Iraq: The Forgotten Conflict

Lest he be forgotten, Tony Blair has opened up once more on Iraq. The former Prime Minister speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme last Monday claimed that Iraq would be entangled in civil war, like its Syrian neighbour, had Britain and the US not invaded. Whilst his comments are likely to enrage those who opposed the 2003 occupation, Mr Blair provides the lone voice that breaks the embarrassed silence that has settled over Iraq, for that we should be thankful.

When the troops packed up and left Iraq in 2011, it seems that the media went right alongside them. Open up any newspaper, switch on any news channel and in all likelihood you will stumble across a story on the Arab Spring. Since its 2010 inception, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria have rarely been out of the spotlight. The romantic narrative that democracy is sweeping (or trying to sweep) across the Middle East, and sprouting like green shoots out of the concrete is too captivating for journalists to ignore.

Iraq too used to have a narrative. In fact it had many. The threat of weapons of mass destruction, the need for regime change, or the oil-hungry leaders of Britain and the United States, whichever account was chosen at least it was interesting. When the troops left, these stories dissipated.  The few reports that now come out of Iraq render violence down to decontextualised facts and figures; a few dead here, a few more dead there. As well as desensitising readers, this perfunctory reporting presents civil unrest as if it just ‘happened’, not as a result of an eight year war that ravaged the country beyond measure.

Pressure from all angles is contributing to an escalating crisis in the country.  The dictatorship that offended George Bush and Tony Blair so much is slowly creeping back. The same sense of political insecurity encapsulates the country as it did under Saddam. Theft of public money and governmental incompetency has resulted in the failure in provision of basic public services, such as electricity and water. The country and its countrymen are yet to reap the rewards of Iraq’s annual £66billion oil revenues. Despite winning the 2010 Prime Ministerial elections marginally, Nouri Al-Maliki’s rule is notably autocratic. Al-Maliki has sought to amass major government institutions, such as the army and the intelligence services, under his control. Torture and secret prisons are perhaps only marginally less prevalent than they were under Saddam. If Iraqis hoped for increased security after the 2003 invasion, they certainly haven’t got it.

Perhaps the biggest sin of the current government has been their refusal to consolidate the Sunni minority. They face social and economic exclusion and find themselves shunned out of top jobs.

 In an interview with the BBC in February, former Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi blamed “the injustice directed towards the Sunni community” by the Prime Minister for the rising violence in Iraq.

And violent is has been. According to the United Nations Mission in Iraq, 703 individuals were killed in February and 733 were killed the month before.  This represents a significant increase in civilian deaths, which amounted to 5,740 last year in comparison to 2,771 in 2011.

Tension between the three main communities-Shia, Sunni and Kurds, has never been so high. “Sectarian violence”, one of the buzzwords of the war, is a stark reality in post war Iraq. Frustrated and radicalised Sunnis are responsible for many of the bombs that detonate across Iraq and their victims are predominately Shia.

The real tragedy in the sectarianism that is dividing the country is the fact that up until the 2003 invasion Iraq was a largely secular society with a strong sense of national identity. Sectarian divisions were emphasised time and time again by the occupying forces, in both their rhetoric and their actions. When the time came to establish a new government, the US and the UK encouraged the division of authority not by ideological or political differences, but by religious and ethnic identity.

Lack of national security has pushed many Iraqis to cling onto such identity for a feeling of stability and unity.  As a result, Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war, making Tony Blair’s remark seem rather misjudged.

Considering that the crisis in Syria is oozing into Iraq, Blair’s decision to compare the two countries is questionable. Many disgruntled Sunnis have embraced terrorists groups such as Al-Qaeda and Jaysh al-Islam. The conflict in Syria has strengthened these terrorists groups throughout the Levant and into Iraq as well.

Disease, like violence, has travelled over the boarder too. The first case of polio was confirmed in Baghdad this month, 23 years since Iraq was declared polio free by the World Health Organisation (WHO). According to the WHO the Iraqi case is related to the epidemic that is currently gripping Syria. This serves as another stark reminder of the increasingly porous borders between Iraq and its troubled neighbours.

The Syrian conflict is bad news too for the hordes of Iraqi refugees who were fleeing to the country for safety. Many have had to return home, bringing the number of internally displaced Iraqis to 2.8million. In a cruel sort of irony, Syrians are now heading to Iraq for security, Refugees International reports.

The violence that shrouds Iraq provides a grim outlook into what lies in store for some of the Middle East’s troubled countries. For countries with such rich history the future looks poor. There is little doubt that Iraq is a failed state and Syria’s prospects don’t seem to fare much better. And yet only one of these countries is given any airtime. The 11th anniversary of Baghdad passed last week unmentioned. Syria’s doing well to grip the world’s interest for the moment, however it’s only a matter of time until our attentions fade and look elsewhere.

Leena El-Refaey

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