Sharon Shaked and Yochanan Visser
This Missing Peace report deals with the situation in Iraq after the pull out of the US army in December last year.
Following the departure of the American army sectarian violence has rapidly increased. Since the beginning of January 2012, 257 civilians have died in terrorist attacks, Iran has stepped up its involvement in Iraq’s internal politics and political turmoil has ensued, bringing the country to the brink of a civil war.
End of US mission
On December 15th 2011 the American military formally ended its mission in Iraq.
Since its beginning in 2003 the intervention has cost the lives of 4,487 American soldiers, another 32,226 were wounded in action and approximately one hundred thousand Iraqis died in the ensuing fighting and terror campaign.
As soon as the US troops left it became clear just how messy and sectarian Iraqi politics are.
Right after the withdrawal sectarian political tensions boiled over and Iraq became even more unstable than it already was.
The Shiite-dominated government accused Tariq al-Hashimi – the Sunni vice president of Iraq – of involvement in acts of terrorism and issued an arrest warrant for him.
Al-Hashimi denied the charges and accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government of using the country’s security forces to oppress political opponents, especially Sunnis.
Eventually, al-Hashimi fled to the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
Due to the region’s autonomy Al Maliki’s security forces were unable to execute the arrest warrant.
Al-Hashimi said he would not return to Baghdad, despite such a decision making him in effect an internal expat.
In response al-Maliki threatened to abandon the American-backed power sharing government which was created a year ago. He also warned Kurdish leaders that there would be “problems’’ if they did not extradite Tariq al-Hashimi.
The last Iraqi general elections took place in March 2010. They are commonly believed to have been transparent and fair.
However, the elections resulted in a deadlock between Al-Maliki’s largely Shiite Al-Da’wa Party and a coalition of mostly Sunni groups called Al-Iraqiyya which is being led by Ayad Allawi.
Both parties were unwilling to relinquish center stage in Iraq’s political arena. Eventually this resulted in an impasse in the forming a new government.
This situation lasted until the end of November 2010 when Masood Barazani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), drew up the Erbil agreement. This document called for the establishment of a new government based on power-sharing.
As a result Al-Maliki remained prime minister and Jalal Talabani – a Kurd – remained president.
Al-Iraqiyya – Allawi’s political coalition – was assigned the ministry of defense as well as the vice presidency, which was followed by the appointment of Tareq Al-Hashemi.
As soon as Al-Maliki was inaugurated by the Iraqi parliament he tried to lessen the influence of the Allawi- controlled offices.
Maliki insisted that these offices be restricted to a purely advisory role and he demanded that numerous government officials would be included. This, in turn, would make the government office unmanageable and useless.
But this didn’t satisfy al-Maliki who also tried to keep the two security ministries (defense and interior) under his control, serving as acting minister for both.
He rejected most of the candidates submitted by Allawi for the Ministry of Defense, claiming they were not sufficiently qualified.
In turn the Al-Iraqiyya bloc threatened to withdraw its support for the government on several occasions.
However, Al-Maliki did not take these threats seriously and was eventually proven right.
Members of the Iraqiya coalition repeatedly walked out of Parliamentary sessions, accusing Mr. Maliki of seizing power and thwarting democratic procedures by means of a wave of politically tinged arrests.
These accusations were made after a number of raids in Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone during which 600 Ba’athists – accused by al-Maliki of planning a coup – were arrested in November 2011.
Al-Maliki’s actions became cause for growing concern inside and outside Iraq, especially after American forces left the country.
Many people feared that the fragile Iraqi democracy would fail and again replaced by a dictatorship.
In addition to the fear of a recurring dictatorial rule there are clear signs of growing sectarian strife and increasing Iranian influence.
As mentioned above, the arrest warrant for Al-Hashimi followed a near breakdown of relations between Mr. al-Maliki – a religious Shiite – and his adversaries in the Sunni-dominated al-Iraqiyya coalition.
To make things worse, on December 26th 2011 a powerful political group led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr called for parliament to be dissolved and early elections to be held. This was the first open threat to Mr. al-Maliki from within his own Shiite coalition.
Al-Sadr’s action however, did not immediately threaten the rule of the al- Maliki government, but it did add to the existing tensions. The move showed how fragile and explosive the alliances are between the various groups in Iraq.
At present, not much is needed to ignite a larger conflict (similar to the events of 2006-2007) which could boil over into a civil war.
Since the US troops left Iraq in December 2011, terrorist attacks have increased significantly. For example, three days after the issue of the arrest warrant for al-Hashimi sixteen simultaneous explosions rocked Bagdad’s Shiite areas, leaving scores of civilians dead.
In January violence has increased further, leaving 257 civilians dead so far. After numerous attacks against Shiite targets, on Sunday January 15 the Sunni stronghold Ramadi was attacked by terrorists wearing explosive belts. Fourteen people died in that attack, including 6 of the terrorists.
In addition, tensions between the Shiites and the Kurds over the extradition of al-Hashimi are running high.
Other tensions are related to the oil fields which are situated in the autonomous Kurdish region. Sunni-Shiite tensions also rose because of religious differences, political turmoil and indications that Iran is trying to turn Iraq into another Shia dominated Islamic republic.
Ever since the Western military operation in Iraq commenced, the Iranians have tried to strengthen their influence in that country. The Iranians sponsored political and terrorist organizations in Iraq in order to gain more political power which could be used after the Americans had left the country.
In an article in the Jerusalem Post on December 20th, 2011 Arab affairs analyst Jonathan Spyer wrote the following about the Iranian strategy:
“Following elections, Maliki was only able to form his government – after months of wrangling – because the Iranian-backed movement of Moqtada al-Sadr chose eventually to back him. This took place after Iran brokered a deal between Sadr and Maliki. Negotiations for the deal took place in Qom, in Iran. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force, and Muhammad Kawtharani, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah member, were instrumental in brokering the agreement.
In other words, Maliki is able to rule because he is in coalition with an Iranian proxy.”
“There is an economic factor alongside the politics. Iranian firms have invested heavily in reconstruction projects in Iraq. In July, 2011, for example, a contract was signed for the construction of a 2,500-kilometer gas pipeline that will carry Iranian gas along the breadth of Iraq to Syria.
Add to these political and economic elements the seismic shock of the Arab upheavals of 2011, which are benefiting Sunni Islamist forces in country after country, and it becomes easier to understand Maliki’s interest in moving closer to the Shia regional alliance led by Iran.”
“Acquiring Iranian patronage involves helping out other clients. One favor deserves another.”
Only last week, Mr. al-Maliki’s government announced that it was welcoming an Iranian-backed militia – Asaib Ahl al-Haq – into Iraq’s political system. The Shiite-led government’s support for the militia, which had only just renounced violence, opened new sectarian fault lines in Iraq’s political crisis whilst also empowering Iran and thereby bringing Iraq’s center of gravity closer to Iran.
At the moment it is not clear where all this is headed. If al-Maliki follows up on his threat to establish a political majority instead of a national unity government, chances are high that Sunni’s (supported by Al Qaida) will use armed resistance and more suicide bombings.
This, in turn, could cause al-Maliki to amend the constitution and to introduce a presidential system of government. Eventually this would mean a return to the days when Iraq was ruled by a dictatorship and would pave the way for Iraq to join the Iranian axis.
This is why Israeli premier Netanyahu recently warned that Israel faces ‘new challenges’ on the eastern front that it is ‘has not seen in ten years’. (Netanyahu in a Hebrew address to the Knesset December 28th, 2011)
All this is clearly embarrassing for the Obama administration. In a speech on the eve of the departure of the last US forces the US president said: “We are leaving behind a stable country”.
However, it is now clear that Iraq is far from stable; the situation could even deteriorate into civil war.
At the end of December 2011, three Iraqi politicians, among them former PM Ayad Allawi, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that Iraq is ‘doomed’ if the US does not interfere and rein in al-Maliki. But Obama has made clear he will not do such a thing; instead he has pushed for negotiations to salvage the unity government.
Last Sunday, US minister of defense Panetta said: “We’re confident that we have an Iraqi government and an Iraqi security force that is capable of dealing with the security threats that are there now”.
But Senator John McCain disagreed:
“With all due respect, Iraq is unraveling. It’s unraveling because we did not keep residual forces there”.
With 257 civilians killed since the beginning of January, it seems as though McCain and Allawi are right.
Almost nine years after the US and its allies invaded the country to topple Saddam Hussein and to establish democracy, Iraq seems to be back to square one.