Sectarianism overshadows Iraq's elections; the winner will be Iran

Sunnis and Shias are on the brink of civil war, and Islamism is emboldened. Two years after US withdrawal, Iraq is unraveling

Iraq-election-campaign-011Candidate Rabba Mohammed pastes a campaign poster on a wall in Ramadi, Iraq. Photograph: Stringer/Iraq/Reuters

Iraq holds national elections on Wednesday, its first since the US left in December 2011. Relations between its Sunni and Shia communities have deteriorated and the country is on the brink of civil war as well as territorial disintegration.

The elections are likely to sustain and exacerbate these problems. The country has struggled to contain domestic instability and regional volatility since the US withdrawal, to the extent that many believe it is no longer a question of if, but when, the 2006 sectarian civil war is repeated. That conflict, also between Sunni and Shia communities, took the country to the brink, claimed thousands of lives and divided Baghdad along sectarian boundaries.

 

Iraq is also facing the resurgence of al-Qaida and other Islamist groups, who have been emboldened by the civil war in Syria and who last December took control of a province in the Sunni-dominated north.

Various Sunni Arab actors from both Iraq and Syria developed cross-border ties as part of the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency, particularly in the Sunni north-west areas that separate Iraq and Syria. Sunni Arab militants from Syria fought alongside Iraqis during the insurgency; Iraq's Sunnis have returned the favour during the course of the Syrian civil war.

The overlap between sectarian conflict within Iraq and the regionalised sectarian war unfolding in Syria has, therefore, given militants in Iraq a fresh momentum.

Fearing that Bashar al-Assad's downfall would allow Syria's Islamist-dominated opposition to intensify its support for Iraq's militants, Iraq's Shia-dominated government has in turn allowed Syria-bound Iranian cargo flights to use Iraqi airspace. It has also turned a blind eye to Iraqi Shia militias entering Syria to support the Syrian regime. These militias have ensured the survival of the Assad regime alongside other Shia actors such as Hezbollah.

As a result, sectarian conflict is unlikely to abate. As usual it will be Iraq's Shia parties who will continue to define and dominate the Iraqi state. As usual, few of Iraq's Sunnis will be convinced the Shias are willing to share power and treat them as equals. At the same time, Iraq's Shia community fears a return to the past when it suffered heavily under Saddam Hussein and a Sunni-dominated state.

As with previous elections it will be Iran that emerges as the ultimate winner and decision-maker – the country exercises considerable influence over Iraq's Shia parties.

In little over two years since the US withdrawal Iraq has lost full control of its biggest province, Anbar, and is facing growing demands for a Sunni autonomous region similar to Kurdistan in the north. The ultimate victim of the growing sectarian polarisation could soon be the Iraqi state itself.

Source: The Guardian

Tags: #RegionalReport, #Iraq

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