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Why Iraq Remains Engulfed in Violence

There is a logic to the violence in Iraq. It's regarded by those in power as better than public accountability, and by those in opposition as promising direct access to power.

Some of the  uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 demonstrated the appeal and the power of nonviolent protest.  Others, however, bore witness to the enduring appeal of  violence, both for embattled regimes and for those trying to unseat them.  For the former, violence and the threat of violence promises to restore order and discipline; for the latter it promises direct access to power.  It thus becomes in the projection of power both a symbol and an instrument of the seriousness of the political project, expressing resolve and representing the very embodiment of sovereignty:  the ability and the right to grant life and death.

For government, violence presents itself as a realist resource for stability, the key in fact to ‘stability operations’ – yet one more euphemism to make violence so seductive.  For the opposing forces, violence equally is a token of their own seriousness and determination, a graphic way of portraying ‘what the struggle is all about’.  Massive and demonstrative violence to inspire terror on the part of established authorities and insurgent forces has therefore been at the heart of many political projects, projecting a realist image, and suggesting that this is something with which you cannot argue.   

However, the apparent ‘clean break’ of the violent act, the seemingly unanswerable power of violence has severely complicating consequences.  Beyond its immediate imaginative appeal, long after the violent act itself, it has a resonance or ripple effect of immense power. It sets in motion social and political processes of enormous complexity and ambiguity that are rarely taken into consideration in so-called realist calculations about the short-term efficacy of violence. There is no final outcome, but a chain of consequences far beyond the control of those who first picked up arms. 

No better illustration of this exists than lies in the trajectory of violence in Iraq in recent years.  It has become associated with certain practices, certain kinds of discipline in a particular historical setting and thus has a ‘logic of deployment’ rich in meaning, symbolism and performative possibility.  Thus, violence in Iraq is not, as is sometimes alleged, a throw-back to a cruder, more ‘primitive’ past, driven by dark passions dredged up from history.  On the contrary, it has a logic and a constitutive power of its own fully in line with the contemporary experiences that Iraqis have undergone both before and after 2003.

A violent central state

Violence in Iraq has now become a central part of the practice of power, both by the government and by certain non-governmental agencies, some of them bitterly opposed to, but others enmeshed in the webs of government practice.  For the government of Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the ever unfinished project of re-establishing the power and thus, he hopes, the authority of the central state has often taken a violent form.  This has been clear ever since the campaigns in 2008 that saw a reconstituted, if not always very effective, Iraqi army reconquer a number of Iraq’s provinces, with campaigns in the south in Basra, the east of Baghdad, the north in Mosul and the north-east in Diyala.  

At the time and in the context of the country’s emergence from a bloody civil war, these campaigns were strongly supported by the US and others who saw this precisely as a token of the ‘resolve’ and the ‘seriousness’ of the fragile Iraqi government.  The fact that al-Maliki had attached to his personal command perhaps the most effective and ruthless of the units of the reconstituted Iraqi armed forces, the Baghdad Brigade, was believed to assist the state-creating project.  Equally, the close and some might say politically unhealthy interest that al-Maliki took in officers’ careers, promotions and transfers within the Iraqi armed forces through his own Office of the Commander in Chief was regarded as merely fitting if he wanted ‘to get the job done’. 

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