Friday, 23 December 2011

23 December 2011

Do you remember what President Obama said 10 days ago when he marked the formal departure of the last American troops from Iraq?

“We left behind us a sovereign Iraq, stable and self-sufficient, with a representative government elected by its people.”

Hmm. Stable? Self-sufficient? Representative government? Maybe, yet again, a US President is allowing wishful thinking to get the better of him. (“Mission accomplished”, anyone?)

Yesterday, multiple bomb attacks in Baghdad killed at least 67 people. Most of the attacks appear to have been aimed at Shia targets, just as they were in the worst days of the sectarian violence in 2006-7, when thousands of people died.

(By the way, I wouldn’t want you to think that the US no longer has a significant presence in Iraq. Its embassy in Baghdad is reported to have about 15,000 people on its staff, and I imagine more than a handful receive their monthly pay cheques from the Pentagon.)

Why has the violence flared now, after several months of relative calm? As always, it seems the context is regional power-plays more than religious tensions. After all, if the US army are no longer a visible presence, doesn’t someone have to fill the vacuum?

Look at it this way: which regional power most wants to be seen as the dominant influence in Iraq? Which regional power has a clear strategic interest in being able to portray itself as a victor in Iraq, while the US is perceived as a loser?

And – not coincidentally – which regional power has most to lose if its one Arab ally, Syria, becomes the latest country where popular protests and armed insurrection topple a brutal and autocratic regime?

The answer, obviously enough, is Iran, Iraq’s giant Shia neighbour to the east which is closely tied to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maybe that helps explain why within days of the final US troop withdrawal, he has moved to ratchet up the pressure on the country’s leading Sunni politicians.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of the Sunni vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges, and the Sunni deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who’s now facing a no confidence vote in parliament, told me this week that he regards Mr Maliki as a worse dictator than Saddam Hussein.

So, if the Iranians are keen to bolster Shia power in Iraq, who is likely to be equally keen to stop them? Saudi Arabia, perhaps, which has long been Iran’s main rival for regional hegemony and which regards itself as the protector of Sunni Arabs wherever they are threatened?

Could that be why Sunni bombers are suddenly back in action? (To be fair, we don’t yet know who yesterday’s bombers were, but there’s a widespread assumption that they were tied to, or affiliated with, al Qaeda.)

It’s worth recalling that the coalition government headed by Mr Maliki was painfully and reluctantly stitched together only as a result of enormous diplomatic pressure after the parliamentary elections of December 2005. It took six months of haggling to get it together, after Mr Maliki’s Dawa party and its allies failed to win enough seats to form a majority without the support of other parliamentary blocs.

Take away the US glue that was holding the coalition together, and – judging by the events of the past week – it soon comes crumbling down. Mr Hashemi has fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where the prime minister’s writ doesn’t run, and there’s every reason to suppose that other Sunni leaders will soon decide to have no more to do with Mr Maliki.

In other words, Iraq is once again teetering on the brink of the abyss. It’s not a reassuring sight as we end this year of tumult right across the Arab world.

Footnote: I realise we've brought you a lot more doom and gloom over the past 12 months than you would have liked – so let me suggest what you can hope for in the coming year: a clement winter with no gales, blizzards or floods; an unexpected economic upturn with lots of new jobs; a mysterious benefactor who pays off all the eurozone’s debts; a successful London Olympics with a lovely clutch of gold medals for Team GB; and an end to strife in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq.

I didn’t say it’ll happen – I suggested you can hope for it. Meanwhile, as I say at this time every year: enjoy the company of your family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings.

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