By Aron Lund*
Although little noticed in the international media, Iraqi politics have been unusally stormy these past days, ever since it was revealed that Qatar would host a conference for ”Iraqi reconciliation.” With all involved well attuned to the dog-whistle rhetoric of Iraqi politics, this was universally understood to mean ”Sunni Arab Iraqi reconciliation.”
Much of the Shia press and political landscape in Iraq reacted with outrage. These voices grew even angrier as speculation intensified about who would attend. When the meetings began in Doha on September 2, Iraqi debate collapsed in a roaring pandemonium of threats and accusations against those Sunni politicians who had dared travel to Qatar.
While details remain scarce, it seems clear that the Doha Congress was directly backed by the Qatari government. This was quite enough to anger Iraqi Shia politicians, many of whom subscribe to the idea that no foreign state should ever be allowed to interfere in Iraqi politics unless it fulfills the stringent requirement of also having a four-letter name that begins with I-R-A. To make matters worse, the attendees weren’t just the usual mix of Gulf-friendly Sunni tribal figures, party leaders, and elected officials. This time, the meeting included a generous sprinkling of wanted fugitives and others with links to banned militant groups that have waged war on the Iraqi government for more than a decade.
According to the Qatar-funded newspaper al-Arabi al-Jadid, the three main factions invited were (1) elected Sunni Arab officials from Iraq, (2) people linked to the formerly powerful Islamist insurgent faction known as the Islamic Army, and (3) the Iraqi Baath Party. Which is probably where the real controversy starts.
Specifically, this is about the Baath Party wing led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri—the “King of Clubs,” if you still recall that silly-but-effective American propaganda stunt from 2003. Having operated underground since 2003, he has repeatedly been declared dead, only to pop right back up like a murderous Jack-in-the-Box and continue the war. Most recently, he died in April 2015.
With the Baath Party having gone underground to turn itself into a guerrilla group in 2003, Douri is nowadays better known as the driving force behind the so called Naqshbandi Army, a Baathist front organization that has been killing Iraqi soldiers for years. The Naqshbandi Army was an active participant in the wave of violence that engulfed most of Iraq’s Sunni areas in 2014—a wave unleashed partly in response, it must be said, to years of sectarian discrimination and misrule by the Iran-backed Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. While the Baathists were never formally allied with the Islamic State, there certainly existed a measure of tacit cooperation against their common enemies—the governments of Iraq, Iran, the USA, the Kurdistan Regional Government, etc. Izzat al-Douri only broke ranks with the Islamic State after the latter had solidified control across Sunni Iraq and began purging, torturing, and killing all fellow travelers who would not submit to its ”caliphate”. At that point, the rather few remaining Naqshbandi/Baath fighters found themselves forced to adjust their rhetoric in search of international sponsorship. (Judging by their effusive praise for Qatar these days, they seem to have found it.)
Of course, any dealings with the Baath Party is a criminal offense in Iraq and this creates serious risks for Sunni officials interested in meeting its representatives. When it turned out that the Iraqi Speaker of Parliament and Muslim Brotherhood member Salim al-Jabbouri was going to be in Doha on September 2, all hell broke lose. Shia politicians of all stripes, but particularly some of the more unhinged sectarians close to Iran, unleashed a firestorm of condemnation. Claims of high treason were among the milder charges leveled at Jabbouri and his group.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki thundered that the Doha Congress was part of a plan to “split Iraq along sectarian lines.” Maliki’s ally Khalaf Abdessamad—who is parliamentary whip of the Islamic Daawa Party, members of which have headed the Iraqi cabinet for ten years straight—fumed with loquacious rage: “the enemies of Iraq are once again, with the support of the nursers of sedition and the funders of terror and extremism, organizing their meeting in Qatar, which has shown that it is an enemy of the Iraqi people.” He then demanded that all participants in the Doha Congress should be fired from their jobs and kicked out of parliament and said that the Islamic Daawa Party is canvassing parliamentarians to make that happen. (One claimed on September 3 that more than one hundred parliamentary signatures calling for the ouster of Jabbouri have already been gathered.)
Jabbouri and other politicians who were actually or allegedly en route to Qatar quickly began to backpedal, fumbling forth all manners of unlikely explanations for why they had found it so important to fly off on a quick jaunt to Doha on that particular date. Jabbouri’s group deplored that certain not-to-be-named irresponsible politicians were trying to confuse Iraqis about the purpose of their trip, which was simply to meet Qatar’s prime minister and talk about, um, uh, things. Jabbouri insisted that his group had not been in any meetings with other Iraqis while in the country.
Perhaps to defuse tension or to prod supposed partners into action, Qatar also let it be known that the conference had been coordinated with the office of the prime minister in Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi. This didn’t particularly help. Since the eruption of major popular protest in Iraq this summer, Abadi is locked in struggle with a number of other political currents, prime among them the pro-Iranian militia radicals and his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. Once these groups spotted an opportunity to portray the prime minister as a Baathist-lover, they had all the more reason to ramp up their anti-Doha rhetoric. Whether out of compulsion or conviction, Abadi finally broke his silence to condemn the Doha Congress as a breach of Iraqi sovereignty.
Baathists, Gulf Ambassadors, and the United Nations
On September 5, the Baathist website Dhi Qarr issued a statement from Khodeir al-Morshidi, a (rare) Shia member of the Baath who has acted as its spokesperson. Morshidi explained that the party had indeed sent a formal delegation to ”brotherly Qatar in response to its generous invitation.”
Accounts in al-Arabi al-Jadid had been circumspect about the exact nature of the ”Gulf cover and international patronage” that enabled the conference, but the Baath Party—or Morshidi at any rate—emptied a bucketful of names on the table for all to see. By his account, the meeting was held as a discussion between two delegations, Iraqis and foreigners:
On the one hand, there was a delegation from the Baath Arab Socialist Party in Iraq along with a number of national Iraqi personalities who are opposed to the political process and the Iranian intervention and influence. On the other hand, there was the Qatari foreign minister and ambassadors of several states in the Gulf Cooperation Council—including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait—as well as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General in Iraq and his deputy.
a significant meeting that took place on 2 September in the Qatari capital, Doha, between many different Iraqi Sunni groups. The meeting was opened by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Mr. Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah. Official representatives of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were also in attendance.
To have a delegation from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party sitting in a room with the Gulf States and the United Nations is progress to some Iraqis, but it is outrageous to others. When something like this was last tried, in Amman in 2014, Baghdad was livid with anger and the United States seemed similarly distressed.
Khodeir al-Morshidi claims the Baath now wants a non-sectarian Iraq and a multiparty democracy, but even if this represented a genuine change of heart—of course it doesn’t—most of Iraq’s Shia Arabs and Kurds would hardly be moved to embrace their former oppressor. In the 1980s and 1990s, Izzat al-Douri and Saddam’s other lieutenants slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqis and the wounds of that era have never healed. The mass graves continue to be unearthed today, even as the Islamic State is busily digging new ones.
As if that’s not enough, Iranian state media is fanning the flames. Iran lost tens of thousands of its own citizens to Saddam Hussein’s army, missiles strikes, and nerve gas attacks during the 1980-1988 war. For Iran, it is also a straightforward national security issue, irrespective of painful memories and sectarian calculations: Tehran has worked hard to set up a pro-Iranian order in Baghdad since 2003. It is naturally unwilling to accept a resurgence of anti-Iranian forces with or without the Baathists, especially one backed by its arch-enemies on the Arabian Peninsula.
Insurgents vs. Politicians
But Iraqi and Iranian Shia outrage is just part of the story. The Doha Congress in fact sparked two different controversies, the other one among the Sunni attendees.
While many Iraqi Sunnis, such as Jabbouri, have accepted to work in post-2003 politics despite feeling that the system is rigged against them, others have refused to accept that the current government is in any way legitimate. For many of the rebels who are still fighting thirteen years after the American invasion, Sunnis who have allowed themselves to be elected to parliament are at best weak and corrupt but more likely traitors. This is exactly the problem that the Doha Congress was intended to overcome, or start overcoming, but it seems easier said than done.
Even as Jabbouri is at pains to deny meeting with any active insurgents in Doha, those insurgents are just as sensitive to the accusation of having met with him. Their constituency isn’t just Sunni Arabs in general: it is the hardliners who fight, fund, and favor armed struggle against the current political system, a system of which Jabbouri is a prominent member.
Thus, Khodeir al-Morshidi had no problem acknowledging that the Baath delegation met with Gulf Arab ambassadors (”in an atmosphere of brotherhood and mutual understanding,” etc) or the United Nations. But when it came to Jabbouri and others working in legal Iraqi politics, he reverted to the insult-laden rhetorical drone so dear to Baathists everywhere:
We must confirm, contrary to the malicious fabrications and calculated dissimulations put out by certain actors and media organizations, that the meeting was not attended by any of the participants in the political process or the Green Zone government, as they claim. The Party exempted itself from any [separate] meeting with those of them that happened to be present in brotherly Qatar at the time, and neither did the Party seek to attend any meeting with any representative or participant in the political process—those whom the people have rejected and for whose downfall it calls while asking for the trial of the corrupt, thieving, and treacherous among them.
Once you have waved away the smoke puff of angry denials, what remains is the fact that a Baath Party delegation met with the Qatari leadership, which in turn met with Jabbouri, for the purpose of unifying Sunni ranks in Iraq. Whether or not they were ever in the same room is almost beside the point.
Both sides have very good reasons to downplay this. Morshidi and the Baath (assuming he truly speaks for the organization) do not want to give anyone the impression that they’re going soft or that they are about to extend any sort of legitimacy to the Iraqi government. Because of course they would never do that and, besides, they would want something in return.
For his part, Jabbouri is clearly in hot enough water as it is. If he and the Baath both emphasize that he never sat down with what Iraqi law says is a terrorist movement, it could well save him a trial or two in Baghdad. Not that he was going back home just yet. He had one more stop on his trip after non-attending the Doha Congress—and it was, intriguingly enough, Tehran.
Unifying Sunni Ranks
What this all seems to amount to is a regionally-backed attempt to unify all those Iraqi Sunni Arab forces that remain opposed to the Islamic State and get them to endorse a few common demands, thereby paving the way for reconciliation talks with Baghdad. The Doha Congress obviously enjoyed the backing of Qatar, but if these reports are anything to go by, other Gulf states states were also involved, as well as the United Nations. And if we believe that, we must assume that the Doha Congress—Baathists and all—enjoyed at least the tacit acceptance of the United States.
It makes perfect sense, in theory at least. The confusion, the defections, and the contradictory statements that poured out from the Doha Congress, and the virulent reaction from Shia politicians in Iraq, hints that it could perhaps have been a little better prepared, or a lot. But the idea of trying to cultivate some basic unity among Iraq’s Sunni leaders, up to and including those linked to non-Islamic State insurgent factions, is a sound one. Without unity you can wage neither war nor peace, as anyone watching the tragedy unfold in neighboring Syria will have noticed.
What is preventing the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq is ultimately not a lack of firepower, but rather the dizorganized nature of the coalition fighting the jihadis and—most of all—its inability to produce a Sunni Arab force that could challenge the Islamic State on its home turf. For the war on the Islamic State to succeed, other Iraqi Sunni rejectionists need to be cajoled back into the political game and Iraq’s Sunni Arab leadership as a whole must be empowered to draw opportunistic support away from the extremists. It need not be a very explicit or formal process and it must not involve either side publicly declaring defeat or bowing to the other, but it will involve painful compromises for all involved.
There are a number of problems with such an approach, of course, one being that Iraq’s Sunni leaders all seem to hate each other. But the ferocity of reactions in Baghdad show the other side of the problem. What prevents intra-Sunni reconciliation isn’t only the criminality of the Baath Party leadership or the intransigence of various Islamist guerrillas. It is also the blanket refusal of the Shia Islamist parties ruling Baghdad to countenance the rise of a Sunni Arab bloc that could challenge their hegemony—particularly one that includes ”terrorists.”
In the long run, that is a self-destructive attitude. It is true that Iraq’s official Sunni political groups are lamentably weak and divided—because Sunni elites were first smashed into submission by Saddam Hussein, then weakened and fractured by the United States, then pressured by Shia persecution, then undercut by the rise of the Islamic State. It is also true that those Sunni leaders who are closer to the militants and can sway communities on the ground will often be linked to the former regime or to radical sectarian groups. Some of them are soaked in blood, before and after the 2003 invasion. But this is also true: the Islamic State will not go away until there is a credible alternative for Iraqi Sunni Arabs to rally behind. And in producing that alternative, like it or not, this is what there is to work with.
The Iraqi Sunni leaders that can establish an Islamic State-free order in their own home towns will not be invented by Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad and they aren’t waiting in the wings in Washington, Doha, Riyadh, Amman, Erbil, or Tehran. They will need to come at least in part from the ranks of ex-insurgents and politicians now shunned and persecuted as outlaws for their Baathist, jihadi, or foreign ties—but this is precisely what the current Iraqi regime will not allow.
It is a hellishly difficult equation to solve, perhaps an unsolveable one, where all sides glory in their own victimhood and all are truly victims. But one step in the right direction is surely to try to address the disorganized state of Iraqi Sunni politics. Nothing can be achieved for as long as the Islamic State remains the only game in town for Sunnis in places like Mosul and Falluja, and even in places it hasn’t occupied yet. Overcoming the Baghdad government’s resistance to some form—any form—of compromise with Sunni rejectionists will almost certainly require the intervention of independent Shia leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as the kingmaker in Iraqi Shia politics, Iran. But with the Islamic State lining up Shia civilians for video-taped slaughter week after week, and with proxy conflict still raging across the Persian Gulf and in Lebanon and Syria, hardliners are likely to keep the upper hand.
*Aron Lund, Editor of Syria in Crisis