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Κυριακή, 01 Απριλίου 2012 03:00

Iraq: Battle around the “Shield of the Arabs”

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Though European and American interest in now focused in the dramatic uprising in Syria, another major country of the region, Iraq, seems to be few steps away from the abyss of an all-out sectarian strife. United States’ record in Iraq seems rather bleak. They prevented the re-creation of a strong Iraqi military, which could guarantee internal and external security and become a steam engine for state building.


It is interesting to note that the Iraqi political and security elites were deeply concerned about the complete withdrawal of the US troops from the country and they were, thus, deeply divided over whether to support such a withdrawal. They questioned the ability of the security forces to maintain law and order, to avert sectarian violence and to defend Iraq’s borders from external threats.

iraq jewish area central baghdadMoreover, the consolidation of a strong centralised authority is not welcomed by the Kurds. Having gone through terrible experiences of brutal coercion by one-party’s centralised authority, they look for a loose federal system and, in the meantime, they prefer seeing this authority governed by frail balances instead of having one party monopolising all sectors in the country. They chose to build balanced relations with all parties and they did not oppose the Iran’s stand for a renewal of the ruling State of Law coalition’s term. Their most important issues remained the oil-wealth Kirkuk area as well as the establishment of a federation, as complete independence looks remote under the current circumstances. Iraqi Kurdistan is however becoming a region of a peculiar Turkish-Iranian “condominium”. Turkish-Iraqi trade has reached USD 10 billion, half of which is with the Kurdish Regional Government.  Both Iran and Turkey have an interest in spoiling any prospect for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. They both have significant Kurdish population and face threats from Kurdish nationalist guerrilla groups operating from Iraqi Kurdistan.

The ascent of the Shia majority in power has of course given Iran a major geopolitical asset. Shiite identity has become active and Iran's support for Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Hamas movement, Iraq and the Shiite communities in the Gulf area has been one of the pillars of Iranian foreign policy. A rather blatant acknowledgement of this pillar has come from the leader of the Jerusalem Battalion at the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani in his statement that “Lebanon and Iraq fall under Iranian authority…” Although the Iranian Ambassador in Beirut denied the actual wording, the statement underpins the argument that Iraq and South Lebanon remain valuable geopolitical assets, more so since Syria’s Alawite regime is crumbling. iraq shiite enclave sadr city baghdad Al-Maliki, the Iraqi premier, is accused of directing security apparatus against Sunni political opponents by connecting them either to terrorism or to the disbanded and outlawed Ba’ath Party.  Iraqi leadership is so fragmented that Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, while in a visit in Qatar, expressed his grave fears about an imminent outbreak of sectarian strife in Iraq as a result of al-Maliki’s policies and called upon the Gulf States to persuade regional powers, i.e. Iran and Turkey, to cease interfering in Iraqi domestic affairs. Turkey’s Prime Minister had upset Iraqi leadership by stating that Turkey will interfere in case of bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq.

According to Safin Hamed, “Baghdad withdrew its opposition to a deal between ExxonMobil and the Kurdistan Regional Government, a move that reflects the conflicts between and among Iraq's various political actors. Energy negotiations with the United States are one arena where the al-Maliki government has been forced to make significant concessions recently.”[1]Maliki government had failed to use oil wealth as an effective tool for political consensus and social cohesion.

“Most significantly”, as Brian Downing points out in the Asia Times, “young men from the tribes have lost the jobs that Saddam's state and later the US surge had given them. The Shi'ite state ended these support systems and many young men are once again available - or they are supported through clandestine revenues from abroad.”[2] Salafism remain strong spreading the persuasive message that the root-cause for all hardships, deprivation and humiliation experienced by the Sunnis is their alienation from the straight path of Islam. Iraqi Sunni tribal affiliations cross the Syrian and Saudi borders, forming a wide clandestine network of arms smuggling and revenues. What is more, al-Qaeda with more than a thousand fighters is ready to take part in a sectarian onslaught against the Shiites, redirecting its strategy away from western-linked targets.

With the insurgence at its peak in Syria, fresh scenarios of re-drawing Middle East borders are re-surfacing. Some people in the region are afraid thairaq religion ethnic groupst Syria is to be split up into Alawite, Christian and Sunni statelets. This might lead to a bigger Sunni state comprising the Sunni Arabs in both Iraq and Syria. Though such scenarios are rather far from becoming real, Maliki government is gravely concerned about a possible linkage between the situation in Syria and that in Iraq.

The Saudi Arabia seems ready to play the bold role of the protector of Sunnis in the region thwarting a surge of the Shiite-Iranian influence. The military intervention in Bahrain is a case in point. Moreover Saudi Arabia is now playing in all major Sunni fronts: from the Sunnis in Syria to the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan. Iraq is not just one more front. It has been all through history the battlefield of all those who wished to conquer the Middle East. It is called ‘the Shield of the Arabs’, the frontline between Arab Sunni Islam and the Persian Shiites, from late medieval era to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the bloodiest war in the modern history of the Middle East.

United States’ record in Iraq seems rather bleak. They prevented the re-creation of a strong Iraqi military, which could guarantee internal and external security and become a steam engine for state building. They will certainly regret it, when the Gulf security is threatened and the battle around the “Shield of the Arabs” becomes all the fiercer.

All links accessed on 28/03/2012

[1] Safin Hamed, “An Emerging Role for Oil Politics in Iraq”, Stratfor, February 9, 2012, www.strafor.com

[2] Brian M. Downing, “A Saudi beacon for Iraq's Sunni militias”, Asia Times, July 27, 2011, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/middle_east/mg27ak01.html
Sotiris Roussos

Σωτήρης Ρούσσος

Αναπληρωτής Καθηγητής με αντικείμενο «Διεθνείς Σχέσεις και Θρησκεία στη Μέση Ανατολή» στο Τμήμα Πολιτικής Επιστήμης και Διεθνών Σχέσεων του Πανεπιστημίου Πελοποννήσου και επιστημονικός υπεύθυνος του Κέντρου Μεσογειακών, Μεσανατολικών και Ισλαμικών Σπουδών (ΚΕΜΜΙΣ) στο ίδιο Πανεπιστήμιο. Έχει επίσης διδάξει "Διεθνείς Σχέσεις στη Μ. Ανατολή και τον Τρίτο Κόσμο" στο Πάντειο Πανεπιστήμιο.Διετέλεσε Πρόεδρος του Τμήματος την περίοδο 2008-2011. Την περίοδο 1997-2003 ήταν Εμπειρογνώμονας για τη Μέση Ανατολή στο Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών. Διετέλεσε μέλος των Task Force for Water Issues and the Palestinian Refugees του Ειδικού Απεσταλμένου της Ε. Ε. για τη Μέση Ανατολή και της Άτυπης Διεθνούς Ομάδας για την Ιερουσαλήμ. Την περίοδο 1997-1999 ήταν βασικό στέλεχος στην ομάδα οργάνωσης της ειρηνευτικής πρωτοβουλίας “Συναντήσεις των Αθηνών” μεταξύ Παλαιστινίων και Ισραηλινών πολιτικών προσωπικοτήτων. Το 2009 ορίστηκε Εκπρόσωπος της Προεδρίας του ΟΑΣΕ για τους Μεσογειακού Εταίρους. Το 2012 διετέλεσε Visiting Scholar στο University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Έχει συγγράψει βιβλία και άρθρα για την περιφερειακή ασφάλεια στη Μέση Ανατολή, το πολιτικό Ισλάμ και τους χριστιανούς στην Μέση Ανατολή.

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