Iraq’s relations with Gulf Arab states avoided another low point when Oman and Kuwait convinced Gulf leaders joining the Arab League summit on March 25th to freeze a call by Saudi Arabia that would have reprimanded Baghdad for its accusations that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are assisting terrorists in the Anbar region. In return, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari dropped his country’s demand to discuss the issue of other Arab countries’ assisting terrorism and including a recommendation to have the final communiqué condemn any support for Jihadist violent groups in Iraq and Syria.
But will Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki take advantage of this diplomatic compromise? All signs are that he will not. The real issue inside Iraqremains Al Maliki’s refusal to abandon sectarian policies, not any foreign role however effective the foreign intervention may be. Al Maliki has continued to narrow the chances to build a “national” – and not sectarian – wall to protect what he calls “the domestic front”.
Al Maliki’s “domestic front” manifests every day that it deserves such a name. On March 25th, Iraqi security forces stormed the town of Behrez, Northeast of Baghdad, to clear the town of Sunniarmed groups, some of which belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While this looks like a legitimate move on the surface, a large contingent of Shi’a militias fought side by side with the government armed troops. The involvement of Shi’a militias in this and other government operations has totally changed the perception about the confrontation.
The Speaker of Iraq’s Parliament, Usama Al Nujayfi, who is a widely respected Sunni leader, condemned both the cooperation between the security forces and some Shi’a militia groups and what he described as belligerent human rights violations in Behrez following the “victory” of Al Maliki forces. Some inhabitants of the town have recorded tapes of violent acts of vengeance against Sunnis, carried out in Behrez after the government forces defeated the Sunni armed groups.
The Behrez events and similar incidents only fuel the endless spiral of violence as shown by the preparation of ISIL to attack specific sections ofBaghdad and secure a Belfast-like demarcation line of several quarters of the Iraqi Capital: Al Masheeb, Al Latifiyah, Al Ghazaliah and Al Shu’ala. ISIL has been sending armed elements to infiltrate these parts and other parts ofBaghdad. Already the ISIL plan is to revive a support network of Sunnis who have been provoked by the Al Maliki government’s sectarian policies. The network is being set up in preparation for a major wave of violence timed with the beginning of Iraq’s elections in April.
The elections are already engulfed in the usual bitter sectarian confrontations. On March 25th, the entire Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) resigned, citing unacceptable political pressure. The pressure is related to government desire to exclude some of its opponents from running. The law includes a clause that allows for preventing “ill reputed” elements from participating in the elections. This hated “exclusion” clause is an open invitation for all kinds of interpretations.
The flashpoint in the Middle East is now slowly returning to Iraq with the expected ISIL campaign inside Baghdad and the heightening of the political crisis in the countdown to the elections.