Are the same forces that promote a sectarian conflict in Syria trying to do the same in Iraq? Since the fall of Saddam Hussein´s dictatorship, the enemies of Iraq have taken advantage of the complexities of the Iraqi society –made up by different political, ethnic and religious components- in order to fuel sectarian conflicts.
They are trying to overthrow the current Iraqi government, led by Nouri al-Maliki, by claiming that it is Shiite-dominated or pro-Iranian and spreading sedition between Sunnis and Shiites and Arabs and Kurds.
Iraqi analysts think that some foreign parties are plotting to topple the Maliki government in order to expel Shiite parties from power or at least weaken their influence. They also consider that Iraq would be the following country in the list if Bashar al-Assad´s regimen were toppled by armed groups in Syria. Extremist groups would then feel emboldened by a hardline sectarian government in Damascus and the result would be a wider sectarian conflict in the region.
One of the enemies of the Iraqi government is Al-Qaeda in Iraq, responsible for a wave of sectarian terrorist attacks that continue up to today. Last year, Al-Qaeda began to expand its operations in Iraq and, as a result, hundreds of people were killed, especially during religious celebrations.
Despite the high number of victims, the Iraqi authorities have dismissed Al-Qaeda´s operations as “insignificant”. “The war on terror is over,” said Maliki, adding that “what remains is only a bunch of cells backed by foreign countries.” The Iraqi Parliament has also passed a tough anti-terrorism law, which has contributed to reduce the number of attacks. However, some problems remain. The security forces still lack an appropriate counterinsurgency strategy, a requirement in defeating an elusive enemy.
Nevertheless, some experts acknowledge that Al-Qaeda is probably making a comeback in Iraq. “The religious legitimacy of the Syria war and the increase of funding and fighters almost unquestionably benefits Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” said Seth Jones, an expert with the RAND Corporation. The head of the Iraqi intelligence agency, Qassim Atta, has also admitted that Al-Qaeda may be gaining strength and told Al-Alam television network that the organization was changing its modus operandi in order to increase “security chaos”.
Even in that case, it is clear that the terrorism strategy has not achieved its goals. Maliki´s support in the Parliament is stable and, even worse, it has undermined the image of his enemies, some of whom appear to be linked to terrorist activities. Some weeks ago, prosecutors ordered the arrest of the bodyguards who work for Finance Minister, Rafie Issawi, because of their alleged connections with terrorism.
This case followed that of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who has been sentenced to death by several courts because his participation in terrorist activities. Prosecutors claim that Hashemi bears responsibility in some 150 attacks between 2005 and 2011. They accuse him of using his bodyguards as a death squad and have cited confessions by some of them. Before being arrested, Hashemi fled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and finally Turkey, where he has been given public recognition and protection.
Protests in Anbar
Last December, Maliki´s external and internal enemies started to use another strategy in order to overthrow the prime minister. Thousands of residents began anti-Maliki protests in the Sunni-majority Anbar Province. They asked for Maliki´s resignation and the derogation of the anti-terrorism law, a strange demand in a country where terrorism is killing hundreds of persons every year.
The protests have been supported by the Iraqiyya Block, led by former CIA protégé Iyad Allawi. One leading member of this bloc, MP Ahmed al-Alwani, led noisy demonstrations in Fallujah where participants chanted explicitly anti-Shiite and anti- Iranian slogans. He even called masses to march eastward to “crush Iranian agents”.
Maliki, for his part, warned that the arrest of suspected terrorists did not mean that a specific religious group was being targeted. “Sunnis, Shiites and all the people must know that carrying out arrest warrants against suspects doesn’t mean targeting a specific sect,” he said, adding that the Anbar protests were “unconstitutional” and would not be tolerated for long because the only way to topple a government in Iraq was through elections.
Although some Western channels have referred to the Anbar protestas as a new example of the “Arab Spring”, Iraq´s political system actually makes the country immune to the challenges of this phenomenon. Despite the fact that the Iraqi government is not popular among some groups of the population, no one doubts of its political legitimacy after gaining the confidence of the Parliament, which has been elected through fair and clean elections.
The country is also going through a rapid economic development. Iraq´s gross domestic product is expected to grow by an average rate of at least 9.4% annually between 2012 and 2016 as the oil-producing country largely benefits from higher oil prices, a senior central bank official said in February. Of course, these good economic results have made Maliki a popular figure among many Iraqis.
On January 12, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Baghdad to show support for Maliki´s government and rejected calls to abolish the anti-terrorism law. Some of the protesters raised banners reading “The aim of Anbar protests is to divide Iraq” and others held up posters denouncing fugitive al-Hashemi as a “lord of sectarianism.”
Some analysts have seen the hand of Turkey behind the Anbar protests. Several weeks ago, Maliki ordered a government review of the country´s relationship with Turkey after a series of disputes with Ankara over a string of issues including the Turkish support for insurgency in Syria and Turkey´s increasing involvement in Iraq´s sectarian and ethnic conflicts.
The tensions with Ankara grew after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited the disputed city of Kirkuk while on a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. Davutoglu´s trip drew a furious reaction from Baghdad and brought the already-strained bilateral relations to a new low.
Iraq had previously accused Turkey of fueling tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds over control of territory and oilfields by dealing with Iraqi Kurdistan as if it were an independent state. In July, the region began to export oil to Turkey without Baghdad´s permission, an “illegal” move, according to the Iraqi authorities. Turkey also started to build export pipelines in the Kurdistan that bypass routes controlled by Baghdad. No permission was asked here either, although Ankara knows very well that such projects are a prerrogative of the Iraqi central government.
Iraqi Minister of Education, Ali Adeeb, speaks of “a Turkish invasion of Iraq”. He mentioned the presence in Iraq of elements of the Turkish intelligence services and added that 1,080 Turkish companies are now operating in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Erdogan also fraglanty interferes in Iraqi affairs. He has criticized Maliki in lining up in a open way with leaders of Al-Iraqiya Block, which was established with the help of the Turkish leadership in Ankara. The same day that Davutoglu paid a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, Al-Iraqiya Block leader, Iyad Alawi, was received by Erdogan in Ankara.
Qatar is also believed to be heavily involved in the protests. Its Al-Jazeera channel is offering heavy coverage of the protests in Iraq and its employees have joined an anti-Shiite campaign on the Internet.
“Some foreign countries, as the Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, aspire to play a regional role in Iraq. They have exploited the lack of confidence prevailing within the components of the Iraqi people, inherited from the previous regime”, said Adeeb. And added: “The United States is not far from what is happening in Iraq… There is a will to divide Iraq into three parts: Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite”.
However, the new sectarian plot in Iraq is likely to be doomed to failure as many moderate Sunni groups and leaders have expressed their rejection to the anti-Shiite sectarian rhetoric, describing it as being dangerous. There are also signs of dissent within the Al-Iraqiya Block. The party´s spokesman Haidar Al-Mullah said he was resigning from his post because of the anti-Shiite diatribes of some of its leaders.