While the entire Arab Levant has become a patchwork of explosive hotbeds and combat zones, be they active or dormant, Iraq is the most prominent, broadest arena in which the travails of the region play out, as well as being its most dangerous. As for the horizons for violent polarization that loom over the entire region, and with it the extreme tensions internationally, from Ukraine to Taiwan, they only exacerbate the threats created by the challenges currently facing Iraq.
First, Iran is undergoing a political and economic crisis, which makes exporting some of that crisis tempting to Tehran. And Iraq, as its geographical, strategic, and, to a large extent religious and cultural neighbor, is directly impacted by Iran being in crisis. This impact is patently obvious today, especially since Iraq is the bridge that ties Iran to the countries of the region it has expanded to- without Iraq, Iran would be cut off from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine from one side, and the Gulf and perhaps Yemen on the other.
Second, we have the oil wealth of Iraq, which distinguishes the country from other crisis-ridden countries like Lebanon. This wealth could fund perpetual civil wars, with no need for money funneled from outside its borders. We know that armed militias have been established across the entirety of the country, that they are ready to fight these wars, and that some of them have been around since before Saddam was toppled in 2003.
However, the most consequential factor is highlighted by the developments currently unfolding in the country. The intra-Shiite dispute among forces of the same sect and confession is the most prominent aspect of the conflict currently underway there. As for the ramifications of this aspect of the conflict, they could go beyond Iraq and extend to the entire Islamic world, thereby potentially reshaping the future of the relationship between the Shiites and Sunnis of the region, as well as the relationship between Shiites and their independent countries and, by implication, the Shiites’ conceptions of patriotism and sovereignty.
From this angle, Iraq differs from Lebanon in two senses. Firstly, Iraq is home to a Shiite Marjaa (religious authority) without parallel in any other Arab country. We could even say that Lebanese Hezbollah, which has garnered a significant role as a political and military player, has not and will not become a religious and cultural authority in the sense that the city of Najaf (the most prominent of many Iraqi holy cities and shrines, including Karbala, Kufa, and Kadhimiya Holy Shrine in Baghdad) has been and continues to be.
The second sense is more overtly political; the majority of Iraqi Shiites have declared that they are not ready to pay the costs of following Iran at the expense of their lives, their country, and its Arab ties. This shift occurred when it became difficult to meet the growing obligations that this subordination implies in light of the crisis underway in an Iran besieged by sanctions. Of course, this assessment does not apply to Lebanese Shiites, whose fondness of their armed party has not waned.
These two divergences grant Iraq a role in shaping the conflict for the Shiites that is unequaled by any other Arab country; rather, its influence in this regard is only equaled by that of Iran.
Some might conclude, to some extent correctly, that conflicts within a single community are nevertheless less harmful, if not richer in their potential outcomes, than intercommunal conflicts. While the former opens the door to conflicts among kin, it also opens the door to politics. The latter, on the other hand, is infinitely more likely to lead to sectarian conflicts than to end up opening the door to politics.
Nonetheless, this does not negate the fact that the political future of Iraq hinges on the extent to which all the other sectarian and ethnic communities (Sunni, Kurds, and the other minorities…) play the game and become involved in shaping this political future by functioning within the framework of democratic political processes geared towards safeguarding the interests of Iraq and the sovereignty of the country. Only thus would infighting among rival militias, in which the only horizons are those that militias give rise to, be avoided in Iraq and could we see a pluralistic nation instead.
Will Iraqis manage to put politics at the fore, expanding its scope and the scope of those participating in the political process? Will Iraq, after a long wait that has led many to lose hope, be granted an opportunity to correct what had gone wrong in 2003? At the time, the country transitioned from being a dictatorship ruled by Saddam Hussein into a country ruled by sectarian militias backed by Iran, while what is needed remains to correct this transition such that it leaves the Iraqi people running the country through elected constitutional institutions.
The democratic model of Iraq, which saw many opportunities to apply it missed, could be reconsidered through such a correction. The fear is that if this battle for a democratic patriotism is not won, Iraq would lose all justification for its existence as a country, just like Lebanon is losing the justifications for its existence at an accelerating pace. In both cases, we would end up with a geographical space that produces nothing but communal strife where peace is but a temporary armistice between two rounds of fighting.