by Farah Al Farhan  

In the aftermath of the Iraq War, since 2003, and the disastrous transition to democracy that ensued, Iraq is struggling with a deep-rooted and ongoing political crisis. Explanations of the ongoing crisis are repeatedly discussed in terms of ethno-sectarian divisions and rely excessively on sectarian rhetoric and assumptions that Iraq’s confessional groups are unable to live together in peace.

Those sentiments were echoed recently in an editorial (paywall) published in Foreign Affairs’ November/December 2015 Middle East issue, by Ali Khederya. In the piece, Khedery offers his personal take on the crisis, outlining the conflict as an ethno-sectarian struggle that promises no hope for coexistence between Iraq’s major ethno-religious communities. As a solution, he recommends dividing Iraq into a U.S.-administered “Balkan-style transition”, into anywhere between three and twelve confederal, autonomous provinces.

It’s important to note that Khedery, previously an executive with the oil-giant ExxonMobil, was the longest-serving U.S. official in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion, between 2003 and 2009. As such, he played a leading role in discovering and nominating Iraq’s notorious former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to his American colleagues.

During his term between 2006 and 2014, Maliki became known for policies that sparked and further entrenched ethno-sectarian divisions in state institutions, tribal and sectarian nepotism, corruption, and the use of violence to eliminate political opponents. Khedery acknowledged this publicly in 2014. However, although he claims to have revoked his support for Maliki in 2010 – going as far as saying he felt “guilty for lobbying against [his] friend Abu Isra”, a nickname used by people close to Maliki – the damage had already been done, and Maliki was able to steer the country into the very crisis it is facing today.

Instead of learning from the mistakes made in Iraq and trying to fix them, Khedery’s proposal for the division of Iraq considers the catastrophic outcomes of these mistakes as a baseline for his recommendations. To divide Iraq based on his recommendations would be to harden the lines drawn in blood during the peak of the armed insurgency between 2006 and 2008. In that period, the demographic make-up of Baghdad and other cities drastically changed, producing unrecognisable areas segregated along ethno-sectarian lines, sometimes with entire neighbourhoods, often called hotspots, sectioned off with tall concrete walls for security reasons. However, while these divisions are now undeniably present, will splitting the country resolve Iraq’s ongoing crisis?

Sectarian politics were first inscribed into the new Iraqi constitution with U.S. blessings and have had a fundamental effect on political institutions, dividing parliamentary seats and ministerial positions into quotas based on Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups. For politicians, evoking sectarian divisions has since proved a handy political tool to galvanise sections of society and increase their own power base.

However, to reduce the causes of Iraq’s political crisis to sectarian rivalry as Khedery does is inaccurate and dangerously misleading. While ethno-religious divisions are certainly present on the level of political institutions, they do not mirror the wider social atmosphere within the population. This is reflected in the large-scale anti-sectarian demonstrations that have taken place in Baghdad, and Iraq more generally. Political progress therefore relies on nurturing these attitudes by reforming the entrenched sectarian system, starting with the amendment of the constitution, which gives legitimacy to sectarian politics, and restructuring of parliamentary and ministerial positions and their selection mechanisms away from sectarian quotas.

Botched reforms

In an attempt to address protesters’ demands and introduce much-needed administrative, economic, and political reforms, current Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi submitted a reforms package which was approved unanimously by the Council of Ministers on 11 August, 2015. Abadi issued a statement promising that he “would not back away from the reforms even if they cost me my life.” And they almost did. A month later, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad foiled two assassination attempts against the PM, which were likely motivated by his ambitious reforms.

The reforms aimed at combatting everything that Maliki worked hard to keep in place while in office: political corruption, tribal and ethnic nepotism leading to a bloated public sector, overpaid and redundant public positions, and most importantly (yet still marginally), the ethno-sectarian quota system of representation, among other reforms targeting financial, economic, and security issues.

However, several politicians as well as civil-society members dismissed PM Abadi’s reforms as weak and ineffective. Politicians voiced their discontent with the Prime Minister, some for being overambitious and even unconstitutional, while others accused him for being too hesitant and cautious. Protesters, on the other hand, called on the immediate implementation of the reforms and more serious accountability measures on behalf of Abadi.

Ultimately, the reforms process was brought to a standstill on 2 November, 2015, when the Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution “supporting the reforms,” but “revoking its mandate” on any actions by any executive authority. On one hand, some policies were initially implanted, such as the reduction in senior officials’ salaries, the reduction in the number of ministries and the merging of others, and the removal of a batch of senior managers within ministries who failed to meet the minimum assessment criteria. These measures also involved the creation of specialised committees and evaluation mechanisms by which to measure job performance, and included ministerial figures for members of the party in power, the Da’wa party, as well as other members of parliament.

However, while the creation of these committees indicated a positive step forward, no further progress was made. For example, the job performance assessments successfully expelled one batch of senior ministerial managers who received the worst evaluation scores, but were not applied to officials who were just one score above the worst scores. Another setback occurred when the revised salary scale was met with objections and protests by government employees and political parties.

To begin with, it was unclear how much of Abadi’s reforms package could have been achieved realistically, given the lack of genuine political support from domestic and international actors. Following the parliament’s ban on additional unilateral reforms from Abadi, the prospects are now even dimmer.

In principle, the reforms process cannot succeed as a one-man show. The sectarianism that has become so deeply entrenched in Iraqi politics within a decade, with all its social and demographic consequences, needs more than a quick fix. Reforms require proper implementation and monitoring mechanisms, genuine political will and political inclusion. Only a holistic approach can defeat sectarianism, which has permeated the political sphere as well as the communal and individual spheres.

In the public and international sphere, Iraq’s political challenges should not be framed in sectarian terms, especially as depicted in research analyses and mainstream media, which have significant impact on foreign policy in the region. On a domestic, societal level the emphasis needs to shift towards the concept of citizenship and individual civil rights, as opposed to communal allocations and group and party privileges.

What makes proposals by global policymakers like Khedery so alarming is their vast influence over Iraqi politics. This is highlighted by the catastrophic political developments following the U.S. invasion. Instead of helping to rebuild the country, such policy proposals actually hamper the country’s political and institutional development because they come from a foreign interest in the region, and not any genuine local initiatives that would serve the population’s interest. It is beyond time to start conceptualising Iraq’s political challenges as complex issues with their own unique dynamics and historical legacies, instead of dismissing them as simple, yet uninformed arguments of sectarianism.

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

Farah Al Farhan is a Research Intern at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. She received her BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. She is interested in identity, group politics and post-conflict nation-building. Find her on Twitter @joythejoyful

This article was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact

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