Iraq’s sectarian war threatens region

The global community needs to point out aloud that Iraq is not merely Mr Al Maliki’s fiefdom

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As talks on the Syrian conflict continue in Geneva, the eyes of the world have shifted from the crisis next door in Iraq. But, as The National reported yesterday, the United Nations has warned that Iraq is facing its worst displacement since the brutal sectarian conflict eight years ago.

More than 140,000 Iraqis have been displaced, forced to flee their homes as fighting between the Iraqi security forces and Al Qaeda-linked militants has continued in Iraq's western provinces.

This conflict is now a military one, but it has its roots in political and social grievances. The spark for the original conflict came in December, when Iraqi’s prime minister Nouri Al Maliki sent troops in to shut down a Sunni protest camp: for a year, Sunnis had been protesting at what they see as their marginalisation from the mainstream political process.

As Barack Obama, meeting Iraq’s top Sunni official last week, acknowledged, the community has legitimate grievances, which need to be addressed by Mr Al Maliki. Mr Obama’s words, on the need to “address the grievances of all communities” were watered down and are insufficient. Iraq faces a crucial parliamentary election this year, and continued sectarian conflict threaten an already fragile state and a volatile region.

True, the US is in a difficult situation. The current fate of Iraq is still linked to the US invasion a decade ago, even if US troops have left. The shattering of the country, the disastrous de-Baathification process, the entrenching of sectarian politics, the marginalisation of the Sunni population and the opening created for Iran to expand its influence; all have contributed to its current woes. It is impossible to speak of Iraq today without understanding the US’s role.

At the same time, the US, having departed, does not wish to be seen wielding undue influence. For different reasons, both the US during its occupation and Mr Al Maliki now have persisted in seeing the Sunni population through security and sectarian lens. But that is a mistake. It is because of that method of dividing the Iraqi population, and then favouring the Shia community, that the sectarian split between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds has been entrenched.

Mr Al Maliki will not be the consensus candidate in this year’s election that the US and the international community would hope. That is his decision. But he cannot be allowed to take the whole country down the sectarian road. The international community, particularly the US, need to speak louder about what is happening in Iraq, and point out that Iraq is not merely Mr Al Maliki’s fiefdom.