Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to the White House today gives President Obama an opportunity to persuade the Iraqi prime minister that he’s mistaken in his religiously partisan approach to governance in that deeply divided nation.
If Obama doesn’t seize this opportunity, or if his guest turns a deaf ear to his advice, the terrible situation in Iraq will only deteriorate.
Iraq’s divisions, of course, fall along religious lines. Without a serious effort on the part of the government, the nation’s Sunnis and Shiites, like their counterparts throughout the Islamic world, will continue to hate each other over ages-old theological differences, and far too often that hatred has led to bloodshed.
The government is dominated by Shiites, leaving the Sunnis feeling aggrieved by the way their priorities are given short shrift in Baghdad. This has led not just to horrible and frequent acts of deadly violence, but it has also undermined any hopes of establishing an Iraqi national identity, which is what the United States had hoped to do before pulling out its troops two years ago.
The American approach was to work closely with tribal leaders, irrespective of their religious affiliations, and to thereby ease the longstanding tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites. But the tensions are as bad as ever.
On average, 18 Iraqis are killed each day, and their religious differences are the single most significant cause of the violence.
Maliki, instead of embracing policies of reconciliation, has capitalized on the widespread sectarian fears to consolidate his power.
Of course, there is also a responsibility — to steer clear of politics — on the part of the nation’s religious leaders, but it’s difficult to do that when the government doesn’t lend a hand.
However, there is a reason for at least modest optimism: Iraq’s leading Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has recently joined with a few Sunni and Shiite leaders pushing reconciliation.
“No sect shall have the right to describe the other as blasphemous, consider them an enemy, or allow for their bloodshed, looting of their property or violation of their honor,” these clerics declared in August.
Obama should remind his guest of this fact and tell him that the level of America’s support for the ruling Iraqi government will depend largely on how he responds to this advice.