As the Iraqi parliamentary election approaches, many hyperbolic perceptions remain to be defied
Once again, Fallujah is the centre of a political crisis in Iraq, with al-Qaeda linked militants said to be in control of the city. The Iraqi government has been supplied with plenty of military aid to back its oversized army against the militants, but the stand-off reveals much about Iraq’s problems. Given recent news coverage, one might be forgiven for thinking that Iraq was actually a Tehran-controlled puppet deeply divided by sectarian beliefs and overrun with al-Qaeda insurgents from Syria. The stand-off in Fallujah reveals at least five things that require further discussion while defying those irrational notions.
Iraq still suffers more from a democratic deficit rather than an Islamist influx
Tribes-people of Fallujah, not just al-Qaeda, have played a role in keeping the Iraqi army out of the city. There are civilians there who are genuinely dissatisfied with the work of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government and thus do not want anything to do with it.
The promise of democracy in Iraq has limped along to the tune of al-Maliki politicking to achieve greater power by bribing people with coveted jobs and having his political opponents arrested.
Iraq is currently ranked 150th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index, and in 2013, the Iraqi government banned ten news channels, including Al-Jazeera, for allegedly stirring up sectarian conflict.
Although Iraq’s pan-Arab press by nature has foreign influence, it would be foolish to assume that credible journalists are merely puppets for media moguls with sectarian interests – if there even is such a thing.
Furthermore, the Saddamist style of rule by inclusion and exclusion had a greater influence than many care to notice when discussing Iraq. De-Ba’athification may have alienated many of Saddam Hussein’s former colleagues but it did not eliminate the legacy he left behind. Islamic tribes that threatened to weaken Hussein were either bribed with the opportunity to gain extra influence or violently oppressed. Many groups seeking political influence in Iraq still play up to this method of getting things done, and al-Maliki is not one to pass up the opportunity of being the leader who people either cherish or fear.
Hussein’s legacy left an imprint on Iraq of a political tradition upheld by the inclusion of some groups at the expense of excluding others.
US foreign policy is at risk of repeating itself
In the past few weeks, the U.S. administration has stepped up its delivery of surveillance drones and missiles to Iraq in response to the Fallujah stand-off, and is one rebellious senator short of selling Iraq dozens of Apache helicopters.
U.S. foreign policy is at risk of propping up a bad leader and irresponsible government because of an irrational fear that al-Qaeda could take over Iraq.
Al-Maliki’s administration is continuously emboldened by U.S. funding as Saddam Hussein once was.
Groups linked to al-Qaeda do not have control over Fallujah
As the Sons of Iraq campaign, which took place in Fallujah in 2006, proved, anyone fighting alongside al-Qaeda can be turned. Fallujah is not a Tolkienesque battleground between good and evil. It should be a political arena for the government to demonstrate that democracy can produce what the people really want: employment, clean water, and electricity.
Instead, Fallujah is an act of defiance. Many of its citizens have left to escape a potential Apache helicopter attack and selective persecution by their own elected government, while others have prevented the Iraqi army from entering the city.
It is the Iraqi government that has ultimate control over Fallujah but its failure to identify and resolve its own shortcomings will continue to give the upper hand to any old demagogue with his own militia.
Meanwhile, Syria has managed to get much credit for the chaos in Fallujah, with many commentators placing Sunni Islamist movements on a par with the Roman Empire. One needn’t look beyond even the last few years to realise this is an overstated view within Middle East politics.
The democratically elected, Sunni Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt failed following the fall of Mubarak. Much of their time in power, under President Mohamed Morsi, was spent trying to restore order and persuade all sections of the country to accept their (relatively) moderate brand of Islamism.
Sunni Islamists in Syria, should they defeat Assad, would still need to proffer a strong sense of legitimacy, more so than the Muslim Brotherhood needed in Egypt, due to the extensive suffering the country has faced.
The motivation to then go and spread Sunni Islamism into Shia-dominated Iraq is exaggerated, because the idea of bringing Syria from the brink of total destruction to becoming a colonising superpower of the Middle East is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
Lastly, let’s not forget that the armed opposition to Assad are deeply divided between varying levels of Islamists and the secular freedom fighters.
Sectarianism is a lazy label that’s still being used to explain everything
The narrative that sectarianism is at the heart of violence and chaos in Iraq is a destructive and hyperreal concept.
With this narrative being constantly driven into the mainstream, and being popularised by the many corners of academia and journalism, sectarian divisions are at risk of becoming a dangerous reality.
The majority of residents living in the Anbar province, wherein Fallujah is a city, are subscribed to the Sunni interpretation of Islam, but more significantly, sewage facilities and water levels there are some of the poorest in all of Iraq. Anbar has been suffering one of its worst droughts over the past five years, which has harmed agriculture in the area and ruined many people’s livelihoods and main source of income.
In recent years their protests have been violently suppressed with the government justifying this on the grounds of suspicion against an impending al-Qaeda attack but the lack of transparency has only left the real causes up to interpretation.
Blaming foreign influences means we don’t have to talk about the constitution
When asked which country has the most influence in Iraq, former interim prime minister of Iraq, Ayad Allawi, believed it to be Iran. Former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, appeared to also share this view, as do many others who paint Iran as the bizarre bogeymen of the Middle East. During the UK’s Iraq Inquiry, Sir Richard Dalton explained that Mr. Blair believed Tehran wanted anarchy in Iraq.
The extent to which the discussion surrounding Iraq-Iran relations is presented to the public in terms of fear with little logical explanation is dangerously close to abandoning all truth. For instance, Blair believed that Iran was providing support to al-Qaeda in order to resist the occupying forces.
Despite no evidence of a positive relationship between al-Qaeda – a group, which believes that “Shia blood is halal” – and Iran – a state whose most powerful political authority is a Shia marja’ – there has been a slew of needless discussion debating this link.
During Iraq’s elections post-2003, political parties received funds from all over the world without having to declare the source, which resulted in accusations of politicians whipping up sectarian support abroad and of nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia having undue influence. Without any declaration of the source of foreign funding, whether it be innocuous or nefarious, the Iraqi electorate had even less reason to trust the parties vying for their votes.
Human rights have also been stifled because, although the Iraqi constitution considers everyone to be equal, it has an Orwellian passage which elevates Islam and its believers to be more equal than others.
The homegrown constitution included this confusing passage: “A. No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established. B. No law that contradicts the principles of democracy may be established.” Some Muslims believe apostasy to be punishable by death, whereas others may believe in the democratic principle of religious freedom. Either way, imprinting a set of laws that can be personalised according to the believer’s wishes is wholly contradictory to the principles of democracy.
Should someone choose to interpret Islam to be a violent religion and claim that the state needed to be overthrown and replaced by the will of God as opposed to the will of the people, they could theoretically take over a city and claim to have even more legitimacy, according to the constitution, than the democratically elected government. Oh wait…
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