In the last few years, the headlines have been dominated by popular uprisings against longtime leaders in the Arab world, but the relatively “new” leadership in Iraq has not been spared the same type of unrest.
Iraqi leaders might be proud that thousands of American troops have recently withdrawn, giving Iraqis the chance to take responsibility for managing their country’s affairs. But the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has done little to smooth over the sectarian and ethnic fault lines that have hindered the country’s development over the last decade.
Maliki’s government has done little to resolve long-standing disputes over the relationship of the Kurdish areas of the country to the central government in Baghdad; the Iraqi authorities also have a long-festering relationship with the Sunni political community. A vice president from that community, Tareq Hashemi, was officially charged in late 2011 with involvement in terror attacks, and was obliged to flee to Kurdistan, which highlights the dismal state of national affairs.
But the horrific violence that has erupted over the past few days in several Iraqi cities should serve as a reminder that the Arab world isn’t the same place as it was at the beginning of 2011. The sectarian and other fault lines were there before, but when Iraqi government forces respond to public protests by using bullets and helicopters, they have acted in the same, inflexible and violent way that has been used by authoritarian Arab regimes.
There are now fears that the repression in Iraq, which has unfortunately targeted a single community, could degenerate into all-out civil strife. Iraqi politicians must remember that their country continues to be ravaged by the scourge of Al-Qaeda militants. Also, Iraq’s massive oil reserves set it apart from the countries that have experienced the so-called “Arab Spring.” The stakes are much higher in Iraq, which is already being tested by the bloody unrest next door in Syria.
The Syria conflict has long been seen as a potential source of tension and violence in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, but the events in Iraq, whose Sunni community is already incensed at the perceived bias of the central government, should provide everyone with plenty to worry about.
A leadership that remains locked into the old ways of doing things – shoot protesters first and ask questions later – will show itself to be as fragile as the decades-long, ossified systems of rule that have been collapsing throughout the region over the past few years. Iraqi politicians and officials should drop their hostility to the notion that people have the right to question a given government’s performance.
If Maliki has any doubt that he is headed down the wrong path, all he has to do is count the number of ministers who are resigning in protest at his actions. Iraq has already experienced the destruction of civil war, and is no place to tolerate a second round of civil strife.