Now that a new Iraqi government is beginning its work there is a window of opportunity critical for Iraq’s future as a unified state.
All of the ethnic and religious components of Iraqi society are unhappy with the state as it is, because it is not serving their interests sufficiently. This provides an incentive to call for a tripartite division as a possible solution to the sectarian strife that the country has seen over the past decade. This proposal is not new – be it the three autonomous regions Vice President Joe Biden called for in 2006 or three separate independent states.
However, the underlying causes of violence will not disappear even if Iraq is partitioned. In fact, having three rivals with their own armies and weapons may be a recipe for greater disaster. The only guarantee of peace and sectarian harmony, whether in a united, federal Iraq or in three separate states, is to address the causes of sectarian conflict and reach a lasting agreement on reconciliation. This is the opportunity that the new government has, and it may be the last one as hope in Iraq is in short supply.
Shortly after becoming prime minister in 2006, Nouri al-Maliki unveiled a plan for national reconciliation that was widely praised. Of the 24 points involving the aims of reconciliation, most have not been implemented. While responsibility for this lies largely with Maliki and the parties who made up his government, there has been a concerted effort by politicians, armed groups and foreign powers to derail any serious reconciliation.
Religious extremism, armed groups, radical preachers and sectarian agendas, Iraqi and foreign, have played a part in nearly formalizing sectarian divisions in Iraq.
Sectarianism was a part of Iraq before the 2003 invasion. It was brought to the fore by the Coalition Provisional Authority, and then continued by Iraq’s politicians who were more interested in protecting their quotas, patronage and power than in the national interest. But all of these are now under threat by ISIS, and there is a convergence of interests in uniting to defeat this enemy that may yet yield some meaningful healing in Iraq.
One study has been critical of American policy in opposing a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would separate Iraq’s political dynamics from national interests. The new government has received widespread backing and seems to have a mandate for serious change in Iraq. It can reconsider approaches to sectarian reconciliation and adopt proven strategies to stem the violence and give the political process a chance to succeed.
In order for this to happen several things must occur beforehand. First, the government needs to weed out corruption and build better institutions that are governed in the national interest rather than for political or sectarian ends.
Second, the legitimate grievances raised by communities around Iraq – whether in Anbar, Irbil or Basra – must be addressed and solutions proposed.
Third, there must be a complete renunciation of violence from armed groups, tribes and other forces, both inside and outside Iraq, and a commitment to the political process as the only means of legitimate conduct.
Fourth, there needs to be justice for victims of sectarian crimes, especially the mass killings perpetrated against civilians and those who have suffered from ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
Fifth, there must be an international effort to eradicate support for sectarian hatred that tackles preachers, funders, recruiters and even state policies that encourage sectarian terrorism in Iraq.
Finally there needs to be a commitment from Iraq’s neighbors, and from region and international powers, to support all Iraqi communities equally and back the new Iraqi government in its attempts at sectarian reconciliation.
Attitudes are hardening and the sectarian divide is fast becoming irreversible. Incidents such as the Camp Speicher massacre, in which ISIS killed some 1,700 Iraqi Air Force cadets, are reinforcing the narrative that there is an existential threat to each ethnic and sectarian grouping in Iraq. There is a clear aim by ISIS to further foment sectarian divisions, and it seems to be working. Whatever Iraq’s problems are they will not be eased by ISIS, so its defeat would be a first step toward bringing the country back from the brink. There are many options for those who oppose the government, but acquiescing with ISIS should not be one.
Without reconciliation there can be no peace in Iraq, and the wider Middle East will suffer from Iraq’s sectarian conflict. Even if all communities decide to form autonomous regions or independent states they must have addressed the causes of sectarian violence in order to coexist peacefully as equals or they will face future conflict under separate identities and flags. Sectarian reconciliation must now succeed or there may be no Iraq and no peace for Iraqis.
Sajad Jiyad is a London-based analyst and researcher on Iraq. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR, and can be followed on Twitter @SajadJiyad.