Iraq’s rising sectarianism

09 May 2013

Civil war in Syria likely to affect the delicate Shia-Sunni balance in Iraq

Few Iraqis express any satisfaction with their government. After all, it has failed to deliver on the provision of even basic services. Outside the economic elite, the lot of most Iraqis, Sunni, Shia, Kurd or any of the plethora of minorities in the country, has not improved significantly over the last decade. The issue of sectarianism has taken centre-stage in Iraq, but it is a symptom of the country’s weak political foundations.

The political establishment, with the increasingly autocratic Nouri al-Maliki at its head, seems prepared to aggravate sectarian tensions for political gain. Heightened sectarian rhetoric is now inseparable from the election campaign trail as witnessed in Iraq’s latest provisional polls on 20 April. For most politicians, the default position is defending the interests of an ethnic or sectarian group. Campaigning on a cross-sectarian platform has so far not yielded results.

Nonetheless, Iraq’s Sunnis, representing a significant minority, have two particular grievances which fuel their anger. The first is the policy of de-Baathification, which aims to root out those connected with the regime of Saddam Hussain and prevent them from holding office. The policy has become a prominent feature in Sunni fears of marginalisation. The other is the use of anti-terror legislation, which is seen as another tool. Militancy is not the same for everyone. Shia groups are militias, while terrorists are overwhelmingly Sunni. As ever, perception is key.

Iraqis are anxiously monitoring events across the border in Syria to see how that sectarian-coloured civil war will affect their own delicate balance. As the Syrian state begins to unravel, the conflict will become a key driver of Iraqi politics as Sunnis and Shias take polarised positions, sending money and fighters over the border. For now, this has been contained, but as the Syrian conflict escalates and other regional players enter the fray, Iraq will find it hard to stay out.

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