Violence in Iraq: prelude to dissolution, or re-birth pains?

News & Insights
May 16, 2013

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looks at the violence threatening Iraq’s tenuous integrity, dismissing claims that the conflict can be reduced to “sectarian hatred” or spillover from Syria’s civil war.

But the real driver of violence in Iraq is arguably Baghdad’s over-centralization of power, which came too soon and was infused with sectarian paranoia. The United States was initially wary of this danger: The formula of all-inclusive power sharing — muhasa in Arabic — was a cornerstone of U.S.-led policy in Iraq until 2008, and the United States also made sure that the principle of administrative decentralization was baked into the Iraqi Constitution. This policy reflected a powerful truth — that post-Saddam Iraq was not ready for a political system with absolute winners and absolute losers….

The root of Iraq’s violence is thus not ancient hatreds between Sunni and Shia or Kurd and Arab, but between decentralizers and recentralizers — and between those who wish to put Iraq’s violent past behind them, and those determined to continually refight it.

The demands that have been consistently stated by the Kurdish and Sunni Arab anti-Maliki opposition could not be clearer. First, the opposition demands devolution of fiscal authority to the Kurdistan Regional Government and the provinces, encapsulated in a revenue-sharing law that will provide a formula for the proportion of the budget allocated to the KRG and provinces. Second, it demands the implementation of the system of checks and balances on the executive branch — particularly by empowering parliament and ensuring an independent judiciary. Third, it calls for a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process that provides justice for those damaged by Saddam’s regime, but stops short of collectively punishing Sunnis.

Knights’ conclusion, however, is surprisingly optimistic. He points to new efforts by the US and Iraq’s neighbors that could push the country’s centralization-crazed leadership to reconsider their strategy. Read the article here.