It has been nearly two months since Iraqis voted in the much-lauded national elections for the new National Assembly. Two months and still no government. The closest the National Assembly came to forming a new government was at its opening session on March 16, 2005. That session started with mortar attacks and air-raid sirens and ended without a date to reconvene and without electing any officials. Several times party officials have set a date for the Assembly to reconvene. Each time, the date has passed without a meeting.
The Assembly finally reconvened on March 29, 2005. Expectations for the meeting were low in light of reports that Kurdish and Shiite political leaders failed to reach an agreement on divvying up the government between them. The results of the meeting fell below those already low expectations when journalists were kicked out when the Assembly erupted in anger after the Kurds and Shiites failed to reach any agreement on the make-up of the government.
What's behind all of the delays and haggling?
The Kurds, historically excluded from and subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Iraqi government, won more than a quarter of the seats in the new Assembly. Under the U.S.-backed interim constitution, super-majorities are required to govern. Thus, the Kurds find themselves with unprecedented power in the governance of Iraq and are demanding an autonomous Kurdistan, control over oil-rich Kirkuk, 25 percent of Iraq's oil revenues, and the right to maintain a separate military. The Shiites, the majority population in Iraq, consider the Kurdish demands extreme and a stumbling block to forming a new Iraqi government.
The Sunnis, who've maintained hegemony in Iraq since the 1920s, largely boycotted the elections on January 30, 2005. As recently explained by President Bush, "You cannot hold free and fair elections under foreign military occupation." While Bush, without a hint of irony, was referring to Lebanon, most Iraqi Sunnis agree with the sentiment. In fact, believing then, as they do now, that any election under foreign military occupation is illegitimate, Sunnis refuse to legitimate the occupation or the elections through participation in Iraq's new government.
Recent events amply demonstrate the threat to Iraq's stability posed by an alienated Sunni population. Decrying the Shiites and Kurds, rather than the United States, as the true oppressors, Sunni leaders have begun to openly call for violent retribution against the Shiite-Kurd coalition. To that end, Sunni sheiks have called upon tribal leaders to lend support to so-called "patriotic Arabs," Sunnis fighting against the Shiite-Kurd coalition.
The Sunni call to arms is the latest in the increasing escalation of ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq. Shiite death squads routinely kill Sunnis suspected of ties to the Saddam regime. In retaliation, Sunnis target and kill Shiites and Kurds. According to Iraqi politicians, violence by Sunnis against Shiites and Kurds is far worse than that carried out by the "insurgency" and "anti-Iraqi forces." In Kirkuk, considered by the Kurds as their Jerusalem, Kurdish leaders are forcing out Sunni and Shia Arabs and ethnic Turkomen so as to reclaim what was forcibly taken by Saddam Hussein. Arabs and Turkomen have vowed revenge upon the Kurds.
In the midst of this in-fighting and civil strife, what little remains of the Iraqi infrastructure after the U.S. invasion is breaking down. For instance, on Sunday guards at the Ministry of Science and Technology opened fire on a crowd of approximately fifty protesting government employees, killing one and injuring three. The protestors were employed as guards at a uranium storage facility near Baghdad and were reporting to the Ministry to collect their pay and ammunition. Upon discovering that their salaries had been summarily cut, the employees broke into protest.
Two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqis have electricity an average of only eight hours a day, unemployment is as high as 40 percent, and there are nationwide shortages of food and medicine. Worse yet, since the invasion, child malnutrition has doubled and child mortality has tripled. Moreover, in addition to the insurgency -- led primarily by Sunni Iraqis but increasingly consisting of foreign fighters -- Iraq is plagued by a staggering level of crime, including rampant kidnapping, theft, and murder. As a result, more than one million Iraqis have fled the country.
In the meantime, the U.S. government continues to repeat the party line that democracy is flourishing in Iraq and that Iraq is a shining example for the rest of the Middle East, if not the world. To that end, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted overwhelmingly to approve an additional $87 billion for the occupation of Iraq. What our government fails to mention, however, is that Iraq is but a microcosm of the growing schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims throughout the Arab world.
Iraq would be the first Shiite-dominated country in the Arab world. In nations like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Shiites, agitated by the events in Iraq, are demanding more rights and greater power. That Shiites are demanding equality is not a problem, in and of itself. The growing instability of an already unstable region, however, is problematic. This growing instability is evident in the condemnation by Iraqi Shiite leaders' of neighboring Sunni-led governments for turning a blind eye to Iraqi Shiite suffering. It is further evident in the withdrawal by Jordan and Iraq of their respective ambassadors last week after reports that the suicide bomber who killed 125 Shiites in Iraq last February was Jordanian.
If the ethnic and sectarian instability in Iraq cannot be peacefully resolved, the divide between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites in particular could draw millions of people from Iraq and the rest of the Arab world into a cauldron of violence. This should be of fundamental importance to the U.S. government and should prompt it to reconsider its Pollyannaish view of Iraq.
Ken Sanders is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Visit his weblog at: www.politicsofdissent.blogspot.com/.
Other Articles by Ken Sanders
the Lights on the Enlightenment