|Ayatollah Khomeini in Baghdad's Liberation Square|
For Iraq's Sunni population, these photographs touched on one of their deepest fears, namely the idea that Iraq has fallen under Iranian control. What does this latest indicator of sectarianism tell us about identity politics in contemporary Iraq and the future of political stability in the country?
For Sunni Arab politicians who reacted against the posters of Khomeini and the current Iranian ruler, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, they have a very short political memory. Prior to 2003, Saddam Husayn's portrait in every government office and his photograph was de rigeur on the front page of all Iraqi newspapers. Nevertheless, the posters represent a provocative act and were obviously designed to sen an implicitly sectarian message to Arab Sunnis and Kurds. Iraq's Shi'a now control the government and can count on Iran's support to keep political power resting in the hands of Shi'i parties and political elite.
Those who jump to the conclusion that the controversy surrounding the photographs of Khomeini along Baghdad thoroughfares is yet another indicator of Iraq's basic sectarian nature would be well advised to consider a number of historical facts. First, the Ba'th Party was controlled through its first two iterations by Shi'is. Fu'ad al-Rikabi ran the party from its founding in Iraq in 1952 until 1961. During the mid-1960s, the party was dominated by 'Ali Salih al-Sa'di, a Fayli (Shi'i) Kurd. Only after General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and Saddam Husayn seized power in a bloodless coup d'etat in 1968 did power gravitate towards Sunni Arabs.
Even during the 1970s, many Shi'a joined the Ba'th Party holding out the hope that it did not consider ethnic or confessional background important for party membership. And several Shi'is became high ranking party officials before Saddam Husayn seized the presidency and place al-Bakr under house arrest in 1979. Following his seizure of power, many top ranking Shi'a party members were executed by Saddam, not because they were Shi'a but because he viewed them as potential competitors for power.
An analysis of sectarian identities is beyond the scope of this post (for a more in-depth analysis, see the special edition of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, vol. 4/number 3 (2010), which I guest edited, "The Question of Sectarian Identities in Iraq"). While always part of the political landscape to some degree, the issue of sectarianism has become a particularly salient issue in Iraqi politics since the toppling of Saddam Husayn and the Ba'th Party in 2003.
The coming to blows by Haydar al-Mulla, a Sunni Arab member of the al-'Iraqiya Coalition and Kadhim al-Sayyadi, a member of the al-Ahrar bloc, affiliated with Shi'i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, led Council of Deputies speaker, 'Usama al-Nujayfi to suspend the parliamentary session see al-Hayat, and al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 27). The cause of the argument, which escalated into blows, was al-Mulla's request that the parliament discuss the posting of the photographs. In subsequent statements, al-Mulla asserted that the posting of the banner and posters with Khomeini and Khamenei's photographs violated Iraq national sovereignty.
Shi'i leaders, such as Ibrahim Ja'afari, head of the Iraqi national alliance, responded by saying that these posters are religious in nature and reflect the loyalties of large segment of the Iraqi populace (i.e., Shi'a) who have loyalties to religious figures such as Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei. Mulla responded that Sunni Arabs had removed pictures of Turkish Prime Minister, Rejep Tayyib Erdogan - considered to be sympathetic towards radical Islamists fighting the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria - from areas under their control.
Clearly, those who put up the banners and posters knew that they would be incendiary in nature. In not too subtle terms, these symbols of Iran's Islamic Revolution sent two messages, not only to Iraq's Sunni Arab population but secular Shi'a and Kurds and other minorities as well. Power in contemporary Iraq resides in the hands of the Shi'a and is controlled by Shi'i parties and political elite.
In an Op-Ed contribution published in al-Hayat on September 6th, "What does 'Khomeini's photograph' want from Baghdad " (madha turid 'surat al-Khumayni min Baghdad?), Syrian writer Hamud Hamud argued that the problem is not just the Shi'i political elite "rubbing it in" that they control Iraq, but the problem that Sunni Arabs face in their own identity politics, namely the lack of any credible leader behind whom they can coalesce in seeking to gain more power at the state level.
Certainly few Iraqis, apart from a few unreconstructed Ba'thists, would offer a Saddam Husayn type figure as the symbolic standard bearer of the Sunni Arab community. Despite being a member of parliament, Ayad Allawi, head of the secular al-'Iraqiya Coalition, which won the 2010 parliamentary elections, seems to have opted out of active politicking. Iraqi Islamic Party leader and former Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, remains in exile in Turkey under a sentence of death, should he return to Iraq, allegedly running a terrorist ring in 2006. The young, popular Sunni Minister of Finance, Rafi' al-'Issawi, is likewise charged with promoting terrorism.
As Humud notes at the end of his Op-Ed, Khomeini's picture is not only part of an effort to dominate political discourse in Iraq but its public culture as well. As such the posting of Khomeini's photograph is much more than just a political "slap in the face" by the Shi'i political elite to Iraq';s Sunni Arab minority. It is as much an indicator of where Iraq's Shi'i political elite wants the country to go in the future, a future dominated by a destructive sectarianism that will marginalize all but the majority Shi'i population.
On the occasion of Iraqi Prime Miniuster's Nuri al-Maliki's visit to the United States, it is time for the Obam,a adminstration to make clear that his government needs to become more inclusive, Supplying Iraq with attack helicptors and eventually F-16 fighter aircraft should be contingent on Maliki following a policy of national reconciliation.
Such a policy would involve, first and foremost, public statements by Maliki that he taking a new tack - one that seeks to give all Iraq's political groups a seat at the national political table. Holding a national reconciliation conference, first behind close doors and then, after Iraq's competing parties agree at least on the need to continue a dialogue that will promote national unity, rather than sectarianism, would go a long way to combating the violence that threatens to push Iraq back to the height of sectarian violence between 2004 and 2007.