Understanding the Iraq Crisis

We were all wondering how long it was going to take after the withdrawal of American troops for Iraq to face its first major political crisis. But I seriously doubt that anyone would have dared to predict that it would begin even before the very last U.S. soldiers had crossed the borders with Kuwait. Nevertheless, here we are. While the American media was running endless stories about the “end of the Iraq war,” the Iraqis were busy gearing up for the next round.

Make no mistake about it: the current crisis, manufactured by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for reasons that only he knows for sure, is of seminal importance for Iraq. Right now, it seems far more likely to end badly rather than well. And if it ends badly, it could easily usher in renewed civil war, a highly unstable dictatorship, or even a Somali-like failed state. Not only would this be a humiliation for the Obama administration—which justified the withdrawal of American troops by insisting that Iraq was well on the way to democratizing and did not need an ongoing U.S. peacekeeping presence—it would be a major threat to American vital interests in the Persian Gulf region.

What Happened?

Asking about the origins of this crisis is like asking about the origins of the Arab-Israeli dispute: it all depends on your perspective. Without getting into the painful history of problems that cropped up after Iraq’s 2010 national elections, it seems reasonable to date this one to the October-November time frame when various Sunni leaders and communities began to openly agitate for local autonomy by pursuing the “federal region” status outlined in Iraq’s constitution and meant to provide the Kurds with the autonomy they demanded. Fearful of Maliki’s arbitrary and at times unconstitutional rule, his mass purges of Sunni military officers and civilian officials, and the endless gridlock of politics in Baghdad, the majority-Sunni provinces of al-Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Ninewah and Diyala all began to discuss the idea of applying for regional status to distance themselves from Baghdad and the Maliki government. (And to make matters worse, their clamor appears to have helped convince unhappy Shi’ah in oil-rich al-Basrah province to begin to demand the same.) 

Maliki reacted in unfortunately characteristic terms. He denounced all such talk as illegal and warned that any moves toward federal regions would be blocked as being unconstitutional (despite the explicit provisions of the constitution to do so.) Maliki may or may not be deliberately maneuvering to make himself the new dictator of Iraq but his political instincts are very problematic regardless. He is paranoid and prone to conspiracy theories.  He is impatient with democratic politics and frequently interprets political opposition as a personal threat. And when faced with opposition, he often lashes out, seeing it as an exaggerated threat that must be immediately obliterated through any means possible, constitutional or otherwise. This has been his modus operandi and that is how he responded to the Sunni clamor for federalism. 

First, he arbitrarily limited the size of the security details assigned to key leaders of the Iraqiyyah party—his most important opposition and the party that tends to represent the Sunni community (although it is led by the Shi’ah former prime minister, ‘Ayad Allawi, and does include a number of other Shi’ah as well.) Then, his personnel arrested several of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi’s bodyguards. After extensive interrogation (which the Sunnis insist included torture), Maliki’s people claimed that Hashimi’s bodyguards had admitted that Hashimi was behind a failed terrorist attack on the Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives (CoR) which Maliki’s people insist was really aimed at the Prime Minister although the evidence of this is non-existant. In response, even before he stepped off the plane that brought him back from his triumphal trip to the United States, Maliki ordered Iraq’s international zone (the former “Green Zone”) locked down, Americans were forbidden entrance, and armored vehicles were deployed around Hashimi’s house as well as the house of Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, one of the most important Anbari politicians in Baghdad and one of the most decent men in the government. 

From there things went from bad to worse. Hashimi and Issawi were delayed and searched before flying to Irbil for a pre-arranged meeting. Maliki announced that Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq—a vocal proponent of Sunni regionalism, who had called Maliki a dictator in the run-up to the crisis—would be forced out of office. Although the Constitution clearly stipulates that this can only happen with the approval of the CoR, Maliki announced that only the Cabinet needed to approve it. Meanwhile, Maliki’s people began changing their allegations against Hashimi, abandoning the claim that he was tied to the failed bombing of the CoR and alleging instead that he was responsible for other terrorist attacks dating back to 2008, although they offered no explanation as to why these charges had never been mentioned, let alone investigated, at any point in the past, and why now they suddenly constituted probable cause for an arrest warrant. Maliki demanded that the Kurds hand Hashimi over to his security personnel.

Iraqiyyah chose to respond by withdrawing its members of Parliament from the CoR and its ministers from the cabinet. On December 21, Maliki fired back. He held a press conference in which his tone was entirely caustic and uncompromising. He insisted that the Kurds hand over Hashimi so that he could be arrested and tried—as they had tried Saddam Husayn, the prime minister helpfully noted. He repeated that Mutlaq had been deposed and that the decision of the Cabinet had to be respected.  And he warned that if the Sunnis were unwilling to act according to (his version) of the Constitution, that they could withdraw from the government and he would form a majoritarian government of Shi’ah and Kurds without them, something his advisors have been discussing since the spring. The next day, Maliki’s people announced that Rafe al-Issawi was also being investigated for ties to terrorists, these going back to events in 2006, although once again they refused to provide any evidence or even an explanation of why this matter was suddenly being pursued, and pursued as if the fate of the nation depended on it, after five years.

A Bevy of Bad Outcomes

Like so many crises, especially Iraqi crises, there is really only one good outcome for this one. On the other hand, there are a lot of possible bad outcomes, and based on events so far, a betting man would probably put his money on one of them. The only good solution would be for Maliki to back down, stop making new accusations, and tone down his rhetoric. He would need to find a face-saving way to do so, perhaps through the vehicle of the national conference suggested by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Mas’ud Barzani. It would mean reinstating Mutlak (or another senior Sunni chosen by the Iraqiyyah leadership); allowing the charges against Hashimi to fall into the same limbo that Maliki conveniently placed the murder charges against his new ally, Muqtada as-Sadr; and forgetting his claims about Rafe al-Issawi. It would also mean trying to negotiate some kind of compromise agreement on some issue of importance to the Sunni community (like the Amnesty law that has made a little progress in the CoR in recent months). 

Barring that, the result is likely to be trouble. In that case, Maliki would almost certainly succeed in accomplishing his stated goals, and in so doing would make himself a de facto dictator. If he succeeds in removing Saleh Mutlak (and especially if his unquestionably unconstitutional move of simply deposing Mutlak without CoR approval stands); if he is able to arrest and try Hashimi, or even if he succeeds in forcing Hashimi into permanent exile by allowing the arrest warrant to stand; and if he succeeds in arresting and trying Rafe al-Issawi, he will have successfully gutted the Sunni opposition. He will not need to arrest any other Sunni leaders, although given his propensity for mass arrests, he might do so anyway just to ensure that they could not cause him any trouble. But every other Iraqi political leader will know that he can do to them what he did to Mutlak, to Hashimi and to Issawi whenever he wants and no one will be able to save them since no one could save Mutlak, Hashimi or Issawi.

In those circumstances, the key question is how the Sunni community reacts to the establishment of such a new de facto, Shi’i dictatorship. It seems unlikely that they would simply acquiesce, although even in the unlikely event that they did so, it would be no guarantee of stability for Iraq. It is worth remembering that since Iraq gained (nominal) independence from the British in 1932, the country was wracked by the highest number of coup d’etats in the Arab world. The country proved almost impossible to govern for one autocrat after another, each of which found himself locked in various battles (often literally) with one unhappy group after another. Saddam Husayn was, arguably, the only Iraqi dictator to create a somewhat stable autocracy—and was certainly the only one who was able to rule continuously for more than a few years—and he was able to do so only by creating a Stalinist totalitarian state and employing near-genocidal levels of violence against his own people. Especially because of the recent experience of the Sunni insurgency and the Iraqi civil war, the likelihood is that a Maliki dictatorship would prove short-lived and unstable, and could easily end in a new civil war.

It is far more likely that the Sunnis won’t acquiesce to Maliki as dictator, even if merely in an opaque de facto sense. Then the question will simply be whether they decide to revolt and shift over to violent opposition suddenly and massively, or more gradually. Either way, we would likely see the Sunni-dominated provinces of al-Anbar, Diyala, Salah ad-Din and Ninewah distance themselves from the government, demand regional status, cease cooperation with Baghdad, and prevent Iraqi government officials—likely including federal police and army formations—from gaining access or moving around freely in their territory. Terrorist attacks would increase in both intensity and geographic scope as more money and recruits poured in from the Sunni community of Iraq itself, and from neighboring Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Eventually, those terrorist attacks would expand into a full-blow insurgency and, especially if (as seems most likely) the Iraqi army were to fracture along ethno-sectarian lines allowing Sunni soldiers to bring their training and heavy weaponry with them to the Sunni side, you could see pitched battles between government forces and well-organized Sunni militias. Iraq would once again find itself sliding into all-out civil war, this time without the prospect that the United States could or would save them from themselves. 

The Critical Role of the Kurds

A great deal now rests on the Kurds, and particularly on Barzani. Indeed, they may be the only internal or external actor with the ability to derail this crisis.  Although it is impossible to know Maliki’s full calculus, it seems unlikely that he would be looking to take on both the Sunnis and the Kurds simultaneously at this moment. Indeed, part of his thinking is almost certainly that, for a variety of reasons discussed below, the Kurds are likely to stand aside at this point, allowing him to divide and conquer—cut the Sunnis down to size without having to face the Kurds as well. Thus, if the Kurds were willing to go to Maliki and tell him, in private, that they will fully support the Sunnis; that they are willing to withdraw their parliamentary support from the government, bring about a vote of no confidence, vote against the government (which along with Iraqiyyah would cause it to fall), and would even fight alongside the Sunnis if it came to that, it seems more likely than not that Maliki would be willing to back down. He could use Barzani’s proposed national conference to first suspend his attacks on the Sunni political leadership and then allow a face-saving set of compromises to work out.  This may be the only good way out of the current mess.

However, it is just not clear that the Kurds will do so for a variety of reasons that likely were part of Maliki’s calculus all along. First off, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—the principal partner of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party—is under tremendous pressure from Iran. Iranian troops regularly shell PUK villages in eastern Kurdistan, and Iranian intelligence operatives have infested PUK areas making it very difficult for the PUK to oppose Tehran’s wishes, and Tehran is undoubtedly thrilled with Maliki’s actions because Sunni-Shi’i conflict in Iraq simply makes all of the Shi’i groups ever more dependent on Iran. This is why it will have to be Barzani who takes on Maliki: Talabani simply may not be in a position to do so, and he may even try to dissuade Barzani from doing so. 

Second, the Kurds feel completely abandoned by the United States. They have repeatedly asked the Obama Administration for guarantees that it will back their security against any potential threat from the central government in Baghdad, and the Obama Administration has given them nothing. As a result, they now believe that they truly do not have a good option to pursue independence (since to do so they would need American backing against Iran, Turkey and Baghdad—all of which would oppose such a move ferociously) and therefore must remain a part of Iraq for the foreseeable future. That means they have an incentive to get along with Maliki and the central government.

Finally, there is the recent deal signed between the KRG and Exxon. Almost none of the oil companies who signed deals to help develop Iraq’s massive southern oil fields were happy with those deals. The contracts were extremely stingy and, especially given the political instability in the south, many of the companies were ambivalent at best about going through with them. Exxon has led the way, signing a deal to develop several fields in KRG territory and territory that the KRG claims but is disputed by the central government and other groups. In so doing, Exxon thumbed its nose at Baghdad, provoking an irate response from Maliki. Since then, a number of other international oil companies (IOCs) are thinking of following Exxon’s lead and are reportedly exploring options with the KRG. From the Kurds’ perspective, this is fantastic: they believe that they have Maliki and his government over a barrel (pardon the pun) and can use such a shift by the IOCs to force Baghdad to make key concessions on the long-stalled hydrocarbons law and possibly on other, even more sensitive issues, like the status of Kirkuk. Although the Kurds may well be exaggerating the extent of the leverage they have as a result of this turnabout, their perception that they have Maliki right where they want him perversely creates an opportunity for Maliki against the Sunnis since the Kurds will be loath to squander their perceived advantage over Maliki to save the Sunnis. Indeed, they may even believe that they can demand Maliki’s acquiescence on their key issues (Kirkuk, the hydrocarbons law, etc.) in return for their agreement to stay on the sidelines during this crisis. They may well stand aside, convincing themselves that Maliki won’t go too far, in expectation that by doing so, they can get everything they have always ever wanted from Baghdad in return.

American Impotence?

The future of Iraq is hanging by a thread, but no one knows whether the thread will break, and if so, where the country will land—civil war? A new, unstable dictatorship? A failed state? A messy partition? All of these are plausible scenarios and none of them will be happy outcomes for Iraq, for the region, or for the United States for that matter.

For that reason, it is particularly alarming that events so far appear to indicate that the withdrawal of American troops and the administration’s failure so far to build up alternative sources of leverage have left the United States with little ability to influence Iraq’s future course. Senior American officials, including Vice President Biden, the administration’s point man on Iraq, have been imploring Prime Minister Maliki to de-escalate, to stop mounting new attacks on the Sunni leadership, and to rein in his rhetoric. Maliki has done none of those things. Quite the contrary, he continues to make new accusations, he continues to demand that the KRG hand over Hashimi, he is now threatening to exclude the Sunnis from the government altogether, and he has expanded his attacks to include Finance Minister Issawi. He certainly does not seem to be heeding Washington’s demands, pleas or suggestions.