Pope Francis (centre) seen near the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra) in northern Mosul on Sunday. Agence France-Presse
Pope Francis has done Iraq a great service. His visit, the first ever by a Catholic pontiff, put that martyred country back on the map of world news for three historic days. He arrived just two weeks before the 18th anniversary of the disastrous US invasion and occupation which broke Iraq and led to the rise of al-Qaeda and Daesh in the Eastern Arab World.
For Iraq itself, the most important event in the Pope’s visit was his meeting with Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who said that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace, and with full constitutional rights.” He also urged Iraq’s religious authorities to ensure protection for all Iraq’s minorities and equal treatment with the Shia majority. The re-iteration of such sentiments was nothing new for Grand Ayatollah Sistani who has been a moderating influence during Iraq’s post-war upheaval.
Muslim as well as Christian Iraqis welcomed the Pope’s visit, he not only reminded the world Iraq exists but he also boosted Iraqis’ morale. For a change, they felt they are citizens of a “normal” country rather than a land devastated by constant warfare. Iraqis living in Baghdad, Najaf, Mosul and Irbil were delighted by his coming because their cities were refurbished.
Potholed roads were resurfaced, rubbish collected, and bullet-holed churches repaired. CNN’s Ben Wedeman reported from Baghdad that Iraqis wished the Pope would stay a month and visit more places.
Meanwhile, in the “real Iraq” where the Pope did not tread, bombings and violent protests continue. Two days before the Pope arrived, at least 10 rockets were fired at Ain al-Asad air- base, which hosts US troops in the western province of Anbar. Although not claimed by any faction, the attack was clearly in retaliation for the February 26th US airstrikes on Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Iranian-backed militias based in eastern Syria near the border town of Boukamal.
In the week before the Pope’s visit, there were violent clashes between anti-regime demonstrators, Shia militiamen and security forces in the southern city of Nasiriyah, during which five protesters were killed and scores wounded. Determined to quell disturbances that could threaten the Pope’s mission, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi dismissed the provincial governor and deployed troops rather than riot police, and appealed to local leaders and tribal heads to keep the peace.
Nasiriyah has been a hub of protests since Iraqis took to the streets in early October 2019 to call for the ouster of the Shia-fundamentalist-dominated sectarian regime installed by the US in 2003-04, demobilisation of militias, an end to US and Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs, and a halt to misrule and corruption.
Although Nasiriyah remains restive, protests elsewhere have wound down for two reasons: violence and voting. Determined to retain their grip on power, the security services and militias have attacked protesters and kidnapped and killed activists who have called for an end to Iranian influence in Iraq.
Activists have decided to make use of Iraq’s flawed democratic process by participating in elections, postponed from June until mid-October, by forming political parties with the object of securing seats in the national assembly. Some 260 parties have registered to take part in the elections, 60 of them new. Although most of the new parties appear to be connected with existing groupings, 10 independent parties have been formed by activists in Baghdad, Nasiriyah and elsewhere.
While organisers are inexperienced and their parties do not enjoy the funding and political clout of the parties connected to Shia militias which dominate the scene, there is some hope for new blood to enter the assembly. The new electoral law divides each of Iraq’s 18 provinces into 83 electoral districts each of which will send a representative to parliament. If opposition parties field one candidate per constituency and do not compete with each other, they could win, perhaps, 30 seats in the 329-member parliament.
Opposition parties could contest and win seats which have formerly been captured by discredited coalitions formed by Shia fundamentalist factions. A poll conducted last November showed activists enjoy the support of a large majority of Iraqis.
Shia fundamentalist factions are now seen by Iraq’s youth, notably disaffected Shia youth, as the main obstacles to a transition to democratic governance. Which they are. However, new parties emerging from the uprising face threats of violence from militia-backed candidates they seek to oust. Therefore, if the government is serious about holding free and fair elections, it will have to offer protection to opposition candidates and parties even though they plan to do most of their campaigning on social media.
Opposition parties will also have to follow the example of the factions which have been in power since 2005 by forming coalitions rather than standing alone. One of the chief reasons Arab Spring Egyptian “revolutionaries” failed to secure seats in parliament was the multiplicity of parties which fought each other rather than the well organised Muslim Brotherhood which took control by democratic means.
It is ironic that Iran is the most influential external power in Iraq rather than the US. After all, former US President George W. Bush waged war on that country to topple Saddam Hussein and his secular Baath party with the intention of creating a pro-US regime using the time-honoured practice of divide-and-rule adopted by former colonial powers. If policy-makers in the Bush administration had read the history of this region, they might, just might, have been warned against basing Iraqi governance on Lebanon’s failed sectarian model. Lebanon suffered two civil wars since independence and Lebanese began their revolt against the divisive sectarian regime 16 days after Iraqi protests erupted in Baghdad. But then US citizens generally do not read the histories of other countries — and know little of the history of their own country.
Once Baghdad had fallen, the Bush administration established an interim governing council of Iraqis chosen on the basis of their ethnicity and religious affiliations. Several Shias, who were the majority, had links to Iran. Ultimately, the government of Iraq became dominated by Shia fundamentalist politicians and militia chiefs allied to Iran.
Despite eight years of occupation, Washington bequeathed Iraq neither a stable government nor an army capable of defending the country. After Daesh seized 30 per cent of Iraq for the cross-border “caliphate” with its capital in Raqqqa in Syria, Washington had no option but to intervene. It returned with war planes and penny packets of soldiers to fight alongside the weak Iraqi army and pro-Iranian militias which emerged stronger from the campaign against Daesh.
Iraq is paying a high price. This is why Pope Francis calls Iraq the martyred country and has tried to attract global attention to its continuing martyrdom by making a high profile tour from south to north.