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Mainstream, VOL LII No 36, August 30, 2014

Another Chapter in Iraq

Sunday 31 August 2014, by Uttam Sen


When a tentative nuclear deal was struck with Iran around November last year there was conjecture on repositioning of groupings in West Asia and its consequences. Iran, Iraq, and Syria, among others, share the Shia persuasion and were assumed to comprise the counter-weight against the Sunni Al-Qaeda and its formidable, if sometimes contradictory, patrons among the Arab rich. The earlier “Arab Spring” casualties included Egypt, particularly its authoritarian President, Hoshni Mubarak, also the pivot in a conservative regional power balance. Yet chronic Arab rivalries festered as the subsequent Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party-dominated government of President Mohammad Morsi fell away from both its people and patrons. In the interim, the sweep of the Sunni residuum from Libya to Syria (including a large number of foreigners) and its morphed manifestation in the ISIS, now simply the IS (Islamic State), in Syria-Iraq, appeared menacing and inexorable.

But apparently less so to close watchers. The ham-handed Nur al-Maliki’s replacement by Hydar al-Abadi as the Prime Minister in Baghdad cleared the way for American air cover for the Kurds in Northern Iraq. The IS’ capture of the Mosul dam and a couple of strategic cities thereafter had exposed the Kurdish capital of Erbil to assault. The pre-emptive counter-attack with aerial bombard-ment retrieved lost ground along with the Mosul dam. The IS had threatened to flood surrounding areas and cut off water and electricity. The gathering myth of the IS’ invincibility was also cracked and could well be reversed entirely if the trend continues. The Islamic militia itself is less of a mystery to Arabs, than the world at large. It had thrived, in addition to the phantasmagoria of revenge and religious cleansing, on the transit of discontented but trained Iraqi Baathist soldiers to its ranks and their handing over of US military hardware. Such resources multiplied as the militia looted arms and money and grew self-sufficient. The noteworthy account of the bloodlust that went viral was the beheading of a kidnapped American photo-journalist. The episode, along with the fate of several others in captivity, is imparting immediacy to far-away tribulations that could arouse hitherto detached public opinion. The IS continues to hold inhabitants of particular places in thrall.

The “Islamisation” and manipulation of the relatively secular Baathists had begun from the beleaguered days of Saddam Hussein. The Sunnis in particular had to additionally deal with Maliki’s Shia counter-belligerence to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority era. Even as caretaker Premier Maliki was impeding weapons supplies to the Kurds, betraying a bitterness that cannot be easily removed between Baghdad’s divergent communities. Earlier, resentful Sunnis stood by without a fight as the IS took over their cities. There was also the hope that the shake-up would lead to more even distribution of federal power and prerogative. It was of a piece with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad allowing the IS to selectively worst the moderate professional-led forces who promised a relatively more convincing alternative to his regime. (If memory serves, fighting forces were encouraged to oust similar professionals, namely, doctors, engineers etc. in an earlier point in time on ideological grounds.) But significantly, the erstwhile Baathists have begun deserting the IS, either on reconsidered ideological reasons in the face of excesses or the turn of events in Baghdad, possibly both. The IS in the region grew out of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq but there is no love lost between the two.

On the other hand, affinity between disparate entities is reviving. The pounding of the Gaza Strip has reportedly restored emotional bonds between the Shia Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, with blessings from Iran, and the Sunni Islamist Hamas who rule the Palestinian enclave. Arab analysts discern a balancing act in the bombing of the unwavering Sunni IS in Iraq and the lease of life given to Hamas by the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, an element factored in by the Americans in their reluctance to more proactively involve ground troops in Iraq. It would be construed as a clear sign of American partisanship in the intra-Islamic breach. (Somewhat predictably, the ceasefire collapsed soon after, and jets were back to blitzing their foes.) For all the wariness, Sunni Islamists ended up on the receiving end in both theatres.

There has been some political movement in Baghdad with Abadi’s instatement at the call of the Shia clergy. Abadi is also a Shia, a former parliamentary Deputy Speaker and fellow-member of Maliki’s in the State of Law Coalition. But he is expected to be more sensitive to religio-ethnic diversity and matters of state generally. Abadi’s name was put forward by the learned Kurdish President of Iraq, Fuad Masum, who had once supervised Maliki’s Master’s dissertation in Arabic language and literature. The nature of the protagonists and their interplay provide a glimpse of plural Baghdadi society and dissension in a nuanced environment. Yet the politesse of traditional Iraqi society has taken a beating under the gun of current realpolitik and social engineering. Maliki has retreated for the moment but gone to court for “breach of the constitutional framework”. The situation is considered to be the outcome of an Iranian-American gameplan, or perhaps like-mindedness, given their common quarry in Al -Qaeda which has snowballed into the IS. The American withdrawal from Afghanis-tan was also an underlying circumstance.

Western opinion largely backs President Obama’s decision that should drive the IS into the havens it has created in Syria, unless the Iraqi second-city of Mosul remains with them. But a more stable, inclusive regime in Baghdad, in which Sunnis, Shias and Kurds are meaningfully represented, coupled with the recovery of land from the IS, could pull Iraq back from the brink of disintegration. This is, however, wishful thinking to those who believe Iraq’s boundaries have been irreversibly revised.

A Washington-based report in a leading newspaper has suggested that the choice before Obama is to align with Syria and Iran to permanently put paid to the IS. There is a certain persistence in the process which defies impetuosity. The news that the IS intends swallowing Saudi Arabia and Israel, among others, even if a sample of the organisation’s more surreal aspirations, is indicative of a burgeoning horde’s frame of mind. A less ambitious, but no less sinister, intention would be a repeat of 9/11, which is exercising the Americans. Yet, the truth of the consistent elements in the situation is that the poor and the middle classes cannot be indefinitely divided and ruled, a charge that assumes credibility even through the trading of allegations.

Admittedly, the upper crust edge in European and American opinion on the Gaza Strip bombardment is still with Tel-Aviv despite widespread popular resentment, but discerning Israelis would read the writing on the wall. Israel’s validity can be best secured by genuine democracy within and among the Islamic world for mutually deferential conversation. If the panacea lies in widening the terms of engagement, the difference could accrue in sustainable development in the widest sense of human productivity in sync with social, economic and political denominators.

BRICS could be the x-factor. China has financial linkages with Saudi Arabia that are important to the latter. If the moment of truth is dawning on West Asian oil-based economies, the remedy could be on hand. On their part, along with India, China and Russia face the “jihadist” threat in Kashmir, Xinjiang and Chechnya respectively. Close attention to their challenge has the prospective of changing the general outcome. For instance, an avowed warrior-state which holds a people and economy ransom to conflict and the export of terror may well have to give elected representatives a chance. The overall view is of the essence all around to prevent an exacerbation of its condition.

BRICS possesses an interlocking financial and developmental agenda which discerning intellectual and political leaders universally recognize as critical for the global future. Its members are also key geopolitical players.

The bloc has not yet attained functional, let alone optimal, capacity, but sizing up the West Asian jigsaw, individually and/or collectively, could be a step towards fulfilling its promise. Investing China’s surplus through BRICS’ financial institutions into the region could be a win-win proposition both for the Arab residuum and global stability, and a noteworthy point of departure for the developing world, where an Afghanistan in limbo remains a potential flashpoint. In effect the incompleteness of the world’s nuclear arrangement with Iran is endowing it with an entirely fortuitous role of deliverer now (against the IS) and after the US withdrawal (against the Taliban in Afghanistan). The thought that a country’s principal adversaries could be counteracted by a series of spontaneous actions (namely, the IS pushing Saudi Arabia and Israel to the wrong side of global security) could persuade Iran into a modus vivendi on the nuclear issue.

There are other economic instrumentalities to make BRICS an authentic multilateral endeavour. Few have missed the face of mounting unemployment amidst rising expectations and fangled communications universally. All the factors in West Asia are signified in India in one way or another. Russia’s involvement has been historical and its constructive capacity, when peace rather than war becomes the imperative, will be as critical as imaginative negotiation towards it. If the world has to rise phoenix-like from the ashes (taken with the vibes from the Ukraine, which challenge global coherence) a symbiotic politico-financial arrangement would be the productive solution.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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