Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
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

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.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

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

Iraq: The Battle to Come

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

As an eight-month battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is coming to an end in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City, a parallel battle to defeat its fighters in the Syrian town of Raqqa is gathering force. But further battles await: downstream along the Euphrates in Deir al-Zour, in the vast desert that spans the Iraq–Syria border, and in a large chunk of territory west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. To members of the US-led coalition and to Western audiences, this has been a necessary military campaign, directed at a jihadist group whose brutal methods and ambition to carry out attacks in western capitals pose an intolerable threat.

To local people, the picture is decidedly different. ISIS’s military defeat, which Western officials believe will come sometime later this year or early next, will hardly put an end to the conflicts that gave rise to the group. For much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s. The deeper conflicts here—between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves—will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.

When ISIS conquered Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab areas three years ago, it faced off with Kurdish forces along a frontline that ran through the middle of what one might call the borderlands between Arab Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital, and Kurdish Iraq, which is governed from Erbil in the north. Kurdish leaders claim that significant parts of these so-called disputed territories are “Kurdistani,” by which they mean that even if the local population is not majority-Kurdish, it nevertheless should be incorporated into the Kurdish region—and thus into a desired future Kurdish state. Many local Arabs, on the other hand, insist that these areas are inalienably Iraqi and must remain under Baghdad’s authority.

The problem of the disputed territories was recognized in the post-2003 Iraqi constitution, which laid out a plan for resolving their status. That never came to pass. Then, ISIS’s arrival provided Kurdish leaders with what they thought was an opportunity to settle the matter in their favor, having gained considerable territory in the fight against the jihadist group. But this has only inflamed tensions further.

Kurdish leaders rightly see ISIS as the result of an ideological marriage between Arab chauvinists and Islamist radicals, both equally intolerant of the ethnic and religious “other,” with the religious strand currently dominant. But many Kurds fail to appreciate that among Sunni Arabs in northern Iraq, ISIS also draws on anger over Kurdish actions in the disputed territories, especially around Mosul and in Kirkuk. With the central government weak, many of these local Arabs appear to accept the protection of just about any political group that will keep the Kurds away, even if that group is ISIS.

It is important to remember that ISIS began in Iraq and that the majority of its leadership and followers are Iraqi (even if it was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian); it has been able to attract foreign elements mainly because of its willingness to fight the Syrian regime and its pledge to establish a caliphate. ISIS’s military defeat may take care of the foreign component, but surviving Iraqi followers, deeply enmeshed in the local population through family and tribal ties, will pose a long-term challenge, including in the disputed territories.

Read the full article at The New York Review of Books.