Awakening the Demons

There is no Arab Spring coming to Iraq. But sectarian protests could tear this fragile country apart.


Recent protests in Iraq have been heralded as a long-awaited continuation of the Arab Spring. They shouldn’t be.

For weeks, the country’s Sunni strongholds have erupted in anger at what they perceive as a systematic campaign by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to marginalize them politically and assassinate their leaders. While the Washington Post labeled these demonstrations as "Arab Spring-style," they are in fact the greatest threat Iraq has faced since the exit of U.S. troops. These are sectarian demonstrations, not political demonstrations; Sunni demonstrations, not Iraqi demonstrations. They are not seen as demonstrations against a government — they’re seen as demonstrations against the Shiites in government and, by extension, the Shiite majority in Iraq. And they have the capacity to tear this country apart.

If these protests expand, the worst-case scenario is that they will form the core of a new uprising, ethnic and political grievances merging to ignite a new civil war. In conversations with several of the Sunni protesters, their stated desire is less political reform than it is secession or the establishment of a federal model, similar to that which exists in the United Arab Emirates. Sunni leaders, notably former Sunni Awakening members forced out of Baghdad to Anbar Province, may be ready to reignite the insurgency to achieve their demands: They have long nursed grievances against both Maliki and the United States, which abandoned them to Shiite prejudice.

If the worst comes to pass, Iraq’s path will closer resemble war-torn nations such as Syria and Libya than Tunisia or even Egypt. As with Libya, Iraq has no story of itself as a unified nation, no experience with government power-sharing, and no shared history to draw upon in order to heal its many sectarian and ethnic divisions. The parallels with Syria are ominous: As with President Bashar al-Assad, Maliki is an Iranian-backed leader whose response will at least partially be dictated by the interests of Tehran. Maliki, meanwhile, seems determined to reinforce the Sunnis’ perception that he government represents a threat, responding harshly to the ongoing protests. In late January, for instance, the Iraqi military killed five protesters at a rally in Fallujah. A senior Sunni sheikh recently requested that Iraqi protesters pull back to Anbar Province and not protest in Baghdad, citing fear of even greater reprisal, while security forces barricaded Sunni neighborhoods and closed roads in order to keep protests out of the capital.

Maliki is playing it carefully for the moment, fearful of provoking a widespread uprising — and he’s likely watching Syria closely as a model of what he might face if things go badly. If Assad is forced from power, he could shift to far harsher tactics: Iran will do everything it can to prevent the loss of its other major foothold in the Arab world. A further issue here is that radical Sunni groups fighting in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, are strongly positioned in Syria’s east, adjacent to Anbar Province. If the Assad government falls, the militants could easily redirect arms and fighters into Iraq.

So what can the United States do? It had previously been successful by focusing on civil capacity building, enhancing leaders’ ability to interact with and demand peaceful accountability from the national government. That infrastructure still exists, and it should be further strengthened through continued funding. The United States must also put pressure on Maliki to recognize that power-sharing is the only tenable way forward: The prime minister should be encouraged to engage with Sunni leaders peacefully, and to work with them to increase their community’s investment in the Iraqi national project.

Iraq’s Shiite leadership is split on how to deal with the unrest. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a leading Shiite cleric, has voiced support for non-sectarian dialogue. However, Maliki’s Shiite opponents have tried to leverage the growing discontent to their own ends: Moqtada al-Sadr, who caused so much destruction during the war, has voiced support for peaceful demonstration and political movement in Iraq — given his mercurial history, it remains to be seen whether he will continue down that path or use the Sunni uprising to make a more aggressive play for power.

The question facing Iraq is nothing less than whether it can exist as a coherent nation. If Maliki recognizes that the missing piece for Iraqi stability is to promote a policy that allays Sunni fears of being cut off and targeted, Iraq has a chance. If instead he bows to sectarian pressure and implements an agenda conceived in Tehran, he will face a widespread uprising consisting of the Sunni population and his rivals within the Shiite community, who will try to exploit the crisis for their own ends. If that occurs, don’t expect Tahrir Square to come to Baghdad.

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