Iraq premier Nouri al-Maliki by issuing an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a top Sunni politician, only a few days after the official end of U.S. presence in Iraq, created a deep political crisis with an unprecedented consequences. Hashimi was accused of running a death squad against senior Iraqi officials. Hashimi, who escaped to Kurdistan Region to avoid arrest, has denied those charges. Hashimi is not the only Sunni politician who faces threats from Maliki. Saleh Mutlaq, another senior Sunni figure and vice premier also faced harsh treatment from Shiite premier Maliki who asked Parliament to lift the immunity.
In the middle of this political tension, Baghdad witnessed its worst terror attacks on Dec. 22. A wave of explosions across Baghdad killed dozens of people and spread fears that Iraq's government could collapse in the wake of the U.S. military's departure.
At least 69 people were killed and at least 200 were wounded in 16 different attacks just days after the final U.S. troops withdrew. The attacks targeted civilians from all walks of life. One took place at a market and another at a school as children were arriving.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement condemning the attacks: "We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families and communities of these victims. It is especially important during this critical period that Iraq's political leaders work to resolve differences peacefully, through dialogue, and in accordance with Iraq's constitution and laws. Senseless acts of violence tear at the fabric of Iraqi unity and do not in any way help the people of Iraq or any of its communities."
In such a bold move to sideline Sunni actors from politics, Maliki is not acting alone. Equally, this dangerous maneuver cannot be seen exclusively an internal Iraqi political affair. Iran as the staunch ally of Maliki plays critical role in controlling Iraq for its regional hegemony and certainly has its hand in Iraqi political affairs.
Iraq, like Syria, could become a conflict arena between Iran and Turkey, between Iran and the West particularly the U.S. Alienation of a top Sunni politician came at a time of U.S. troop withdrawal and at a time when some Sunni provinces declared Kurdistan-style independent regions, breaking their central ties with Baghdad. What is crucial to note here is that those Sunni regions constitute Iraq's border with Syria, where Sunni Arabs are the majority but are ruled by minority Syrian Shiites under President Bashar al-Assad's Baath regime. While the regime in Syria trembles at the ongoing public unrest and an open protests against the regime, supported by Turkey and the West, both Iran and Iraqi Shiites are concerned about a potential regime change and coming power of Sunnis in Syria with a close ties with Iraqi Sunnis.
Both Iran and Turkey have interests in the political futures of Iraq and Syria and do their best to exert their regional political and economic interests in these countries. While Iran, through its historical, political and religious ties, has strong connection and with Iraq's Shiites, Turkey has influence over the Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis.
Maliki and his local and regional backers are aware that sidelining Sunnis from politics could certainly cause internal turmoil and disturbances that can easily lead to the collapse of the hard-fought government. What is it that Maliki hopes to achieve in this turmoil that may bring his government to down and Iraq to an uncertain future, Both Maliki and Iran rushed to fill the vacuum created by U.S. withdrawal and corner Turkey and the Western influence in the country. By creating a central and iron-hand government, Maliki and Iran may hope to provide a stronger support to Assad's regime in Syria.
Operations against the Sunni politicians are a showdown orchestrated by Maliki and Iran to regional and global powers that they have got the upper hands in Iraqi political affairs.
The Kurdish position
As mentioned, the Kurds refused to bow to Maliki's pressure to hand over Hashimi to Baghdad. The tension between Maliki and the Kurds is not new. Over the strategic issues, such as Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, the hydrocarbon law and the Constitution there have caused deep rifts between the Baghdad and Erbil since the beginning of the post-Saddam Hussein era. The conflict between Maliki and the Kurdish leaders reached to climax towards the end of 2008.
In an editorial in The Kurdish Globe at the time indicated clearly the problem of the time and the problems of the future: "The growing row between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraq central government signifies the difficulties of reconciliation between Kurds and Iraq, and such a quarrel that is ongoing in the media provides a glimpse of future problems and possible divisions in Iraq. In other words, what kept the Kurds wanting to remain a part of Iraq was their belief that post-Saddam Iraq can be a federal and democratic country where each national, ethnic and religious community can enjoy its national and religious rights without any discrimination. In a chaotic period ensuing after the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Kurds -- who had their national government, Parliament, and strong military force -- could have easily opted for separation, but they did not. During the long period of negotiations with Arab opposition groups, most of them now in power in Iraq, and with the U.S., the Kurds opted to remain in Iraq and to reconstruct it in the line of federalism, pluralism and democracy.
"It has now become clear that such optimistic expectations about the future of Iraq were illusions, if not naivete. Iraq is moving nowhere near federalism and democracy.
"Historical background, political experience and tendency of Iraqi political actors do not provide any rational reason to expect Iraq to ever become a democratic country. It is better for the Kurds to understand that there is no place for them in Iraq, and to plan their future accordingly." (The Kurdish Globe, Dec. 4, 2008)
The strong possibility of a renewed Shiite and Sunni conflict and potential civil war between them will have serious consequences for Kurdistan Region and the Kurdish leaders need to prepare themselves to such a likely period of chaos.
The Kurds should not be a side in the Shiite-Sunni conflict. KRG's relation both with Shiites and Sunnis should be based on three principles: Proper implementation of Iraqi Permanent Constitution to resolve outstanding issues between Erbil and Baghdad and between Shiites and Sunnis; independence of Iraq from regional interferences to secure Iraq's sovereignty and dignity; and respect for democratic principles, national, religious and minority rights. The first principle can resolve all the pending issues between Erbil and Baghdad. The implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution provides solution to the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, as the most explosive issue that can ignite a civil war between the Kurds and Arabs. The Constitution can also solve the oil exploration rights that are another serious friction between Erbil and Baghdad. In short, the Constitution has potential to resolve many ethnic, religious and power-related issues in Iraq, should the Constitution respected fully and wholeheartedly.
Iraq should prevent regional interferences into its internal affairs. Iraqi leaders should secure Iraq's sovereignty and dignity and keep themselves independent from regional powers and the only path to realize that is to resolve the existing internal tension so not to allow reasons and excuses to outside players.
Closely related to the first and second principles, the Iraqi actors should respect democratic principles and national, religious and ethnic rights. Without such respect, living in peace and harmony of such diverse community in Iraq would be impossible. The respect for democracy is one thing the implementation and realization of democratic principles is another. In Iraq so far, discourses on democracy remained in discourse and only in weak appearances, such as free elections, become practice.
On these three principles, the Kurds can set a course to negotiate with Iraqi political actors and can mediate the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. Failing to reach a mutual understanding on these principles, the Kurds only remaining option is to separate from Iraq and establish an independent Kurdistan with full respect for human rights, democracy and pluralism.
Can Iraq ever be a democratic regime?
Maliki's overture, without doubt, indicates a serious intention to alienate Sunnis from Iraqi politics and secure a Shiite-dominated government. "No one expected the dangers and tensions in Iraqi politics to vanish after the last American troop departed. But at least Maliki, a member of the Shiite majority, might have made an effort to step up to the challenges of creating a future for Iraq based on democratic principles. Instead, he is showing a greater interest in reprisals against the Sunni minority than in encouraging inclusion" said an editorial in The New York Times. The editorial reflects a general deception shared by Western media about the possibility of a democratic future of Iraq.
Since 2004, in the pages of the Globe, it has been repeatedly outlined that a plural democratic and peaceful Iraq is an illusion. In January 2010, on the issue of Saddam's hanging, the Globe editorial said: "With the collapse of the Baathist regime, Iraq is in search of a way out with no hope in the end. Constructed arbitrarily as the result of an imperialist power struggle, Iraq was arbitrarily destroyed once again as a result of the same imperialist power interests. Both its construction and destruction proved to be equally painful for the ordinary people of these lands. Saddam's execution and the way in which it was carried out are symbolic of Iraq's end. Indeed, Saddam's ironic execution at the hands of Shiite militiamen sealed in short or long terms the division of Iraq. Iraq will never be able to stand as a unified country under a single central government and Parliament where Shiites and Sunnis can stand side by side to run Iraq's affairs. It is over. The division of Iraq into Shiites and Sunnis is inevitable. It is an irony of history to observe that a ruler's execution, who did not hesitate to employ any kind of atrocities to keep the country united, served the disintegration of the same country. The question is whether this partition would be realized without much bloodshed or, as the country's record suggests, with much blood and human suffering."
The deep running tension between Shiites and Sunnis, the national conflicts between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs, and regional interference, which has been compounded with a poor historical background of democratic experience, made formation of a democratic inclusive Iraq almost an impossibility.
Following the fall of Saddam, there was the nave hope that Iraq would evolve toward democracy and rule of law. It has now become clear that such optimistic expectations about the future of Iraq were illusions, if not naivete. Iraq is moving nowhere near federalism, pluralism and democracy. This naivety was short-lived and left in its place a hard reality that what overrides Iraq is not democratization of the country but local and regional interests of various factions and power centers. Apart from the Kurds, almost all the factions in Iraq (both Shiites and Sunnis as well as some section of Turkmen), with the support of some regional powers, ventured to enlarge their economic and political interests at the expense of the others.
Rather than respecting democratic principles and obeying the Iraqi Constitution in solving outstanding questions, they employed a number of undemocratic mechanisms to deny the rights of the others.
Since its artificial creation by imperial colonial powers at the outset of 20th century, Iraq has never exercised or attempted to run its affairs by democratic principles. Run by despotic regimes backed by various global powers Iraq has never paid due attention and respect to its various national and regional components. Historical background, political experience and tendency of Iraqi political actors do not provide any rational reason to expect Iraq to ever become a democratic country.
While the current state of affairs in Iraq in particular, and in the Middle East in general, is a mess and the prospect of stability and peace seems ever so slim, Kurdistan Region is blooming as an oasis of peace, stability and democracy. Despite this striking contrast, it should not be forgotten that Kurdistan is part of this chaotic region and is not immune to it. The prospect of a plural, democratic and federal Iraq is very slim. Iraqi non-Kurdish political actors' negative positions toward the issue of Kirkuk and other constitutional issues, their failure to resolve the ethnic and sectarian conflict through dialogue and understanding, and corrupt and messy administration of the central government are some of the indicators that portray a rather dark picture of Iraq. At the bottom of all this lies the struggle for power and dominance, and the only experience that Iraqi political actors have in their tool kit is Iraq's bloody history of dictatorship, oppression and violence.
The relative freedom, peace and stability in Kurdistan in the middle of a chaotic Iraq and Middle East is not only a contrast but at the same time indicates the dangers that surround this positive experience. Lack of democratic experience in Iraq and the international character of the Kurdish national question at the heart of the Middle East present serious challenges for Kurdish political actors.
Political regimes in the Middle East lack democracy, freedom of expression and human rights; there is economic poverty, huge unemployment and tight control of economic wealth, and the political system is in the hands of a small but powerful elite. Each provides sufficient reason for wide and public grievances in the region against existing regimes. In the age of advanced communication and interconnection, the growing awareness of the public at large make the ruling elite status more precarious and makes it more difficult for them to remain in power as they so far have.
Democratization of the region and its political regimes is more than a necessity, it is imperative. For democracy to come to the region, however, there must be fundamental economic changes. The problem is not entirely limited to the goodwill or character of the ruler or the behavior of the elite in any particular society in the region. It is the economic system that needs to be radically altered. Currently in most of the countries, control of production and distribution of wealth is strictly monopolized by the small, ruling elite in power. The domination of state on surplus appropriation and its direct interest in economic affairs do not allow growing space for development of civil society, varying institutions and independent media.