Iraq: from Interdenominational to Ethnic Crisis


While all attention has been drawn to Arab uprisings in the Middle East for a long time, Iraq has been going through its most profound crisis since 2006. Back then, hundreds of people were killed every day during the interdenominational conflicts that broke out in the country. This civil war between Sunni and Shiite groups was stopped by the intervention of the Bush administration. Washington sent additional military troops especially to Baghdad in the beginning of 2007 and seized the control of the conflicts in the city. Besides, it cooperated with the prominent tribes in the Sunni district and things settled down with the help of those tribes.

The current crisis, on the other hand, is much more complicated than the crisis that took place in 2006. First of all, this time the problem is not only among interdenominational groups, but it also has an ethnic aspect. The Shiite-Kurdish alliance which made it possible for the political system in this country to work, if by staggering, since the invasion of Iraq seems to have taken a major blow after the relations between the Maliki administration and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) collapsed. Furthermore, the U.S. which formed a consensus among those groups through various methods in former periods withdrew from Iraq. Above all, the regional conjuncture also incites instability in Iraq. The Arab uprisings, especially the events in Syria, further incite the developments in Iraq.

The current problems in Iraq emerged after the elections that had been held in March 2010. The Iraqiyya Coalition, led by Shiite Iyad Allawi but also including many prominent Sunni figures and supported by Turkey, could not form the government. Being Prime Minister before the elections, Maliki prevented Allawi from forming a government through various political maneuvers and by taking advantage of some legal vacuums, and most importantly by using the reaction of many Shiite groups on sharing the power, which Shiites gained for the first time in centuries, with Sunnis through this way. At the end of this process which lasted for nine months, Maliki who finally reached an agreement with Kurds formed the government. However, this process and the following developments led Sunnis to believe that they became increasingly marginalized.

After forming the government, Maliki speeded up the policy of rising his power that he had launched during his previous term of office as prime minister. He suppressed Sunnis who had been assigned to major positions due to the constitutional necessity in Baghdad. In this respect, the fact that Sunni Tariq al-Hashimi who had taken office as the Vice-President since December 2011 was charged with murders, and that he took shelter firstly in KRG and then in Turkey further tensed up the interdenominational relations.

Within this context, the events that took place in Syria further escalated the Sunni-Shiite tension in Iraq. In this crisis, Iraqi Sunnis took sides with the opposition. It was asserted that al-Anbar located in West with Sunni majority provided the "Free Syrian Army" with both manpower and also logistic support. For Sunnis, who feel themselves being marginalized and believe that Maliki entirely monopolized the political power, the possibility that the opposition in Syria comes to power seems to have created the expectation that it might at least strengthen their hands in Iraq. Sunnis have already brought forward their claims to establish a federal district, which takes place in the Constitution but which has only been put in practice in Kurdish district. The Maliki government, on the other hand, is worried about the Syrian crisis for these very reasons. Therefore, Baghdad supports the regime, if not as explicitly as Iran and Hezbollah do. Iraq has already expressed for several times that it opposes to the collapse of regime in Syria by resorting force. Besides, Iraq also abstained from a vote on suspending the membership of Syria in the Arab League. Above all, Iraq tolerated the fact that Iran used its airspace and territories to deliver aids to Syria.

On the other hand, Syrian crisis also increased the expectations of Kurds. It seems that Kurds' nationalist feelings were whipped up by the fact that an autonomous zone was created in the neighboring area to Iraq where Kurds live in Syria, and that this was carried out by two groups supported by PKK and KRG. Moreover, KRG which has promoted its relations with Turkey since 2008 to an extent that nobody ever expected does no more feel itself oppressed. This new situation increases KRG's negotiation power in its problems with Baghdad. For these very reasons, the Maliki government is not comfortable with the developments in KRG. While the Maliki government strives to increase the influence of central government, Iraqi Kurds oppose to this. Various problems which could not be solved since the very beginning appear as a matter of tension in such an environment: boundaries of authority of central and federal government; oil and natural gas income sharing and right to grant privilege; disputed territories, Kirkuk in particular, have currently become issues of conflict between Maliki government and KRG. The health condition of President Jalal Talabani, who played an important role due to its conciliating role in Baghdad, makes the situation more difficult.

Those problems in Iraq directly affect the Turkey-Iraq relations. The Maliki government accuses Turkey of intervening in Iraq's internal affairs both due to its relations with KRG and also due to the relations with Sunnis, as well as due to the fact that Turkey gave asylum to Hashimi. Turkey, on the other hand, criticizes Maliki government's policy that especially marginalizes Sunnis. Both countries pursue different policies in Syria. All these developments further push Iraq towards Iran. The U.S., on the other hand, appears uncomfortable mostly because of this. Therefore, it gives the impression that it is no comfortable with Turkey's policies.

Iraq has been undergoing a period of more severe political struggles. These struggles were  triggered both by the Maliki's authoritarian policies which also aimed at reinforcing the central government, and also by the opposition of Sunnis and Kurds against this centralization. The events in Syria further increased these conflicts. The fact that these struggles, which are actually political, gained sectarian and ethnical identities is not surprising. Because the politics in the country is based on the aforesaid identities. Within this context, it is quite important to hear different voices within the structure. The criticism of Muqtada al-Sadr towards the Maliki government, and his highlighting the political aspect of the struggle with an emphasis on Iraqi Spring might be considered in this framework.

All in all, the equation in Iraq is complicated and it is quite different from the situation in previous years. New alliances are formed, and the former alliances are dissolved. How the Syrian crisis will be concluded is very important for the future of Iraq. If a civil war took place in Syria and the country drifted into a chaos, this situation might also involve Iraq. However, if a broad-based transition was achieved in Syria, this would be a positive development also for Iraq.