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Iraq: On the brink
by Al-Ahram Weekly (reposted)
Thursday Mar 2nd, 2006 5:55 PM
Can Iraq agree on a national unity government to pull it back from the spectre of civil war, asks Omayma Abdel-Latif
Almost a week after the Samaraa shrine bombings which unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that threatened to take Iraq to the brink of civil war the situation remains, in the words of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, "volatile, serious and sensitive".

A three-day curfew, coupled with calls for unity, joint prayers and national reconciliation, may have saved Iraq for now but few believe that in the absence real commitment to national unity the country will not find itself, once again, on the brink.

The official death toll from revenge attacks that followed the Samaraa bombing has reached 449. On Tuesday alone five blasts claimed the lives of 70 people. The same day witnessed an emerging consensus among political leaders that only a national unity government will be able to tackle the sectarian violence. Talks on forming that government are due to resume by the beginning of next week.

Their possibility of success, though, is hampered by the strained relations between the president and his prime minister. Talabani publicly criticised Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari for failing to notify the government of his recent visit to Turkey and added in a statement that Iraq will not be bound to any of the agreements Jaafari signed with Turkish officials.

This development coincided with a report, published in the London-based Ashraq Al-Awsat on Wednesday, revealing the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the main Shia bloc in government, "knew beforehand about security loopholes and that guards at the Samaraa shrine had been infiltrated". The report, allegedly produced by the Ministry of National Security Affairs headed by Abdel-Karim Al-Anzy, from Jaafari's own Dawa Party, said the government had monitored attempts by "terrorist groups to bomb the shrine but did nothing to prevent the attacks". Government officials, according to the paper, neither confirmed nor denied the report's findings.

The bombing, and the violence that followed, has laid bare the failings of the political process in Iraq and the incompetence of its political class. As the third anniversary of the invasion is commemorated next month more and more Iraqis feel that the time has come to abandon a process that has patently failed and left the country prey to sectarian violence.

by Al-Ahram Weekly (reposted)
Thursday Mar 2nd, 2006 5:57 PM
Iraq's tragic drama ascended in intensity to a whole new level, though the worst has been so far forestalled, writes Firas Al-Atraqchi

When Operation Bodyguard was launched ahead of D-Day on 6 June, 1944, the military planners said: "in times of war, truth is protected by a bodyguard of lies." This was in reference to the feint that deceived Hitler's forces and paved the way for the allied landings on the beaches of Normandy. Today, the sentiment holds as true as ever, particularly when it comes to the timing and the identity of the perpetrators of the criminal attack on the Askariya Mosque in the Iraqi city of Samaraa.

First, the timing: Since Iraqis went to the polls 15 December, there has been political friction between the various parties -- the Sunnis accusing the Shia of massive fraud -- which permeated the air with a sense of tension. In the two months since elections, no viable government has been created. Two weeks prior to the Askariya Mosque bombing, the Shia, Kurd and Sunni parties huddled together to form a government.

Almost immediately, the US administration intervened to ensure that a more "inclusive", non-sectarian government would be formed. The pressure for the US to succeed in Iraq has diverted attention to keeping Iran out of Iraqi affairs. After Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal chided the US for handing Iraq over to Iran last September, there has been a subtle policy shift in the US approach to Iraq, as well as coverage of events in the media. No longer do we hear of "insurgents"; US media has gone to great lengths recently to distinguish between Al-Qaeda forces and Iraqi resistance groups, often depicting the two in pitch battles against each other.

Then came revelations of torture chambers operated by "elements" in the Shia-led Interior Ministry, and the free-roaming death squads, who, US forces say, are loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army.

In the few days immediately prior to the mosque attack we saw the following flurry of activity: Al-Sadr, fresh from a visit to Iran, gives the Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari the needed vote to retain his post in the new permanent four-year government. However, he also said that he rejected the current constitution and believed federalism (the context which the Kurds have insisted be included) should be rejected. He also called on US forces to withdraw immediately just before embarking on a diplomatic tour of Arab capitals.

by Al-Ahram Weekly (reposted)
Thursday Mar 2nd, 2006 6:04 PM
At all costs, Iraq's disintegration must be avoided, which means altering the constitution and moving towards effective, not sectarian, federalism, writes Yahia Said*

In their recent report on Iraq, the International Crisis Group warns of the threat of civil war and suggests with great caution that the international community start preparing for the eventuality of Iraq's disintegration. This is not the first time that such a projection is made by someone otherwise opposed to it. The exact opposite is necessary. The international community should emphatically rule out support for any project that would lead to the disintegration of Iraq and pressure Iraqi political elites to amend the constitution to allow for a functioning federal arrangement.

The recent destruction of Al-Askari shrine in Samarra and the ongoing wave of sectarian violence that followed lend credibility to the argument that maybe it is time to let Iraq go. The damage to the country's national integrity wrought by decades of repression, wars, sanctions, occupation, terror and uncertainty may be too extensive to be mended. Clearly there is little trust among the communities or at least their political elites for them to be able to come together around a unifying national agenda. Maybe, one is tempted to think, it is better to opt for a peaceful Czechoslovak-type divorce or even Soviet-type disintegration, which after all was much less calamitous than what happened in Yugoslavia. There is a less radical version of this argument that suggests freezing things in a loose confederation as envisaged by the new constitution and hoping that with time wounds would heal and people can come together again.

There are, however, two important arguments against this line of thinking. First accepting this logic would actively contribute to Iraq's disintegration. Going down this line, as was the case in Yugoslavia, means empowering the very sectarian politicians who have brought Iraq to the brink of collapse in the first place. When some analysts suggest working with Sunnis in order to help them better defend their corner in sectarian negotiations they are by definition selecting sectarian interlocutors over those who would argue for a multiethnic state.

The reality of the occupation means that international actors have not been innocent bystanders. They have contributed to sectarianism in many ways including by subscribing to a "realist" narrative that argues that Iraq is an artificial state; that the groups comprising it were only held together by tyranny, and that disintegration is a by- product of liberation from authoritarianism. This narrative, which is antithetical to nation building, has been embraced by sectarian politicians in Iraq and has found its reflection in post-invasion policies including the dissolution of the army and the new constitution.

by Al-Ahram Weekly (reposted)
Saturday Mar 4th, 2006 10:20 AM
A conflict that bears all the hallmarks of an incipient civil war looms over Iraq. There are many forces interfering in Iraqi affairs and attempting to dictate its future. The US, UK and Israel are far from being the only active players on the Iraqi scene. Neighbouring countries -- Arab and non- Arab -- all have agendas. And all agendas appear to have at least one backer.

Iraq has become a place where non-Iraqis settle their differences. Government, security, legislation -- each is prey to foreign interference. And in a country that is a colourful mosaic of sects and creeds the threat of disintegration cannot be underestimated. Yet Shiite shrines have been around for centuries and until last week had endured more or less unscathed.

Recent events in Iraq echo earlier ones in Sudan, Lebanon and Syria. Even in North Africa there have been occasional tensions between Arabs and Berbers. In Egypt there have been sporadic confrontations between Muslims and Copts. But Iraq is not North Africa and it is not Egypt. If it descends into chaos it will do so in a way that echoes Sudan and Lebanon. The Shiites, who form the majority, are not all of Arab origins. Sunnis do not all belong to the same sect, and some of them have embraced fundamentalism.

Iraq's best hope is to emphasise citizenship over religion, and quickly. Under Saddam sectarian tensions surfaced sporadically. The Shiites felt they were oppressed by Sunnis when in fact they were oppressed by Saddam. Once Saddam was gone the Shiites stepped into the political vacuum. Many Shiite leaders had been killed and imprisoned, others forced to flee the country. Now they are the country's most influential group. Sadly, Iraq's elections promoted sectarianism rather than democracy and the Shiites, being the majority, have been tempted to flaunt their new found power.

Iraqi analysts accuse US forces of fomenting sectarianism. And it is true that Washington has promoted federalism, which can be a small step away from secession.

But can Iraq overcome such sectarianism? Can citizenship become the ultimate bond of loyalty? Can citizenship even survive under a government divided along sectarian lines?

The answer to all three questions is yes. But first Iraqis need to stop listening to individuals who promote sectarianism. They must begin to listen to those who believe in pan-Arabism. There is no reason on earth to believe that Iraq's rich sectarian fabric is bound to unravel.

Sectarianism can be defeated, but only when leaders abandon narrow considerations and begin to think of the country as a whole. Samarra is a Sunni town. And yet it has offered refuge and protection to Shiite shrines for centuries. The bombings in Samarra were a blow to all Iraqis, and to Sunnis most of all.
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