Another war in Iraq may begin, a sectarian war spurred by Shiite revenge and reflecting the geo-political tensions of the region, Shiite versus Sunni, Iran versus Saudi Arabia. While America bears responsibility for stirring the sectarian cauldron, a next war will not be America’s to fight. Despite global pretensions, the mythic days of Laurence of Arabia, when Kipling’s heroes saved the Arabs from themselves, are over.
With Western imperialism in retreat, Iraqi nationalism may falter and divide. The actual winner of the last Iraqi election was the Iraqiya bloc whose leadership includes Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, former prime minister and American “asset”, supported by the vast majority of Sunnis. The Iraqiya leadership also includes Iraq’s current vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi, and parliamentary leader Saleh al-Mutlaq. Iraqiya won 2.8 million votes (24.5%) and 91 parliamentary seats in the 2010 election, slightly more than Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition, which won 89 seats and 24.2% of the vote.
Maliki managed to maintain power, however, through consolidation of Shiite organizations, ignoring of parliament, and repression of dissidents – all accomplished under America’s watch, despite ineffective US appeals for unity.
In recent weeks, some 600 Sunni leaders have been arrested and detained in sweeps and accused of a “Baathist conspiracy” against al-Maliki’s regime. On December 19, as the last US troops exited Iraq, Maliki ordered the arrest of vice-president al-Hashimi, whose current whereabouts are unknown.
Having forcibly removed the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, Iraqis may be subjected to a new one. In that event, both a new repression and a renewed insurgency are predictable. Iran is likely to side with al-Maliki and the Shiites, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the larger Sunni world will stand with the besieged Sunnis in an Iraqi version of the new Arab revolution.
The fate of Iraq’s Sunnis may lie over the border in Syria where a Sunni majority appears to be succeeding in its revolution against the Assad regime. The triumph of Sunnis in Syria will give strategic depth to the Sunnis of Anbar province and elsewhere in Iraq where they may constitute about 20 percent of the population overall. US support for the Syrian revolution would indirectly support the Sunnis in Iraq while weakening Iran’s leverage in Syria.
The divide in Iraq is vividly illustrated by the 2010 electoral map showing Iraqiya’s deep support in Sunni provinces like Anbar and the Shiite base in Basra and the south.