Contemporary Iraq embodies the consequences and legacies of the failures of the modern nation-building process in the Middle East, authoritarian patterns of governance, intervention, political miscalculations and misleading and often simplistic conceptualisations of Iraqi society. Over the past 12 years a new and unsustainable reality has emerged for the Iraqi people – one in which sectarianism and “irreconcilable” sectarian identities are both a dominant narrative and an explanatory lens for its complex political and socio-economic dynamics.
Middle Eastern states are notorious for being uncohesive units, which are both fragile and prone to fragmentation. This stems from their arbitrarily-drawn borders, the lack of identity congruence in regards to nation-state identity and internal political entities, legitimacy and democracy deficits and the tendency to rely on patrimonial power centres that subdue other social forces and political opposition.
In order to understand Iraqi society, it is important to understand the dynamics of sectarian relations. References to Iraq’s sectarian relations are often over-simplified and misleading, portraying Iraqi society as made up of three antagonistic and homogenous monolithic entities (Shia, Sunni and Kurd). It is important to challenge this impulse to be simplistic and reductionist. Acknowledging the complexity of relationships could lead to more accurate policy choices by the West.
Sectarian relations are not static, but fluid and contingent upon socio-political dynamics. Sectarian mobilizations have historically been connected with accessing greater political and economic rights. So, it is more helpful for us to ask why sectarian mobilization and the saliency of ethno-sectarian identities have become enflamed and politically relevant in Iraq’s recent history. Reconciliation begins with identifying the roots of the problem. In Iraq, the turmoil largely revolves around competition for control and ownership of the state and its resources, fought primarily between competing national narratives and exclusionary visions of Iraq’s identity and future, by the Shia-Sunni communities. Simply put, the disorder stems from the failure of the post-2003 political order to integrate Sunni Arabs and ostensibly to create an inclusive Iraq.
Post-Saddam and Iraq’s transformed political culture
One of the West’s transitional policies in post-Saddam Iraq was to establish a political system based on ethno-sectarian apportionments. Consequently, sectarian identities were given an unprecedented political relevancy and embedded into Iraq’s political fabric. Thus, by institutional design, Iraq became a communal state and antagonistic and particularistic sub-national identities were empowered to become politically relevant categories. Sectarian identity has become a determinant of how an individual is represented politically, socially and economically in Iraq. With a system based on demographical apportionments, the Shia being the overwhelming majority were thrust into the apex of Iraq’s political order. The core of the new governing elite were Iraqi political exiles who had little grass-root support in Iraq. Following the regime change, the Sunni Arab community was excluded, marking a break with history, given their traditional dominant and privileged position as a ruling minority in Iraq’s modern political hierarchy. The constitution was also written without the participation of the Sunni community, thus missing a crucial opportunity to facilitate reconciliation and inclusiveness. The sectarian political structure has led to exclusionary practices of governance, which thrives off of the perpetuation of sectarianism. With Iraq a multi-ethnically composed rentier state, the question of resources, state-patronage and communal security have exacerbated internal tensions.
Iraq’s contemporary struggle is defined by asymmetric power-relations. The competition for control of the state is at the heart of Iraq’s political development and fragmentation. This is embodied by the failure to negotiate or form a consensus between sub-national identities in regard to forging an inclusive Iraqi national identity. There has developed instead a discourse of exclusion.
The birth of a new Sunni Arab reality
In its reconstruction project, the United States failed to target the core politico-cultural variables that produce and sustain authoritarian patterns of governance in Iraq. This was reflected by Nouri Al-Maliki’s term as Prime Minister of Iraq (2006 – 2014), when he attempted to restore totalitarian structures of control by seizing control over the coercive apparatus and civil institutions and using them cynically to promote his parochial sectarian agenda to consolidate power.
The post-Saddam period inaugurated a new era for the Sunni Arabs, one in which they were cast as a minority and excluded from power, a status they refused to accept. They were confronted with a new Shia-centric political order based on sectarianism and exclusionary politics. This forced the Sunnis to develop their own assertive “sect”, as a social body, that could be mobilized to compete in the political arena. As a result of the new political prejudices, discriminatory practices and abuses, the Sunni’s new identity developed into one attached to narratives of victimhood and Sunni-centric rejectionism of the new Shia-centric political order. This paralleled the Shia’s narratives of victimhood deriving from a history of oppression from Sunni based regimes. These two competing narratives feed off each other and polarize relations.
The U.S.-led de-Ba’athification process served to compound the new reality the Sunnis were facing. The process was a malicious practice of collective punishment and marginalization of the Sunni Arab community. It was a form of revenge politics that created a lot of mistrust and many grievances between the Shia-centric state and the Sunni communities.
Reforming Iraq’s security apparatus
The national Iraqi army was once cross-communally representative. The military was an important binding symbol of national unity. After 2003, with the disbanding of the Iraqi army, Shia militias were integrated into Iraq’s security and military infrastructure. This was detrimental because it also caused a severe communal imbalance in Iraq’s security apparatus. This fomented deep mistrust among the Sunni communities and reports of systematic sectarian-based abuses from Shia-militias followed. In addition, Al-Maliki refused to integrate the Sunni Tribal Arab Sahwa – described as critical to Iraq’s stabilization – into Iraq’s security infrastructure. Thus, Iraq’s coercive apparatus was far from inclusive and nationally representative of Iraq’s multiethnic composition. It led to interrelated consequences: rampant unemployment and grievances which fueled the insurgency and radicalisation of many Sunnis, leaving the country dependent on Iranian-backed Shia militias, and also critically depriving the national Iraqi military of competent leadership.
Iraq’s security infrastructure is in need of an overhaul. It needs to be more inclusive, reflecting Iraq’s diversity. It also urgently requires the rebuilding of the Iraqi army command structure. Furthermore, without facilitating dialogue with and arming any of the anti-Daesh (ISIS) Sunni tribes, the Kurds and Shia-militias will not significantly defeat Daesh. The emergence of the proto-caliphate of Daesh, in Iraq, is one symptom of a larger governance problem affecting the region. Intra-Sunni competition over leadership for the Iraqi Sunni community is another symptom. The Sunni community requires genuine representation that can challenge the competing narratives of Daesh.
Iraq cannot remain a Shia-centric partisan entity if it hopes to remain united. There is an urgent need to foster the evolution of an organic Iraqi national consciousness to supplant the ethno-sectarian consciousness dominating the socio-politico landscape. Iraq’s political structure cannot sustain itself on the region’s traditional approach and tendency to consolidate power structures on the basis of representing one dominant social force and excluding and marginalizing others. A protracted sect-centric conflict will have a normative effect and will define Iraq for the coming decades if the matter goes unresolved and an inclusive political culture cannot be built. Crucially, Iraq cannot solve its instability and internal turmoil without compromise. Increasingly, the Iraqi elite is becoming aware of this. Iraq also urgently needs to resolve the Kurdish question, which will require a compromise and consensus on decentralisation. Constructing an inclusive Iraq and a fairer distribution of resources is paramount to its survival and to preventing radical organisations like Daesh taking a foothold. The first steps towards facilitating a more inclusive Iraq require outreach, bridge-building initiatives and credible mediators to carry out the process.
 Hinnebusch, R. (2003) The International Politics of the Middle East (Manchester University Press, UK) p.2.
 Sullivan, M. (2013) “Maliki’s Authoritarian Regime”, Middle East Security Report 10, (Institute for the Study of War). Accessible at: http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Malikis-Authoritarian-Regime-Web.pdf
 Haddad, F. (2013) “Sunni-Shia Relations After the Iraq War”, United States Institute of Peace, p.2. Accessible at: http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/PB160.pdf