Iraq’s 'state project' suffers from decay

More than 10 years after the US invasion of Iraq, the country is strongly divided and the state is quickly decaying.

al-monitor The site of a car bomb attack outside an ice cream parlor in the Al-Mashtal district, Baghdad, Oct. 19, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani.

Topics covered

shiite-sunni conflict, nouri al-maliki, massoud barzani, iraqi kurds, iraqi kurdistan, iraqi government, iraq

Nov 11, 2013

It seems that state decay is something that is already established or will likely occur. We do not mean by that the situation of “failed states.” The current regime in Iraq has not yet been included on the official list of failed states, even if in reality Iraq is indeed a failed state in terms of living standards. If Iraq was to be included on that list, this would inevitably require numerous explanations. Why would a state that used to be functional before 2003, and that has extraordinary potentials, various resources and many elites — although not following a unified path — stoop so low to the point of institutional decay, paralysis verging on chaos and a gloomy future?

The aftermath of the US occupation in 2003 crushed the modern coercive state 82 years after its establishment and overthrew the prestate components to rebuild them. The arrangement proposed by the US occupation was based on three areas. The first was the Shiite regions in the south and their influential blocs led by a corrupt, looting group deliberately seeking to draw citizens’ attention away from public affairs by exploiting their excessive thirst to perform sectarian rites and pushing them to indulge in those rites. The second aimed at preventing the rebuilding of the state. This objective was adopted by the dominant elites in western Iraq, who resorted to violence and asymmetric warfare tactics. The third is the Kurdish population inclined toward the policy of “threatening” with secession. This tripartite arrangement distinguished the 2003-11 period. However, events over the past two years proved that this troika lacks a solid foundation able to give it persistence or sustainability: crises have overwhelmed the public scene since 2011, taking the country down an even worse path.

Kurdish decay

The current decay of the authorities in key areas — such as the provision of security and basic public services — is not limited to one of the three areas. Interestingly, this decay keeps proving the common features of disability, leading these areas toward the same course of events, especially following the involvement of Kurdistan in this cycle. Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most secure and stable area in Iraq, was also hit by fluctuations in political positions. Suddenly, Iraqi Kurdistan's President Massoud Barzani changed his political stance. He went from sharp disagreements with the central government — which have been ongoing since 2011 — to an alliance with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Barzani also shifted from exerting all possible efforts to take away confidence from Maliki to supporting him for a third mandate, and from suggesting austerity in power positions to renewing his own mandate for two years as president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This infuriated the Kurdish opposition. There was also a change in positions. The [Kurdish] ​​opposition — represented by the Movement for Change — came in second in the recent elections in Kurdistan, pushing down Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s movement to third place. It seemed then that the opposition, along with what was left of Talabani’s movement — if they ever were to be unified — would constitute the main force in Kurdistan, especially since all others were unable to form a government. All this was topped by a suicide attack on the Asayish intelligence service headquarters in Erbil, leaving scores of dead and injured. With this security breach, which was totally unexpected by the Kurdish leadership, and the sudden shifts in the balance of powers, Kurdistan’s golden era between 1991 and 2011 is coming to an end. Add to that the possibilities of being affected by the pressure arising from regional tensions, the situation of Kurds in Syria and the accompanying spillovers.

Meanwhile, in the western region …

On the other hand, history repeated itself in the western region, where the events happening during the armed resistance against the US occupation recurred. National resistant action declined in favor of al-Qaeda terrorism, given the historical weakness of political concretization in those regions and the autocracy imposed by the regional division. This led to an inability to establish a comprehensive national resistance movement. The [anti-Maliki] protest movements — ongoing for months — remained isolated within their own respective regions. The isolation trend was also obvious in their [political] discourse. This served the central government schemes greatly and helped it feed countersectarian [Shiite] feelings in the southern regions. At the same time, violence, terrorism, bombings and suicide attacks increased in Baghdad before spreading to the southern provinces, including Basra and Nasiriyah. This chain of events pushed back political and demand-based actions in the regions of Ramadi, Mosul and Saladin and took away their luster and presence.

The authorities: aggravation is a mechanism to guarantee votes

In Baghdad, the most prominent region in terms of having a grip on power, the sectarian-based quota system adopted after 2003 shifted toward maintaining a sectarian and instinct-based incitement and provocation policy, as a means to ensure that support and unity of voters continues. It is worth mentioning that the sectarian-based quota system used to be accepted by other sectarian and ethnic forces — who participated in it — as an occupation measure and a fait accompli resulting from a crushed state and the tyranny of the previous regime. The Iraqi case provides a model for sectarian democracy mechanisms in terms of mobilization practice. This has nothing to do with democracy and the civil concept of the state. This practice put the country under the rule of crises and aggravation as a mandatory mechanism to guarantee the votes of the electorate. This method remains, however, a sign of how mediocre this practice is, and how it is unable to manage a country that involves broader, more complex and more comprehensive dynamics and elements.

Dynamics of the mono-entity

The division hypothesis — an already established current that has emerged repeatedly in modern history — looms at specific junctures like a catalyst to reconfirm the mono-entity. In Iraq, as evidenced by past experiences since 1920 — when the modern central state was established — the sect or sectarianism in general tended to consecrate a mono-entity, that is, keeping the country united and under the authority of this or that sect. Mono-entity is something different from the achievement of societal fusion. This unity has matching collective and sporadic interests. Sunnis would achieve their interests if they were the prevailing power in the whole of Iraq. The same can be said for Shiites considering their prevalent numbers. As for Kurds, they think of secession, but they have yet to put their money where their mouth is. Secession — for interrelated reasons — is just a “pipe dream,” as Talabani put it. It is impossible for regional considerations and given how much their own internal structure is in harmony. Division is an unrealistic tendency that collides with both sectarianism and public patriotism. While sectarianism seeks unity of the entity and not unity of society, patriotism has yet to materialize its actual importance. However, despite its inconsistency, it remains a deep-rooted tendency that must not be underestimated. This led to confusion in the patriotic discourse.

In the last half-century, Iraq moved from well-established agricultural laws and specificities to a rentier system for agriculture and all production processes.

This tendency has been strongly entrenched and accelerated by a system that lasted for 35 years and managed to become independent from society thanks to the massive rentier income — oil revenues until that date and large gas reserves. In the last 10 years, however, this tendency was further consolidated as productivity was deliberately reduced to nil.

This change, or serious historic shift in a deep-rooted structure, strongly affected the conditions of groups and classes. It led them to separation and fragmentation, which can currently be felt through the change that had hit public behaviors and values.

Crises created to solve crises

As of 2011, crises started getting solved through other crises. One example is the creation of a clash between Baghdad and Kurdistan (concerning the “disputed territories” issue that resulted in the mobilization of the Peshmerga forces on the one hand and the forces of the central government on the other). Another example is the intentional provocation and marginalization by Maliki’s authority. This led to the escalation of sit-ins and protests in the western regions, which is the elites’ way of achieving control in their environment.

The situation has helped terrorist forces stretch from Baghdad to the south, making the capital Baghdad an easy target and turning Kurdistan into an attackable area.

Prominent ruling figures have recently tried to hold a gentlemen's agreement meeting, which was attended by Maliki and parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, among others. However, the agreement was repealed two days later by Maliki’s fiery speech, which mentioned “the rivers of blood that separate him from those who signed the document with him.” Muqtada al-Sadr called for another meeting, which was attended by leaders who did not attend the first, but the meeting was futile, and no tangible results were reached.

What happens after resorting to the “initial practice"? Will this level of practice carried out by powerful elites lead the country to chaos? Will the unification mechanisms at the community level and national public powers level — each for their own reasons — return to work, or will it be a while before Iraq can move up to another era?

Those who follow the civil society positions in Basra and Nasiriyah, or some recent developments in the western regions, tend not to exclude the return of a certain version of statehood and national belonging. In the Shouyoukh market in the province of Dhi Qar (Nasiriyah), Shiite clans fought in defense of the Sunni Saadoun clan against militias that had attacked it for sectarian reasons. In Basra and the southern provinces, a political message was addressed to [high-ranking Shiite cleric Ali al-Husseini al-] Sistani and signed by dozens of Shiite tribes. It called for the prohibition of Sunni killings. In Ramadi and Mosul, there is a growing sense of the need to soothe — not fuel — demands, which shows an awareness of how dangerous it would be to raise the demands' ceiling.

A few days ago, there were reports about a meeting held between Anbar tribal leaders (in the western region). It aimed at addressing the issue of the presence of al-Qaeda groups in the region. These tribal leaders decided not to allow these groups to enter any village or city, and allowed the killing of tribe members affiliated with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, a civilian protest took place in Baghdad and the southern provinces against government corruption and its various decaying aspects. (There were repeated demonstrations or calls to hold demonstrations since August 30.) If this movement managed to meet and coordinate with protesters in the western regions, then the start of a major and qualitative transformation may have taken place.

Thus, the race is heating up between two movements: the first is the fever of sectarian tension, while the second is a strong opposing movement. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a militia that is isolated even within its own environment, recently provoked the Adhamiya locality and started a demonstration that insulted the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. The action sparked a wave of positions. One of them was taken by Sistani, who condemned this act in writing. Another one was taken by the most important Sunni clerics. Sadr also rejected and apologized for this behavior.

In the context of the decaying rule, Maliki’s talk about his son’s heroism on TV — sounding like he was willing to pass on the rule to him — caused widespread discontent and bitter irony that further downgraded the regime’s image. The developments and ideological and organizational aspects taking place behind the scenes lead us to deduce that there are hopes of surpassing the current situation, especially considering the enormity of the tragic experience plaguing the country. The general elections are only months away, and they are supposed to strongly reflect some of the characteristics of change.

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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