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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
Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm
Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm

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

Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm

The Islamic State’s defeat is looming, and with it a host of diverse challenges overshadow Iraq’s future, ranging from outright confrontation between Erbil and Baghdad to the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of myriad armed groups previously involved in the anti-ISIS campaign. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support the Erbil government to exit the current political crisis and encourage security sector reform in Iraq as a whole.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Third Update.

With the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) drawing near, Iraq faces dramatic new challenges. On 16 October, Iraqi federal forces marched onto Kirkuk, helped by a deal with one of the Kurdish parties, and retook the city and Kirkuk’s oil fields. The action was prompted by a referendum on Kurdish independence staged by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on 25 September within its territory and in areas disputed with Baghdad. The “yes” vote was overwhelming, and thus held out the threat of eventual secession. In its aftermath, the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi saw the need to reassert Iraqi sovereignty over the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, ahead of (still unscheduled) legislative elections next year. This is because of an intra-Shiite competition that has been unfolding in Baghdad, involving military and political factions with longstanding ties to Iran that were empowered by the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish-Arab standoff and the intra-Shiite rivalry intersect and reinforce each other.

The involvement of a plethora of armed groups in the fight against ISIS, alongside state agencies that respond to different chains of command, has created a hyper-militarised environment that further undermines Iraq’s already weak legal framework. Political actors jockeying for power in the post-ISIS environment may be tempted to exploit this fragmentation and to expand their leverage by pushing toward further escalation. To prevent a collapse of Iraq’s post-2003 political system, substantial reforms are required. The EU can play a key role in such an effort. While the anti-ISIS campaign operated primarily on the military level and was largely conducted in the framework of the U.S.-led coalition, the next steps involve areas where the EU has strong expertise and capacities, namely reconstruction and security sector reform.

A messy governing and security framework

Despite its military achievements, the anti-ISIS campaign has had the unintended effect of arming and training security forces that operate outside formal institutions in both Iraq and the Kurdistan region. Western countries’ largely unconditional military support and lack of a common and clear political roadmap for the post-ISIS period have not helped. The control that various militarised groups exercise over parts of the country challenges Baghdad’s authority and sovereignty. Without conditionality, reconstruction aid to ravaged areas may be hijacked by the militias that control them, further entrenching their rule, with adverse effects for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and governance.

Baghdad-Erbil: From standstill to standoff to violence

The Kurdish independence referendum raised the Kurds’ expectations of statehood while severely damaging relations between Erbil and Baghdad. It led Baghdad to shift from a lukewarm-cooperative to an openly confrontational approach as a way to show resolve in defending Iraq’s territorial integrity. Abadi felt he could move to regain control of the disputed territories because he realised he had the support of both Iran and Turkey (an ally of the KRG until the referendum), as well as the U.S. All three were angered by Barzani’s rejection of their repeated requests that he agree to delay the referendum. The challenge now will be to return to political talks about the future of the disputed territories; settling the internal-boundary question will be critical to bringing long-term stability to these troubled areas.

A blocked political system

Political tensions and institutional weakness will remain endemic as long as Iraq fails to reduce corruption and refresh a leadership that has ruled since 2003. To shore up declining popular support, leaders engage in confrontational rhetoric and strategies, exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tension and inviting external interference. This stands as the largest obstacle to addressing outstanding issues, such as the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad, the Sunnis’ crisis of representation, and the broken trust in Iraq’s legal framework, institutions and formal politics. In particular among young Iraqis, this adds to the urge to either join armed groups or leave the country altogether. (See Crisis Group MENA Report N°169, Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000”, 8 August 2016)

An EU role in reshaping the post-ISIS period

At its June 2017 Foreign Affairs Council the EU reiterated its commitment to support Iraq during the post-ISIS period. Beyond responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis, the EU should seek to tailor this support in ways that help address the underlying causes of the current political malaise, notably the corruption and dysfunction of the Baghdad government, the corruption and succession quarrel within the Kurdistan regional government, the crisis of Sunni representation, and the Baghdad-Erbil standoff. Through its upcoming EU Strategy for engagement with Iraq and subsequent action, the EU should pursue:

Humanitarian and reconstruction aid as part of a political strategy: EU assistance should be guided by the overarching political goal to transform a militia-dominated environment into more effective governance by state institutions. To this end, aid and reconstruction should aim to break local communities’ security and financial dependence on the various militia leaderships that emerged from the anti-ISIS campaign. Local governance institutions linked to and funded by the central state or the Kurdistan regional government should be partners of first choice. Strengthening those institutions may also make it possible to integrate local armed factions (of Sunnis as well as minority groups) into the local police and other security forces, thus breaking Shiite militias’ monopoly over security, which has fuelled resentment and could reignite support for jihadists who are currently lying low. In the disputed territories, EU reconstruction assistance could be conditioned upon acceptance by both Erbil and Baghdad of a renewed UN-led process (see below) to resolve the questions of these territories’ status and the sharing of revenues generated from the oil extracted there. The way forward should include a return to a shared security mechanism between Erbil’s peshmerga ministry and Baghdad’s defence ministry in the most sensitive areas.

Reorganisation of the security sector: In the post-ISIS phase, the EU should assist Iraq and the Kurdistan region in integrating chains of command and bringing the range of formal and informal armed groups under the purview of the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga ministry. Through its new Advisory Mission for security sector reform (EUAM), the EU can contribute its member states’ extensive experience in this field to enhance efforts by other international actors (NATO, UNDP) to help the federal government and Kurdistan Regional Government reorganise their respective security forces. In particular, the duties and purview of various security bodies (Counter-terrorism Forces, Iraqi Army, National Police, Kurdish peshmerga forces and Kurdish Asayesh security police), as well as the status of new outfits such as the Shiite militias, need to be defined.

Leadership regeneration: Post-ISIS stabilisation also hinges on a renewal of the political leadership in Baghdad and Erbil by committing both capitals to free, fair and timely elections. Thanks to its established network in civil society organisations, the EU can encourage the participation of new political actors by engaging in leadership training for members of informal, non-violent protest movements, who have challenged the political elite in the recent past, and identify new youth-led civil society groups and volunteer organisations – even if they have emerged under the umbrella of, or enjoy ties to, the Shiite militias – and facilitate their integration into local governance institutions and established political parties.

Iraq’s Territorial Integrity. The EU should use its diplomatic and economic weight to help revive negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil over the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) question. Settling the endemic instability in these areas is crucial to both sides regardless of the ultimate disposition of Kurdistan. Talks should be led by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) based on its important but still unused 2009 study and proposals on that subject. To this end it should work to refocus UNAMI’s mandate (through a Security Council resolution). This is also an issue that Turkey, a support of the earlier UNAMI effort, has found of great interest and would almost certainly wish to engage Erbil on.