Healing Iraq’s Rift requires less Black and White Thinking

(By Nelson Lowhim)

The news from Iraq has grown dire lately. Al Qaeda has taken over certain cities (hotbeds of insurgency in earlier times) and has pushed the Iraqi government into a similar position as was the American military less than a decade ago. It is only the fact that the bogeyman—Al Qaeda—has pushed into cities familiar to Americans, that Iraq made the news here in the US. Furthermore, most US media outlets have missed the point that this flare up is not an anomaly and that it didn’t just start with the preceding protests, or the preceding arrest of Sunni lawmakers—the seeds for this were sown long before the American handover.

Even when violence decreased during the surge, there were issues that weren’t being resolved. The Awakening—Sunni tribes who were fighting alongside the Americans against Al Qaeda-like groups—were not being absorbed by the Iraqi government (mainly Shiite) even though that was part of their reconciliation. In addition, the Iraqi government continued to solely target Sunni “terrorists” (and continues to do so to this day). Sunnis saw this and were made more amiable to the militants. The resulting disenfranchisement with the government threatens the health of the Iraq nation.

What can be done? The first is to lose the black and white view that seems to have prevailed around the situation. Already we see a discrepancy with the claim that Al Qaeda (if that is a proper definition) is in charge of Fallujah. Some civilians on the ground say that the idea of take-over by al-Qaeda has been exaggerated and that they are more worried about the government assaulting their city than they are about the militants being there. In addition, the militants seem to have learned their lesson and are attempting to provide the local population with various social goods (an important development since if these militants learn how to earn the local population’s trust, it will be much harder to root them out). Currently, the Iraqi government has decided to work with and absorb some Sunnis willing to fight alongside them. It remains to be seen if this will last beyond its short-term use. Nevertheless, it is extremely vital for all involved to continue to parse the situation with a required nuance.

The second is to address the underlying situation (and the Sunnis’ grievances), as these must be dealt with or else no amount of military victories will help. What are they? Maliki needs to understand that he will have no peace until he is willing to negotiate with the Sunnis.

Now, the Shiites also have their grievances: too many Sunni suicide bombings have killed their people, but now is the time to work towards peace with a proper reconciliation process.

Finally, the US needs to prod the Iraqi government into negotiations and discussions. Giving more weapons isn’t the answer (even to bring the Iraqi government to the negotiating table as it will only provide the wrong emphasis). Aid can be given, but with strings. And Iran must be involved on some level. They too have a stake in not seeing a civil war on their border. To that end, the situation in Iraq is only exacerbated by the greater instability in Syria. But talk must happen or else extremists will rule the day by filling in the vacuum where reasonable men once stood.

Nelson Lowhim is the author of a book on Baghdad, The Struggle Trilogy which shows the minutiae of an insurgency and the hatred that has never really subsided.