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Analysts: Less Sectarian Solidarity, More Unity Needed in Iraq

  • Aru Pande

Iraqi Shi'ite Turkmen gunmen gather as they prepare to patrol around the village of Taza Khormato in the northern oil rich province of Kirkuk, June 20, 2014.

Iraqi Shi'ite Turkmen gunmen gather as they prepare to patrol around the village of Taza Khormato in the northern oil rich province of Kirkuk, June 20, 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeated the U.S. desire for Iraqi leaders to quickly form an inclusive government to deal with the Sunni militant group ISIL that is sweeping through the country.

Calling it a critical moment of urgency and decision - Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Monday in Baghdad that Iraq's very future was dependent on whether the country's leadership could look beyond sectarian divisions.

“When the legitimate concerns and aspirations of all of Iraq's communities - Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurds - are all respected - that is when Iraq is strongest and that is when Iraq will be the most secure,” he said.

Still, many have questioned whether Iraqis can indeed come together and whether the country may even be better off divided into three semi-independent regions governed by Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds - an idea Vice President Joe Biden proposed back in 1996 as a member of Congress.

At a forum in Washington Monday, retired U.S. Colonel Peter Mansoor, who served as General David Petraeus' executive officer during the 2007 U.S. “surge” in Iraq, dismissed the idea of a divided Iraq. He said those he has talked to identify themselves as Iraqi before anything else.

“Forty percent of Iraqis are from mixed Sunni-Shi'ite marriages, that doesn't sound like a place that is highly sectarian to me. It is the political elites in Iraq who have created that narrative and are using it for their purposes,” he said.

Mazin al-Eshaiker, former economic advisor to Iraq's deputy prime minister, also raised the issue of elitism and an economically-divided Iraq during the forum at the National Press Club.

He said had the Iraqi government welcomed regional cooperation and foreign investment in the last decade, six million people or nearly a quarter of the country's population would not be living under the poverty line.

“Had we opened ourselves economically - Iraqis wouldn't have been fighting, they would have been working. They would have had jobs, they would have been working in factories. They would have improved themselves and we would have built the middle class again. Iraq, ladies and gentlemen, does not have a middle class,” he said.

Eshaiker noted this economic disparity stretched across all sectarian and ethnic groups. He cautioned that a new government in Iraq must represent all Iraqis, echoing comments made by top Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani last week.

Analysts says the key is an Iraq with less sectarian solidarity and a belief among common Iraqis that their government represents them and their needs.

“You can't make a coalition where 95 percent of the people are in the government and five percent are in the opposition, because there aren't enough resources to go around," said Jon Alterman, Middle East Program Director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What you really want is a dynamic environment where people feel, 'well, I am not in this government, but I can be in the next one.”

The United States will be closely watching to see if Iraqi leaders can look past sectarian lines and come together in the coming weeks to protect their country against a militant group that Kerry says wants to destroy Iraq.