Will the violence in Iraq ever ebb?

Iraq’s PM talks the security talk but fails to walk the stability walk.

Is Nouri al-Maliki's regime getting closer to Saddam's? [EPA]

Wire reports attested that anonymous gunmen near Baghdad kidnapped and later executed six men on April 6, while another 11 people were killed across the country. In what were routine assassinations, police investigators stumbled on the bodies, all with gunshot wounds to the head.

No one claimed responsibility for these slayings, or for most of the others that have plagued Iraq for years. Few could decipher any motives for killings that have, regrettably, become part of Iraqi society. Even worse, while such executions decreased between 2003 and 2007, a new wave of violence that may have sectarian connotations, has seen the toll rise in recent months.

According to the United Nations Mission to Iraq, 733 individuals were killed in January, while the toll reached 703 people in February. These figures showed a rising wave of militant attacks, which journalists labelled “a surge of violence that began 10 months ago”, when the government launched a systematic crackdown that chiefly targeted the Sunni community, allegedly because most extremists hailed from within it. To therefore, say that Iraqi Sunnis, a minority population, vociferously protested against what many perceived as discriminatory policies, would indeed be an understatement. Simply stated, what was no longer acceptable was Baghdad’s arbitrary use of very strict anti-terrorism measures, to in effect, muzzle the Sunni community.

In fact, many are distraught by the news that government officials pay lip service to their plight while continuing to pursue sectarian policies.

Many more are seriously worried that calls made by Shia community leaders to establish armed “popular committees” – that would doubtless be attached to the regular security forces – received official backing, even if such efforts would further enlarge the gulf that exists between various religious groups.

To be sure, critics of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki point to his blatant support of the Baath regime in Damascus, along with his open alignment with Tehran, as ample evidence that dark spectres foretell future troubles as Iraq slides into a far more chaotic environment.

Critics of Prime Minister Nouri al-al-Maliki point to his blatant support of the Baath regime in Damascus, along with his open alignment with Tehran, as ample evidence that dark spectres foretell future troubles as Iraq slides into a far more chaotic environment. 

Observers point to a pattern of violence that, sadly, mimicked the country’s darkest years under former President Saddam Hussein, whose dictatorial regime honed violence into an art form that most Iraqis wish to never experience again. Regrettably, it seems that such wishes were not about to be granted, as Baghdad adopts even tougher “law and order” measures that threaten social harmony.

Republic of Fear

While the end of the Sunni-led autocracy paved the way for the majority Shia to seize power, Iraqis hoped to shed the legacy of violence not only to heal lingering wounds, but also to embark on sorely needed efforts to rebuild their torn society. Few were optimistic then and fewer are now. As the country prepared for fresh parliamentary elections, the latest spike in violence ensured that Iraqis would, once again, confront the same political demons that haunted them for decades.

One of the best writers who captured the nature of this violence was Kanan Makiya, whose 1989 The Republic of Fear – published under the pseudonym of Samir al-Khalil – highlighted how Saddam transformed the country into a totalitarian state. In this and several other books, Makiya criticised Arab intellectuals who wallowed in anti-Western rhetoric, while a majority among them conspired in massive and at times collective silences over the regime’s excesses. There was an element of truth to these accusations, given that most dictatorial regimes either co-opted intellectual voices, or drove independent thinkers into exile.

Saddam’s regime resorted to unprecedented torture and executions only rivalled by the Baath government in Syria and, to a lesser extent, by the military in Egypt. To their credit, Gulf rulers fared better due to three fundamental reasons: regime legitimacies, small and economically satisfied populations, and the paucity of intellectual traditions that began to pick up momentum during the past two decades. Only Lebanon stood as a rare beacon of hope in the vast Arab world despite the long civil war that eroded much of its liberties.

Levantine intellectuals like Makiya sought refuge in Western countries and, at the height of the 2003 UN-sanctioned US-led war for Iraq, advocated for the “complete dismantling of the security services of the regime, leaving only the regular police force intact”.

Hardly anyone contemplated the collapse of the system. Still, their desires to destroy an evil regime and, presumably, their wishes to rescue a battered nation from what many perceived to be a period of utter terrorism were laudatory, though few anticipated the pains of democratisation. Even fewer had the courage to make the link between what the previous regime ensured and what Saddam’s successors pursued. Regrettably, Makiya and others failed to see, even if unwittingly, what appeared to be a constant in Iraqi society: A complete degradation of humanity that became a generational phenomenon. To his credit, and in a recent interview, Makiya acknowledged that the al-Maliki regime was “getting closer to Saddam”, which spoke volumes.

The Corpse Exhibition

Unlike Makiya, Hassan Blassim’s new book The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq, explores how militarism and violence – diseases in his mind – transform members of society to commit evil. Blassim, who was smuggled out of Iraq and eventually settled in Finland, is categorical. Whether a renegade Iraqi jihadist brute or a Shia death squad heavy, whether a Saddam Hussein bully or an al-Maliki secret policeman anxious to practise his trade, all were similarly tainted by violence. The end result is the same: A full and unmitigated destruction of social cohesion and civil life, which lingered on for decades, and that finally led otherwise decent human beings to collapse under the weight of calamities galore.

As Blassim depicts in The Corpse Exhibition, which is a devastating book that ought to win critical literary prizes, and after several decades of warfare – both regional as well as internal – Iraqis were numbed to violence. That is why the al-Maliki government’s deeds seem so random, so impulsive, though they ought to ring alarm bells. The Arabic version of the book was banned in Iraq and Jordan and heavily censored in Lebanon despite the fact that it stands as a testimony that brutal dictatorships share similar outlooks. That is also why forthcoming parliamentary elections will most probably be held in the midst of yet another increase in the levels of violence. Pity Iraq.

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).