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Will Iraq re-embrace its Arab roots?

It has recently been a cause for great optimism to see the Arab world rediscovering Iraq, but how ready is Iraq to rediscover the Arab world? The keynote development was the visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir in late February, the first visit by a Saudi foreign minister since 1990.

This led to an intensification of diplomatic activity, not least efforts by the Kingdom and regional states to play a stronger role in Iraqi reconciliation efforts after the battle for Mosul. Regrettably, goodwill generated by this visit has been somewhat undermined by false claims by Al-Jubeir’s Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim Al-Jaafari that Saudi Arabia agreed to forgive all of Iraq’s debts.

The recent conference in Turkey, brokered by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and attended by prominent Iraqi Sunnis, is a landmark event in developing a post-Mosul vision for reconciliation, allowing regional powers to play a stabilizing role. The recent Arab League Summit in Jordan sought to take these efforts a step further. Unsurprisingly, these efforts garnered a hostile response from pro-Iran entities. Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki decried the Turkey meeting as a “conspiracy” to divide his country.

There are attempts to sow divisions between Sunnis such as Vice President Osama Al-Nujaifi and Saleh Al-Mutlaq, who attended the event, and Parliament speaker Saleh Al-Jubouri and his allies (denounced by some as “Al-Maliki Sunnis”), who stayed away despite efforts to bring all Sunni factions into the process.

Meanwhile, Shiite politicians are as divided as ever, with the Sadrists and Ammar Al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) putting forward rival reconciliation proposals. This makes a unified Shiite front in upcoming elections unlikely. The Dawah Party looks set to fragment between rivals Al-Maliki and Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, both of whom want to be prime minister after the election dust settles.

Al-Abadi says Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias should demobilize after the Mosul battle and should not be part of elections. That these demands came after his visit to Washington provoked Al-Hashd commanders to claim he was doing America’s bidding. Al-Hashd leaders have no intention of demobilizing, and aspire to expand their activities into Syria while extending their political stranglehold of Iraq.

Al-Abadi has found an unlikely ally in Moqtada Al-Sadr, both of whom want to force through reforms and demobilize Al-Hashd. Al-Sadr warns there could be “genocide of some ethnic or sectarian groups” if Al-Hashd is not demobilized. Sadrist rallies in support of such demands have further polarized the Shiite street between Al-Abadi and the Sadrists on one side, and Al-Maliki and Al-Hashd leaders on the other.

One needs to applaud the vision of GCC leaderships in bringing Iraq back into the Arab fold and ensuring that reconciliation agreements have the support and buy-in of Arab nations. This is vital for Iraqi unity and stability.

Baria Alamuddin

This divisive situation is prompting these factions to form tactical alliances outside the Shiite political tent. Concurrent divisions among the Kurds have seen Al-Maliki’s camp allying with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Al-Abadi reaching out to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Ironically, such outreach strengthens the Kurdish hand in demanding self-governance on their terms.

These political fracture lines are mirrored in the Sunni camp, with Al-Jubouri (from the smaller Sunni faction Al-Arabiyah) colluding with Al-Maliki last year to force Al-Abadi’s defense and finance ministers out of their posts in a series of no-confidence votes, which ultimately aspired to target the prime minister himself.

There are fundamental disagreements about what sort of state Iraq should be, with various models of federalism and decentralization on the table. While federalism may allow marginalized groups to wield greater influence, many fear this would accelerate Iraq’s fragmentation. Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have the resources, capacity and regional influence to achieve a pivoting of Iraq away from Tehran’s influence if concerted efforts were made to achieve this goal.

Iraqi Shiites first and foremost identify as Iraqi Arabs, and regard Tehran’s meddling with hostility and suspicion. Even within Al-Hashd, there is a gulf between an older generation such as Hadi Al-Amiri and Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis who grew up under Quds Force tutelage in Iran prior to 2003, and younger foot-soldiers who share their leadership’s ideological objectives but have little love for Tehran.

It cannot be achieved overnight, but I applaud the vision of GCC leaderships in bringing Iraq back into the Arab fold and ensuring that reconciliation agreements have the support and buy-in of Arab nations. This is vital for Iraqi unity and stability, as well as the unity and stability of the wider Arab world.

Iraq is at a crossroads between re-embracing its Arab and regional heritage, or falling back under the sway of sectarian militias and Iran. The consequences of the latter would be the hegemony of a single faction, further disenfranchisement of all other components of society, and ultimately the disintegration of Iraq. It is clear which vision Iraq’s political classes must choose if they genuinely put the interests of Iraqi citizens first.

• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.