THE BLOG

In Search of a Bigger Hammer: Sectarianism in Iraq

17/03/2013 22:31 GMT | Updated 17/05/2013 10:12 BST

During the early months of my time in Iraq I witnessed a very interesting event at Baghdad International Airport (colloquially known as 'BIAP') that, for me, came to represent many things about the country.

In the autumn of 2007 I was awaiting a flight and was initially delighted that my plane had at least arrived in the first place (Tuesday, on the dot) and was sitting on the runway. Unfortunately, after an hour or so, rumours began to circulate that there was a problem with the plane. Situations like this were not uncommon at BIAP at that time and having already sat in the airport for over six hours that day I felt a few more wouldn't do any harm.

However, what happened next was disconcerting. From the departure gate everyone watched as an Iraqi aircraft engineer walked all the way out along the wing. He stopped, looked down closely, took a claw hammer and started purposefully hammering away at a section of the wing with some gusto.

We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when we saw another engineer run along the wing to angrily remonstrate with him, and stop any more violence being inflicted on the plane. This was quickly replaced by a collective gasp as the second engineer stopped his wild gesticulation, walked out of view for a moment and then returned with a much larger sledge hammer that he unleashed with some abandon.

On any aircraft this would not inspire confidence, but on the aging planes that served BIAP at the time it was cause for considerable concern. Although my flight eventually left and I arrived at my destination perfectly safely, I frequently returned to this incident during the rest of my time in Iraq. It was abundantly clear that many Iraqis felt the solution to most of the problems in the post-Saddam era was simply to 'get a bigger hammer'.

Unfortunately, as we approach the ten year anniversary of the start of the military campaign, many Iraqis are still searching for the bigger hammer that is going to solve their country's on-going problems.

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YouGov were the first company to conduct a public opinion survey in Iraq after the fall of Saddam and we measured the views of the population in the following years. We saw how broad optimism quickly turned to pessimism and positive support changed into negative opposition. One of the key things we learned is that trust in politicians, political institutions and the political process is now dangerously low. In short, in the past decade hope has become hate.

Of course there are good reasons for this. Time and again we found that following years of subjugation and violence many of the Iraqi people had extremely high expectations for the new democratic process. They often saw democracy as the way to solve all the problems they personally faced, from water and electricity supplies to security, usually at the expense of other groups in their country.

In Britain and many other countries we (sometimes grudgingly) appreciate and understand the sentiment behind Churchill's view that "democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried". In contrast, Iraqis often still see the cut and thrust of party politics and the inability to immediately address varied individual, localised concerns as signs of irrevocable failure.

As the democratic process repeatedly fails to deliver on the promises to which the populous believe they are entitled, alternative options gain traction. Iraqis often talk about the need for a 'strong leader', one who does not necessarily need to make truth or diplomatic accountability a top priority, providing he is strong, decisive and benevolent. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister since 2006, consistently seeks to exploit this through the promise of many a 'bigger hammer'.

However, all of this overlooks a major problem that is rarely discussed. Despite what the people say publicly (to the outside world and even to each other), Iraq is a country deeply divided along sectarian lines. Worse still, these sectarian divisions remain largely unacknowledged and so continue to grow.

The country essentially divides into three distinct groups who, it is broadly fair to say, 'do not get on': the Shia Arabs (the majority), the Sunni Arabs (who were in charge under Saddam) and the Kurds (largely autonomous and based in the north). During my time living in Baghdad (a mixed Sunni / Shia city) I was told repeatedly that there was 'no sectarianism in Iraq' Many blamed talk of divisions on outsiders, that 'the Americans invented sectarianism', 'accusations of sectarianism are used to divide Iraqis' and even (said without irony) that 'only other sects think we are divided'.

But sectarianism is there and it is still both a significant problem and a major stumbling block to moving the country forward. While this was most obviously demonstrated by the sectarian killings that dominated the local news for so long, it was also clearly evident when we analysed the key drivers for Iraqi's voting preference. The electorate's decision to vote for a candidate was overwhelmingly based on that candidate's sect.

In private, some (and it is only some) Iraqis concede that sectarianism is an issue. However, at most levels of society mention of it appears to be strictly forbidden, particularly on the international stage. It silently dominates the political agenda but is never addressed directly. For example, every move al-Maliki makes that favours his own majority Shia support base is viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Sunnis. Similarly, anything the Kurds in the north do is viewed with scepticism and opposition by the Arab sects in the south.

You don't solve a problem by pretending it doesn't exist. Yet too often Iraqis place the blame for their country's problems at the feet of the Americans, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Turks or even the Israelis. While these beliefs often have foundation, they provide a convenient distraction to the problem of sectarian division that is both far more important and closer to home.

Until the issue of sectarianism is accepted, acknowledged and addressed the search for a 'bigger hammer' to solve Iraq's problems will continue.