Iraq is still a violent mess. Its democracy, imposed by the Americans, looks fragile. And the prospect of real harmony between the three main ethnic and sectarian components—Arab Shias, Arab Sunnis and Kurds—looks as distant as ever.”
-- Economist, January 5th 2013
With today’s ten year anniversary of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, it is worth examining where things stand in Iraq now and where the country might be headed. Few would argue that Iraq is the flourishing, pro-American democracy that Bush and his supporters envisioned at the start of the U.S.-led invasion. Circumstances there are not nearly as bad as they were from 2005-2007, to be sure. However, violence continues to be a problem in much of Iraq, and economic conditions there remain poor despite rising oil production. More importantly, the country’s deep sectarian and ethnic fissures have worsened to the point that they threaten Iraq’s continued viability as a nation state.
Security in Iraq remains a serious concern. Most news retrospectives of the Iraq war published in recent weeks have emphasized that Iraq is a much less violent place than was the case a few years ago, but such statements can obscure the reality that mass terrorist attacks are an ongoing phenomenon there. Bombings with death tolls that dwarf the recent Boston Marathon tragedy occur with some frequency, as do political assassinations. The number of violent Iraqi civilian deaths increased by about 10 percent during the first year following the U.S. military withdrawal, but violence fell in the last three months of 2012. There has been a spike in violent activity by al-Qaeda in Iraq and like-minded groups since the end of December, however, with wide scale attacks against Shiites, government security forces, and Sunnis seen to be collaborating with the government in Baghdad. The State Department issued a warning to U.S. citizens in late February to avoid “all but essential travel to Iraq given the security situation.” In light of these circumstances, Baghdad officials have reconsidered their earlier decision to decrease security cooperation with Washington following the U.S. military withdrawal at the end of 2011.
The upsurge in violence has coincided with inflamed tensions between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunni Arabs. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become an extremely polarizing figure in a country that was already deeply divided when he came to power in 2006. Once thought of by U.S. policymakers as too timid to be an effective national leader, he has moved decisively over the last five years to consolidate power through his control of the nation’s security forces and its judicial institutions in ways that can only be described as authoritarian. Anger has been growing among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who make up approximately 20 percent of the population and who believe they are being marginalized and persecuted by Maliki’s government.
Much of the resentment toward Baghdad stems from Maliki’s efforts to sideline Sunni Arab political leaders. He quickly reneged on important commitments he made as part of the power sharing agreement that helped settle the disputed 2010 national elections. The accord called for the appointment of Ayad Allawi, head of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya coalition (whose slate actually won the most seats), to lead a new “National Council for Strategic Policies” that would help guide national security and economic policies, but Maliki subsequently refused to honor the provision. The agreement also held that Allawi’s coalition would name the country’s new defense minister, but Maliki appointed himself instead. In addition, many Sunnis have been purged from their jobs under the guise of de-Baathification, and members of “Sunni Awakening” militia groups that helped turn the tide against al-Qaeda in 2007 and 2008 have been purged from Iraqi security forces.
The increase in terrorist attacks is itself both a symptom and a cause of the growing sectarian friction. Security forces have responded to terrorist attacks and, more recently, political protests by mass arrests in Sunni communities, indefinite detention, and torture. (The human rights situation in Iraq is not good.) At the same time, Sunni resentment toward Baghdad and disillusionment with many of their own leaders has given al Qaeda in Iraq and similar groups greater space to operate.
The building sectarian tensions exploded just over a week ago, bringing Iraq to the brink of another civil war. Three days after provincial elections were held in most of the country, more than three dozen civilians were killed when Iraqi security forces raided a camp of Sunni protestors in the town of Hawija near Kirkuk. News of the raid, an apparent response to an attack by militants on an army-police checkpoint days earlier, sparked outrage in other Sunni Arab communities and led to numerous deadly clashes between Iraqi security units and armed Sunni groups in other parts of the country. These events have been accompanied by a spate of bombings that have targeted both Shiite and Sunni communities. The real danger is that the violence will become self-reinforcing, with each clash further inflaming passions and quieting voices of moderation on both sides. Sunni Arabs who were previously committed to peaceful protest may now turn to militancy while Maliki’s Shiite-led government redoubles its efforts to tamp down Sunni opposition through the use of force. Ominously, there are also signs that Shiite militia groups are returning to the fray.
The increasingly sectarian civil war in Syria is an essential piece of context to the situation in Iraq. After some initial ambivalence about the Syrian uprising, Maliki has concluded that his government has a major stake in Assad’s survival. Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while Syria’s rebel factions reflect the country’s majority Sunni population, a fact that is not lost on Maliki or his Iranian allies. If Assad’s government is overthrown, its successor will almost certainly not be an ally of Baghdad or Tehran, both of whom already see themselves as encircled by unfriendly Sunni governments. Maliki also contends that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have been emboldened by the Sunni-dominated uprising in Syria, which he believes have lead directly to the recent protests and upsurge in violence directed at the Iraqi national government. In his view, a successful revolt against Assad would be disastrous, resulting in greater demands from Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and an influx of Sunni militants and weapons. (Interestingly, Iraqi officials suggested in early 2012 that the conflict in Syria had served to lower violence in Iraq, with Sunni radicals exiting the country in order to fight Assad.) Such fears may well be valid, which is one reason why Maliki would be wise to seek some kind of durable political arrangement with the nation’s Sunni population sooner rather than later.
Iraq’s future is also threatened by a badly deteriorating relationship between national authorities and the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north. Iraq’s Kurdish leaders share the Sunni Arabs’ growing alarm over Maliki’s authoritarian behavior, but their perspective is somewhat different. Kurdistan’s roughly 5 million residents are protected from Baghdad by the partial autonomy granted them within the Iraqi national system and, more concretely, by the KRG’s 75,000 strong peshmerga security force. However, the two sides have nearly come to blows several times over control of disputed areas in northern Iraq. There is also a fierce disagreement between Baghdad and Irbil as to whether or not the KRG has the right to sign contracts for the exploitation of its rich energy resources independent of the Iraqi national government.
Both disputes cut deeply to the question of Iraqi Kurdistan’s future and its role in the Iraqi nation state as a whole. Broadly speaking, Iraqi Kurds have been willing to hold off on pursuing independence so long as they are afforded significant autonomy from Baghdad, but they have sought to push the envelope in terms of how far that autonomy extends. Maliki has pushed back against these efforts out of concern that they are a prelude to a Kurdish declaration of independence. The departure of U.S. forces at the end of 2011 has brought the two sides into more direction contention, a situation that has been exacerbated by the absence of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Talabani, a Kurd who has had a steadying influence on Iraqi national politics since 2003, experienced a serious stroke in December and may not ever be able to resume his role as political wise man.
One might have reasonably expected ten years ago that Istanbul and the new government in Baghdad would find common cause in checking Kurdish aspirations in northern Iraq, but circumstances have not turned out that way. Ankara has in fact developed a strong relationship with the KRG leadership in Irbil, a development that is due in no small part to both capitals’ growing dissatisfaction with Maliki’s government. Turkey has also become eager to help Irbil develop the KRG’s rich endowments of oil and natural gas in order to enhance its own energy security. Likewise, Kurdish leaders in Iraq see Turkey as a potential export route that would lessen their current reliance on Baghdad in selling their natural resources on the world market.
Some Kurdish leaders have come to believe that Turkey will eventually support an independent Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq if worsening violence and instability render the current Iraqi state unsustainable. It’s far from clear whether this a realistic hope – it is contrary to Turkey’s stated desire for a unified Iraq – but Ankara reportedly has pledged military support to Irbil if Maliki ever uses armed force against the KRG.
In sum, Iraq continues to be badly divided. Its internal divisions long predate the Maliki government, but the current leadership in Baghdad is governing in ways that undermine the country’s increasingly fragile unity. It’s unclear where things will go from here, but there aren’t a lot of reasons for optimism at the moment. The worst case scenario would involve renewed civil war and eventual disintegration. A more likely – albeit still worrisome – possibility is that Iraq’s problems will persist indefinitely and perhaps worsen, but without causing the country to implode. In either case, the situation in Iraq is troubling, and it merits considerably more international attention than it now receives.
-- Richard Purcell