Iraq: authoritarian nostalgia or shift from sectarian politics?



Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Friday, promising continuing American military and humanitarian aid in the fight against the Islamic State, and showing support for the country’s embattled prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, The New York Times reports.

But the vicious and often sectarian bloodletting that has existed in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown — and which has spiked since Isis swept to prominence — is stirring nostalgia among some Iraqis for authoritarian rule, including a return of the monarchy, The Financial Times adds:

Such sentiments should ring warning bells for Iraqi leaders, says Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniya. “The political class has its work cut out to re-win the population.”

Renad Mansour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, dates the rise of popular nostalgia to last June, when Shia protesters started taking to the streets demanding reforms. In those days, he says, Iraqis started remembering the former dictator Abdelkarim Qassim, who toppled Iraq’s monarchy and was later overthrown himself by the Ba’athists in 1963.

“A lot of protesters and people were trying to figure out what went so wrong. Obviously they don’t actually want the Ba’athists. So here was this person they thought, maybe he is the Iraq we could go back to,” says Mr Mansour.

In Iraqis’ shared longing for dictators, he sees at least one encouraging sign.

“I think there is a positive here coming out of a lot of negatives: It’s a move away from sectarian identity politics to issue politics, and it’s happening across Iraq,” he says.

A rallying cry to Iraqi Sunnis from former President Saddam Hussein’s top surviving aide aims to bolster the old ruling Baath party’s appeal with Sunni Muslims fearing new reprisals by Shi’ite militias, Reuters reports:

They said the video released on Thursday could also contain a message to Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government that former party members might help it fight Islamic State if the Shi’ite militias are kept out of the battle.

The broadcast purportedly featuring Ezzat al-Douri coincided with the anniversary of the fall of Saddam’s Sunni-led rule when U.S. troops stormed Baghdad in 2003. Reuters could not authenticate it but analysts said it seemed genuine judging by his appearance and speech…..The message, said Ihsan al-Shammari, politics professor at Baghdad University, was aimed at stirring sectarian fears to try to bring the Baath party back to the fore.

“But democracy is moving forward in Iraq, away from Douri and the Baath,” al-Shammari said.

After Daesh [aka ISIS or Islamic State] was forced to retreat from some areas of Nineveh governorate and Zumar, Rabiaa, Wana (Wanke), Sinuni and Shangal (Sinjar), the issue of coexistence and peaceful return of the displaced people has become the topic of the day, notes the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI – above), a network dedicated to bringing together Iraqi and international civil societies through concrete actions to build another Iraq.

Aside from Tunisia, Iraqi Kurdistan is the other self-ignited democracy experiment in the Middle East, says New York Times analyst Thomas Friedman……

…. where the Kurds on their own built an American-style university in Sulaimaniya, because they want to emulate our liberal arts, and just opened a second American University, in Dohuk. But tiny Kurdistan today is hosting 1.8 million refugees from other parts of Iraq and from Syria, and with low oil prices, it’s almost bankrupt.

The Kurdish government, which was allowing a strong opposition party to emerge and a free press, is now backtracking, with its president, Massoud Barzani, refusing to cede power at the end of his term, and the stench of corruption is everywhere. The Kurdish democratic experiment is hanging by a thread. More U.S. aid conditioned on Kurdistan’s getting back on the democracy track would go a long way.

“It is one big game of survivor out here,” said Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute in Kurdistan. “America needs to constructively engage the Kurds, offer them conditional help and make them the partner that America deserves. Here, everyone listens to and likes America. [The Kurdish] people want America to protect them from Iran and Turkey.”

Iraq’s problems not only need a national agreement but must also take account of external influences that are likely to continue, says Laith Kubba (right), the National Endowment for Democracy’s Senior Director of the Middle East and North Africa.

The region’s politicians have to change their mentalities from ones based on authority and power to one based on the desire to build a service providing state, he told a recent conference. Lastly, he suggested a reformation in religious ideologies given the large percentage of people who sympathize with ISIS.

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