Maliki’s political game to have alarming regional repercussions

Arab World Materials 22 January 2012 05:21 (UTC +04:00)
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has thrown hard-won political stability in Iraq into disarray by stoking tensions with Sunni politicians, and strained ties between Turkey and Iraq is only a small fallout of an increasingly deepening political stalemate in the country as violence has started to show its ugly face.
Maliki’s political game to have alarming regional repercussions

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has thrown hard-won political stability in Iraq into disarray by stoking tensions with Sunni politicians, and strained ties between Turkey and Iraq is only a small fallout of an increasingly deepening political stalemate in the country as violence has started to show its ugly face, Today's Zaman reported.

The latest potentially devastating overtures of the Shiite leader against Sunni politicians now risk spiraling into a wider struggle in the war-torn country, where sectarian sentiment always runs close to the surface.

Maliki, a Shiite, who has tolerated growing Iranian influence in Baghdad, issued an arrest warrant last month for his Sunni VP Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges and having death squads a day after US forces left the country as promised.

Hashemi fled to Arbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where Baghdad's security forces can't reach. Iraq is now mired in sectarian conflict with frequent bombings, mainly by Sunni insurgents, that have killed hundreds.

300 people have been killed since US forces left the country on Dec. 18, and Maliki shows no sign of compromise to end the spate of sectarian killings in Iraq. A total of 4,059 civilians were killed in violent incidents in Iraq in 2011, compared to 3,976 in 2010, rights group Iraq Body Count said in its annual study last week.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 unleashed a sectarian conflict that has left more than 114,000 dead.

The current political conundrum in Iraq also risks scuttling the government formed following months of painstaking efforts of not only Iraqi politicians but also neighboring countries and the US. In a bid to create a consolidated, consociational democracy, dozens of government posts in the Iraqi government are split among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs. The possible collapse of this complex political landscape crisscrossed by long-standing sectarian and regional rivalries brings Iraq closer to the sectarian tensions that triggered widespread slaughter in 2006-2007. A protracted political stalemate with no end in sight and fears of a schism reaching down to street level are now becoming reality.

Turkey hosted most of Iraq's Sunni politicians in İstanbul in 2010 and urged Shiite politicians to include them in a government that would be inclusive and cross-sectarian. "Turkey's strong support of the Sunnis against Maliki in the 2010 elections is now coming back to haunt it," Joost Hiltermann from the International Crisis Group said.

He said, rather than seeing Maliki as an Iranian proxy, which he isn't, and trying to circumvent and subvert him, Ankara should be supporting the continuation and strengthening of the current, elected national unity government, convincing the Iraqi prime minister to reabsorb the Sunnis he forced out but without at the same time becoming the advocate of those Sunnis and the Kurds. "It is a fine line," he added.

Sectarian strife in Turkey's southern neighbor could have ramifications and alarming implications beyond Iraq's borders in a region where a 10-month uprising in Syria is rapidly taking on a sectarian tone, and Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran are in a tussle of power over these lands. This was the message Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sent to Iraqi leaders from Ankara on Thursday in a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi. Both foreign ministers loudly said Iran and Turkey complete each other in the region despite the fact these two countries have always had difficulty explaining how they relate to each other. And there is agreement among observers that Turkish-Iraqi tensions are indirectly related to a wider Turkish-Iranian rivalry in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey's troubled start to building healthy bilateral relations with Iraq without US troops calls into question the necessity of US forces in the Arab country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said he urged both US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to keep US troops longer in Iraq.

In an interview with al-Hurra TV last Friday, Maliki said Turkey's interference in Iraqi domestic affairs is unacceptable and that Turkey is playing a role in Iraq that could result in civil war -- a development that would also affect Turkey.

Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security studies fellow at the New America Foundation, said very few countries appreciate foreign heads of state commenting on their internal affairs, but that is not to say that Turkey is wrong in its comments, merely that "we should not be surprised that Maliki is not appreciative." He added that the problems are ultimately Iraq's to solve, though Turkey, as a neighbor, is not without interest in getting them solved.

Having spent almost all of his political career under the boots of American soldiers, Maliki accused Turkey of infringing Iraq's sovereignty.

Turkey fired back at Maliki, claiming Turkey is not interfering in Iraq's domestic affairs but only urging Baghdad to refrain from steps that could damage democracy. But the point in case and a subject of discussion is not whether or not Turkey is interfering into Iraq's domestic affairs -- and it is -- the primary cause of concern is Iraq is sliding back from democracy, which would mostly damage Turkey.

Freedom House released a report this week and ranked Iraq in a list of "not free" countries, based on measurements of civil liberties and political rights.

Maliki's outrage against Turkey illustrated a prevailing sense of fear that reigns in Baghdad as the instability following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq turned the country into a regional bear pit, where Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are jostling for influence.

When Syria imposed sanctions on Turkey's goods and raised taxes on Turkish trucks trading with Gulf nations as retaliation against Ankara for its critical position as a result of a brutal military crackdown, Turkey said it would change its trade routes from Syria to Iraq. The current bilateral trade between Iraq and Turkey now stands at $12 billion and is rapidly growing.

Iraq's veneer of stoicism toward Turkey's warnings showed some new strains this week as unidentified assailants launched three rockets at Turkey's Embassy in Baghdad, hitting its outer wall. Turkey mostly claims it is not supporting only Sunni blocs and favors a broad-based and inclusive government in which all political factions are fairly represented. But instead of bridging deepening political fissures in Baghdad, Turkey and Iraq's Shiite rulers are inching closer to confrontation with an unpredictable trajectory.

The Iraqi government has demonstrated little political strategy in coping with the political crisis so far, instead advancing Maliki's assails against Sunni politicians in various ways, deepening opposition and provoking sectarian violence across the country. In a sign of Maliki's uncompromising stance, his cabinet suspended eight Sunni ministers who refused to attend the cabinet meetings in protest.

"Maliki is playing a game in Iraq that has clear international repercussions, so his accusations [against Turkey] of interference in internal affairs are disingenuous," Marina Ottaway from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said.

She said she doubts Maliki's primary goal is that of furthering Iran's goals in the region, and he is trying to strengthen his position internally, but as a result, he has isolated himself from all neighbors except Iran, and close ties between Iran and Iraq have implications that other countries cannot ignore.

According to Ottaway, the only way to rebalance Iraq's foreign relations is to help the leader of cross-sectarian Iraqiya bloc Iyad Allawi and Maliki reach a new agreement. "So I think other countries are right to get involved," she said, adding that if Maliki is not amenable to a new compromise, violence will escalate, and this time the country may split.

She warned that the Sunni provinces are already seeking to become regions with the same degree of autonomy as the Kurdish region in the north, and the Gulf countries will support them.

"And if Maliki continues to centralize power, the Kurds will not accept it. So I think Iraq is not only going toward more violence, but also toward disintegration," she concluded.