By Ellen Laipson – An important chapter in US-Iraq relations has now ended, with the final departure of US combat troops from the country, as envisioned by former President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki in 2008 agreements. But the milestone is now inextricably linked to a dramatic downturn in Iraqi stability, since the Prime Minister has accused Tareq al-Hashimi, a Vice President and member of the largely Sunni Iraqiyya opposition bloc, of inciting violence five years ago, when the country was in the grip of sectarian war. His move may be tactical; the Prime Minister’s larger objective may be to force the dissolution of the power-sharing arrangement that slowly emerged after very close elections in March 2010. The breakdown of civility at the top of Iraq’s relatively new institutions is mirrored by a dangerous uptick in car bombs and violence in the street. The mood in Washington, consequently, has swung from modest satisfaction to deep concern about Iraq’s ability to manage the crisis.
Prime Minister Maliki’s commitment to power-sharing with the Iraqiyya bloc was always tenuous; he prefers to select individual Sunnis (or other minorities) to work with, and then claim that his government is inclusive. The give and take of genuine contestational politics has not been embraced by the key parties in Iraq; Iraqiyya also shares some of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. Its leader, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, has been reluctant to engage in compromise and impeded the completion of the government formation process after the 2010 elections. Allawi never assumed the post of a new national security body that was to make him a virtual peer of the prime minister on matters of greatest security consequence. This impasse has contributed to Maliki’s continuing consolidation of power, leading to a further weakening of the checks and balances on the Prime Minister’s decision making, and to renewed concerns that the Shia-Sunni fault-line in Iraqi national life is widening.
Iraqi history provides ample evidence of strong leaders who brook no dissent and resort to extra-legal measures to discredit their political rivals. But a secondary theme of Iraq’s legacy of the past century would be efforts to build a more representative society, one that provides protections for minorities and creates an environment for learning and culture that made Iraq a powerful regional leader. The balance between the two themes is impaired at present, but not permanently out of reach. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is playing – once again – a disproportionately large role in trying to mediate between the Sunni and Shia Arabs. The legitimacy enjoyed by KRG President Masoud Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani provides some solace that a solution can be found that defuses the current crisis. But such an outcome is not guaranteed.
The crisis demonstrates that in a society as deeply traumatized and divided as Iraq, building institutions absent a spirit of reconciliation is a fragile endeavor. Using a politically malleable judiciary to settle scores from the worst period of the post-Saddam era is not an investment in a stable future; many of Iraq’s politicians today were involved in varying degrees in insurgent and dissident activity at one time or another. Transitional justice experience from other countries would suggest that gradually changing the eligibility requirements for elected office might be a more acceptable way to move from civil war to a rule of law culture.
The crisis also may result in greater regionalism in Iraq: Sunni-majority provinces in the west could well determine that a consolidation of their power into a region (like the Kurdish Region in the north) would be the best protection vis a vis Shia dominance of national-level institutions, and would help Sunnis defend their territorial and community interests in a more coordinated way. But the regional status of the KRG, while very effective in terms of economic growth and political and cultural identity, does not resolve all of the security issues in a federal system. Maliki’s increasing personalization of appointments to senior military and security posts would not assure the Sunnis of their professional advancement or the rights and protections for their community.
For the United States, the current crisis is an ominous portent, for two main reasons:
• The transition to a civilian-led US presence in Iraq has had its own challenges, from ensuring adequate funding to conduct an ambitious police training program, to providing adequate security for US diplomats to travel and interact with Iraqi officials and citizens, to coping with Iraqis’ own anxieties about a loss of American attention and engagement. A more dysfunctional Iraqi government and a worsening security environment in Baghdad will only exacerbate those concerns, and calls into question the optimism with which the Obama administration heralded the end of US military presence, and more broadly, the trajectory of peaceful political change elsewhere in the region.
• The rest of region demands US policy attention now. For some, Iraq is old news and Syria and Egypt are the most compelling cases for Washington, including analysts trying to stay on top of volatile conditions, policymakers trying to provide useful political support to struggling democratic activists, and security officials working with Arab counterparts and protecting American equities in the region.
The United States is not alone in its concerns about the erosion of political stability in Iraq; Iraq’s neighbors also have a stake in a positive outcome, and may be willing and able to affect Iraq’s course. Of the neighbors, Turkey may be in the strongest position to engage all parties and brings considerable leverage from its economic dynamism that has benefited Iraq, and its contributions to Iraqi security. Saudi Arabia’s mistrust of Maliki must be deepening by the day, and it may support a form of Sunni separatism that would be consistent with the Iraqi constitution. Even Iran may not see a polarization of Iraqi politics that could lead to civil strife as desirable.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Jordan Johnson