Inertia abides in Iraq

Blaming al-Qaeda is the easy option in Iraq’s divided politics.

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The release of the Iraqi election results at the end of last month deepened a sense of conspiracy and dangerous inertia in the country. Events over the past few weeks since the results were announced show that this disillusionment is threatening to reverse the security gains of the previous two years.

Following the announcement, multiple bomb attacks struck Baghdad, killing 30 and wounding more than 224. While Baghdad has grown used to large-scale bombings that target markets, sacred sites or religious pilgrimages, government ministries and security infrastructure, these most recent bombings have targeted the Iranian, Syrian and Egyptian embassies.

The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, described the bombing campaign as a "political attack" and blamed al-Qaeda, the standard and easy option for Iraq's beleaguered politicians. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in particular has struggled to justify his coalition's claim for credit in reducing violence, in the face of such targeted attacks against highly defended targets.

However, rather than being driven by the anarchical al-Qaeda, it is instead likely that elements of the Sunni insurgency are responsible. The insurgency has never operated in a regional vacuum; rather, is connected to all six neighbouring states in myriad ways. In return, Iraq's neighbours have all been involved in staking out their interests in the "new Iraq".

High-level state penetration into a weak state entity is nothing new in the Middle East. Nearby Lebanon provides a powerful metaphor for a fragmented state all too often at the whim of its neighbouring patrons.

Step into a vacuum

Following the embassy bombings, Maliki accused Iraq's neighbours of meddling in the country's business, warning them that "our message is clear: do not interfere in our affairs". Without naming these countries, the prime minister explained that they see themselves as "guardians" of Iraq -- something the partly sovereign Baghdad government rejects.

Regional support for the Sunni insurgency has evolved since the US decision to co-opt the 70,000 "sons of Iraq". Complex splits among the Sunnis are flourishing violently in the political vacuum created by the inconclusive elections, hence the likely targeting of former allies.

Finding a place for the Sunnis in the "new Iraq" is a challenge critical to the country's stability. Although Iyad Allawi's Iraq Bloc (voted for by a majority of Sunnis) won the largest share of seats in parliament, it seems doubtful that the two major Shia coalitions will allow him to put together a viable governing coalition.

Will Iraq's Sunni neighbours -- especially Saudi Arabia -- be happy if Allawi is cast out into the opposition, or will Iran reject any Allawi-led coalition, considering his personal enmity towards the regime in Tehran?

Iraq's political elite may look instead to form a coalition of national unity that brings all factions into the government. Although this option sounds attractive, it virtually guarantees parliamentary inertia -- which is not the formula for delivering public services to the Iraqi people, or making decisions on the pressing issues of federalism, reform of the constitution and the oil law.

The attacks on the embassies are a reminder that deeply divided Iraq's political institutions are heavily penetrated by influence beyond their borders. After the national elections of December 2005, it took 156 days for a government to be formed. Unless all the factions inside and outside Iraq can agree, it may take even longer this time round.

James Denselow is a writer on political and security issues affecting the Middle East, and is based at King's College London