There is an old Arabic proverb: “My brother and I against my cousin, but my cousin and I against the stranger.” It didn’t hold true in Iraq for long. Three years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, Sunni brothers and their Shi’ite cousins were slaughtering one another while also fighting against the American stranger. The U.S. is now winding down its mission and preparing to withdraw, but has Iraq’s family feud been settled?
While lingering violence in Mosul and Diyala province remains a challenge, the real battle the one that will define what kind of Iraq emerges as the U.S. withdraws its troops in the next two years has barely begun. The fundamental problems are many; they are intrasectarian, regional and local, Arab vs. Kurd. On the sixth anniversary of the invasion, Iraq seems to have moved away from all-out war into a more complicated set of realities where both politics and violence are part of the equation, where the answers to the many what-ifs of its future hold both promise and peril.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s repeated calls to amend the constitution to strengthen the powers of the central government in Baghdad at the expense of Iraq’s 18 provinces including the semiautonomous three-province Kurdish region in the north have faced fierce pushback from his Kurdish allies, some of whom have called him “the new Saddam.” That schism is bound to widen in the coming months, when the U.N. issues its findings over the disputed oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, which Kurds claim as their “Jerusalem” but which Arabs are loath to let go of.
Legislation to regulate the country’s rich oil resources and distribute its wealth has been stalled in parliament for two years due to Arab-Kurd feuds. Meanwhile, competition is heating up among the country’s varied religious and ethnic groups for power, influence and resources and within those groups as well.
Some people suggest that Iraq’s various rival factions are just lying low, waiting for the Americans to depart before renewing their armed struggles against one another. There has long been rivalry among Shi’ite parties for supremacy within their community as well as a parallel intra-Sunni battle. Elections are now playing a role in this political drama. January’s provincial polls, for example, dealt a devastating blow to religious and federalist-minded parties like the Shi’ite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. They were firmly repudiated in favor of secular, nationalist groups. But will this resurgent nationalism carry through to the more important parliamentary elections slated for December And if so, what will a reordered Iraqi political scene mean for future U.S. ties to Iraq Will sharpened intrasectarian battles be fought at the ballot box or on the streets
Harder to gauge will be the long-term influence of Iraq’s neighbors on the direction of the country. Iraq shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Kuwait. It’s a tough and nosy neighborhood, populated by regimes jostling for influence among the various internal factions in Iraq. The key issue is Baghdad’s ability to cobble together a semblance of national unity that will enable it to fend off its neighbors. The fear is that Iraq will become a new Lebanon, a multisectarian country whose diversity is both its blessing and its curse. Will Iraq’s people be able to put the savagery of the past behind them and truly reconcile, or will they, like the Lebanese, keep their suspicions on a low simmer that boils over every once in a while, stoked by regional interests
In the past few weeks, al-Maliki has issued several calls for national reconciliation, even reaching out to former low-level members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, encouraging them to return to mainstream politics. But Iraq isn’t a place with short memories. Reconciliation is difficult in a land where the 1,400-year-old Shi’ite-Sunni schism is still very much alive. Gone are the days when some Iraqi men carried three national identification cards one listing their name as Omar , another as Ali and a third as Ammar . Still, few families have trickled back to the homes they fled in areas that witnessed the fiercest sectarian cleansing by Sunni or Shi’ite militias. Can families forgive neighbors who may have directly or indirectly killed their loved ones
Iraq’s tribes may hold one of the keys that will give this place a chance at putting its past behind it. While the tribal dynamic does not extend throughout the country, especially in more urban centers or among Christian communities, much of the fighting came from tribal elements, both Sunni and Shi’ite. Tribal reconciliation is an age-old mechanism for resolving disputes. When the leader of a tribe speaks, if he says he has reconciled with another or with the government, his word is law, and all members of that tribe fall in line. That’s why al-Maliki is reaching out to them in a bid to foster national reconciliation. The hope is that when the stranger leaves, Iraq’s brothers and cousins will resolve their family feuds the old-fashioned way, through dialogue and deference. The potential is there, but so many questions remain to be answered.