and weapons. These tribal leaders pick their candidates, and pressure elected officials to introduce legislation that does not serve the public, but only their own demands. The consequence is the subversion of civil and public law and the judiciary. The return of the tribes means less reach for the central government and its laws into rural areas of Iraq.

The Clerics

The disorder following the U.S. invasion has caused many Iraqis to turn back to religious inspiration and the search for God. Clerics have used this return to religion to expand their influence in society and to re-indoctrinate it with fully new views and, sometimes, extremist opinions. While Shias have Al-Sistani as the highest religious authority in Najaf, Sunnis lack any central religious leadership. This lack of a central leader has contributed to the difficulties and revolts seen in Sunni-dominated areas, like al-Anbar. Even with a leader, Shia have also had difficulty. While Al-Sistani always tries to scale the political situation in order to provide all Iraqis the same rights in self-determination, his initiatives are often rejected in Baghdad and, ironically, mainly from the Shia parties because his plan does not match their aims.

Modern clerics always seek to be close to the Iraqi people, in and outside Iraq, by consulting and supporting the youth and families. They try to influence the politicians on social issues such as poverty, illiteracy and demographic changes. Fanatic clerics also find many supporters in Iraqi society and they and their political followers try to convert civil society into a pure Islamic state; some of them want to copy the Wilayat Al Faqih’ of Iran, some others have tried hard to eliminate civil law by introducing a so-called Al Jaafari’ law. Fortunately, this law was not passed by the Iraqi parliament.

Iraqi Minorities

Throughout all the disputes and chaos, Iraqs sectarian minorities are rarely able to live in peace and in freedom side by side with other sects and groups. In Iraqi history, there has never been any law or effective security or political system that could protect their lives or integrate them as an accepted part of Iraqi society. They will continue to struggle for their rights and seek protection from the international community as long as do not have enough representation in the Iraqi parliament. Minorities such as the Yazidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities are without a strong voice in parliament, the executive, or any of the ministries. So long as they lack any input into the Iraqi political system, they will continue to be oppressed and will be forced to look outside of Iraq for assistance.

Divide and Conquer Rule

Millions of Iraqis feel the situation is so bad that they have come to believe an American re-occupation of Iraq and the formation of a wholly new government would be a solution. But, as the recent air strikes show, America is very reluctant to return in any form to Iraq. And so Iraq’s problems will continue. The political class will continue to divide and conquer and reap the spoils of the government ministries. The sectarians and tribes will also divide the nation and roll back modern thinking and the rule of law. The moderates and professionals will continue to flee Iraq. The moderate clerics will continue to struggle to be heard, while the extremist clerics always have a captive audience. Amid the struggle, minorities will remain unrepresented and scapegoats of extremist violence. Iraq’s ministries and departments continue to be run by under-educated and unqualified patronage appointees with fake diplomas.

Iraq’s problems cannot all be solved by air strikes and aid drops. The current crisis is just one acute aspect of a deeper, systemic problem that will continue to sow mayhem in Iraqand Americafor years to come.


General (Ret.) Mohammed Al-Samarae was a career Iraqi army officer, serving in various command positions, culminating with command of the 6th Division of the Iraqi Army in 2006. A graduate of the First Military Academy (Baghdad) and the Iraq Joint Air Defense College, he has lectured at the U.S. Air Force War College and provided counterinsurgency training to U.S. military commanders at JRTC and NTC. He is a decorated veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War, and Iraq War. He is now an American citizen living in Virginia where he runs his own consultancy,Generals Experience.

[Photo: Flickr CC, US Army]


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