The ‘Lebanonisation’ of Iraq

With a sectarian power-sharing agreement and interfering neighbours, Iraq is looking a lot like Lebanon.

The power-sharing agreement gives supremacy to sectarian and ethnic divisions over collective identity [GETTY]

The power-sharing framework agreed in Iraq has so far failed to end the eight month deadlock over the structure of a new cabinet. The stalemate, due to haggling over key posts, is reflective of how post-invasion Iraq has succumbed to ethnic and sectarian rivalry, which, in turn, has further obstructed its economic and political recovery. It is also indicative of how the country has become a playground for different regional and international powers who are competing for influence and the country’s oil resources.

The agreement reached earlier this month would allow Nuri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, to form a new government – even though the Iraqiya coalition took two more seats than his State of Law alliance in the parliamentary elections.

The accord would establish a Lebanon-style sectarian and ethnic formula – which might prove to be more of a recipe for constant instability than a guarantor of national reconciliation. It is ironic that we are witnessing the ‘Lebanonisation’ of Iraq at the exact moment when this type of power-sharing formula may be causing the ‘Iraqisation’ of Lebanon – as many fear that Lebanon is on the verge of inter-sectarian strife.

Lebanon’s sectarian power distribution has not saved it from sectarian rivalry but rather repeatedly plunged it into civil violence and even war. Consequently, Lebanon has become hostage to its sectarian system, with all parties – while competing over their share – constantly seeking to retain it for fear of being marginalised.

Iraq’s emerging power-sharing system gives the post of president to the Kurds, the post of prime minister to the Shia, while the Sunni gain or are left with (depending on your point of view) the speaker of parliament position and probably also the vice-presidency.

It is unclear how the country’s other ethnic groups and sects will react to this, and while they are not powerful enough to impact the political system, their marginalisation could add to the tensions that have been gripping the country.

Nosy neighbours

Just as in Lebanon, Iraq’s neighbours have a vested interest in the country adopting such a power-sharing system – provided, of course, that the precise details of it serve their interests.

Iraq’s emerging political system is a direct product of the US invasion and Iran’s complicity in both the invasion and the ensuing occupation. And Iran has, so far, come out of it with the strongest hand – as the prime minister is the main authoritative power.

Neighbouring ‘Sunni’ Arab countries have also played a role in consolidating divisions within Iraq – either by directly helping the US forces or by failing to help Iraq maintain its unity. In the deliberations leading up to the framework agreement, Arab countries initially supported the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, partly to boost Sunni representation in the government and to offset Iran’s influence.

The US also seemed to favour the leader of the Iraqiya bloc, Iyad Allawi, a Shia politician who failed to secure Iranian backing.

Allawi, who maintains strong ties with the Gulf states and Iraq’s Arab neighbours, returned to Iraq after the invasion with the backing of the CIA and the US state department. In 2004, he led a transitional government for less than a year, during which time he supported the American bombings of the Sunni Falluja and Shia Najaf areas. The ruthless shelling of Falluja is remembered as one of the bloodiest episodes of the US occupation, during which human rights groups documented the use of prohibited ammunitions.

Despite this, for Sunni Iraqis Allawi represented the only option that could guarantee the support of the US and Arab states for a coalition that sought to undercut the rule of the Iranian-backed sectarian Shia parties. The Iraqiya coalition won and a US-Syrian understanding guaranteed Damascus’ support for Allawi, who also enjoyed the backing of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

But all the talks and mediations finally failed, prompting the Americans to give their support to al-Maliki, providing that Sunnis are also strongly represented in the government.

Playground politics

Thus what started as a possible challenge to an Iranian-backed sectarian Shia government resulted in an Iranian-approved sectarian/ethnic power-sharing system that gives supremacy to ethnic and sectarian divisions over collective identity.

As alarming as the perpetuation of these divisions is the fact that the ongoing power struggle is essentially among ruling elites who have largely been promoted – or even created – by the occupation, while ordinary Iraqis remain excluded. For the most part, these political elites are linked to external parties, particularly Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia.

Now even those who supported the Iraqiya coalition and saw the election results as a triumph over what they viewed as a sectarian project are feeling excluded, as Arab countries deal mainly – and sometimes solely – with ‘their man’ Allawi and not with the coalition he leads.

Arab countries, just like Iran (but with less success), are treating Iraq as a playground where they vie for influence rather than support an alternative national project.

In Lebanon, external forces have repeatedly intervened to guarantee stability by maintaining the equilibrium of its sectarian system. In Iraq, however, the arrangement is failing from the outset – leading neither to the formation of a new government, nor to a guarantee of temporary political stability.

Furthermore by preventing the winning coalition from forming a government, Iraqi politicians are not only establishing a flawed sectarian system but laying the groundwork for a system of sectarian dominance.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera


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