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Religion or democracy?

Kersten Knipp /ai
November 4, 2012

Washington had hoped to turn Iraq into a full-fledged democracy. But the country remains a far cry from that goal. Instead, religion keeps cropping up as the dominant issue in both domestic and foreign policy.

(picture: Munaf al-saidy)
Image: DW/Munaf Al-Saidy

There is no shortage of arms in the Middle East, but for some there seems not to be enough. At least that's one way of interpreting the visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Moscow in early October where he sealed a massive deal with the Kremlin to buy Russian arms worth more than 3 billion euros ($3.8 billion).

Maliki's shopping list included tactical fighter helicopters and rocket systems. A year earlier, Russia had already sold arms to Iraq for about a quarter of a billion euros. While this was a lot, it was little compared to the arms deals Baghdad did with the US, where Iraq purchased arms worth some six billion euros during the same period.

A change in international ties

The US arms deals, however, are tied to strict conditions. The US military has mostly withdrawn from the country but Washington still wields enormous influence in the country - and on the possible use of the arms supplied by Washington. The rockets and helicopters from Russia, therefore, have a crucial advantage for the government in Baghdad: They don't come with strings attached, or at least not with the same ones as from the US.

The Iraqi-Russian arms deal marks a new development in the US-Iraqi relationship. While the US has accepted Nouri al-Maliki, they would prefer a different government, explains Dia al-Shakarchi, a political analyst and former member of the 2005 transitional parliament in Iraq. "Basically, they would prefer a different government to the Islamic-oriented one. That's why al-Maliki is closer to the Russians."

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (2nd L) and his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki (3rd L) (picture: REUTERS/Ekaterina Shtukina/RIA Novosti)
Russia's Medvedev and Iraq's al-Maliki have similar goals, but for different reasonsImage: Reuters

Shared interests

The good relations between Baghdad and Moscow are mostly based on common foreign policy interests. Both Russia and Iraq are siding with the regime of Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war. Both Russia and Iraq favor Shiite regimes in the region over Sunni ones – albeit for different reasons. While Russia fears for its influence in the region which would decline should Assad fall, Maliki who himself is a Shiite feels close to Shiite Iran and Alawite Assad.

But Maliki's personal history also links him to those two allies: When sentenced to death as a political enemy of Saddam Hussein, he first fled to Iran and then later to Syria from where he kept up his opposition activities against Hussein.

Religion dominates

The most crucial point, however, is the current Syria conflict, which increasingly is being fought along sectarian lines. Religion plays a major role, explains Shakarchi, "both for the Islamist as well as the secular elements" who don't really have a choice but to incorporate religion into their policies. Both sides are in fact united in their fear of a Sunni-Islamist Syria as a neighbor.

The concern over this possible future development for Syria is what motivates Maliki's foreign policy, but this puts him on a collision course with Washington, which is seeking an end to the Assad regime.

Domestic policy motives

Maliki's pro-Shiite course is also motivated by domestic issues. The Iraqi prime minister is forced to take religious matters into account whether he wants to or not because Iraq is neither in ethnic nor in religion terms a unified state, explains Naseef Naeem of Marburg University in Germany.

While Maliki has tried to bundle power in the hands of the Shiites, at the the same time, "Sunnis are seeking a separate region in the west of the country with support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar," he notes.

Nouri al-Maliki (L) meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (picture: dpa)
Iraq's Shiite leader is a supporter of Syrian dictator Bashar AssadImage: picture alliance/dpa

Naeem went to emphasize that the persisting conflicts within the country hamper political dialogue and subsequently the country's further development.

"When the prime minister says something, the Sunni population immediately interprets this as a Shiite decree. And that is reason enough for them not to implement it," says Naeem, adding that in the end such problems damage the entire country: "The tension basically prevents the state from working properly."

Authoritarian alternative?

Iraqis, therefore, continue to be subjected to religious tensions - both in domestic and foreign policy, and that is unlikely to change in the near future, says al-Shakarchi. The people of Iraq, like the rest of the Middle East, are paying a high political price for that. As long as politicians are thinking primarily in religious categories, democracy stands little chance of succeeding. But, there is really no alternative at the moment, he says.

Dictatorships are not an alternative to a religiously dominated system, Shakarchi explains. Therefore, countries still need to experiment with the democratic system. He hopes that the people of the region will understand that there is no alternative to democracy. "There is the chance that voters in the end will prefer secular powers to the Islamist ones."

So far, however, religion continues to dominate the power struggle in the Middle East, and as long as religion dominates the political process, arms deals will not bring any long-term advantage to any of the competing factions. After all, the religious forces, as they are now, are not afraid of guns, but rather love them.