With the Iraqi national elections taking place this weekend, there has been (comparatively) extensive coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post during the last few days concerning the multiplicity of meanings and implications the poll results could have on Iraq's future. Many of these reports have been warning of possible outbreaks of sectarian violence as a result of perceived Sunni disenfranchisement. In this context, I think it's helpful to consider Nir Rosen's latest piece in The National on why these fears of revived sectarianism and civil war are overblown.
Nir Rosen - a prominent freelance journalist and currently a fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security - has written extensively on Iraq since 2003. His language skills and cultural savvy give him access to Iraqi society at the grass roots level. Instead of staying within the comparatively safe confines of Baghdad's Green Zone and reporting on political squabbles among the Iraqi elite, Rosen is able to venture into communities throughout the country and pays attention to ordinary people as well as the atmosphere in neighborhoods, villages and mosques.
According to Rosen, his latest trip to Iraq last month made it evident that the intense fear that led Iraqis to seek the protection of gangs and sectarian militias in the past has begun to dissipate. He concludes by asserting that fears of further sectarian violence are overblown, and that the threat of Iraq's civil war being revived no longer looms. The following is a brief summary of what leads him to these conclusions.
Most importantly, the power relations between sectarian militias and the Iraqi security forces has changed drastically in the last two years. No longer can militias and gangs roam the streets unchecked by state authority. Though they still exist to one extent or another, they're immasculated and outmatched by the much strengthened Iraqi security forces. Since these militias can't hold territory anymore, and can't work around the ubiquitous security checkpoints, violence is limited to mortar attacks and the occasional spectacular car or suicide bombing.
Furthermore, Rosen notes the widespread feeling of indifference among Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar provinces. Whereas their sense of injustice and disenfranchisement from 2003 through 2008 led to forms of contestation expressed through violence, today Sunni Arabs seem "downright docile". The banning of prominent Sunni politicians like Saleh al-Mutlak from this weekend's elections caused concern that it would precipitate a Sunni boycott or a return to sectarian violence. Neither has materialized so far. Similarly, the idea that failing to integrate the Sunni Arab Awakening groups into the Iraqi security forces would lead to a revival in the insurgency proved unfounded as well. In short, Sunni Arabs seem resigned to their fate of disenfranchisement and are no longer willing to contest it through violence.
Rosen also notes how many ordinary Iraqis associate the Shi'i religious parties with sectarianism and thus prefer the more nationalist-leaning Maliki or Allawi. This makes sense given that Rosen was traveling primarily around Baghdad and the surrounding provinces of Diyala (just northeast of Baghdad), Babil, and Salahuddin. However, the election may be won or lost in the critical province of Basra, home to the third largest city in Iraq after Baghdad and Mosul. In Basra, Maliki has to compete with the Iraqi National Alliance (the list that includes many of the largest Shi'i religious parties).
Rosen's reporting is refreshing due to its detailed coverage of the mundane and subaltern. Most importantly, this piece underscores the point that the saliency of sectarianism in Iraq has varied significantly throughout its history. Since 2003, one gets the sense from the media that sectarian tensions in Iraq are something primordial and inherent. This piece does a good job in terms of belying these flawed assumptions.
Given the amount of hysteria out there concerning the de-Bathification controversy and the supposedly rising sectarian tensions, Rosen's perspective certainly offers some valuable insight into developments, attitudes, and the saliency of sectarianism outside of the Green Zone.