Last updated: May 6, 2013
Zayd Alisa: Saudi and Qatar ratchet up sectarian tensions in Iraq

“If they cannot have all of Iraq back, they are hell-bent on taking part of it for now”

Iraq, a decade after the US led invasion and one year after the end of the occupation is undeniably grappling with not merely an escalating sectarian crisis between the Shia-led partnership government and an increasingly disaffected Sunni minority, but also an intensifying ethnic crisis with an increasingly defiant and heavily armed Kurdish Region.

In 1991 Saudi Arabia fiercely resisted the toppling of Saddam’s regime and played a major role in pressurising the US to turn its back on the popular uprising against Saddam’s tyrannical regime. In 2003, however, Saudi Arabia’s immense influence in the US was dramatically weakened due to the decisive role played by Saudi nationals in the 9-11 atrocities.   

Ever since the ousting of Saddam’s regime in 2003, the Saudi regime has adamantly refused to recognise the new democratic system in Iraq and has been steadfastly determined not to have any diplomatic representation in Baghdad. Among the real underlying reasons behind the Saudi regime’s conspicuously emphatic hostility towards the fledgling democracy in Iraq, was, and still is, its deeply entrenched fear that the success of democracy in Iraq is an immensely harmful precedent, which would undoubtedly inspire its own people.

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Another reason is the deeply rooted hatred towards the Shia, which explains its fierce refusal to come to terms with the inescapable reality that Shia in Iraq constitutes the indisputable majority. The Saudi regime also accuses Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, and the Shia-led central government of giving Iran a freehand to dramatically intensify its influence in Iraq.

Since the bitterly contested national elections in 2010, the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc – which enjoys the full support of both Saudi Arabia and Qatar – has persistently accused Al Maliki and the Shia-dominated National Alliance of hijacking the elections, despite the unambiguous Federal Court ruling permitting the formation of the biggest bloc inside parliament.

The Saudi king left absolutely no doubt where his sympathies lie, underlining his unequivocal backing to the Iraqiya bloc by personally meeting its head, Ayad Allawi, immediately before and after the elections. The U.S. final withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, which coincided with the arrest warrant issued against Tariq Al Hashimi, Iraq’s Sunni Vice President, provided Saudi Arabia and Qatar with a golden opportunity to ramp up the message that Sunni discrimination would dramatically escalate.

Despite the enormous geo-political concessions made by the Iraqi government on its stance towards Syria and Bahrain – before the Arab League summit held in Baghdad in April 2012 – to specifically appease Riyadh, Saudi nonetheless decided to appoint its ambassador in Jordan as a non-resident ambassador to Iraq, reiterating that Iraq is far too insecure and unstable. But, even more disparaging, was the Saudis’ and Qataris’ decision to restrict their representation to low-level delegations.

And as part of Saudi and Qatari efforts to ratchet up sectarian tensions in Iraq, the Qatari Prime Minister, Hamad Bin Jassim, not only asserted that Qatar’s low-level participation was aimed at highlighting his country’s fierce objection to the marginalisation of Sunnis in Iraq, but to add insult to injury the Qatari PM and afterwards the Saudi Foreign Minister offered Al Hashimi a formal red-carpet reception in Doha and Riyadh, even while he was facing terrorism allegations, of which he as been found guilty sentenced to death in absentia.

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been working tirelessly to break up the Shia-Kurdish strategic alliance in Iraq, replacing it by a Turkish alliance with the Kurdish Region (KR), headed by Massoud Barzani. This has not only dramatically bolstered the position of the KR in its tense confrontation with Baghdad over land and oil, but also ramped up the ethnic tension.

Against this backdrop of growing sectarian tension, the arrest in December 2012 of nine bodyguards of Iraq’s Sunni Finance Minister, Rafe Al Essawi, who has accused the central government of marginalising the Sunni population, sparked protests that swept the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar, Nainawa, Salah Al Deen and Deyala. Although the protests started spontaneously, nonetheless, they were swiftly taken over by a number of the Iraqiya bloc leaders and hard-line Sunni clerics, who are closely connected to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Amid Iraqiya’s strenuous attempts to win over Muqtada Al Sadr’s unarguably vital endorsement, to ensure that the protests spread far beyond the Sunni provinces, it scrambled to replace the menacingly sectarian slogans by patriotic ones. It was, beyond doubt, Izzat Ibrahim’s – vice president during Saddam’s rule – ringing endorsement of the protests, which was followed by Al Qaida’s ominous call on the protesters to take up arms, that made it absolutely inconceivable for any Shia leader, let alone Al Sadr, to urge the Shia to join the protests. Indeed, the demonstrations that took place in Shia areas were highly supportive of Al Maliki’s government and have categorically refused any alterations to either the terrorism or the justice and accountability laws.          

The principal accusation of deliberately discriminating against the Sunni minority levelled at the central government holds no water for the following reasons:

Firstly, while the Sunni minority has persistently been in power since 1920, it was during the Baathist era – which started in 1968 – and specifically under Saddam’s rule – which began in 1979 – that the Sunnis were almost exclusively calling the shots in Iraq. No wonder, the Sunnis regard the prominent positions – Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister and seven more ministries – given to them as woefully inadequate.

Secondly, despite the single clash on January 25, 2013 – five weeks after the protests commenced – between the army and the protesters that caused the death of 8 protesters, the army has consistently been extremely patient and extraordinarily lenient. In comparison, it was by far much harsher in dealing with protests in Shia areas like Basra, Al Nasriya and Al Diwaniyah.

Thirdly, in stark contrast to Sunni claims that Article 4 of the terrorism law has persistently been exploited to unfairly target them, in fact it was the Shia cities of Basra, Amarah, and Sadr city that, in 2008, experienced the harshest crackdown and strictest implementation of anti-terror laws.

And finally, in an unprecedented move, the central government swiftly established three committees – headed by highly influential officials – to meet protesters’ demands. The government has promptly taken measures in response to the protests that include releasing thousands of prisoners and the return of thousands of those excluded to their jobs or receiving pensions.

The protesters, however, have not only insisted that none of their demands have been fulfilled, but dramatically ramped up their demands, calling for scraping the constitution and toppling Al Maliki’s government. This without doubt underlines that there are internal and external parties spurring these protest not merely to persist but to dramatically escalate.

The internal parties include Iraqiya leaders, namely the speaker of the parliament, Usama Al Nujayfi, the Finance Minister, and the head of bloc in Parliament, Salman Al Jumaili, who are desperately attempting to revive their popularity by portraying themselves as being targeted for standing up to the central government.

They are using these protests to pile the pressure on Al Maliki to force him to resign, and, above all, hoping to regain lost ground to the Prime Minister – particularly in the disputed areas with the Kurdish Region – whose tough stance against the KR has undoubtedly bolstered his popularity with Sunni-Arabs. These protests are certainly also music to the ears of Brazani, who has been increasingly alarmed by Al Maliki’s growing popularity among the Sunni-Arabs in the disputed areas.

The external parties include Al Qaida, which views the on going protests as a golden opportunity for more radicalisation and ultimately an upsurge in recruitment. Just as important to Al Qaida is exploiting the army’s reluctance to tackle terrorist suspects in the Sunni provinces – due to its fear of the the ready-made accusation of targeting Sunnis – in order to re-activate the safe-havens that originally existed in those areas.

Then there is Saudi Arabia, which is increasingly using Iraq’s turmoil to convince its people that democracy eventually leads to instability, insecurity and ultimately civil war. The Saudi regime is also seeking not merely to fend off any potential challenge by a democratic Iraq to its leadership of the Arab World, but also to ostracize Iraq by trumpeting these Sunni protests as irrefutable evidence from the horse’s mouth that Iraq is adopting a sectarian policy against the Sunnis.

Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are exploiting the protests in Iraq as a highly effective tool to divert the Iraqi government’s attention away from pursuing a diplomatic solution in Syria, as well as placating Iraq’s strident opposition to the Saudi and Qatari concerted drive to, not just finance and arm the Syrian opposition –namely the extremist and hard-line Wahhabi Salafi, Jabhat Al Nusra, which is essentially Al Qaida’s branch in Syria – but also pay salaries to the insurgents.

In addition, both the Saudis and Qataris are using the protests to keep Iraq far too busy to prop up the Syrian regime. The Saudi regime is taking advantage of these protests and the sectarian strife it is deliberately stoking – in Iraq, Syria and Bahrain – to stave off dissent in its Sunni heartland by demonstrating that it is not just the guardian of Sunni Islam, but also at the forefront of combating an existential threat from the Shia, namely Iran.        

The sectarian-ethnic conflicts, protests, Turkey’s open hostility and a revitalised Al Qaida are all an integral part of a modified last ditch attempt spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to achieve their overarching goal of destabilising and ultimately dismantling the fledgling democracy in Iraq.

This ferocious all-out assault to restore minority rule will almost certainly fail since the Shia are ready to fight tooth and nail to hold-on to power and indeed the central government showed its unwavering determination on February 15, 2013 to thwart all attempts to march on Baghdad. Yet, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are implacably determined to throw their support behind the drive to establish a Sunni Regional Government similar to the KR.

For Saudi Arabia and Qatar, if they cannot have all of Iraq back, they are hell-bent on taking part of it for now.

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