Watching the deteriorating state of Iraq in terms of sectarianism, corruption, fragmentation, waste of resources, suffering of its people, threats to its national unity, desecration of its lands, and violation of its sovereignty by different powers, I cannot help but to painfully wonder: is this the Iraq we once knew? Is it actually possible that Iraq has fallen into a bottomless pit, where God only knows the way out? Is this the Iraq that gave Arab and Islamic civilisations the greatest scholars and thinkers and played a remarkable role in the progress of human civilisation? Is this the Iraq that was once considered a civilised role model of coexistence between different doctrines, denominations, and races in the Arab region and the entire Middle East?
Unfortunately, Iraq has become a model of conflict, bitterness, and hatred. Is this the Iraq that possesses all potentials to be one of the richest, most prosperous, and most developed countries in the world? It has become a country that suffers from the burden of endemic corruption (Iraq ranked 169th of 180 countries in the Global Corruption Perception Index in 2017, issued by Transparency International in 2018, with a 18 points out of 100). Its people now suffer from poverty, deprivation, displacement, and have become refugees inside Iraq and abroad.
What increases the pain and agony is the fact that Iraq has the necessary potentials for development — ancient history, memorable civilisation, fertile land, water, oil, gas, and other natural resources, as well as people. So, why has Iraq reached this stage? Why does it insist on following the same losing course that other nations throughout history had once tried and earned only destruction and ruin — the course that Iraq itself followed in the last couple of years and ended up in bloodshed and destruction?
Tale of Constantinople
The confusing matter is that the Iraqis are the Arab nation that best knows the meaning of wars, conflicts, and destruction, as well as the ruin and human tragedies they cause. Since 1980, Iraqis have lived through continuous wars and conflicts, which has left hundreds of thousands dead. Therefore, they are supposed to be vigilant in achieving harmony, stability, and unity, as well as utilising any opportunity to fulfil that end. Unfortunately, the vicious cycle of conflict, bitterness, and hatred has continued to increase since 2003, and the price is the security, life, present, and future of generations of Iraqis.
Iraq’s current situation reminds me of the people of Constantinople in the 15th century. Instead of overcoming their differences and focusing on the existential danger posed by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, who laid siege to the city and bombarded it, in preparation for its capture, Constantinople was preoccupied with useless, sterile debate — the gender of angels, the size of Satan, and other issues, which came to be known in history as the “Byzantine Discussion.”
History repeats itself. Iraq is facing risks that threaten its very existence as a unified country, its territories and sovereignty are continuously subject to foreign violations, and the entire country is on the brink of public outrage and sectarian and ethnic congestion that may explode at any time, wiping out everything. Nonetheless, Iraqi powers, parties, and sectarian groups are busy with pointless discussions and debates, focusing on dividing the rewards, and prioritising sectarian interests at the expense of those of the nation. Moreover, there are, even, some people who are ready to relinquish the sovereignty of the country to alien powers for personal power and wealth. However, those people overlook the fact that these alien powers will ultimately turn against them in the case of conflict of interests. Furthermore, the homeland has lost its paramount place, and the sect, denomination, and race have gained priority. When the end comes, everyone will discover they are the real losers; by then, it will be too late as the homeland would have already gone.
It cannot be said that ethnic, sectarian, and doctrinal diversity is the main cause of the current critical situation in Iraq. Diversity itself is no reason for conflict and fragmentation. There are many countries in the world that are similarly diverse; yet, they succeeded in turning this diversity into a source for wealth and development, instead of a source for conflict and fight. I believe the main reason is failure in building a truly inclusive citizenship capable of replacing all other secondary affiliations, such as racial, sectarian, denominational, tribal, or religious. Unfortunately, this situation is not limited only to Iraq, there are other countries in the Arab region that are facing the same dilemma, especially after the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’
After achieving independence, those countries focused on building political, security, and military institutions and structures without giving due consideration to building the nation that accommodates everyone, or to consolidating the values of citizenship that bring together the different components of society. Therefore, when the state’s institutions in Iraq collapsed in 2003, we were surprised to discover a Shiite Iraq, Kurdish Iraq, and Sunni Iraq, with each part not willing to coexist with the other. The unified Iraq we came to know since its independence had actually existed by force and not by virtue of citizenship based on acceptance and coexistence.
There is no doubt that foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs, over the years, has played an undeniable role in the difficult situation facing the country nowadays. However, I always say that the success of such interference in achieving its goals is not inevitable; there need to be internal factors that support this interference, creating conducive conditions for the achievement of foreign goals. Foreign conspiracies may be an integral part of world politics; yet, conspirators cannot attain their goals in countries that are immune from within.
Some people blame Arabs for what has happened in Iraq during the recent decades because they abandoned Iraq and left it to Iran and its followers. At the same time, we cannot ignore the sincere and devoted Arab efforts and initiatives that tried to return Iraq to its Arab domain. Foremost, efforts exerted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab countries to provide all help and support to Iraq after 2003. Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, visited Baghdad in June 2008 as the first GCC minister of foreign affairs to visit Iraq since 2003. Also, during the visit of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to Abu Dhabi in July 2008, the UAE announced the cancellation of Iraq’s $7 billion debt. Moreover, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, visited Baghdad in October 2008.
Nevertheless, the common rule everyone knows is that the whole world cannot help people, who lack the will to help themselves. This is exactly the case of Iraq; it has gone off track, and the conflicts among its people have increased. Instead of overcoming yesterday’s hatred, Iraqis have entered into a cycle of revenge and settling scores with help from external powers; they neglected their Arab and national sense of belonging for the sake of other ones. Although some Iraqi powers have denounced Arabs in favour of other sectarian and doctrinal affiliations at the expense of national belonging, the Arabs still meet any positive step from the Iraqis with dozens of positive steps from their side. Arabs are aware of the importance of Iraq and its history, civilisation, geography, and people. They view it as one of the most important pillars of Arab national security and one of the most prominent Arab civilisations throughout history.
The magnitude of the tragedies Iraq has witnessed over the past decades has transformed it from one of the richest, strongest Arab countries into one of the poorest, most fragmented, and most corrupt countries, which has been infiltrated by foreign powers due to mismanagement, sectarianism, internal conflicts and foreign interference. This is reason enough to convince Iraqis their future depends on their unity and that no development, pride, dignity, nor progress is ever possible without reconciliation; placing the interests of Iraq above all other narrow interests; and believing that the right place of Iraq is next to Arab countries and within the Arab system. Those, who try to hijack Iraq, force it to follow a certain direction, and try to isolate it from its Arab domain, aim to serve their own interests, control its resources, and fragment it for sectarian, ethnic, and imperial goals. Isn’t it time Iraqis realised that?
Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE Author and Director-General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.