Fault lines show up

Published : Feb 10, 2012 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Nourial-Maliki speaks at a function in the police academy in Baghdad on January 9.-KARIM KADIM/AP

Prime Minister Nourial-Maliki speaks at a function in the police academy in Baghdad on January 9.-KARIM KADIM/AP

Sectarian violence breaks out after the U.S. troops leave, and the government sees a plot to balkanise the country.

THE formal withdrawal of the American occupation troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 was greeted with joy and relief by the people of Iraq. The 10-year occupation had resulted in the death of more than a million Iraqis. A report produced by a group of Harvard medical researchers concluded that the children of Iraq were the most traumatised children of war ever described and that a majority of the children would suffer from severe psychological problems throughout their lives. Children were the biggest sufferers during the long years of punitive economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War (1990-91).

At a ceremony in Baghdad on December 15, United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta sanctimoniously admitted that we spilled a lot of blood in Iraq. Panetta said that the goal had been to make Iraq sovereign and independent and able to secure itself. After the military withdrawal, President Barack Obama, speaking to soldiers at Fort Bragg in Texas, claimed that the U.S. was leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by the people.

The U.S. has, in fact, left behind an Iraq that is divided by sectarian and ethnic fault lines. Under Baath Party rule, Iraqis never cared about identity politics. Now Iraqi politicians are labelled Kurdish, Sunni and Shia. Northern Iraq, under the control of Kurds, has virtually defected from the Iraqi state. The Kurds are signing oil contracts without even bothering to consult the central government in Baghdad. Oil revenues are supposed to be shared among all Iraqis, but the authorities in the north have been keeping the bountiful oil revenues all to themselves and are busy building the infrastructure necessary to run a viable independent state. Washington does not seem to be averse to these developments. An independent Kurdistan is anathema to the majority in Iraq and for other states in the region, such as Turkey, Syria and Iran, which have sizable Kurdish minorities of their own. The regional government in the Kurdish-dominated north is unabashedly pro-American.

The government of Iraq declared a national holiday after the last U.S. military unit left the country. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the exit of the U.S. troops a new dawn for Iraq and urged Iraqis to set aside their differences and work unitedly to rebuild the battered nation. He said his government would respect the political, intellectual and religious diversity of Iraq. But the festivities were short-lived. As if on cue, there were a series of suicide attacks and an upsurge in violence immediately after the U.S. troops left Iraqi soil. Hundreds of people, mainly Shia pilgrims and worshippers, have perished in terror attacks since the Americans left.

An attack on pilgrims on January 14 resulted in the death of more than 70 people. Much of the violence occurred in Shia-dominated areas, including Sadr City, the main support base of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It was Moqtada who had insisted that the U.S. stick to the agreed deadline for troop withdrawal. The support of the bloc that owes allegiance to him is crucial for the survival of the government led by Maliki. The Obama administration had made desperate last-ditch efforts to hold on to its military bases and retain a sizable troop presence in Iraq.

Maliki, it seems, was waiting for the U.S. to leave to take action against the country's Vice-President, Tareq al-Hashemi. Iraqi security forces raided his office following a string of terror attacks in mid-December and arrested two of his close associates. The government charged Hashemi with indulging in terrorism and orchestrating bomb attacks. Hashemi, a Sunni politician who was given the largely ceremonial post of Vice-President, fled to northern Iraq, where he was promptly given refuge by the Kurdish parties. Maliki has been demanding that Hashemi be sent back to Baghdad for questioning.

Maliki's associates have accused the former Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, of sheltering Hashemi. The fugitive Vice-President is staying in an area considered to be the stronghold of Talabani. Northern Iraq is controlled by two Kurdish parties, owing allegiance to Talabani and Masoud Barzani. The government has said that it has evidence to show that Hashemi organised death squads when sectarian violence peaked soon after the American invasion in 2003 and that he was involved in a plot to assassinate Maliki. The Prime Minister also asked Parliament to remove the Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al Mutleq. Maliki said that Mutleq, a senior Sunni politician, was trying to undermine the unity government that is running the country.

Hashemi, who became Vice-President in 2006, never bothered to hide his pro-Saudi and anti-Iranian feelings. He is the secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. His two brothers had fallen prey to assassins' bullets. Hashemi, like many other leading Iraqi politicians, had ties with the militias, which, while resisting the occupation forces, were also engaged in fratricidal bloodletting. Hashemi has maintained that Maliki is adopting double standards by targeting him while turning a blind eye to the past activities of some of his political allies such as al Sadr and Amar al Hakim. Sadr's Mahdi army, the military wing of his political movement, and Hakim's Badr Brigade have been blamed in the past for targeting Sunnis.

The recent developments have prompted the Iraqiya bloc, to which Hashemi belongs, to boycott Parliament. Ministers belonging to the group have not been participating in Cabinet meetings. The Iraqiya bloc, dominated by Sunnis, holds 82 seats in the 325-member Parliament. Maliki will find it extremely difficult to cobble up a working majority in Parliament if the Iraqiya bloc quits the uneasy alliance that is currently in place. Maliki, according to many observers, retained the Prime Minister's post because he was acceptable to both Washington and Teheran. It is an accepted fact that Iran has considerable clout today in the corridors of power in Baghdad.

The Sunni politicians, many of whom are said to be beholden to Saudi Arabia, Iran's main rival in the region, have escalated their demands for more autonomy and a bigger slice of the oil revenue for the provinces they represent. The government in Baghdad believes that there a plot is being hatched to balkanise Iraq. American politicians have in the past talked about the desirability of the country being split into three. In 2006, Joseph Biden, then a U.S. Senator, in an article which he co-authored with Leslie H. Gelb argued for a soft partitioning of Iraq. Gelb, who is currently president emeritus of the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations, reiterated this position in a recent article that appeared in Newsweek magazine. He wrote that Iraq should be split into three entities. Gelb warned that if the current situation remained unchecked, Iraq would either fall under the influence of Iran or could descend into endless civil war.

The Obama administration has warned the Iraqi government that if it wants U.S. military aid to continue, then it should allow the Sunni bloc in Parliament to have a big say in the running of the Defence Ministry. Washington recently announced that it was going ahead with the sale of nearly $11 billion worth of defence hardware and training for the Iraqi army. Among the items to be supplied are advanced F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks and armoured personnel carriers. Sunni politicians such as the country's Finance Minister, Raffi al-Essawi, have been cautioning Washington against arming and training the Iraqi army. They allege that the army has already become a sectarian outfit.

The Obama administration has its own reasons for keeping the government in Baghdad in good humour. The U.S. embassy in Iraq, considered to be the largest and the most expensive embassy ever built, is manned by 16,000 personnel, half of them private military contractors. Although the military occupation is formally over, there continues to be a thinly camouflaged U.S. military presence. U.S. officials have said that the consulate in Basra will house 1,200 employees, many of them military contractors. The consulate in Erbil is going to be bigger. But the Iraqi embassy in Washington is manned by a dozen diplomats.

In the last couple of years, American oil companies have improved their presence in Iraq significantly. Many of the lucrative oil contracts are in the kitty of companies such as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell. Until the 2003 invasion, Western oil companies had virtually no presence in Iraq. After the Iraqi government nationalised the oil sector in 1973, Western oil companies were forced to leave the country. Now, once again they have obtained the biggest slice of the Iraqi oil cake.

The war in Iraq is another classic illustration of expending innocent blood for oil. The Iraqi public is still not reconciled to the privatisation of the country's vast oil resources. It has also been pointed out that the big oil contracts with foreign oil companies took place when the country was under American occupation.

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