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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
Reconciling Iraq's Hard Realities
Reconciling Iraq's Hard Realities

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

Reconciling Iraq's Hard Realities

In a Berlin speech to German and Dutch officers, diplomats and civilians, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann argues that any attempt to help Iraqis piece their country back together again needs to take into account local realities, the grander geopolitical picture, and especially regional powers Turkey and Iran.

One of the key challenges in talking about Iraq – or any place, really – is to connect the large with the small, the overall geostrategic picture with the minutiae of daily life, but also the optimistic vision of the way ahead with the hard, depressing realities imposed by local politics, economics and conflict that block the implementation of that vision.

I want to bridge that divide: to present you with the hard realities, but then to leave you with some hope – to combine in a way last night’s uplifting, forward-looking presentation by former Federal President Christian Wulff with the one by the International Organisation for Migration’s Dino Silipigni that gave us a realistic close-up view of the nitty gritty of fixing Iraq – of helping Iraqis to fix Iraq – through the example of community policing.

Western nations are a party to the conflict

First, we have to understand our own role as Western nations in Iraq. The international coalition to fight the Islamic State – Daesh – is by definition a party to an international armed conflict, a belligerent that is pursuing its own interests and objectives in Iraq and Syria. The coalition cannot be non-partisan. It has chosen sides by fighting Daesh.

Two, in fighting Daesh this coalition has favoured certain Iraqi actors over others. These have become allies. They each have their own agenda, which may not be the same as the coalition’s. For most Iraqi actors, Daesh is not their primary target but a secondary one – an obstacle that needs to be defeated on the way to what really matters: outcompeting their local or regional rivals. And also: a means to derive benefits from the international coalition.

Because of this, the Western fight against Daesh will have unintended consequences, namely the strengthening of its chosen allies against their competitors, whose grievances may be no less understandable and whose aims may be no less legitimate. In this way, the coalition may solve one problem – Daesh – while creating new ones. These could be even more dangerous to Western interests.

Allies are setting the agenda – their own

How does this happen? The coalition’s allies derive three sets of benefits from agreeing to sacrifice their men on behalf of this alliance. These are:

  1. Weapons and military skills. The question is: what will these be used for in addition to the fight against Daesh, and against whom? An example: it is clear that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani is deriving great benefit from its exposure to American military skills and training on American weaponry. It is already using these assets not just to fight Daesh but to push into areas taken from Daesh and emptying them of their Arab population. This is happening in officially named “disputed territories” to which Kurdish leaders have long laid claim and which they now see an opportunity to annex to the Kurdistan region. But unilateral moves will not solve this longstanding dispute.
  2. Credit in the form of political support and possibly political recognition. In northern Iraq, Barzani feels so emboldened by the coalition’s support that he has announced his intent to stage an independence referendum later this year. He is doing so even though the objective conditions for Kurdish independence are far from ripe. His calculation is that regardless of conditions this is the best time, because Western support, which is notoriously fickle, is currently solid, and is critical to obtaining wider international recognition. But Iran and Turkey oppose Kurdish independence, and have the means to sabotage it. Even riskier, Barzani is pushing for the referendum to be held in the disputed territories, such as Kirkuk; this could start a civil war.
  3. Reconstruction aid. The coalition’s allies can steer aid toward themselves and their allies and away from their rivals. This is a particularly salient problem in the KDP-dominated Ninewa Plain with its diverse population.

Perceptions matter

While the coalition may see itself as a nonpartisan actor in Iraq apart from the fight against Daesh, Iraqi actors don’t see it that way. They see the coalition as wholly partisan through its choice of local allies. What is worse, Western NGOs are not immune from being seen through this lens either. There is a long history of Middle East people’s perceptions of Western intervention as multi-pronged and sinister in intent. This may sound conspiratorial, but it has an empirical basis. Many people in the Middle East lump Western NGOs in with Western military intervention. Paradoxically, the “Common Effort” here in Berlin reinforces that notion. (But from our Western perspective, the “Common Effort” makes a lot of sense in terms of efficiency, and I’m not discouraging you from proceeding on this path!)

The power struggle between Turkey and Iran

The situation is compounded by a geostrategic power competition in Iraq between Iran and Turkey. To understand what is going on, we first have to understand what drives these two states.

Iran wants three main things in Iraq, in each case to counter a specific threat. It wants:

  1. An Iraq that is relatively weak and as pro-Iran as possible, a state that will not attack Iran (as it did in 1980).
  2. Strategic depth against a hostile Arab and Sunni world – another lesson it learned from the Iran-Iraq war.
  3. Maintaining its “forward defence” against Israel, its main enemy in the region. For this it uses Hizbollah as a deterrent against an Israeli attack. But a strategic asset such as Hizbollah is only as strong as the supply line that supports it, and since 2014 Iran has had an opportunity to forge land routes through Iraq to Syria to supplement its air channel. What happened in northern Iraq two days ago (when Iran-backed Shia militias for the first time pushed all the way to the Iraq-Syria border through predominantly Sunni tribal territory) is a stunning illustration of this.

Likewise, Turkey wants three main things:

  1. A strong Iraq that can act as a buffer against Iranian influence and also can control its northern border, where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) roams.
  2. Preserving its post-Ottoman economic influence in northern Iraq, especially the Mosul area.
  3. Defeating or at least containing the PKK in the absence of an Iraqi state able to do so.

Additionally, Turkey would like to be able to draw on Iraq’s energy wealth.

A better way forward

So what is the better way forward? First, we must recognise that while the members of the Western coalition to fight Daesh in Iraq have a relatively small footprint, they can do a disproportionate amount of harm, given their superior weapons, military skills, political weight, and reconstruction funds. As Dino pointed out last night, the first maxim should be to do no (further) harm. This means: only providing arms to local allies if there are strings attached: military assistance should be conditional on these allies’ use of weapons in the fight against Daesh only, and on military conduct consistent with international humanitarian law. In other words, no ethnic cleansing and associated destruction of entire villages, or forced removal of IDPs.

Beyond that I would say:

  1. If you can’t be non-partisan, you can still make every effort – and be seen to be making every effort – to be balanced and fair, to be “colour-blind”, especially in distribution of reconstruction funds and establishment of projects. For example, if you are going to help rebuild Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi villages in the Ninewa Plain, there should be a parallel effort to rebuild Arab villages, as well as Mosul, not to mention Falluja, which remains in ruins. Be aware of how Iraqis see you. You will face opposition by the local powers that be. You need to push back.
  2. Promote reconciliation between a broad range of actors, even in the absence of trust. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will trust be; indeed, trust may emerge long after the parties have established peace. Trust came decades after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia was signed, not leading up to it. But building trust is a critically important objective, and the foundations can start to be laid now through specific mutually beneficial agreements in the economic sphere, for example an oil revenue-sharing deal between Baghdad and Erbil.
  3. Help Iraqis help themselves and each other. Enable them rather than impose solutions.
  4. Involve youth in all these efforts, including in decision-making.

Is hope realistic?

In proceeding on this path, while we should not lose sight of the complexities of Iraq, we also cannot afford ourselves to lose hope. One source of hope is the remarkable resilience we find in Iraqis every day.

I’ll just cite one example. I have been part of efforts for the past nine years to build an intercommunal framework for debate in Kirkuk as a basis for improving governance and ultimately solving the tricky matter of its political status. Kirkuk is a contested region with a diverse ethnic population and rich in oil. When we first brought a number of Kirkukis together in Jordan from across the ethnic and political spectrum, they were barely able to speak to each other, even though they all knew each other from local politics. Through further workshops in Berlin, Beirut and Amsterdam, I had the pleasure to observe that over time they developed warm personal relationships. They still found themselves unable to meet as a group back in Kirkuk, however, mainly because external parties kept pulling at them in opposite directions and undermining any of their efforts to achieve local consensus. Yet their personal relationships have become the foundation for future cooperation on security, governance, and settling Kirkuk’s status.

So I want to end on that note of hope. The odds may sometimes appear overwhelming, but with a balanced approach and a good deal of goodwill, members of the Western coalition and other external actors can help establish an environment in which Iraqis can start addressing, and perhaps even solving, their own problems.