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27/02/2006 | The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict

International Crisis Group Staff

The bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samara and the subsequent reprisals are but the latest, most serious signs efforts to hold Iraq together verge on collapse. There is still a little time to stop the slide into civil war if Iraqi leaders and the international community act urgently but the winners of the December 2005 elections must not only strongly condemn sectarian-inspired attacks and urge restraint. They must also establish a government of genuine national unity with popular credibility and Sunni Arab leaders in more than token positions; address Iraqis’ top concerns – safety and basic amenities; begin to disband the sectarian militias; and revise the constitution’s provisions on federalism and oil. The U.S., the EU and regional players must push for these crucial steps, or risk Iraq’s disintegration and the Middle East’s destablisation.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The bomb attack on a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006 and subsequent reprisals against Sunni mosques and killings of Sunni Arabs is only the latest and bloodiest indication that Iraq is teetering on the threshold of wholesale disaster. Over the past year, social and political tensions evident since the removal of the Baathist regime have turned into deep rifts. Iraq’s mosaic of communities has begun to fragment along ethnic, confessional and tribal lines, bringing instability and violence to many areas, especially those with mixed populations. The most urgent of these incipient conflicts is a Sunni-Shiite schism that threatens to tear the country apart. Its most visible manifestation is a dirty war being fought between a small group of insurgents bent on fomenting sectarian strife by killing Shiites and certain government commando units carrying out reprisals against the Sunni Arab community in whose midst the insurgency continues to thrive. Iraqi political actors and the international community must act urgently to prevent a low-intensity conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war that could lead to Iraq’s disintegration and destabilise the entire region.

2005 will be remembered as the year Iraq’s latent sectarianism took wings, permeating the political discourse and precipitating incidents of appalling violence and sectarian “cleansing”. The elections that bracketed the year, in January and December, underscored the newly acquired prominence of religion, perhaps the most significant development since the regime’s ouster. With mosques turned into party headquarters and clerics outfitting themselves as politicians, Iraqis searching for leadership and stability in profoundly uncertain times essentially turned the elections into confessional exercises. Insurgents have exploited the post-war free-for-all; regrettably, their brutal efforts to jumpstart civil war have been met imprudently with ill-tempered acts of revenge.

In the face of growing sectarian violence and rhetoric, institutional restraints have begun to erode. The cautioning, conciliatory words of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ pre-eminent religious leader, increasingly are falling on deaf ears. The secular centre has largely vanished, sucked into the maelstrom of identity politics. U.S. influence, while still extremely significant, is decreasing as hints of eventual troop withdrawal get louder. And neighbouring states, anxious to protect their strategic interests, may forsake their longstanding commitment to Iraq’s territorial integrity if they conclude that its disintegration is inevitable, intervening directly in whatever rump states emerge from the smoking wreckage.

If Iraq falls apart, historians may seek to identify years from now what was the decisive moment. The ratification of the constitution in October 2005, a sectarian document that both marginalised and alienated the Sunni Arab community? The flawed January 2005 elections that handed victory to a Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which drafted the constitution and established a government that countered outrages against Shiites with indiscriminate attacks against Sunnis? Establishment of the Interim Governing Council in July 2003, a body that in its composition prized communal identities over national-political platforms? Or, even earlier, in the nature of the ousted regime and its consistent and brutal suppression of political stirrings in the Shiite and Kurdish communities that it saw as threatening its survival? Most likely it is a combination of all four, as this report argues.

Today, however, the more significant and pressing question is what still can be done to halt Iraq’s downward slide and avert civil war. Late in the day, the U.S. administration seems to have realised that a fully inclusive process – not a rushed one – is the sine qua non for stabilisation. This conversion, while overdue, is nonetheless extremely welcome. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s intensive efforts since late September 2005 to bring the disaffected Sunni Arab community back into the process have paid off, but only in part. He is now also on record as stating that the U.S. is “not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian”. Much remains to be done, however, to recalibrate the political process further and move the country on to a path of reconciliation and compromise.

  • First, the winners of the December 2005 elections, the main Shiite and Kurdish lists, must establish a government of genuine national unity in which Sunni Arab leaders are given far more than a token role. That government, in turn, should make every effort to restore a sense of national identity and address Iraqis’ top priorities: personal safety, jobs and reliable access to basic amenities such as electricity and fuel. It should also start disbanding the militias that have contributed to the country’s destabilisation. The U.S. has a critical role to play in pressuring its Iraqi war-time allies to accept such an outcome. States neighbouring Iraq as well as the European Union should push toward the same goal.
  • Secondly, substantive changes must be made to the constitution once the constitutional process is reopened one month after the government enters office. These should include a total revision of key articles concerning the nature of federalism and the distribution of proceeds from oil sales. As it stands, this constitution, rather than being the glue that binds the country together, has become both the prescription and blueprint for its dissolution. Again, the U.S. and its allies should exercise every effort to reach that goal.
  • Thirdly, donors should promote non-sectarian institution building by allocating funds to ministries and projects that embrace inclusiveness, transparency and technical competence and withholding funds from those that base themselves on cronyism and graft.
  • Fourthly, while the U.S. should explicitly state its intention to withdraw all its troops from Iraq, any drawdown should be gradual and take into account progress in standing up self-sustaining, non-sectarian Iraqi security forces as well as in promoting an inclusive political process. Although U.S. and allied troops are more part of the problem than they can ever be part of its solution, for now they are preventing – by their very presence and military muscle – ethnic and sectarian violence from spiralling out of control. Any assessment of the consequences, positive and negative, that can reasonably be anticipated from an early troop withdrawal must take into account the risk of an all-out civil war.
  • Finally – and regrettable though it is that this is necessary – the international community, including neighbouring states, should start planning for the contingency that Iraq will fall apart, so as to contain the inevitable fall-out on regional stability and security. Such an effort has been a taboo, but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Winners of the December 2005 Elections:

1.  Strongly condemn sectarian-inspired attacks, such as the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra but also reprisal attacks, and urge restraint.

2.  Establish a government of national unity that enjoys popular credibility by:

(a)  including members of the five largest electoral coalitions;

(b)  dividing the key ministries of defence, interior, foreign affairs, finance, planning and oil fairly between these same lists, with either defence or interior being given to a respected and non-sectarian Sunni Arab leader, and the other to a similar leader of the United Iraqi Alliance;

(c)  assigning senior government positions to persons with technical competence and personal integrity chosen from within the ministry; and

(d)  adopting an agenda that prioritises respect for the rule of law, job creation and provision of basic services.

3.  Revise the constitution’s most divisive elements by:

(a)  establishing administrative federalism on the basis of provincial boundaries, outside the Kurdish region; and

(b)  creating a formula for the fair, centrally-controlled, nationwide distribution of oil revenues from both current and future fields, and creating an independent agency to ensure fair distribution and prevent corruption.

4.  Halt sectarian-based attacks and human rights abuses by security forces, by:

(a)  beginning the process of disbanding militias, integrating them into the new security forces so as to ensure their even distribution throughout these forces’ hierarchies, at both the national and local levels;

(b)  continuing to build the security forces (national army, police, border guards and special forces, as well as the intelligence agencies) on the basis of ethnic and religious inclusiveness, with members of Iraq’s various communities distributed across the hierarchies of those forces as well as within the governorates;

(c)  ensuring that the ministers of defence and interior, as well as commanders and senior officers at both the national and local level are appointed on the basis of professional competence, non-sectarian outlook and personal integrity; and

(d)  establishing an independent commission, accountable to the council of deputies, to oversee the militias’ dismantlement and the creation of fully integrated security forces.

5.  In implementing de-Baathification, judge former Baath party members on the basis of crimes committed, not political beliefs or religious convictions, and establish an independent commission, accountable to the council of deputies, to oversee fair and non-partisan implementation. Both former Baathis and non-Baathis suspected of human rights crimes or corruption should be held accountable before independent courts.

To the Government of the United States:

6.  Press its Iraqi allies to constitute a government of national unity and, in particular, seek to prevent the defence and interior ministries from being awarded to the same party or to strongly sectarian or otherwise polarising individuals.

7.  Encourage meaningful amendments to the constitution to produce an inclusive document that protects the fundamental interests of all principal communities, as in recommendation 3 above.

8.  Assist in building up security forces that are not only adequately trained and equipped, but also inclusive and non-sectarian.

9.  Engage Iraq’s neighbours, including Iran, in helping solve the crisis by taking the measures described in recommendation 11 below, and actively promote the reconciliation conference agreed to in Cairo in November 2005, encouraging representatives of all Iraqi parties and communities, as well as of governments in the region, to attend.

To Donors:

10.  Allocate funding to ministries and government projects, as well as civil society initiatives, strictly according to their compliance with principles of inclusiveness, transparency and competence.

To States Neighbouring Iraq:

11.  Help stabilise Iraq by:

(a)  expressing or reiterating their strategic interest in Iraq’s territorial integrity;

(b)  encouraging the winners of the December 2005 elections to form a government of national unity and accede to demands to modify the constitution (as outlined in recommendation 3 above);

(c)  strengthening efforts to prevent funds and insurgents from crossing their borders into Iraq; and

(d)  promoting, and sending representatives to, the planned reconciliation conference in Baghdad.

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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