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Iraq’s Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya
Iraq’s Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Iraq’s Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya

The demise of Iraq’s Al-Iraqiya Alliance, at threat of marginalisation, would remove the country’s sole credible political representative of a very important community: the secular, non-sectarian middle class.

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Executive Summary

A key player in the political crisis currently unfolding in Baghdad is the Al-Iraqiya Alliance, a cross-confessional, predominantly Sunni, mostly secular coalition of parties that came together almost three years ago in an effort to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the March 2010 elections. It failed then, and its flailing efforts now, along with those of other parties, to unseat Maliki through a parliamentary no-confidence vote highlight Iraqiya’s waning power as a force that could limit the prime minister’s authority. They also show that what remains of the country’s secular middle class lacks an influential standard bearer to protect its interests and project a middle ground in the face of ongoing sectarian tensions that Syria’s civil war risks escalating. Finally, they underline the marginalisation of Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkomans by the Shiite-led government, further increasing the potential for violence.

It did not have to be this way. As recently as two years ago, when election results became known, Iraqiya showed promise as a secular alternative in an environment defined by ethno-sectarian politics. It was the only political alliance to attract both Shiite and especially Sunni voters. It campaigned on an expressly non-sectarian platform (arguing, for example, against the notion of federal Sunni and Shiite regions) as the representative of liberals and moderates. It won the largest number of seats, 91, against the 89 mustered by its main rival, Maliki’s State of Law list. Alone among major political alliances, Iraqiya claimed support throughout the country, having obtained twelve of its seats in Shiite-majority areas, when Maliki’s did not win a single one in predominantly Sunni governorates.

But Iraqiya overreached. In negotiations over government formation, its leader, Iyad Allawi, insisted on holding the prime minister’s position by virtue of heading the winning list. In response, Shiite parties that had fallen out with Maliki grew fearful that former Baathists would return to power and once again coalesced around him. Joining forces with Maliki, they managed to form the largest parliamentary bloc; the outgoing prime minister, who also gained support from both Iran and the U.S., held on to his position. In a striking reversal of fortune, Iraqiya lost its leverage. Some of its leaders rushed to accept senior positions in the new Maliki government even before other key planks of the power-sharing accord between Maliki, Allawi and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, known as the Erbil agreement, could be implemented.

The goal of the Erbil accord had been to limit the powers of the prime minister. It was not to be. Since taking office in December 2010, Maliki steadily has built up his power, making no concessions to his governing partners. He has retained control over the interior and defence ministries as well as of elite military brigades. As a result, Iraqiya has found itself marginalised in government, its leaders and members exposed to intimidation and arrest by security forces, often under the banner of de-Baathification and anti-terrorism. Having campaigned partially on the promise it would bring such practices to an end, Iraqiya proved itself powerless in the eyes of its supporters. Matters came close to breaking point in December 2011, as the last U.S. troops left the country, when Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, a senior Sunni leader, while declaring Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, another Sunni leader – both of them from Iraqiya – persona non grata for having referred to Maliki as a “dictator”.

In April 2012, tensions between Maliki and his governing partners escalated further. Joining forces, Iraqiya leaders, Barzani and other Kurdish leaders as well as some of Maliki’s Shiite rivals such as the powerful Sadrist movement, accused the prime minister of violating the Erbil agreement and amassing power by undemocratic and unconstitutional means. Their efforts ever since to hold a parliamentary no-confidence vote against Maliki have been hampered by internal divisions. The crisis is at a stalemate: Maliki hangs on to power, even enjoying a surge in popularity in Shiite areas; his rivals lack a viable strategy to unseat him until the next parliamentary elections, which should take place in 2014. This, they fear, leaves plenty of time for the prime minister to further consolidate his hold over the security forces and carry out further repression to achieve the kind of parliamentary majority in the next elections that has eluded him so far.

An emboldened prime minister, growing sectarian tensions and a deeply mistrustful opposition are a recipe for violent conflict, especially in light of troubling developments in neighbouring Syria. Iraqis across the divide express fears that a spiralling sectarian-tinged civil war in their neighbour could exacerbate tensions at home and usher the country into another round of sectarian conflict. In a separate report, Crisis Group has proposed some ways to mitigate the chances of such a scenario.

A key to understanding the political battle in Baghdad is to appreciate the extent to which it was avoidable. A series of ill-conceived steps has contributed to Iraqiya’s decline as a non-sectarian alliance bringing in a significant and otherwise underrepresented segment of the population. If the group hopes to survive the current phase and truly represent its constituency’s interests, it will have to engage in a serious internal reflection, in which it honestly assesses the strategies it has pursued, draws appropriate lessons and paves the way toward more democratic internal decision-making. If Iraqiya is to play a role in solving the dangerous political crisis, it first will have to overcome the crisis within that, over the past two years, has steadily been eroding its credibility.

As part of a new strategy it could:

  • develop a more formal internal decision-making process that would allow for dissenting views to be communicated openly and directly to senior leadership;
     
  • engage in a deliberate debate with its constituents on what they expect from the government and Iraqiya’s role in it, and whether they consider that the alliance has contributed to meeting those expectations. This could be done by requiring its parliament members to regularly return to their constituencies to engage with voters through organised forums, or by encouraging its provincial representatives to maintain steady ties with universities and professional associations so as to allow constituents to provide feedback on Iraqiya’s performance;
     
  • develop and publish a strategy document that would review in detail and objectively developments since March 2010, including its own performance, and that of its individual ministers and senior leaders, with recommendations on how it could improve;
     
  • review its relationship with other political alliances, including State of Law, the National Alliance and the Kurdistani Alliance, with a view to resolving differences and contributing to improving the state’s performance;
     
  • negotiate a countrywide political compromise with its counterparts, in which it would offer to abandon efforts by some of its members to establish federal regions in exchange for a more equitable security and human rights policy (including prohibiting arrests without just cause, ensuring that all detainees have access to adequate legal representation within 24 hours of their arrest, and allowing them to contact their relatives immediately upon their arrest) and more meaningful decentralisation (allowing governorates greater control over local investment and discrete issues such as education and transport).

Baghdad/Brussels, 31 July 2012

Barham Salih, Iraq's President meets with Nobel Peace Prize laureate,Yazidi activist Nadia Murad at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A Way Forward for Sinjar

Sinjar, the Iraqi district that was the site of the Yazidi genocide in 2014, still carries the wounds of that horrible time. But today a confluence of national and international interests holds the promise to revitalise the area and deliver it to local governance.

Sinjar, on Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, is still recovering from the trauma of occupation by the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, the jihadists seized the district, targeting its Yazidi majority in a genocidal campaign of killing, rape, abduction and enslavement. Now an opportunity has arisen to steer the area toward a safer future.

Both Iraq and its autonomous Kurdish region have formed new governments that seem ready to resume talks about the status of Iraq’s disputed territories. These are fourteen administrative districts – of which Sinjar is one – nominally controlled by Baghdad but claimed by the Kurdish regional government in Erbil. A new UN special representative for Iraq has brought fresh momentum to the task of resolving the disputed territories’ status. Meanwhile, Nadia Murad, a UN Good-will Ambassador who survived the Yazidi genocide, has won the Nobel Peace Prize, attracting renewed international attention to Sinjar in particular. The new government and the UN should jump at this chance to work with Yazidi leaders to rebuild Sinjar as an example for all Iraq.

Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar.

A Region Yet to Recover

Sinjar became the scene of atrocities in August 2014, when ISIS militants murdered and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, driving tens of thousands more to flee their homes in terror. ISIS is gone; Iraqi and Kurdish forces finished retaking the district in mid-2017. But many of the Yazidi displaced remain huddled in makeshift shelters in the nearby Dohuk province, unable to return due to insecurity and the stagnant economy. Since 2003 a succession of outsiders – first Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), then ISIS, then factions affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), then the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (the militias that presently patrol Sinjar) – have controlled the district or parts thereof, pushing the population to take up arms and dividing local elites.

In a February 2018 report, Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar. We called on Baghdad to mediate between factions and restore local governance, in order to allow the displaced to return, lay the groundwork for reconstruction and end foreign interference. We urged the federal government to merge competing militias into a unified police force and open administrative jobs to skilled locals regardless of which outsiders they had aligned themselves with before.

Ten months later, Sinjar is scarcely better off. Both the federal and Kurdish regional governments have been busy with elections in 2018, and neither has paid due attention to Sinjar’s challenges, which they may deem minor. In May, Baghdad tasked the National Reconciliation Committee, a government body with a mandate to facilitate inter-communal peace, with formulating a roadmap for reinstituting governance in Sinjar. The Committee’s thirteen-point plan includes, among other provisions, calls to restore security, as well as basic health care, education and agriculture, to enable the uprooted to return. In late October, Baghdad and Erbil tried to reach a deal on the return of Sinjar’s local councils to the district. As yet, however, there is no progress either in implementing the roadmap or in bringing back the local councils. Sinjar remains dominated by the Popular Mobilisation Units. 

It is tempting to surmise that the area can regain its footing only if Yazidi politicians and military leaders free themselves from dependency on Iraqi, regional and international patrons. Local supervision of governance and security would encourage the displaced to come back to their homes and lands.

Confluence of Interests

Yet Baghdad and Erbil still have a role to play – and so do Iraq’s international partners.

Baghdad’s stake in stabilising Sinjar stems from its newly appointed government’s interest in engagement with Erbil. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the new prime minister, has long enjoyed strong relations with the Kurdish regional government. Cooperation with the Kurds could allow him to counterbalance the growing influence of Shiite factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Units. Barham Salih, the new president, likewise has expressed a desire to reaffirm Iraq’s commitment to accountability and reconciliation in the post-ISIS era, and in particular to address the disputed territories question as a way to strengthen his office. Sunni Arabs in Parliament belonging to the Islah bloc could profitably ally with the Kurds to press the Popular Mobilisation Units to withdraw from the disputed territories, home to their main constituencies. The yet-to-be-named defence minister, a post usually assigned to a Sunni Arab, might also back such an agreement, especially if he comes from Islah.

Key international players would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity.

For its part, Erbil wants to engage with Baghdad as a way to recoup its losses (in both autonomy and territory) after the September 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence. The KDP’s Masoud Barzani, the referendum’s architect, hopes to use senior party officials in ministerial positions in Baghdad to negotiate a settlement on outstanding issues, such as security and governance in the disputed territories, oil exports and revenue sharing. Competition between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could block a settlement, however, as government formation unfolds in Erbil. The KDP’s ambition for hegemony in Iraqi Kurdistan could push the PUK closer to Iran as a way to consolidate its position in Baghdad. A further breach in the KDP-PUK relationship, following a decade of close cooperation in both the Kurdish region and Baghdad, would complicate efforts to settle the disputed territories issue. Yet the two parties still have common interests there. This suggests that as long as the KDP’s engagement with Baghdad endures, it has an interest in working with the PUK to move toward a deal with the federal government on the disputed territories, including Sinjar.

Key international players – the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, U.S. and EU – would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity, enhancing the prime minister’s power and ensuring the government’s stability. Sympathy with the Yazidis’ plight makes Sinjar a strong entry point for renewed international diplomatic engagement in Iraq.

Recommendations

To capitalise on this confluence of interests, Yazidi leaders in Baghdad, the Kurdish region and Sinjar district, including Nadia Murad with her moral authority, should advocate that Sinjar become a model for addressing the disputed territories’ status. The Sinjar councils should commit to honouring the thirteen-point roadmap presented by Iraq’s National Reconciliation Committee in May.

Yazidi leaders should take the following steps:

  • Agree on a new candidate for Sinjar district director (mayor), as a sign of Yazidi unity and Yazidi leaders’ commitment to help mediate political negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil;
  • Support the Yazidi members of the elected Sinjar district and sub-district councils until the next local elections. In the meantime, hammer out an agreement among all security actors deployed in Sinjar (Popular Mobilisation Units, Peshmerga and Yazidi militias) that would integrate their Yazidi fighters into the interior and defence ministries;
  • Support negotiation of a deal that would see the withdrawal of non-Yazidi militia commanders from civilian areas in Sinjar in exchange for the right (for now) to stay on the district’s border with Syria.

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi should continue the work of his predecessor in tackling the Sinjar question through an agreement with Erbil, and step up efforts to reach a security arrangement in Sinjar that includes the Popular Mobilisation Units.

The Abdul-Mahdi government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Negotiate an agreement to integrate members of all irregular security forces in Sinjar into Federal Police units in charge of protecting Sinjar district and sub-districts, to be placed on the interior ministry payroll;
  • Integrate local Yazidi fighters deployed on the Syria border into Iraqi army battalions also stationed there, and transfer them to the defence ministry payroll to reduce smuggling and their fealty to non-Yazidi commanders;
  • Negotiate with Kurdish leaders the return of the Sinjar district council and sub-district councils to Sinjar, and secure joint commitment to the National Reconciliation Committee’s thirteen-point roadmap. 

The president of Iraq should continue public commitment to addressing the case of Sinjar, including by seeing through completion of the National Reconciliation Committee’s roadmap by an agreed-upon deadline.

The Kurdistan Regional Government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Continue negotiations with Baghdad on the return of the Sinjar council and sub-district councils to Sinjar in exchange for supporting the merger of KDP-affiliated Yazidi forces into local Federal Police units and deploying Peshmerga only up to the checkpoint before the shortest route home for Yazidis displaced in Dohuk;
  • Reopen the Dohuk-Sinjar road to allow Yazidi civilians free movement in and out of Sinjar and to enable the displaced to go home.
Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners.

Iran and Popular Mobilisation Unit officials should agree on merging the Units’ Yazidi fighters under the authority and on the payroll of the interior and defence ministries, and otherwise withdrawing from Sinjar, in exchange for allowing non-Yazidi commanders continued access to Sinjar’s border with Syria (with the proviso that, eventually, the Iraqi army will reacquire full control over the border).

The U.S., EU and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq should take the following steps:

  • Facilitate Baghdad-Erbil dialogue on a mutually acceptable security arrangement for Sinjar that would consist of merging Yazidi fighters belonging to various militias with federal forces;
  • Work with the Sinjar district council to start UN-sponsored and other reconstruction programs;
  • Assist the National Reconciliation Committee in carrying out its thirteen-point roadmap for Sinjar;
  • Prepare the ground for free local council elections in Sinjar, ensuring representation of all communities. 

The Sinjar District Council (once it has come back to the district) should facilitate the return of all displaced Sinjar residents, including non-Yazidis, to their homes. With the help of the Baghdad and Erbil governments, as well as the UN, it should establish a mechanism for reconciliation between Sinjar Arabs and Yazidis (as well as other minorities that suffered at the hands of ISIS).

The UN, working with the National Reconciliation Committee, should lead Sinjar’s reconstruction in a way that takes into account inter-communal tensions and the risks involved in favouring one community over another, or giving that perception.

Now’s the Time

Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners. The pain of ISIS depredations is etched in Yazidis’ collective memory, leaving survivors with feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Unable to obtain justice by institutional means, many feel an impulse for vengeance. But things need not go that way. The moment presents an opportunity for a concerted push by local leaders in Sinjar to make overdue administrative and security changes in the district with the help of both the federal and Kurdish regional governments. If they succeed, they could turn Sinjar into a model for addressing the wider disputed territories question that has long divided Baghdad and Erbil.

This possibility, combined with knowledge that the calculations in Baghdad and Erbil may change, should prompt rapid action. The time is now to chart a new way forward for Sinjar.