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Iraqi Political Tensions Alarm Arab Neighbors

Iraq’s fugitive vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, initially fled Baghdad to Kurdistan to avoid capture at the hands of Shi’a forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rumors spread that the vice president’s body-guard had been slaughtered in a bloody attempt to seize the Sunni VP on trumped-up charges of “terrorism.” It is now being reported that the fugitive al-Hashemi has reached Saudi soil amidst the precipitous deterioration of national reconciliation talks in his native state – originally planned to calm tensions between Shi’a hard-liners and Kurdish factions in Maliki’s fragile coalition government.

For his part, the Iraqi prime minister has been sporting his best “good neighbor” impression, in recent months – likely in hopes of impressing fellow Iraqis and Arab leaders, alike, that he’s ready to shove past the strongman schtick that’s defined his premiership. However, Maliki’s decision to postpone the extravagant resolution conference proved a sour pairing with his vigorous defense of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The call to support the embattled Alawite happened to coincide with Saudi endorsement of support for Syrian rebels at a US-backed gathering of “Friends of Syria” in Istanbul. Now, Maliki’s contrarian message threatens to further endanger rapidly deteriorating relations between Iraq and the Arab world.

Iraqi Political Tensions Alarm Arab Neighbors

One must consider the alarming notion that failure to reconcile sectarian squabbles in Iraq, and the persecution of Sunni leaders such al-Hashemi, is a powerful prompt to Sunni Arabs that Maliki remains a complicit cats-paw, tucked deep in Persia’s pocket. In reality, I don’t believe this is the case, although I recognize an attachment based on Shi’a culture and faith – not a preconceived desire to be controlled by Iran. However, social maltreatment and political disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq has reached a fever pitch since Maliki wrenched the prime minister’s post from Ayad Allawi’s cross-sectarian coalition – with a little, timely help from his neighborhood Sadrists.

Taken in context of his forceful support for Tehran’s proxies in Damascus, and a rapidly calcifying authoritarian political structure in Baghdad and there is cause for concern. Particularly if you’re a Sunni Arab monarch staring down the barrel of a resurgent Shi’a crescent.

But let’s keep this in context. Despite outward appearance, the power struggle between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shi’as in present day Iraq exists between two sectarian groups that are, in fact quite similar. Although portrayed in the Western media as a gaping ethno-cultural or religious divide, violent ruptures are more likely caused by a struggle over the right to control political power and the substance of Iraqi nationalism.

Moreover, the determination of Shi’a strongmen – such as Maliki – is centuries in the making, and the product of ancient provocation. The fundamental dispute between Sunni and Shi’a sects is indicative of a historically decisive conflict. A minority Sunni population has ruled Iraq’s Shi’a majority, and have discriminated against them. Mesopotamian Shi’a never had the opportunity to play a role proportional to their numbers, and despite their best efforts in both the 1920 and 1958 revolutions, continued to occupy the role of the underprivileged majority. Naturally, Iraq’s Shi’a share a common history of political marginality with co-religionists across the Arab world and South Asia.

However, with Iraqi Sunni political leadership on the run, national unity talks crumbling and a Persian push for nuclear relevance, it’s no surprise Sunni neighbors are once again peddling the thesis of a Shi’a crescent rising from Iran to Lebanon…however preliminay the indicators.

More to come…



Reid Smith

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. He is currently a doctoral student and graduate associate with the University of Delaware's Department of Political Science and International Relations. He blogs and writes for The American Spectator.