President Obama’s war in Iraq, aimed at destroying the Islamic State group, won a key victory Saturday. But it was not a military one. Rather it was a victory over the major religious fault-line in the Middle East.
A new Iraqi prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi, who is Shiite, convinced a Shiite-dominated parliament to approve a Sunni, legislator Khaled al-Obeidi, as defense minister. The selection was a final, difficult act in forming an inclusive cabinet.
The cabinet appointments, while not all ideal, were a condition for the American-led military campaign against IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL). They are meant to form the transcendent bonds that affirm a national civic identity.
The war itself would be futile if Iraq’s minority Sunnis continue to back IS as an alternative to Shiite dominance or if the Iraqi military were not led by a unity government. It was, after all, the military’s collapse in June against the IS advance that led to the political downfall of the eight-year premiership of Nouri al-Maliki and his severe sectarian rule.
While journalists focus mainly on the armed conflict, the real struggle lies in attempts to reconcile Iraq’s factions, including ethnic Kurds. Winning that “war” is a reflection of what is needed in almost every conflict in the region – within Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, as well as the regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iraq’s civil progress in forming a unity regime needs to be celebrated, if not emulated. It even suggests, ever so faintly, that fighters still joining IS day by day might someday be won over by negotiation.
“We cannot do this for [Iraq], because it’s not just a military problem, it is a political problem,” President Obama said in a 60 Minutes interview. Many countries in the region, he said, must “think about what tolerance means.”
To be sure, one key cabinet appointment, lawmaker Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban as interior minister, may probably cause concern. He is a member of the pro-Iran, hard-line Shi’ite Badr Organization. The Badr’s militia wing, with more than 10,000 fighters, is notorious for attacks on Sunnis. As overseer of police forces, Mr. Ghabban will need to be evenhanded .
Even with Iran’s meddling role in neighboring Iraq, there is hope in its ongoing negotiations with the US over its nuclear program. A settlement there would reshape Shiite-Sunni tensions in the region.
The more Iraq makes progress in building a democratic, prosperous state for all its citizen, the more such groups as Islamic State will lose legitimacy. Destroying IS will be done mostly within itself. Each act of democratic unity in Baghdad is more powerful than all the American air attacks in Iraq.