Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke last week that symbolizes the long standing stroke in Arbil-Baghdad relations.
It is everyone’s nightmare that the departure of President Talabani from Iraqi politics will deepen the already existing political crisis between the central Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdistan region. Talabani has been the safety valve between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds; particularly between Baghdad and Arbil. With his departure, it is not only the case that there will be no one to prevent ethnic confrontation anymore. The picture is much darker. Before he fell into a coma, ethnic identity had already become dominant over sectarian identity. The fear of an independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq has united Shiite and Sunni
Arabs against the Kurds while Maliki, on the other hand, is trying to attract Sunni
Arabs’ support in the face of his strained relations with Arbil. This ethnic rift is highly likely to deepen. There will be a hot race to elect the next president since the Iraqi constitution stipulates that Parliament must elect a new president within 30 days. And the existing power-sharing deal calls for the presidency to go to a Kurd since the current two vice presidents are shared by a Sunni
Muslim and a Shiite Muslim. However, Shiites and Sunnis would still try their best to secure an Arab president. So a storm is gathering. Whoever the next Iraqi president, the tensions are likely to remain, since the crisis serves as a golden opportunity for both Maliki and Barzani to further consolidate their power in their respective communities.
The idea of Greater Kurdistan, on the other hand, is gaining momentum. Kurds want to reverse the direction of the wind that divided them at the beginning of the 20th century among four different states. They feel that this is finally their hour.
Whereas Arab nationalism and pan-Kurdism are the dominant fault lines, sectarian politics, too, are still alive in Iraq. In preparation for the April 2013 local elections, the Iraqi elections commission just approved the political parties that can participate. There was no surprise: lists of coalitions are still defined over sectarian lines. The domestic lines of division are directly reflected on the parties’ view of regional developments. While Baghdad still sides with the Assad regime, Arbil supports Kurds in the opposition. Along the same lines, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just canceled his planned visit to Turkey due to tensions over Syria and flew right after to Baghdad to discuss the future of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Sectarianism and ethnic nationalism have never replaced each other in the region. They have been coexisting for decades. However, now and then they are changing the guards; and nowadays ethnic nationalism has the upper hand. Regardless of which one shapes the regional balance of power, it is for sure that the region won’t become non-sectarian and non-nationalist anytime soon.