Iraq on the Brink

Opening the panel discussion on recent developments in Iraq held at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 24 June, Ian Black, Middle East editor for The Guardian, asked why the international community and the government in Baghdad had been taken by surprise by the current crisis.

In introducing the panel, Black stressed the need to look at “Iraq itself, the nature of what is going on, the role and significance of ISIS (and whether it should indeed be called that), the sectarian element of the crisis, the legacy of the invasion of 2003, Iran, the US and our [the UK’s] own role in the current situation.”

Hayder al-Khoei, associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, began by analysing the potential for the crisis to quickly descend “within the next few weeks or even days” into an open SunniShia conflict.

Citing widespread support from local civilians as well as other Sunni militias, al-Khoei stressed that for the most powerful of these insurgent groups their advance had “absolutely nothing to do with winning more rights for the Sunni Arab community . . . or even defending the Sunni Arabs in Iraq despite that being their narrative”.

“It’s much bigger than that. . . . It’s about overthrowing the Iraq government regardless of whether Maliki is prime minister.”

Arguing that while some have chosen to read the rise of ISIS as a direct result of the Iraq invasion, al-Khoei spoke of “a real sense [from talking to people throughout the country] that the jihadist groups and insurgents in Iraq have refused to acknowledge the post-2003 political order” where Shias hold the balance of power.

While acknowledging that Maliki had made mistakes, Zuhair al-Naher, spokesman for the Iraqi prime minster, corroborated this by suggesting that many Sunni politicians “cannot yet understand, or come to terms with the reality that they are a minority”.

While all on the panel agreed that secularism does have a role to play within Iraq, there was also a consensus that this is not yet, at least, a sectarian war. Al-Naher rejected the assertion, propagated in the media and through ISIS, that the Sunnis have been “repressed, downtrodden and marginalised”, citing the positions of power occupied by Sunnis in the military and government and claiming that this was a deliberate attempt by ISIS to define the parameters of the conflict. Most notably al-Khoei cited the objectives of the insurgent groups differing between the ultimate goal of an Islamic Caliphate, as envisioned by ISIS, and the return to a form of pre-2003 secular dictatorship of the Baathists.
Zaid Al-Ali, a former legal advisor to the UN in Iraq, disagreed that the solution to Sunni unrest was increased “inclusivity in government” – but rather the need to tackle the problems of random arrest and torture faced by ordinary citizens.

Dominic Asquith, British ambassador to Iraq 2006–07, suggested that while insurgents such as ISIS – operating outside centralised urban control command centres – have been ever-present since 2003, the origins of Sunni extremism lay in the lack of any “unifying vision for Iraq”.

“Iraq’s leaders have never combined for something . . . but they have at times taken a united stand against something . . . and it looks as though there is a real risk we will go back to rebuilding a house of cards again.”

Asquith went on to name a potential three-part solution to the current problem. First was to contain ISIS, second was to install a new leadership in Baghdad – one that rejected sectarianism and perhaps embraced de-centralisation – and third was to change the narrative (including the relationship between Iran and the US towards Iraq) of aggressor and victim.

Touching on points by both Asquith and al-Naher, al-Ali agreed that while the responsibility for the crisis was not solely Maliki’s, his eight-year leadership of Iraq meant that there was a need for “a new leader to try their hand”.

Returning to an emerging sectarianism, al-Koehi said:

“Sometimes we over analyse and over read ShiaSunni conflicts and whether there are regionally backed coup attempts or bribes or a variety of other conspiracy theories. But I genuinely believe sometimes the simplest explanation is the best and, as Zaid [al-Ali] mentioned, this is incompetence.”

To this, Asquith added:

“If you amass the various incompetent decisions taken early on after 2003, we are seeing the effect of those now in terms of creating a confessional system. There was confessionalism instituted right at the outset, there was in retrospect an utterly disastrous de-Baathification process which helped create that distrust between communities and there was a reliance on exiles who didn’t really understand [Iraq]”.

Agreeing that the ultimate aim of ISIS was to provoke an all-out sectarian conflict, the panel concluded by discussing the means by which this might be achieved.

Referencing the ‘hearts and minds campaign’ that ISIS have embarked on and which has emerged from various media outlets, al-Khoei qualified the group’s apparent attempt to moderate themselves as “not coming anywhere near being moderate – it just means they are slightly less extreme”.

For Zaid al-Ali, “it may be that ISIS have been trying to put on a more humanitarian face but they cannot succeed because they are pathologically wired to destroy, kill and terrorise”.

Catch up with the full event here: