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samedi 14 juin 2014

Thoughts on the situation in Iraq

Currently, pundits, politicians and the press are all worked up about the ISIS advance on Baghdad. However, it's important to see what is important to Iraq and what is important to US interests.

The first question is hard to answer because Iraq is so divided. And of course, "Iraq" is also a 20th century creation, conjured up by colonial powers and the Hashemite royal family. Perhaps it is not surprising that those divisions did not just disappear. Nevertheless, unrest in Iraq puts Iraqis at risk, whether they are the targets of reprisals, families who have fled, or women who are told not to leave their houses. The most important thing is for people to be safe. And yet, close behind safety is the need for justice and fair treatment.

This difficulty is clear in Iraq, and is also part of the problem in Syria; how do populations live together when they are riven by ethnic and sectarian divisions?

There are two keys to ensuring a workable modus vivendi: ensuring that the administration includes all groups, and providing fair treatment. Despite being a dictator, Saddam Hussein did not rely solely on members of his own group to fill the ranks. Additionally, the Baath party not only looked to a common identity that was applicable to many groups, but provided a power structure outside ethnic, tribal or religious affiliation. The current government is a Shiite-dominated outfit. This, compounded with the  exclusion of Baath party operatives, created a void that the Sunni jihadist groups have filled.

Proposals to divide Iraq often meet with skepticism or even outrage. And carving out independent fiefdom may be premature. However, a more federal structure might help to calm tensions and allow Iraqis to feel more invested in their local governments. Nationalism and it cousins are difficult creatures; on the one hand, people should be able to choose their leaders but, on the other hand, those leaders must serve the whole population, not only the majority. Reducing the scope from the national to the local level can help, to the extent that people may be better able to understand their common interests when they are right before their eyes.

Unfortunately, the Sunni-Shiite fault-line has deep roots. And that, in itself, is a reason for the US and the international community to be wary of intervention. It is not wise to take sides.

However, by the same token, it is not wise to continue the poor relations with Iran that have characterized the past 30 years. In that light, Afghanistan was a missed opportunity. A different response to the Taliban, one that focused on drug interdiction with a sidelight on the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, like the Hazara, could have paved the way for better relations and humanitarian cooperation with Iran.

Aside from these concerns, and the fear of spillover and exported terrorism, Iraq is not the US's backyard or responsibility. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was costly, with very little payoff, and there is no reason to believe a second act would be any different. Any decisions should be based on sober analysis, not on wounded pride or the desire to finish the job, simply because it was begun. Further, other countries, given the US's poor track record in the region, may not be eager to cooperate.

Finally, it is very difficult to look on and see suffering and chaos. However, that in itself is not a justification for action. Iraq has difficult issues to address, but Iraqis must be able to address them if they hope to advance and build a better future.