Saddam and the US failed, so why should Maliki think he can control Iraq by force?

World View: The Prime Minister may have electoral legitimacy, but the Sunni revolt against his government is growing in strength

Share

The civil war in Syria is destabilising Iraq as it changes the balance of power between the country's communities. The Sunni minority in Iraq, which two years ago appeared defeated, has long been embittered and angry at discrimination against it by a hostile state. Today, it is emboldened by the uprising of the Syrian Sunni, as well as a growing sense that the political tide in the Middle East is turning against the Shia and in favour of the Sunni.

Could a variant of the Syrian revolt spread to the western Anbar Province and Sunni areas of Iraq north of Baghdad? The answer, crucial to the future of Iraq, depends on how the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, responds to the seven-week-long protests in Anbar and the Sunni heartlands. His problem is similar to that which, two years ago faced rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. They had to choose between ceding some power and relying on repression.

Most Arab rulers chose wrongly, treating protests as if they were a plot or not so broadly based that they could not be crushed by traditional methods of repression. The situation in Iraq is not quite the same, since Maliki owes his position to victory in real elections, though this success was not total and depended overwhelmingly on Shia votes. He has nevertheless ruled as if he had the mandate to monopolise power.

Maliki has been ambivalent about the protests since they started in December last year. On occasion, he has denounced them as a plot by ex-Baathists or other enemies of the state acting as proxies for hostile foreign powers. At others, he has offered concessions, but nowhere near enough to quell the protests. His strategy is probably to play for time, an approach that has served him well in the past.

Traditional Sunni leaders such as the Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, are largely discredited in the eyes of the Sunni in the street. They are seen as greedy opportunists – as are all other politicians – who make deals in their own interests. Instead, protesters look to Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a highly respected religious leader long opposed to Saddam Hussein and whose brother was murdered by al-Qa'ida in Iraq in 2010.

He has sought to keep the protests from being hijacked by armed groups, demanding civil and political rights that fall short of overthrowing the state and thereby alienating the Shia majority. From the Sunni point of view, the unspoken threat of a resort to arms is more effective than actually using them, a move that would isolate the Sunni, who make up only a fifth of the country's population.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist religious leader with a powerful constituency among the Shia, has supported the demonstrations so long as they are not a precursor for Sunni counter-revolution against the post-Saddam political settlement. The Shia religious authorities in Najaf – the Marji'iyyah – have made as clear as they ever do, in their deliberately elusive language, that they do not want Maliki to play the sectarian card by appealing to Shia solidarity.

Another advantage for the Sunni is that, for the first time since 2003, their community is largely united. I met, last week in Basra, a Sunni sheikh, leader of a sub-tribe of Bedu formerly in Kuwait and close to the Sadrists, who nevertheless expressed strong sympathy for the demonstrators and their demands. A Sunni mistake in 2003 and 2004 was to allow their insurgency against the US to become violently sectarian, rather than based on an Iraqi nationalist appeal. Iraqi politics may be sectarian and tribal, but Iraqi nationalism in the Arab part of the country (Kurdistan is different) remains a powerful, often underestimated force.

The government in Baghdad is wrong to imagine that the protests are a plot orchestrated and paid for by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. There is plenty of discontent in Iraq over state corruption, incompetence, lack of jobs and failure to provide basic services despite the nation's oil revenues topping $100bn a year. But the government is correct in believing that the international environment has changed to the advantage of the Sunni in Iraq and that an anti-Shia and anti-Iranian counter-revolution is in full swing. For the counter-revolutionaries in the Sunni world, Baghdad would be a greater prize than Damascus.

Bitterness among the Sunni over the discrimination against them runs deep. People are imprisoned for long periods on the evidence of secret informants under an all-embracing anti-terrorism law. Thousands sit in jail without even being investigated. De-Baathification, supposedly targeting Baathist leaders, has become a form of collective punishment for all Sunni. The political scientist Ghassan al-Atiyyah relates how, in Abu Ghraib district in Baghdad, he "met a man who had been a schoolteacher for 30 years and had just got a message written on a scrap of paper sacking him [as an alleged Baathist]. It simply said 'go home'. He is penniless, has no pension, and if he was a young man, he would get a gun." There are plenty of young men in cities like Salahuddin and Mosul who have no job and no prospects of getting one, and are going to do just that since they have access to arms.

But it is wrong to think of the Maliki government as being gripped by self-serving paranoia in suspecting that the demonstrations in Anbar are the advance guard of a Sunni counter-offensive. I said to one Sunni observer: "Unfortunately, many Shia think you want a counter-revolution." He replied: "But I really do want a counter-revolution."

Al-Qa'ida is showing renewed signs of strength. Over the last week, they launched a multiple suicide bombing against the police headquarters in Kirkuk that killed at least 16 people and wounded 90. The following day, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of a gathering of Sahwa anti-Qa'ida Sunni militia in Taji, north of Baghdad, killing 22 of them. A further 26 Shia were killed in Baghdad and Hilla on Friday. The attacks show that al-Qa'ida can still recruit suicide bombers in large numbers, and an open border with Syria makes their task easier.

The lesson of recent Iraqi history is that force alone does not work against alienated communities, be they Sunni, Kurdish or Shia. Even the extraordinary violence of Saddam Hussein's regime only periodically gave him control over all of Iraq. The same was true of the US army – for all its sophisticated equipment, highly trained troops and vast expenditure.

It is unlikely the Maliki government would succeed where Saddam and the US failed. It has military superiority but not dominance in Iraq, fully controlling only about half the country. It has no authority in the Kurdistan Regional Government's three provinces or in the Kurdish-held disputed territories further south. Its authority is contested in the Sunni majority provinces and cities in western and central Iraq. "The problem is that all parties and communities in Iraq have strength," said one Iraqi politician last week. "Nobody feels so weak that they must compromise with their opponents."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

MI Analyst and SQL Developer (SQL, SSAS, SSRS)

£28000 - £32500 Per Annum + 28 days holiday, pension, discounts and more: Clea...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Systems & Data Lead – Oxfordshire – Permanent – Up to £24k

£20000 - £24000 Per Annum 28 days holiday, free parking, pension: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: second languages, the secret of love and is it all right to call someone stupid?

John Rentoul
High and mighty: Edinburgh Castle and city skyline  

i Editor's Letter: We're coming to Edinburgh

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?