From Beirut to Baghdad?

Iraq’s first post-war cabinet, shaped along sectarian and ethnic lines, has stirred memories among Lebanese of the 1975-1990 civil war. 

Could Iraq share a similar fate with Lebanon?

The 25-member cabinet assigned posts are based on a formula reminiscent of Lebanon-style power-sharing.

The cabinet, chosen by the US-appointed interim Iraq Governing Council, assigned 13 ministries to Shia, five to Sunnis, five to Kurds, one to Turkmans and one to Christians.

The formula has alarmed many Arab observers who believe it may be a recipe for civil strife in a country already in turmoil. 

“The worst thing would be is to reduce Iraqis to Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis and Shia,” said Dr Fawwaz Traboulsi, a Beirut-based political commentator.

While the creation of a cabinet along sectarian lines may indicate Iraq is moving along the Lebanese path “they still have a long way to go” says Dr Paul Salem, another Lebanon-based political analyst.

Lebanon, a tiny country of about four million, has about 18 sects. Various segments of the population often identify with their sect and the power-sharing system in practice since the country won its independence in 1943, reinforces sectarian consciousness.

Salem said the Lebanese sectarian system functioned because the different parties decided to cooperate most of the time.

“When the Lebanese stopped cooperating, we had civil war. The Iraqis will have to cooperate or face war. They are in the same boat we were in 30 years ago,” said Salem. 

Iraq, like Lebanon, is a mosaic of sects and ethnicities. However, unlike Lebanon, the Iraqis were not into identity politics.

“The Iraqis will have to cooperate or face war. They are in the same boat we were in 30 years ago.”

Dr Paul Salem, Lebanese political analyst

The post-war cabinet, however, indicates that communal identities have strengthened in occupied Iraq, said Salem. 

With the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s Baath ruling party, Iraqis are now examining their identities and demanding representation across all sectors of society, said Salem.

“Dictatorships don’t allow questioning of one’s identity and representation. Everyone is marginalised,” he said.

History repeat

The 29 August bomb attack in Najaf that killed leading Shia cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim along with at least 82 other people, is one of the most blaring incidents illustrating Iraq’s rapidly deteriorating state of security.

“The situation on the ground is barely under control and reminds us of Lebanon in the mid 70s,” said Salem, warning another attack as serious as the Najaf bombing could tip the country into civil war.

Following al-Hakim’s death, concerns mounted that violence could break out between Sunnis and Shia.

Ominous rhetoric between the two communities is steadily mounting.

Iraq’s Shia highest religious authority the Hawza, issued a warning that if the attack was sectarian-based, the consequences would be “dire”.

Some Sunni clerics accused the Shia of launching a sectarian cleansing campaign in the cities of Najaf and Karbala.

A spokesman for Iraq’s highest Sunni authority Shaikh Abd al-Salam al-Kubaisi also issued a fatwa forbidding the killing of Shia.

In the run-up to Beirut’s civil war the government lost total control of state security. Palestinian guerrillas began launching attacks from south Lebanon against Israel.

Local militias from various sects quickly aligned themselves either with the Palestinian cause, fighting from Lebanon, or those demanding an immediate halt to the attacks. 

Lebanon lost control of country tomilitias fighting for representation
Lebanon lost control of country tomilitias fighting for representation

Lebanon lost control of country to
militias fighting for representation

Precarious ties between sects and Israel’s invasion only added to the recipe for civil war.

Salem says the situation in Iraq is similar: American occupation troops ousted the government, effectively destroying all security structures and leaving a vacuum.

The country is swamped with guns and the Najaf bombing aggravated an already shaky situation.

And like Lebanon, Iraqi groups are turning to outside forces to help them deal with problems when the heat is on, added Salem.

The Shia have looked to regional power, Iran, while Kurds have turned to a superpower, the United States, in an effort to cement positions in the post-war situation.

Divide and conquer

An eruption of civil war could divert attacks against occupation troops who face daily resistance operations, as groups turn guns against each other, said Salem.

“Civil war…is definitely more comfortable for the Americans,” he said.

On the other hand, internal struggles would only highlight the inability of the occupation, already under fire for failing to rein in lawlessness, said Salem.

Even more worrying, occupation soldiers are not prepared to deal with an outbreak of internal fighting.

“The occupation troops aren’t prepared for much as far as we have seen so far,” said Dr Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG), currently in Baghdad.

“The occupation troops aren’t prepared for much as far as we have seen so far.”

Dr Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director, International Crisis Group


“If problems were to break out between various communities in Iraq, I don’t think the American forces are in anyway equipped and qualified to intervene and keep the warring parties aside.”

Salem echoed this sentiment, saying the current chaos demonstrates Washington’s “embarrassing absence of planning on all levels”. 

But Hiltermann said religious leaders had taken steps to prevent the flare-up of sectarian divisions, saying clerics told those calling for revenge that this was not the time for retribution.

“It is completely premature. The Shia religious leadership has acted very cautiously, issuing a fatwa (religious decree) to cool tempers,” said Hiltermann.

The ICG project director is in Baghdad assessing the current state of the occupied country’s constitutional process.

Top priorities among Iraqis today are the re-establishment of law and order, Hiltermann has said, adding Iraqis will start taking matters into their own hands if occupation soldiers do not address the issue soon.

Deploying multinational forces and boosting current Iraqi troops on the ground to control the “scandalous” security mess is vital, said Salem. 

“If Iraq goes down the drain the whole region is liable to become seriously unstable in a devastating way.”

Source: Al Jazeera