Stuck in the Middle (East) with you

The emerging picture of a post-US Iraq is one of simmering potential civil war and deep political and sectarian division.

Middle East Arab boys 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Middle East Arab boys 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Events in Iraq offer the latest example of two important processes seen elsewhere in the Arab world. The first is the phenomenon of relatively free and fair elections, which then fail to have any effect on the real political and security balance of power in the country in question.
The second is the thorough penetration of Arab states and movements by non- Arab regional forces.
Two examples from elsewhere: Hamas won Palestinian elections in January 2006.
This proved the beginning rather than the conclusion of a period of jostling for power which culminated in the mini civil war of 2007, and the division of the Palestinian national movement into two rival camps.
Each of the rivals is associated with one of the sides in the larger regional cold war. The division currently looks durable and long lasting.
In Lebanon in March 2009, the pro-Western March 14 bloc proved victorious in an electoral battle with the Hizbullah led March 8 bloc. Unfortunately, Hizbullah declined to see in this any reason to concede any of its exercising of de facto power in the country.
The result was political paralysis for half a year as coalition negotiations proceeded. At their conclusion, Hizbullah’s veto power and independent military and security structures were untouched. The elections were thus nothing more than an incidental event in the real process of power wielding and balancing in the country. Hizbullah remains the final arbiter of power in Lebanon. It is of course a creation and client of Iran.
Iraq has no government in sight five months after elections. And again, outside powers are playing a key role in exploiting this situation.
The Irakiya list of Iyad Allawi won the largest number of seats in March, but has found it difficult to form a coalition. The election failed to produce a clear winner primarily because the Iraqi Shi’ites, the numerical majority in the country, failed to run as a single bloc.
Nuri al-Maliki’s determination to retain the post of prime minister led him to run at the head of his own bloc – the State of Law party. Other important Shi’ite streams and movements ran in the Iraqi National Alliance. This list included the Sadrists and the pro-Iranian Badr organization.
The result was that the split among the Shi’ites enabled Allawi, himself a secular Shi’ite whose support rests largely among the Sunnis, to emerge as head of the largest single list in parliament. This, however, did not mean that anyone else felt obliged to award him the laurels of victor, and they have not done so.
As a result, a complex chess game has been taking place between Allawi, Maliki, and various components of the INA. The powerful Kurdish parties are watching from the sidelines. The process shows no sign of reaching conclusion. The dispute is taking on increasingly bitter tones and an increasingly sectarian coloration.
This is reflected in the regional interests involving themselves in the standoff. Allawi heads a list supported mainly by Sunnis and as a result is being backed by Saudi Arabia.
Turkey is also backing him. Ankara is keen to defend the Sunni interest, and in particular to avoid any scenario which could lead to the breakup of Iraq and the formation of a fully independent Kurdish state in present day northern Iraq.
Iran, meanwhile, has thrown its weight behind Maliki, and is doing its best to coax or coerce other Shi’ite factions into backing his bid to remain in his position.
Last week, Maliki defended his retention of the premiership in openly sectarian terms, saying that the position could only be held by a Shi’ite.
IRAN IS NOT finding its task of herding the Shi’ite factions behind Maliki easy, however.
Maliki’s high-handedness is deeply resented by other Shi’ites, who refer to him as “little Saddam.” The various factions are thus maintaining their own contacts with Allawi, and even with outside powers.
According to a report in A-Sharq al-Awsat this week, Teheran is currently increasing pressure on Muktada al-Sadr and on Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Shi’ite Iraqi National Coalition, to unite behind Maliki. Neither has agreed to do so. Sadr has reportedly threatened to leave Iran and take up residence in Lebanon rather than submit to Teheran’s demand.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that the outside forces backing the two sides do not conform exactly to the familiar contours of the regional cold war. Syria, while aligned with Iran on the regional level, is backing Allawi in Iraq.
Behind all the political wrangling and dysfunction is the specter of something worse.
Violence is currently increasing, though not yet to the levels of earlier years. Shi’ite pilgrims have been targeted for attack; 59 people died in an attack on an army recruitment center last week. Insurgent forces are keen to exploit the vacuum caused by the political impasse.
What all this adds up to is mess and confusion, rather than disaster, at the present time.
No single regional or local force has yet emerged as the victor. A powerful, Iranaligned Iraq looks as distant as a resurgent Baghdad aligned with Iran’s enemies.
Rather, the emerging picture in post-US Iraq is one of simmering potential civil war and deep political and sectarian division, punctuated every so often by democratic elections of limited meaning, and beset by rival meddling regional powers. This in turn is the local variant of a similar malaise affecting other parts of the Arab world.
Baghdad was once one of the most powerful Arab capitals. The country today is at political stalemate, unable to defend itself from external interference. Of the states doing the interfering, meanwhile – Turkey, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia – two are non- Arab. All this is the latest testimony to the current extreme strategic and political weakness of the Arab world. It is also further evidence of the emergence of three non-Arab states as the region’s strongest powers – namely Iran, Turkey and, of course, Israel.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.