Iraq has continued to follow the same sectarian path planned and codified by the American diplomat Paul Bremer in 2003, and instigated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1982 with the appointment of Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim as head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. More than 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, violence and tension between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and other minorities, and the threat of ISIS continue to haunt Iraq’s budding democracy.
Iraqi political parties have failed to form a government that adheres to the principle of national citizenship rather than identity. Sectarian divisions were strengthened during the events of the Arab Spring and multiplied by the emergence of extremist, international, sectarian organizations such as ISIS, also known as the so-called Islamic State. Recently, these parties have been unable to reach a compromise to form a government because of divisions within the Shiite community itself.
U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer laid the foundation for the first sectarian quota system in Iraq’s history on July 13, 2003. It resulted in the dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, the dismissal of state officials, and the composition of the transitional Iraqi Governing Council, whose members were elected on the basis of their sectarian and ethnic backgrounds. Political positions were distributed among the three largest groups: the president position was allocated to the Kurds, the prime minister, who is the Iraqi head of state, to the Shiites, and the speaker of parliament to the Sunnis.
Most of the political opponents who led the political front after 2003 — many of whom are still in power — spent decades in exile in countries like Iran, Syria, the U.S., and Britain. Many of them “did not act as representative[s] of the Iraqi people on Iraqi soil.” Instead, their constituencies and parties relied on “identities without nationality to gain legitimacy.”
The collapse of a strong central state not only weakened the national identity, but also gave rise to non-national, sectarian identities.
The narrative of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni domination and oppression of Shiites and Kurds encouraged this tendency, fueling the notion that religious and ethnic minorities are living in a state of oppression. Shiites and Kurds drove their parties and leaders to consolidate their authority on a sectarian basis and exclude large segments of the population under various pretexts, just as the Ba’ath Party did.
Subsequently, although the 2005 Iraqi Constitution did not explicitly assign the distribution of power on a sectarian basis, Iraqi politicians manifested such division in their political practices. Instead of focusing on overcoming sectarian divisions, they focused on them.
Article 2 of the Iraqi Constitution, for example, stipulates a distinction between Iraqis on a religious basis. It states that, “[the] constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people,” which threatens further fragmentation of the Iraqi community. Journalist Hammam Taha wrote in Al Arab that the constitution gives “legitimization to Takfiri gangs,” extrajudicial radical militias that kill non-Muslims and Muslims accused of apostasy. “The ISIL genocide against Yazidis in Mosul,” Taha added, “was only an application of this constitution.” Electoral systems, which rely on proportional representation and party lists, also promote political sectarianism.
The chasm between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq has widened as a result of multiple geopolitical, social, and cultural changes. The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 contributed to the creation of a new regime based on Shiite theology. This represented a new political competitor to the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims to represent Sunnis. This has encouraged Shiites in Iraq to express their sectarian identity strongly and create an ideological umbrella, especially after the declaration of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in 1982.
After 2003, the number of parties and political entities in Iraq increased remarkably. What the U.S. considered political pluralism was, in fact, no more than a sectarian multiplication that fueled conflict. By 2016, about 300 political parties and groups had been approved by the Independent High Electoral Commission. The intellectual and political background of these parties shows that 80 percent of them are based on religion. The majority of these organizations are unstable, having experienced many internal divisions and splits.
The effectiveness of sectarianism as a tool for gaining public support has declined after 15 years of the quota system. The recent elections revealed a deep gap between the populace and the government. Low voter turnout — the lowest since the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003 — was a sign of unorganized rejection and popular opposition to politics in the country. This outcome was not unexpected — the sectarian quota in Iraq does not allow for a true separation or fair distribution of powers within the government. This invites politicians across the board to engage in corruption, at the expense of the people.
The uprisings occurring in many parts of south and central Iraq (areas with a Shiite majority), against a paralyzed state, are another indicator of the inability and impotence of the political officials to make any significant achievement.
Researchers point out that years of protests have not intended “to replace leaders, but rather to change the power-sharing system based on ethnic and sectarian quotas.”
Discontent has dominated the Iraqi political scene, especially against its sectarian symbols: The “Great People’s Revolution” set fire to the offices of the al-Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council, Saraya Al-Kharasani, the “Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia,” and many others.
The Iraqi ruling elite has not formulated a clear vision for the future of the country, slowing down the process of change and deepening sectarian divisions, as in the recent inter-Shiite confrontations.
The inter-Shiite conflict in Iraq emerged between 2008 and 2013. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a military operation known as Knight’s Charge (Saulat al-Fursan) in 2008 to stop the control of Shiite militias in the south of the country. He specifically targeted the Sadrist movement and the Supreme Council, led by Ammar al-Hakim, after they refused his second term as prime minister in 2010.
Personal interest has always been the priority of Iraqi leaders. For example, former prime minister al-Maliki and current Prime Minister Haider Abadi strengthened their personal power, which upset their Shiite rivals. Shiite leaders tried not to break through the sectarian stratum and chose Abadi to succeed al-Maliki.
The political transition that Iraq needs is unlikely to be completed in the near future. The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iranian nuclear agreement may drive the two countries toward more brazen conflict over the formation of the Iraqi government, rather than the more indirect competition that has characterized their relationship in Iraq since 2003. The recent protests in Basra are another sign that the seeds of sectarian conflict sown during the formation of the current Iraqi government are still very much present today.