If prosperity makes friends and adversity tries them, then friendship is persistently on trial in Iraq. While car bombings, targeted killings, and kidnappings continue to be a daily feature of life, what's becoming equally ominous is what former Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih last week called "Iraq's deepening political crisis."
Disputes over oil receipts, power sharing, and security threaten to tear apart the coalition government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In late April the two leading parties that helped form the government with Maliki two years ago threatened to pull out. For the first time since the U.S. invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, the prospect of secession is real.
And out of that adversity come strange friends. Lesser circumstances would not prompt Kurdish President Massoud Barzani-a northerner, a Sunni Kurd, and longstanding U.S. ally-to roll out the red carpet in northern Iraq for Muqtadr al-Sadr-the Iranian-backed Shiite cleric and political leader from the south who has long declared himself an enemy of the United States. But that's exactly what happened on April 26 as Barzani welcomed Sadr to Irbil, capital of the region known as Kurdistan.
The two met to discuss whether they should withdraw their support of the government in Baghdad, which would lead not only to its downfall but a potential breakup. Barzani has promised that if the political impasse isn't resolved by September, he may put secession to a vote in Kurdistan. Asked after the meeting whether he would try to broker a new coalition or force Maliki from power, Sadr told reporters, "I will answer later."
The Kurds with their own security force, oil reserves, language, and culture have long wanted independence. But Turkey, perched at the region's northern border and long distrustful, is unlikely to tolerate a breakaway republic between it and Baghdad. And in the south, a secessionist enclave led by Sadr is likely to bring Iran ever closer to Baghdad. Though Sadr and Maliki both are Shiites, Maliki's government has been largely secular (and increasingly dictatorial), while Sadr would embrace an Iranian style theocracy.
The partitioning of the country along sectarian lines-a Kurdish north, a Sunni center, and a Shiite south-was touted by then Sen. Joe Biden as far back as 2006. It's hard to see such an outcome as anything other than what it likely is: a precursor to a regional conflict that could make the second Gulf War seem like a skirmish. And such a plan leaves out Iraq's many minority groups, including Christians.
Often we hear only bad news about Christians in Iraq, but there is good news too, as they are testing friendships amid adversity also. Women from churches across the country gathered in March for a second annual women's conference in Irbil. "It was a success in every way we hoped, and also in ways we hadn't planned on," the organizers recently reported.
Seventy women registered for the conference, and 100 came-from Baghdad and Mosul as well as Kurdish cities in the north. Forty-five women came from Baghdad by bus, enduring repeated checkpoints and stops en route. The women represented some of the country's oldest churches-dating back more than a millennia-and some of its newest evangelical house churches.
As the women met for several days of teaching and fellowship, violence trailed them-providing what one leader called "a backdrop of sadness that we were burdened to share and lift."
Word came early on that a church leader many of the women knew had been found killed in Mosul. Only days before, a student had shot an American teacher working in nearby Sulaymaniah, Jeremiah Small, and then killed himself. The daughter of the conference's main speaker, psychologist Sahar Tawfiq, had been present as a student in the classroom when the shootings took place.
Yet Tawfiq gave practical advice on the daily disciplines of faith and family, organizers reported, "and so it continued, our sisterhood bonded by both the fellowship of suffering and the triumphant truth of who we are in Christ."
In Irbil, time may tell which friendships sown in adversity survive.