The political structures put in place in Iraq by the United States and its allies following the elimination of Saddam Hussein never appeared very robust.
But today, with terrorist violence raging and all three of the country’s main communities at each other’s throats, this tormented country is once again on the brink of civil war. Shia-Sunni hostility is at the root of the bitter conflict in neighbouring Syria, and it is this conflagration which has now swept across the border.
With the ascent to power of Iraq’s Shia majority, many see the authoritarian Dawa party as no better than a Shia equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, and just as committed as it was to protecting the interests and privileges of the community from which it emerged. It was state terror and brute force that enabled Saddam to hold the country together.
No one would wish Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to go down that road, but he desperately lacks the political skills to persuade the Sunni and the Kurds that he has the interests of the nation as a whole at heart. He lurches between denouncing the Sunni as terrorists and acknowledging that they have real grievances. In so doing, he has steadily lost credibility with the other communities, with the Sunni in particular – one-fifth of the population – who claim that they are treated as second-class citizens.
It is in this climate of hostility that the barbaric tactics of al-Qa’ida have made a comeback, with the detonation of five car bombs in Shia-dominated southern Iraq on Monday, which claimed 21 victims. It was one atrocity among many across the country.
With the heady hopes raised by the Arab Spring receding rapidly, what is now in the offing is a pan-regional conflict in which ancient ties of blood and faith are challenging the artificial state structures created by the British and French out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. It is a dismal prospect and the US and Britain, fatally tainted by their invasion of Iraq and all that followed, can do little about it but stand on the sidelines and wring their hands. Politics and diplomacy, while desirable, have so far failed to offer an answer.