US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Bahrain’s Political Crisis: A New Chapter for Iraqi Foreign Policy

in Program

By Shawn Azeez – Bahrain’s
political crisis – the crackdown by the Sunni royal family and government on Shia
protesters – has elicited contradictory reactions among Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic groups.
The suppression has antagonized Iraq’s
Shiites, while Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds have not taken a clear stance.  This difference is causing an
unprecedented interaction between Iraq’s domestic and foreign
policies.

Disparate statements from Iraq’s political leaders further
reflect the country’s deep ethnic and sectarian lines. On one hand, Iraqi Prime
Minister Nouri Al Maliki denounced the Bahraini government for the violent
crackdown, and described the authorities in Libya,
Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia as
“tyrants.”  In contrast, Iraqi Foreign
Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, has not declared whether he supports the
Bahraini protesters or not, saying that “Iraq’s
relationship with Bahrain
is a special relationship, mainly due to historic, religious, and national ties.”
He notes that the Shiite majority in Bahrain follows Najaf’s authority[1]. When
pressed by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, to condemn Saudi Arabia and the United
Arab Emirates for sending forces to help Bahrain’s monarchy,
Zebari only inquired about the detainment of an Iraqi soccer player who was
arrested during the demonstrations.

On several occasions Iraqi Shiites have shown unified support
for the Shiite Bahraini protesters.  The influential
Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, has urged his followers to take the streets to
support the protesters on multiple occasions. Shiites in southern Iraq have also called for a boycott of goods
from Saudi Arabia
for sending troops to support the Bahraini government.

In contrast, Iraqi Sunnis have not rallied with their Shiite
countrymen in solidarity with the Bahraini protesters. Khalil, a 23-year-old
engineering student says, “once again my Sunni friends shocked me by not paying
attention to Bahrain…
the lack of attention is only because the demonstrators are Shia.”[2]

Many Iraqi Sunni politicians do not want to jeopardize their
political interests by interfering in other Gulf nations’ issues. The Bahraini
opposition called on Iyad Allawi, former
Iraqi prime minister and current leader of Iraqiya bloc, for assistance. However, Allawi has not taken a position on the Bahraini
demonstrations because of his ties to Saudi Arabia. Vice-President
Tariq al-Hashimi, a prominent Sunni, cautioned against Iraqi politicians who
engaged in the demonstrations in Bahrain. The postponement of the
Arab League Summit, originally scheduled to take place in Baghdad
in March 2011, and Iraq’s
exclusion from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are interpreted by some as retaliation
for the support that Iraqi Shiites have given to Bahrain’s demonstrators.

The Kurds in Iraq,
including Kurdish Shiites, have not shown official political solidarity either.
Masoud Barzani, the current President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has not declared
any support for the demonstrators in Bahrain. As with the Sunnis, there
is no political interest for the Kurds to get involved in Bahrain’s political affairs, except
that both opposition parties share anti-government sentiments. Currently, the
Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, wants to side with neither Shiite nor Sunni
counties to avoid disrupting the balance in the region. 

The challenge of reconciling sectarian political interests
with national interests reflects a new era in Iraq’s political development. Prior
to the Arab Spring, Iraqis generally did not get involved in the affairs of
neighboring countries. Though Zebari wants to maintain good relationships with Iraq’s neighboring countries, the Shiite
population is pressing the Iraqi government to take care of their community in Bahrain.
Therefore, Iraq’s
leaders face the challenge of crafting an effective foreign policy that
reconciles domestic and national interests, and not just the foreign policy of
incumbent political parties or sectarian groups.

Despite the risks of sectarian gridlock, the tensions
between the Iraqi Foreign Minister and Prime Minister can be considered as good
thing; a sign of an evolving democratic culture. The Iraqi Shiites are allowed
to express their preferences, even though they may conflict with the
government’s official foreign policies. Though divisive, the difference between
the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis over the Bahraini issue can be seen as a healthy
step in Iraq’s
democratic evolution.


[1] http://www.alsumaria.tv/en/print-news-1-62921.html

[2] http://iwpr.net/report-news/iraqi-shia-back-bahrain-protesters


Photo credit: DoD photo by Master Sgt. Dave Ahlschwede, U.S. Air Force, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iraq-election2005-V.jpg

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