Iraq has found its way back into the headlines, just as many were hoping the US withdrawal last week would keep it out. A series of explosions in Baghdad early on Thursday killed at least 57 people according to the health ministry, at a time when the government has become engulfed in crisis.
The political crisis revolves around a warrant for the arrest of vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, issued on the basis of his alleged complicity in terrorism and the running of death squads.
Hashimi is an important representative of the Sunni-Arab community and a senior official from the Iraqiya bloc which emerged as the largest party in last year’s elections but failed to fashion a majority to govern. The warrant against him comes from a judiciary seen as largely under the influence of the ruling Shia bloc and, specifically, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Islamic Dawa party. While many commentators have assumed that Maliki himself issued the warrant, there is as yet no evidence it was issued on his orders.
Whether the allegations against Hashimi have any merit is less immediately relevant than the consequences that may ensue from issuing the warrant. Many within Iraq’s current ruling elite have faced similar accusations in the past but have not faced arrest or any serious investigation.
For example, a warrant was also issued against Moqtada al-Sadr for the death of Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, a key clerical figure who was brutally killed in 2003. No further action has been taken against Sadr, however; he commands a party that has nearly 40 parliamentary seats to its name, a series of ministries under its control and, importantly, its own militia force.
The warrant against Hashimi – who has fled to Kurdistan – and relentless effort to detain him therefore makes the whole operation seem politically motivated and sectarian. It is too much of a coincidence that Hashimi is both a rival to Maliki and a Sunni.
That is why the affair threatens to take the country back to the brink: it has an agenda behind it and undermines any notion that the country’s prime minister and his Shia sectarian partners are interested in democratic governance and reconciliation with the Sunni.
It was a similar set of circumstances that prompted the post-2003 insurgency and sectarian war: uncertainty and disenfranchisement (among the Sunni) combined with age-old sectarian rivalries between the Sunni and the Shia – a case of out with the old and in with the new. Some may see the Hashimi incident, as well as the continuing arrests of allegedly Ba’athist politicians, as an extension of that sectarian war.
There is an element of “told you so” in all this. Blinded by the lure of power, Iraqiya figures like Hashimi and deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq (also targeted by Maliki, who is seeking a parliamentary vote of no confidence in him) opted to assume positions of power, sidelining Ayad Allawi, the head of their bloc.
But where now for Iraq? Sectarian politics, the lack of reconciliation, persisting terrorist attacks, outstanding issues related to oil and territory and a general inability to cater for the needs of the Iraqi population is evidence that the current Iraqi model is failing.
To move on and remedy its problems, Iraq needs to turn to the federalism entrenched so heavily within its constitution, one that provides for a functioning Iraq that accepts the country for what it is and allows different groups and communities to live and govern the way they want.
As the group most fiercely against federalism, the Sunnis are now starting to accept realities and embrace the concept. Three Sunni-dominated provinces have already sought to emulate the autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdistan region, which goes from strength to strength as Baghdad rots. With the move against Hashimi and Mutlaq coming at this time, those efforts may be hastened.
The attractions, particularly in the existing environment, are obvious: a powerful means of containing and competing with Baghdad and the Shia-led government, the consolidation of power in Sunni regions and, in the long term, an alliance with a potential Sunni-governed Syria which borders the very provinces in Iraq that would be part of any Sunni region in the north of the country.
As further explained by constitutional expert Professor Brendan O’Leary in his book, How to Get Out of Iraq with Integrity, self-government allows the Sunnis to control their own resources, manage their own security and determine their own ways of life.
Centralism and the concentration of power in Baghdad has been a failed exercise, despite the ample time devoted to it. Those within and beyond Iraq who oppose federalism and the disintegration of Iraq to make way for functionality and the protection of human lives should provide a viable alternative, one that is realistic and accommodates the realities on the ground.