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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis
Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis

To overcome Iraq’s current political crisis and prevent the breakdown of the entire post-2003 order, Prime Minister Maliki and his opponents both will have to agree to painful compromises.

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Executive Summary

At first glance, the current Iraqi political crisis looks like just one more predictable bump in the long road from dictatorship to democracy. Every two years or so, the political class experiences a prolonged stalemate; just as regularly, it is overcome. So, one might think, it will be this time around. But look closer and the picture changes. The tug of war over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s second term suggests something far worse: that a badly conceived, deeply flawed political process has turned into a chronic crisis that could bring down the existing political structure. To avoid this outcome, both Maliki and his opponents need to make painful compromises: the prime minister should implement the power-sharing deal negotiated in 2010 and pledge to step down at the end of his term; in turn, his rivals should call off efforts to unseat him and instead use their parliamentary strength to build strong state institutions, such as an independent electoral commission, and ensure free and fair elections in two years’ time.

The present stalemate has its immediate roots in the Erbil accord between key political actors, which led to the second Maliki government. Key elements of the power-sharing agreement, which political leaders reached in a rush in November 2010 as impatience with the absence of a government grew, were never carried out. Instead, the prime minister’s critics accuse him of violating the constitution, steadily amassing power at the expense of other government branches – parliament, the judiciary as well as independent commissions and agencies – and bringing security forces under his direct personal control. They also criticise him for reneging on crucial aspects of the understanding, notably by failing to fairly apportion sensitive security positions.

When, in December 2011, the judiciary issued an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi – a vocal Maliki critic – whatever good-will remained collapsed. Several of the prime minister’s partners boycotted the government, arguing that he increasingly was veering toward indefinite, autocratic rule. While they returned to the council of ministers after a few weeks, Maliki’s opponents – which include a broad array of Sunnis, Kurds, but also Shiites – have since vowed to unseat him through a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

The prime minister’s detractors have a case. A master at navigating the grey areas of law and constitution, he has steadily concentrated authority since 2006. But they also have a fair share of responsibility, having signally failed to marshal their parliamentary strength to pass legislation that would keep Maliki’s growing power in check. Arguably, had they devoted their energies to the hard work of confronting him through institutions, they would not have found themselves compelled to seek a no-confidence vote as a last resort to block his apparent path toward autocratic rule. If, as is undeniable, Maliki has added to his powers during his six-year tenure, there can be no question that a large part of his success derives from his rivals’ incapacity to thwart him via institutional means.

It is unclear how this imbroglio will end, although at this rate and without a tangible change in all sides’ behaviour, it almost certainly will end badly. Regardless of whether he survives in office, Maliki has lost the trust of vast segments of the political class, including among former Shiite allies. At the same time, opposition members are deeply divided, both on fundamental substantive issues and on whether to push Maliki to implement the Erbil agreement or remove him once and for all. The odds that they can muster the required votes to unseat him are low; even should they succeed, they are highly unlikely to agree on a common platform to form an alternative government. This would leave Maliki as caretaker prime minister until the next elections in 2014. In the meantime, his government will increasingly find it difficult to govern. All Iraqis will pay a price.

Iraq’s predicament is a symptom of a problem that goes far deeper than the unimplemented Erbil understanding or even Maliki’s personality. It directly relates to the inability to overcome the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its repressive practices: a culture of deep suspicion coupled with a winner-take-all and loser-lose-all form of politics. Because it never produced a fair, agreed-upon distribution of power, territory and resources, the political bargaining that followed the regime’s fall did little to remedy this situation. The constitutional order the U.S. occupying power midwifed was an awkward patchwork that did not address core issues – the nature of the federal system; the powers of the president, prime minister and parliament; even the identity of the state and its people. Worse, by solidifying an ethno-sectarian conception of politics, it helped fuel a conflict that at times has been more violent, at others more subdued, but has never wholly vanished.

The recurrent political crises that have plagued Iraq are the logical manifestations of this original flaw. Not once did the outcome of these recent cases tackle, let alone fix, the source of the impasse; rather, they were more like band aids, superficial agreements leaving issues either wholly unresolved or resolved but without an enforceable implementation mechanism. What is more, with each episode the wound grows deeper: the gap between political parties widens, bolstering centrifugal forces first manifested in the 2005 process of drafting the constitution as well as in the substance of the text.

This time, political leaders must do more than merely patch things up and live to fight another day, without touching root causes. A quick fix today could mean a comprehensive breakdown tomorrow: the 2014 parliamentary elections loom, and for all parties stakes are higher than ever. Without an agreement on constitutional and legal rules of the game, the prime minister desperately will seek to cling to power and risks of electoral malfeasance will increase commensurately; this will render any outcome suspect and therefore contested. Ultimately, the post-2005 constitutional order might unravel, potentially amid violence.

Making an understanding even more urgent is the uneasy state of the region. From the outset, the political system’s frailty has drawn in neighbouring states but rarely in so perilous a fashion as now. Following the U.S. troop withdrawal and the growing sectarian rift that has opened in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Iraq could fast become a privileged arena for a regional slug­fest. While all attention today is focused on Syria, regional actors, the Maliki government included, appear to see Iraq as the next sectarian battleground, particularly should Bashar Assad’s regime fall. Founded in reality or not, the perception in Baghdad is that the emergence of a Sunni-dominated Syria would embolden Sunni militant groups at home; the prime minister also feels that a broad Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey has painted a target on his chest as part of their cold war with Iran and, more broadly, with Shiite Islam. Maliki has thus essentially thrown in his lot with the regime next door, notwithstanding their tense relations in years past; some neigh­bours likewise are convinced he has grown ever closer to Tehran.

It will not be easy to right the course of Iraq’s drifting ship of state, but Maliki, his opponents and neighbouring countries share an interest in reducing tensions and returning to power sharing, as the alternative could be renewed civil war with greater foreign interference. Because amending the constitution has proved near-impossible, peaceful change will have to occur through constitution-based political consensus – finally beginning to address what for too long has been ignored.

In a companion report to be released later this month, Crisis Group will highlight a specific aspect of the current crisis: the inability of one of the opposition alliances, al-Iraqiya, to present an effective barrier to Maliki’s incremental power grab. Iraqiya’s flailing efforts, along with those of other parties, to unseat Maliki through a parliamentary no-confidence vote underscore its waning power; show that what remains of the country’s secular middle class lacks an influential standard bearer at a time of ongoing sectarian tensions that Syria’s civil war risks escalating; and underline the marginalisation of Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkomans, further increasing the potential for violence.

Baghdad/Erbil/Brussels, 30 July 2012

The Royal Engineers Boat Group, a British military unit, patrols the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq in October 2006. FLICKR/David Axe

Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa

In a keynote speech for the World Water Week in Stockholm on 28 August 2016, our MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann assesses the role of water in Middle East conflicts – even, potentially, when used in the cultivation of Yemen’s beloved stimulant, qat.

I want to thank the organisers – AGWA, the Rockefeller Foundation, SIWI and UNESCO-IHP – for inviting me to speak here today, and in particular Anders Jägerskog of SIDA at the Swedish Embassy in Amman for his support.

I head the Middle East & North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. In that capacity I have asked myself at times: Why haven’t we worked on water and conflict in the region I cover? Aren’t there plenty of reasons to do so? Indeed, conflict over water was practically invented in the Middle East. I’m going to do something now that I don’t often do: I’m going to quote from the Bible. It’s Sunday, after all.

This is from Genesis:

“Isaac’s servants also dug in the Gerar Valley and discovered a well of fresh water. But then the shepherds from Gerar came and claimed the spring. ‘This is our water’, they said, and they argued over it with Isaac’s herdsmen. So Isaac named the well Esek (which means ‘argument’). Isaac’s men then dug another well, but again there was a dispute over it. So Isaac named it Sitnah (which means ‘hostility’). Abandoning that one, Isaac moved on and dug another well. This time there was no dispute over it, so Isaac named the place Rehoboth (which means ‘open space’), for he said, ‘At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land’”.

Well, dream on, I say! There appear to be no open spaces left in the Middle East, and “argument” and “hostility” have become the name of the game.

Instead of a sermon, though, I’m going to say a few things about how water relates to the potential for conflict. As an organisation, we have focused on the drivers of, and actors in, “hot” conflict, of which we have plenty in the region right now: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, always Palestine/Israel, and others. This distracts from the important underlying, longer-term issues that require attention, such as pressures on water resources. One can find examples of disputes over water triggering a “hot” war, but not many, at least not in recent times. The obvious one that comes to mind is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the fight over access to the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway that is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they flow toward the …eh… Persian Gulf? Arab Gulf? You see, there is another problem right there. Let’s just say “the Gulf,” and agree that we all know what we’re talking about.

But other than that war (about which more in a minute), I can’t cite any recent examples. Yet once we take a closer look at the water question, we find interesting things. There is a very good piece in a recent issue of Middle East Report that discusses developments in a place called Wadi Barada in Syria and how these relate to the 2011 popular uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad. It turns out that the fact that the river that runs through Wadi Barada dried up in the mid-1990s was a key contributing factor to why that area of the country joined the uprising. It’s clear from this example that any student or activist interested in the relationship between water and conflict would do well to pay close attention to developments such as these well before they lead to violent conflict. More about Wadi Barada in a moment.

What I have learned from my little research before this conference is that, broadly speaking, there are three categories of water and conflict: conflicts over access to water, conflicts over the allocation of water, and the use of water as a weapon in conflict. I will give examples of each, but let me first give some general characteristics about these three categories: (1) issues of access, allocation, and use as weapon can occur in internal and in cross-border situations (the term “transboundary” can denote both internal and cross-border); (2) they can be a cause, a contributing factor, or a pretext for armed conflict; and (3) they can be aggravated by weak governance resulting in poor water management. The question of state policy is important in all cases.

First, access. Conflicts over access usually concern a body of water or a water basin, and are made worse if they have a transboundary dimension. Let’s take another look at the example of the Shatt al-Arab. Access to this waterway has long been a matter of dispute between Iran and Iraq. To Iraq, the river provides critical access to the Gulf; it’s almost existential. To Iran, which has a long coast line on the Gulf, the matter is different, but because it has cities with major oil facilities on the Shatt it needs the river for transportation. Iraq had exclusive access to the Shatt in the early 1970s when Iran, for a number of reasons – of which access to the Shatt was one – began supporting Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in order to press the Iraqi government to make concessions. Which it did: in 1975 the Shah and Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement, in which they undertook to share the Shatt by dividing it along the thalweg, the line connecting the river’s lowest points.

In 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran by crossing the Shatt into Khuzestan. Saddam wanted to take advantage of post-revolution disarray in Tehran to deal the regime a setback or even bring it to collapse. The issue of the Shatt was merely one of a number of grievances Iraq had vis-à-vis Iran, but Saddam mentioned it as the primary casus belli. It was clearly a pretext for the invasion, not the main reason. (During the war, the Shatt was unnavigable; afterward it was again shared, if uneasily, between the two protagonists.)

So the Iran-Iraq war example offers the following: a conflict at least partly over access to a vital waterway; a combination of cause, contributing factor, and pretext, but arguably mainly the latter; a transboundary/international conflict; and instead of weak governance the actions of two autocratic governments that had little political will and limited capacity to establish mechanisms for resolving disputes.

Second, allocation. Here I go back to the example of the Wadi Barada, which is located between Damascus and the border with Lebanon. Because of the exponential growth of the capital in recent decades, including in the direction of Lebanon in the form of large housing estates for army officers and Alawite and Druze elites, water was diverted from the spring that fed the river flowing through the Wadi Barada in order to provide drinking water for the expanding population, and by the mid-1990s the river had dried up. Perhaps no surprise, therefore, that when protests broke out in southern Syria in the spring of 2011, the people of Wadi Barada quickly joined in, giving voice to their own specific grievances. Their main demands on the government were: (1) restore the river; (2) give access to clean drinking water; and (3) provide fair compensation for the agricultural lands expropriated in the 1970s and 1980s.

The plight of these locals was the direct result of state policies: discriminatory water allocation by an autocratic state and land expropriation, without redress (in the absence of an independent judiciary). After government negotiators met with representatives of the area, they made certain promises, but then nothing happened, the protests continued, and soon government forces came to suppress them. The result was an active and violent revolt, in tune with what was going on elsewhere in Syria, but in the case of Wadi Barada specifically because of what had happened earlier with the land expropriations and water diversion. Discriminatory water allocation therefore was an important contributing factor to the uprising in that part of Syria.

Third, as weapon. I’m not about to throw this bottle of water at you, but … the threat to unleash water collected behind a dam on a city can be quite powerful. The Iraqi regime feared Iran might be planning something along these lines when the latter invaded northern Iraq in the last year of the war, in 1988, aiming for the Darbandikhan dam that sits on the Diyala river; opening it could have flooded Baghdad downstream. Likewise, the Mosul dam became a strategic asset in 2014 after the Islamic State overran Iraqi government positions and captured Mosul and surroundings in June 2014. The risk of waters being unleashed and submerging Mosul threatened to turn a river into a weapon of war. (There has also been a risk of the dam’s collapse as a result of structural faults and lack of maintenance.)

So what is to be done? It is clear that those involved in conflict prevention need to take a closer look at the predictors of deadly conflict when it concerns water disputes:

Firstly, look more closely at disputes over access to water, water allocation, and the potential use of water as a weapon, and assess how they are being managed, by what mechanisms, by what degree of governance, what the recourse is, and so on.

Secondly, analyse the strength and adaptability of institutions and processes of transboundary water management and dispute resolution between riparian governments: how robust are these? Could they break down? How and when?

Thirdly, in times of conflict and crisis: Determine how to achieve water management despite such adverse conditions, and include it as an essential element of a peace settlement and post-conflict peace building.

That’s the agenda we face. Now I’ll end with a short anecdote. Some years ago, I was in Sanaa, and one of the meetings we had was with the minister of water, a very smart and engaging man, who for an hour related to us the difficulties of stamping out the culture of qat chewing, with qat being the kind of rather useless agricultural product whose cultivation was nevertheless consuming inordinate amounts of water. It was getting to be close to 2pm, however, and so rather late in the ministry’s working day, and the minister made it clear that the meeting was over, and it was time for him to hasten home … and preside over his afternoon qat chew.

Cultural habits are deeply ingrained. The misallocation of water for qat production in Yemen is going to run up against more pressing needs for water, and will trigger conflict sooner or later. The current war is not over water, but when it is ended – and let’s hope that moment will come soon – it will be incumbent on policymakers to tackle the knotty qat question, lest Yemen find itself in a Wadi Barada-type of situation sometime down the line.

Thank you.