Preventing Iraq's disintegration

March 05, 2006|By JOOST HILTERMANN

Almost three years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq is at serious risk of civil war and disintegration. The attack on the sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22 was only the latest in a series of outrages committed over the past two years with the evident intent of igniting sectarian strife. Following earlier and ongoing attacks on Shiite mosques, clerics and civilian crowds, the perpetrators appear close to succeeding.

They have been helped by a weakening of vital institutional restraints on violent revenge, as well as a faltering political transition that, rushed along by the United States, has encouraged polarization rather than reconciliation.

The shrine attack underscored two fundamental problems in today's Iraq:

Such attacks can occur because of a profound lawlessness that has existed almost from the moment U.S. forces removed the Hussein regime in April 2003. They are carried out by a small and very violent group of anti-Shiite extremists that, by its targeting of civilians, has created an impact well beyond its size. Despite the presence of 130,000 U.S. troops, this and other insurgent groups have been able to flourish in the disaffection prevalent in the Sunni Arab community in which they operate.

The perpetrators can successfully push the buttons of sectarianism because the postwar political process has deepened the rift between Sunni Arabs, who formed the mainstay of the ousted regime and now fear discrimination and marginalization, and Shiites, who form the majority of the population and exult in the fact that, after decades of oppression and discrimination, they finally have seized the reins of power.

The bombing's aftermath saw a violent response from Shiites, whose patience had been stretched to breaking point. Sunni mosques were attacked, and people were murdered. The Shiites' foremost religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has consistently and repeatedly urged his followers to refrain from retribution, but his cautionary words are increasingly falling on deaf ears.

The United States, which has invested so much in the success of its efforts to rebuild the country, also has done much to undermine it. By rushing the political transition in a society raw from the trauma of 30 years of unremitting brutalities and an absence of politics, it encouraged the emergence of actors with explicit sectarian and ethnic agendas.

While the process of drafting the constitution ought to have been deliberative and inclusive, it was everything but. Rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, it produced a document that ratified the alienation of Iraq's Sunni Arab community by formulating a system of government and a mechanism of oil revenue distribution that would excise the Sunnis from the country's new order and wealth. Rather than being the glue that binds the country together, the new constitution threatens to be the prescription and blueprint for its dissolution.

The December elections again underscored the newly acquired prominence of religion in politics, perhaps the most significant development since the regime's ouster. With mosques turned into party headquarters and clerics outfitting themselves as politicians, Iraqis searching for leadership and stability in profoundly uncertain times essentially turned these elections into confessional exercises.

If worse is to be prevented, four things should happen.

First, Iraq's political and religious leaders should unwaveringly advise their followers and supporters to respond only in nonviolent ways to further sectarian attacks, which are sure to come.

Second, Iraqi leaders should make every effort to form a government of national unity that truly represents the country's diverse constituencies and starts the difficult work of healing these wounds, and of governing. The Bush administration should expend significant political capital to ensure this happens, making clear that its continued support depends on it.

Third, once such a government forms, it should revisit the constitution, revise its most divisive elements and turn it into the national compact it was meant to be. This means preventing the country's de facto breakup by establishing administrative federalism on the basis of provincial boundaries (outside the Kurdish region) and creating a formula for the fair, centrally controlled, independently supervised distribution of oil and gas revenues from current and future fields.

Finally, the U.S. should continue to assist in building Iraq's new security forces, making sure they are inclusive and nonsectarian. At the same time, the government should start disbanding the militias that, along with the insurgents, pose the most dangerous threat to the country's stability.

Should these steps fail to be carried out, the risk of civil war will rise dramatically and with it the risk of disintegration. The international community, which cannot tolerate a failed state in the Persian Gulf region, should do everything in its power to help Iraqi leaders return the country to a path of reconciliation and compromise.

Joost Hiltermann is Middle East project director at the International Crisis Group. His e-mail is jhiltermann@crisisgroup.org.

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