Iraq’s Sunni Spring

The below article examines the protests taking place in northern Iraq in Anbar and other primarily Sunni provinces. An edited version of this article is scheduled to appear in The National, later today.

Iraq’s Sunni Spring

In 1964 Iraq’s Shia population of the south gathered together in the holy city of Karbala, to protest against the predominantly Sunni sectarian government of ‘Abdul Salam al-Arif. According to witness accounts as well as US and UK diplomatic cables, tens of thousands, if not more than a hundred thousand, were rallying against Iraq’s regime, which had just come into power following a 1963 military coup.

The 1960s was characterised by heightened tensions between an authoritarian Sunni-dominated government and a marginalised Shia community, which at the time fell victim to policies that detrimentally impacted the daily life and bread of the Shia. For many decades later, Iraq’s Shia continued to be increasingly and violently oppressed under the Ba’ath regime and its dictatorial leader, Saddam Hussein.

More than 50 years later, in 2013, the tables have turned. It is now primarily Iraq’s Sunni population complaining of marginalisation, complaints voiced through peaceful as well as violent means. The past few weeks have seen thousands protest in Iraq’s Anbar province and other primarily Sunni provinces to the north, which, like Anbar, formed the heartbeat of the post-2003 Sunni insurgency.

Anbar’s population is protesting against what they call the marginalisation of the Sunni, underpinned by a lack of political recognition, basic services and allegedly indiscriminate anti-terror raids and arrests. The protests followed the controversial arrest of Sunni politician and Finance Minister, Rafi Issawi’s bodyguards. The arrests came just a year after the equally controversial arrest warrant issued against the country’s vice-president, Tarek al-Hashimi, who is now exiled in Turkey.

Firstly, before anything else, the protests are reflective of the dysfunctional politics within Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to lead anything even remotely resembling a serious, efficient and effective government. After damaging relations with the Kurds, potentially beyond repair, through a series of standoffs between Baghdad and Kurdish forces in Iraq’s disputed territories of the north, which could have led to a devastating civil war, the Prime Minister has pushed his back against the wall by moving on yet another major representative of the Sunni population, provoking them into uproar as a result.

The Sunnis have reluctantly accepted their status as a minority in the new Iraq, even though it took them a bloody civil war and a pointless insurgency to come to terms with this. Their grievances may be legitimate. But the picture emerges more complicated.

In Iraq, Sunni complaints of marginalisation might seem plausible and not without any basis. Yet, Iraq’s other groupings can also claim marginalisation, given that this has more to do with Maliki’s consolidation of power and his marginalisation of rivals, rather than any inherently anti-Sunni political strategy.

Like the Sunnis, the Kurds and indeed other major Shia players like Muqtad al-Sadr, have complained of political marginalisation and Maliki’s increasing hold on power. Al-Sadr, who has a confrontational and bloody history with Maliki, was quick to attempt to capitalise on the opportunity presented by the Anbar protests, calling them Iraq’s Arab Spring. That, however, was not translated into any major active support from his supporters and nor from the broader Shia community, apart from minimal and tokenistic efforts by some delegates from the south, who visited Anbar to provide their support to the protests.

In other words, the Anbar protests show that, ten years on, Iraq remains scarred by communal and sectarian divisions, exasperated by the conflict in Syria. The protests lost any hope of legitimacy when, from the outset, they were dominated by anti-Shia slogans and the hoisting of Saddam era flags, inscribed with the former dictator’s handwriting. Anti-Iran sentiments were also voiced, with observers looking at these as being a disguise for further anti-Shia sentiments. Some protestors carried photos of Recep Tayip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister.

The protests are, therefore, reflective of the growing polarisation between the Sunni and Shia, both within Iraq and beyond in the region, as the Syria conflict continues to pit Sunni ideological forces against Shia ideological forces, the former represented by the Saudis, Gulf States and Turkey; the latter by Iran, Hezbollah and indeed Iraq.

Who emerges winner from all this is still unclear. With Sunni and Kurdish disenfranchisement growing, Maliki will turn to his Shia constituencies, who could see recent political challenges as challenges against the Shia themselves.

Further, Syria remains unpredictable, which equates with uncertainty for Iraq’s future. The battle for Damascus and the aftermath could still be played out on Iraqi soil. The rising prowess and ascendancy of Sunni ideological forces in the region means that al-Sadr might have been close when he called the Anbar protests Iraq’s version of the Arab Spring, only that they are more a part of the Sunni Spring unfolding in Iraq and the region.

This ‘victory’ over Libya’s militias may simply exacerbate the problem – Guardian

This ‘victory’ over Libya’s militias may simply exacerbate the problem

Libya’s new government has issued an ultimatum to its militias: disband and disarm – or else. The drive to flush out the numerous militia groups that have operated with impunity since the fall of the Gaddafi regime follows the killing of the US ambassador, Chris Stephens, two weeks ago, and demonstrations over the weekend that saw protesters seize control of several militia headquarters.

On the face of it, these moves look promising. Libya’s democratically elected rulers are beginning to take responsibility, backed up by a population that has become increasingly dissatisfied with the state’s slow progress in establishing itself as the principal power since the upheaval last year.

The post-conflict environment has brought ongoing clashes between rival militia groups, clashes between the state and militias, assassinations and turf wars over smuggling routes. Furthermore, the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi was the second of its kind since June – a month in which the British ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith, was also targeted.

However, there are still two principal obstacles to sidelining militia groups, including jihadist militias operating in Derna, Libya’s Islamist stronghold.

While Libyans and international commentators alike have been celebrating the weekend’s events as a victory – in particular the storming of the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia (the group blamed for the ambassador’s killing) – the militias are simply being driven underground. They have abandoned their bases with their weapons and ammunition, rather than being detained or brought under government control.

That will compound existing security problems because it means militias could switch to operating as small units, instead of larger groups that are more easily identified and targeted. The government could still try to eliminate militias in their new form, but it remains doubtful that the state army, usually suited to targeting larger military formations and identifiable headquarters, has the organisation, experience and effectiveness to combat smaller, dispersed units that might continue and even increase their hit-and-run operations.

Moreover, this implies that the government is abandoning the idea of a reconciliatory process in favour of direct armed confrontation. That could be problematic in an unstable post-conflict environment that has yet to remedy differences between existing rulers and their predecessors. It could also be detrimental because of the links militias have with local regions and neighbourhoods. Some have extensive tribal, political and familial ties. The ramifications of this will be all the more severe because of the lack of state control and a functioning security force.

The extent to which the government intends to see out its pledge to defeat militias remains to be seen – since it has yet to define the parameters of legal and illegal militias. That means certain groups will not be challenged because of their untouchable status. For example, militias of the Nafusa mountains in the western part of the country, especially those from Zintan (who continue to hold Saif Gaddafi despite the government’s protests), will retain their autonomy.

What this essentially means is that the government will really be able to tackle only the opportunistic militias that emerged after the downfall of the regime. These are groups of armed men that were formed locally to look after their neighbourhoods in the ensuing security vacuum and who may or may not engage in petty criminal activities. However, more robust and broader networks of militias, especially those that developed during the 2011 uprising, will operate as normal.

Yet if certain groups are allowed to remain autonomous, that will not only prolong the precarious security environment (as well as tarnishing the political process because of the protection they are given) but also invite smaller groups to join their ranks, making the government’s efforts a futile and tokenistic endeavour.

In a previous article I argued that one realistic approach to security challenges in Libya would be to recognise that the most powerful militia forces will remain the primary force on the ground.

It may be that the Libyan government is beginning to accept this reality. But it is imperative to do so as part of a regulated framework – making militias not just more accountable but also more effective and efficient as law enforcers working in partnership with a centralised state security force.

Libya: politics before security? – Open Democracy

The events of the past week in Libya have established two things: firstly, that extremist groups have ample room to operate and execute atrocities of the kind that led to the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Secondly, they have proven that Libya’s authorities have been complacent about such a turn of events and put politics before security.

Months before Libya’s elections in July, Alia Brahimi and I argued in theTelegraph that the country’s first national elections in decades should be postponed. Many Libyans disagreed with this position, arguing that only after a functioning and legitimate government was instated could the country be cleansed of its violence and militias disarmed.

This position equated with spinning a roulette wheel, vaguely aiming at and hoping for elections to bring stability and order. Security has been sacrificed in Libya on the hope that it would somehow materialize once democratic politics were in place. National elections did take place in July, producing a western-backed secularist winner, Mahmoud Jibril, in a largely peaceful fashion; last Wednesday, the country selected its new prime minister, who will take the helm of the country for an 18-month transitional period. A new government is expected, resting on a broad coalition of different ideological and political visions.

Yet, winning elections does not mean winning power. Since the former regime’s downfall last year, the failure to accommodate disparate militia groups into the transitional phase was indeed related to several others: the failure to disarm them, to develop a functioning army and to reconcile factions among groups currently in power and their predecessors. These issues have opened the ground for groups like those responsible for last Tuesday’s attacks to consolidate their military clout, to grow in confidence and consequently to exploit the security vacuum to full effect.

Eastern Libya can be described as fertile ground for jihadis, many of whom took part in the post-2003 Iraq insurgency and are thus experienced, battle-hardened individuals with the capacity to build on last week’s attacks, as well as those carried out in June against US and UK diplomatic missions in Benghazi. It therefore becomes imperative for Libyan authorities to ensure that the momentum does not continue to shift in their favour.

Yet in the absence of a real army the Libyan state will continue to lack the capacity to target autonomous militia brigades. To complicate matters further, the most organized and sophisticated militia groups have extensive links with the new government and enjoy financial and military support from resource-rich Gulf states.

Concerns about the extensive links between militias and the current ruling powers were exacerbated further last week by the issuing of an independent news report suggesting that the killing of the US ambassador may have been the result of a security breach. The ambassador had been in Benghazi for only a short period and had retreated to a supposedly secret safe house in the city, which had then come under sustained mortar attack.

In this broader context of security gaps, Al-Qaeda’s statement claiming indirect responsibility for the attack sees its significance somewhat dwarfed. If a security breach was in fact the reason why US diplomats could be targeted, it points at far more serious problems for Libya, as these gaps are being exploited and even sustained at government level.

Nevertheless, it is at times of crisis that post-conflict governments prove their worth. The Benghazi attacks have propelled national security to the forefront of the government’s agenda, thus creating new opportunities for Libya’s democratically elected officials. The president of Libya’s parliament, Mohammed al-Magarif, already commented that the government is considering military action against Ansar al-Sharia, the group linked to the attacks. Such statements are encouraging but actions will more than ever have the last word in the new Libya.

Libya needs more than elections to prevent civil war – The Guardian

The past month has been a tumultuous one for Libya. Successful local elections in Benghazi, in which voter turnout was impressive and a female candidate secured the largest number of votes, showed that the country can move towards becoming a state with viable democratic processes and representative leaders.

Yet, with every step it takes forward, Libya takes another two back. The security situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past two weeks. On Tuesday, it was the turn of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Misrata to come under attack. On Monday, the British ambassador’s convoy in Benghazi was hit, with two bodyguards injured in the ensuing gun battle. Last week there was an attack on the US diplomatic mission in the same city.

Apart from terror attacks such as these, Libyans are fighting each other. Militiamen act with impunity, as the recent seizure of Tripoli airportshowed, while clashes continue in the southern town of Kufra, where pro-government militiamen are locked in an armed conflict with tribal forces over smuggling routes. The clashes have so far claimed at least 20 lives.

Civil war and increased bloody lawlessness in Libya is now a real possibility, with all indicators suggesting the worst may be yet to come because of the continued lack of state control and failure to stabilise the security environment.

Militias continue to constitute the primary force in Libya, militarily and politically. They represent regions, tribes and powerful families, though some are simply criminal. Most act independently of the interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), especially the most powerful ones such as those from Misrata in the east and Zintan in the west – which are now essentially states within a state.

Although Libya has a more homogenous population than Iraq and Lebanon – and is therefore unlikely to suffer civil war on the same scale as in either of those countries – the future does not bode well because of two principal reasons.

First, national security lacks co-ordination and organisation – with the result that conflict between rival groups and criminal activities like smuggling and terrorism flourish in the gaps.

Second, the stakes are likely to be higher after the coming elections, rather than lower. Many Libyans argue that elections offer the best hope of stability in the form of a more assertive state – a view also shared by journalist Lindsey Hilsum.

However, the situation could become more volatile after the elections as the various factions contest one another for control of the country, its riches and the army – not least since rival militia forces will be contesting the elections directly or will have extensive links to the political leaders that emerge. Militia forces will, therefore, fear the personalisation of state institutions by rivals and look to assert their own control over the most powerful of ministries and institutions.

Thus, infrequent and localised struggles could turn into conflicts for survival and superiority. However, rather than pinning too much hope on the elections there are several steps that could be taken to both stabilise the country today and protect the population against protracted conflict in the future.

Some argue that the best way to give the state increased control is to reinforce the national army currently controlled by the NTC and equip it with more sophisticated weaponry. But that could escalate the problem by forcing the militias to amalgamate into coalitions in order to preserve their superiority; they will not back down in the face of an emboldened NTC army and will look to support from outside forces.

An alternative approach would be to accept that the most powerful militia forces will remain as the primary force on the ground – at least in the medium term – and that the NTC, unpopular and illegitimate in the eyes of the militias, is unlikely to be able to form an effective army independently. The most powerful of militias could, therefore, be integrated to form (and preside over) a centralised national army that combines with a power-sharing mechanism stopping any one group from consolidating too much power.

Finally, the existing regionalised security environment could be reworked so that while militia forces are kept intact and in some cases even strengthened, their military role would be sustained as part of a regulated framework underpinned by dispute-resolution mechanisms and one that makes them more organised, efficient and accountable forces able to protect their regions and national borders.

This would allow the militias to properly and legitimately maintain their status as law enforcers in the disparate regions they control while also allowing a centralised state force to emerge.

The so-called national army, operating out of Tripoli, would in this scenario simply co-operate with regional forces on matters of intelligence and military operations, while also intervening in local disputes as and when needed, and acting as a mediator in a manner akin to the mobile forces that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, under Libya’s former ruler, King Idris.

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The IDEAS think-tank of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has published an extensive and in-depth report on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, with a specific focus on the power shifts that followed as a consequence of the cataclysmic events in the region.

Dr Toby Dodge, also of the LSE, concludes this report by noting that ‘successful revolutions are very rare indeed’. Behind the headlines, this report’s conclusions are pessimistic. The authors here find little evidence to suggest that future historians will rank the events of 2011 with those of 1848, or 1989. Simply too few of the fundamentals of social, economic and political organisation in the Arab world have been successfully contested by the protests. As 2011’s Spring turns into 2012’s summer, the answer to the question of whether there has been a power shift in the Middle East, is a decisive ‘not yet’.

The report can be purchased at the following as well as from Amazon:

Libya should embrace federalism – The Guardian

Just three months before elections take place in post-Gaddafi Libya,clashes between rival revolutionary brigades took place yet again on Tuesday in the southern city of Sabha, leaving more than 30 dead. New Libya is yet to be stabilised: it lacks an effective interim government and it lacks national security forces to impose law and order. These problems persist largely because there is still no consensus on the future definition of the country. Militias refuse to disarm and seek to translate their revolutionary status into political power, while the regions remain disenchanted with the new ruling powers in Tripoli.

These problems became apparent two weeks ago when clashes in Benghazi over power-sharing arrangements wounded at least five people and killed one. Those clashes followed events a week before when close to 3,000 tribal figures and representatives in Benghazi, the de facto capital of the uprising and the country’s second largest city, declared the autonomous and federal region of Barqa, with Benghazi as its capital.

The move toward federalism is controversial but Libyans should embrace it. The concept is a sensitive one largely because it has become synonymous with partition. The contrary is true though. What federalism ultimately means for Libya is less power for the capital and, therefore, a series of benefits that in the long term will protect the interests of the population. These include preserving Libya’s territorial integrity and the harmony of its people, since federalism will ultimately be about the division of power rather than, for example, the division of competing ethnic and ideological groups. The decentralisation that federalism promotes is one that Libyans have been embracing and to which they owe the success of their revolution, given the loose structure that the uprising took shape over the course of nine-months.

While the National Transitional Council was known to the world as the official voice and opposition entity, it was equally a conduit and mouthpiece for the opposition, crucial in garnering international support, aid and arms but not necessarily pivotal since it later became known that brigades had received aid and arms from the Gulf and other states – independently of the NTC. In other words, there was no central control of the revolution. The current political/security framework in the country, including independent revolutionary brigades tied to semi-independent major cities like Misrata – which acts like a state within a state – as well as the NTC’s lack of authority is a product of the revolution and provides an ideal environment for federalist authority.

Libyans should embrace federalism as a power-sharing mechanism because, in taking away Tripoli’s powers, it seeks to ensure the capital does not become too strong and yet another dictatorial base. Many of the concerns that prompted Benghazi’s declaration of autonomy, as well as militias’ refusal to disarm and join a national army, centre on this fear (as well as the interim government’s failure to fulfil its obligations, its neglect of the regions and shortcomings in relation to transparency).

This has much to do with the lack of trust among the country’s new ruling elite, rival power bases and the distrust and fears among the population as a whole, natural since the country is recovering from 40 years of dictatorial rule. Will elections and representative governance remedy this? Perhaps but it is more likely that this process, dependent on reconciliation, law and order, transparency and stabilisation as a whole, will take many years to complete.

That, of course, assumes Libya will go on to progress, and avoid regression, after the democratic process is started in June when a 200-member national assembly will be elected to draft the new constitution. The competition for a stake in the future of the country may not be underpinned by widespread violence or civil war but the potential for it is there and could be amplified when competing groups jostle for positions of power, like control of the military.

The military was feared and, therefore, deliberately kept weak by Gaddafi himself, as a means of preserving his control. If and when new Libya decides to have a decent national army, powerful enough to impose law and order and rein in any militias, challenges will begin to arise over who or what group heads it since many will fear its personalisation by leading groups and use against rivals. Fundamentally, Libya has avoided civil war because the militias are the supreme authority; in other words, they are yet to be challenged by a respectable force and it remains to be seen whether they will back down in the event their interests are undermined by an equally superior opponent.

If the army is to remain weak and the militias are kept intact, then they should be integrated into a representative and proper power-sharing mechanism: federalism. In other words, sustain their current military control but as part of a regulated framework underpinned by dispute-resolution mechanisms and one that makes them more organised, efficient and accountable forces able to not just protect their local regions but also Libya’s borders.

Libya’s local councils, all of which had at least one representative within the NTC during the revolution and some of which acted independently, have proven themselves as established structures representative of their local constituents and able to tend to their needs, as successful elections in Misrata recently showed.

They should be combined, emboldened and their powers expanded as part of federal regions, an arrangement that gives them the constitutional and legal right to exploit the country’s potential and develop their local economies free from the deficiencies that centralised authority may bring. In other words, they should not wait for centralised authority to take shape and function before they steer the country toward a path of stability and democratic governance.

The Kurds’ Opportunity – Wall Street Journal

The Kurds’ Opportunity | Ranj Alaaldin | Wall Sreet Journal

In the three weeks since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, the country has suffered terrorist attacks among the worst it has seen in recent times. One followed just days after the U.S. withdrawal on Dec. 18; another in Baghdad on Monday killed at least 11, in a suicide attack similar to one just four days earlier that killed 70.

The deterioration in security follows a political crisis that engulfed the country and inflamed existing sectarian tensions just hours after the last U.S. convoy left last month. The crisis revolves around an arrest warrant issued against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an important representative of Iraq’s Sunni community. The warrant was issued by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the basis of Mr. Hashimi’s alleged complicity in terrorism and death squads.

The vice president denies these charges and accuses Mr. Maliki of concocting the allegations as part of an attempt to increase the Shia hold on power. Mr. Maliki is head of the Shia Islamic Dawa Party and leads a Shia-dominated but vulnerable coalition government. Unless a national conference proposed by Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani takes place and reconciles the differences between the warring factions in Baghdad, the coalition is likely to schism or fall apart completely.

Hence the Kurds, an important U.S. ally in Iraq, have an opportunity to determine the country’s fate now that American troops have left it, and to help the country avoid another Sunni-Shia sectarian war. As well as being outsiders to the Arab conflict in Baghdad, the Kurds have also given sanctuary to Mr. Hashimi, who fled to the Kurdish north after the warrant was issued against him.

The Kurds can exploit the divisions in Baghdad by handing Mr. Hashimi over to Mr. Maliki in return for vital concessions, or they can play nice and promote a process of reconciliation. Neither option is likely to resolve the underlying issues entirely, but the opportunities presented by the crisis exposes what are likely to be important dynamics in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal.

Capitalizing on sectarian divisions in Baghdad is tempting for the Kurds, abandoned in many ways by President Obama. Iraq is still dominated by fiercely anti-Kurdish sentiments and hostile neighbors keen on limiting the Kurds’ autonomy. Despite repeated requests for viable, long-term protection, Washington has given them nothing.

The U.S. acquiescence has emboldened Baghdad to renege on a series of commitments that were made to the Kurds in exchange for backing Mr. Maliki’s return to power in November 2010. Among these is resolving a long-simmering dispute over the constitutional status of historically Kurdish territories. Oil-rich Kirkuk and other territories in Diyala and Mosul provinces are yet to be integrated within Kurdistan’s boundaries, largely because Baghdad is intent on restricting Kurdish autonomy with the help of neighbors like Turkey.

The Kurds were also promised independence to sign oil and gas contracts with foreign investors without those investors being penalized by Baghdad. Kurds argue that Baghdad’s preferred model of doing business with international oil companies is a failed one because it fails to properly compensate these companies for the risks they take in investing in the country.

Kurds point toward the divergence in electricity supplies across different parts of the country: Kurdistan enjoys 24-hour supply almost all the time, while Baghdad and the rest of Arab Iraq spend much of each day cut off from power. The tide further shifted in the Kurds’ favor in November, when Exxon was confirmed to have acquired interests in Kurdistan, despite already having a contract in the South and repeated threats from Baghdad that the company’s operations there would be suspended.

The Kurds needs Baghdad to fulfill these commitments because the national government still controls the national pipeline necessary to export oil efficiently and effectively. It also has a military presence in the disputed areas and controls a national budget, 17% of which is constitutionally guaranteed to the Kurds.

But now the tables are turned. With the Hashimi affair, Kurds have a momentous opportunity and could have everything for the taking. Mr. Hashimi, who hails from the former Baath regime, is hardly a Kurdish ally, and has outspoken ultra-nationalist views toward the country’s Kurdish and Shia population. The task of feeding Mr. Hashimi to Mr. Maliki is made even easier because Mr. Hashimi, a member of the Iraqiyah bloc that won last year’s elections but failed to foster a majority to govern, has little support from within his own bloc.

The incident has created a host of opportunities across the political spectrum, but it also means that the window of opportunity for the Kurds will close precisely when others commit themselves to exploiting the affair. Although the U.S. will oppose any attempt to exploit these divisions, the Kurds may feel that the time is nigh to do the pragmatic thing to help guarantee their long-term political and security interests.