Western intervention in Iraq has widened the old schisms of the Middle Eastby Robert Fry / April 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
US troops leaving Iraq, December 2011: western military activity has unwittingly altered the balance of power throughout the region
On New Year’s Day Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, addressed the nation on television. In a reflective mood, he said: “Any successful person has his enemies; the righteous have their opponents…and every Hussein has his Yazid.” He was entirely confident that his allusion to seventh century history would be understood, and rightly so. The death of Hussein ibn Ali, the Shia martyr and grandson of the prophet Muhammad, at the hands of Yazid, the founder of the Sunni Umayad dynasty, marks the seminal division of Islam into its separate confessional forms, and the start of an enduring tension between Shia and Sunni which has consequences today. It is difficult to imagine Angela Merkel dropping the protagonists of the Thirty Years War into a speech, or David Cameron citing the dissolution of the monasteries to illustrate a point of policy, but neither faces religious schism as a current and insistent political reality.
And Maliki needs all the help he can get. With oil revenues at around $70 billion, Iraq may not be broke but public services remain lamentable, unemployment among young men is stuck at around 30 per cent and politics is conducted against the drumbeat of increasing violence. The uneasy truce between Maliki and his main rival did not survive the departure of a formal American military presence on 18th December, nor did the tense balance between Iraq’s Sunni (the governing class under Saddam Hussein but only a fifth of the population), the Shia (making up 60 per cent and now dominant) and the Kurds in the north (another fifth). The Kurds, interested in keeping Baghdad weak, had negotiated a deal between all parties of such fragility that it collapsed under the weight of its improbable compromises. The day after the last American soldier left, Maliki, a Shia, suddenly called for the arrest of vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, on charges of running death squads. In doing so, he abandoned any pretence of seeking reconciliation of the groups, in what looks like the start of another round of sectarian confrontation.