Iraqi boy waves his country's national flag.

Arguments in favour of sectarian quotas in Iraq’s remind one of the old arguments invariably forwarded for partition. They sound reasonable and realistic on the surface. A solution that makes everyone happy and gives everyone what they want. Such solutions, however, often fail with very disastrous results.

In the post-2003 disorder in Iraq the Iraqi people fell back on their ethnic and sectarian identities. So much so that it became common enough in recent years – especially more recently in light of Islamic States’ (Daesh/ISIS) takeover of large swaths of Iraqi territory – to simply write-off the Iraqi state as a failed one destined to fail since it was cobbled together by British imperialists who possessed little understanding of, or care for, the complexities of the different, and differing, peoples and communities which resided within the confines of those lines they drew across the map.

That sectarian tensions were exacerbated after the 2003 regime change is indeed so. However one must remember that before 2003 in Iraq the single largest community, Iraq’s Shi’ites, were oppressed and subjugated by a minority of Sunnis. The fall of the Saddam Hussein regime changed all of that. And one of the reasons that the Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani pushed so hard for a democratic system in Iraq was because he knew it would in turn emancipate the long-oppressed Shia majority in Iraq and finally grant them their rights to have a say in the affairs and the governance of their state.

Iraqi woman voting in 2005.
Iraqi woman voting in 2005.

During this transitional change to a more democratic order in Iraq a quota system was introduced in government. As with Lebanon this mandated the selection of members of government on ethnic-sectarian basis’s so that the government, at least ostensibly, represented Iraqis of various stripes. While this was perhaps well-intentioned it was a deeply flawed idea and in my view has done a lot more to divide Iraqis than to unite them. Since, after all, the erection of such a bureaucracy essentially done little more than constantly remind Iraqis of their different backgrounds and thus undermined a sense of unitary nationalism which is of crucial importance if Iraq is to endure and thrive as a successful multi-ethnic, multi-denominational nation-state.

It is for these reasons that one is happy to see that one of the reforms the Iraqi government has promised to introduce is the abolition of quotas in government.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. / Photo taken by Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. / Photo taken by Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Some Iraqis may be cautious about abolishing such a system. Indeed since 2003 there have been fears that another dictatorship will rise again, possibly made-up of underground Baathists who are awaiting their chance to once again seize power in a time of political strife and/or violence. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is certainly aware of these fears and he was clearly referring to them recently when he stated, “We do not wish to reinstate a political system where there is only one leader and everyone else is insignificant. This is the return of dictatorship and we do not want it.”

Iraq’s Kurds have also feared the potential of a hostile Baghdad and have been wary about the Iraqi Air Force purchasing F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter-bombers which they fear could potentially be used to subdue them by a central Iraqi government in the future.

While one could hardly blame any Iraqi who is on guard against such a possibility and fears the power of the state being increasingly centralized this quota system is no sure safeguard against the rise of another tyranny in Baghdad. Indeed the ineptitude such a set-up breathes (Hamzeh Hadad summarized its shortcomings very succinctly when he pointed out that under this system, “the prime minister is unable to pick his own cabinet and those from opposition parties are given executive and legislative positions that are used to undermine the prime minister and his majority-elected members of parliament”) could even lead to a government being so weak that it could be toppled by some well-organized underground group.

Also remember the ones who claim they are fighting to emancipate Iraqi Sunnis are Daesh. And they have been executing many innocent Sunnis. Similarly in the dark days of the Al-Anfal campaign Saddam Hussein co-opted Kurds (the ‘Jahsh’ death squad) to help his regime slaughter and subdue Iraq’s Kurdish region. The idea that some authoritarian Iraqi leader could not co-opt members of a particular community in order to effectively exploit and subjugate their own communities is very ahistorical.

I say good riddance to the quota system. In their place I hope to see the establishment of an Iraqi government overseen by a strong independent judiciary (one of the things Sistani has, quite rightly, called to be reformed first and foremost) is upheld.

In addition to that the only qualifications politicians should need in the future to get into government is their electability and their merit. Not their ethnic or sect background. The sooner Iraq has a system whereby that is the case the better.