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The Iraqi quagmire

18 April 2006

It is no exaggeration to say that three years after the US-led intervention, Iraq has become neither more secure nor more democratic. True, the Iraqis have faced down terror and mayhem to vote in two democratic elections for parliament and participate in a referendum on their new constitution. However, formal democratic procedures do not necessarily amount to democracy. National sovereignty, a non-negotiable prerequisite for democracy, exists on paper only and the country's nascent democracy needs a secure environment in order to be able to take root, let alone flourish, in Iraqi society.
Other basic requirements for a functioning state are missing too: political intransigencies have foiled attempts to form a new government for months. As a result, positions among political parties have become entrenched, leading to stalemate. Needless to say, with no operational government in place, any attempt to develop a long-term strategy to fight the insurgency militarily and to integrate Iraq's Sunnis politically will be difficult. What is more troubling, however, is that the lack of a functioning government seems to have a negative impact on the amendment process of the Iraqi Constitution, which is supported by the UN and the EU. On the legal level, the Constitution needs amendments in order to overcome its shortcomings and close loopholes concerning the distribution of power and competencies between the federal state, the regions and the governorates. On the political level, the amendment process should serve as the main instrument for the re-integration of Sunnite parties into the political mainstream: by addressing Sunni grievances, it was hoped to be able to gradually woo as many Sunnite groups as possible away from the insurgency and to isolate the most radical elements.
Sectarian hatred among Mesopotamian Arabs has reached an intensity hitherto unknown in history. Iraq's Arabs have never been greatly affected by sectarianism - in this regard, in Iraq the fault lines reflected Muslim-Christian or Arab-Kurdish divides, but not divisions between the two great sects of Islam, the Sunnis and Shias. This has changed dramatically. Radical elements among the Sunni community - ex-Baathis and neo-Salafis, perhaps in cooperation with Al Qaeda - are trying to foment a civil war between the two religious communities. The rationale behind this is twofold: firstly, they are trying to create a situation that is so hostile that the US will finally be obliged to retreat, or at least any US attempt at rebuilding Iraq will be gravely undermined. Secondly, these groups seem to be confident of winning against the Shiite militias in a civil war and returning to a situation where Shiites would play only a marginal political role, if they were to play a role at all.
The bombing of the Shrine in Samarra - and a foiled attack on the holiest place in Shiite Islam, the mosque of Imam Ali in Najaf - show that sectarian strife has reached a new pitch and that it is likely to spread throughout the region. It has already had an impact on regions such as Afghanistan and Pakistan where sectarianism among Muslims is rife. But it has also embittered the Arab Shiites elsewhere in the Gulf Region. Shiites respect Iran and the Islamic Republic lends support to Shiite groups throughout the world, although it is only influential with a handful of political parties which follow a political agenda independently set by themselves. However, by now even Iran's nuclear issue has taken on an ethno-confessional dimension because most Arab states - all of them Sunnis - support the West in this confrontation. Therefore, Shiites throughout the region perceive pressure against the Islamic Republic as ultimately directed against their own communities.
Elsewhere, the Iraqi situation has not only unified the Shiites but also the Sunni extremists. The neo-Taliban have already sent militants to Iraq for training, and terrorist tactics first applied in Iraq have been used during recent operations in Afghanistan. The neo-Taliban are trying to pass on their newly acquired expertise to extremists in Central Asia and India. But they are not the only ones to do so: militants from throughout the Arab world, especially from Sudan and Saudi Arabia, and opponents of the Syrian regime, are in Iraq and are exploiting the situation to their own advantage. Their numbers are limited but this is no assurance at all as they will train and inspire a new generation of terrorists. There are also a very small number of European Muslims participating in the Iraqi insurgency. They are by no means representative of their communities and their numbers are in the dozens rather than in the hundreds. But modern terrorism is based on small cells and loose networks and does not need mass movements. A single individual would easily be able to inspire or train others in Europe. In short, the Iraqi quagmire is a net contributor to European insecurity.
In spite of the deplorable situation that currently prevails in the country, the EU maintains its firm commitment towards Iraq. For instance, the European Commission is the second biggest donor in the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq (IRFFI) and is present in Baghdad. The EU focuses on supporting Iraqi capacity building, through initiatives like EUJUST LEX, an operation to train senior Iraqi officials in the police forces, the judiciary and the penal system. The EU is also supporting other actors like the Arab League to help foster the Iraqi reconciliation process and is also engaged in various other fields to integrate Iraq into the international community. However, all these efforts will remain fruitless until a stable and secure Iraqi government emerges.