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Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape
Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
On Third Try, a New Government for Iraq
On Third Try, a New Government for Iraq

Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible.

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Executive Summary

This is the first of two companion reports on Iraq after the Surge, which Crisis Group is publishing simultaneously, with identical Executive Summaries and policy Recommendations. Part I analyses changes in the Sunni landscape. Part II analyses the state of political progress.

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible. The ever-more relative lull is an opportunity for the U.S. to focus on two missing ingredients: pressuring the Iraqi government to take long overdue steps toward political compromise and altering the regional climate so that Iraq’s neighbours use their leverage to encourage that compromise and make it stick. As shown in these two companion reports, this entails ceasing to provide the Iraqi government with unconditional military support; reaching out to what remains of the insurgency; using its leverage to encourage free and fair provincial elections and progress toward a broad national dialogue and compact; and engaging in real diplomacy with all Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Syria included.

Many factors account for the reduction in violence: the surge in some cases benefited from, in others encouraged, and in the remainder produced, a series of politico-military shifts affecting the Sunni and Shiite communities. But there is little doubt that U.S. field commanders displayed sophistication and knowledge of local dynamics without precedent during a conflict characterised from the outset by U.S. policy misguided in its assumptions and flawed in its execution. A conceptual revolution within the military leadership gave U.S. forces the ability to carry out new policies and take advantage of new dynamics. Had they remained mired in past conceptions, propitious evolutions on the ground notwithstanding, the situation today would be far bleaker.

One of the more remarkable changes has been the realignment of tribal elements in Anbar, known as the sahwat, and of former insurgents, collectively known as the “Sons of Iraq”. This was largely due to increased friction over al-Qaeda in Iraq’s brutal tactics, proclamation of an Islamic state and escalating assaults on ordinary citizens. But the tribal and insurgent decisions also were aided by enhanced military pressure on the jihadi movement resulting from augmented U.S. troops: in both instances U.S. forces demonstrated more subtle understanding of existing tensions and intra-Sunni fault lines. Overall, the military campaign calmed areas that had become particularly violent and inaccessible, such as Anbar and several Baghdad neighbourhoods, and essentially halted sectarian warfare.

But on their own, without an overarching strategy for Iraq and the region, these tactical victories cannot turn into lasting success. The mood among Sunnis could alter. The turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq is not necessarily the end of the story. While some tribal chiefs, left in the cold after Saddam’s fall, found in the U.S. a new patron ready and able to provide resources, this hardly equates with a genuine, durable trend toward Sunni Arab acceptance of the political process. For these chiefs, as for the former insurgents, it mainly is a tactical alliance, forged to confront an immediate enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq) or the central one (Iran). Any accommodation has been with the U.S., not between them and their government. It risks unravelling if the ruling parties do not agree to greater power sharing and if Sunni Arabs become convinced the U.S. is not prepared to side with them against Iran or its perceived proxies; at that point, confronting the greater foe (Shiite militias or the Shiite-dominated government) once again will take precedence.

Forces combating the U.S. have been weakened but not vanquished. The insurgency has been cut down to more manageable size and, after believing victory was within reach, now appears eager for negotiations with the U.S. Still, what remains is an enduring source of violence and instability that could be revived should political progress lag or the Sons of Iraq experiment falter. Even al-Qaeda in Iraq cannot be decisively defeated through U.S. military means alone. While the organisation has been significantly weakened and its operational capacity severely degraded, its deep pockets, fluid structure and ideological appeal to many young Iraqis mean it will not be irrevocably vanquished. The only lasting solution is a state that extends its intelligence and coercive apparatus throughout its territory, while offering credible alternatives and socio-economic opportunities to younger generations.

The U.S. approach suffers from another drawback. It is bolstering a set of local actors operating beyond the state’s realm or the rule of law and who impose their authority by force of arms. The sahwat in particular has generated new divisions in an already divided society and new potential sources of violence in an already multilayered conflict. Some tribes have benefited heavily from U.S. assistance, others less so. This redistribution of power almost certainly will engender instability and rivalry, which in turn could trigger intense feuds – an outcome on which still-active insurgent groups are banking. None of this constitutes progress toward consolidation of the central government or institutions; all of it could amount to little more than the U.S. boosting specific actors in an increasingly fragmented civil war and unbridled scramble for power and resources. Short-term achievement could threaten long-term stability.

By President Bush’s own standards, the military surge was useful primarily insofar as it led the Iraqi government to forge a national consensus, recalibrate power relations and provide Sunni Arabs in particular with a sense their future was secure. Observers may legitimately differ over how many of the administration’s so-called benchmarks have been met. None could reasonably dispute that the government’s performance has been utterly lacking. Its absence of capacity cannot conceal or excuse its absence of will. True to its sectarian nature and loath to share power, the ruling coalition has actively resisted compromise. Why not? It has no reason to alienate its constituency, jeopardise its political makeup or relinquish its perks and privileges when inaction has no consequence and the U.S. will always back it.

The surge is the latest instalment in a stop-and-start project to build a functioning state and legitimate institutions. All along, the fundamental challenge has been to settle major disputes and end a chaotic scramble for power, positions and resources in a society that, after a reign of terror, finds itself without accepted rules of the game or means to enforce them. Politically, this conflict has expressed itself in disputes, both violent and non-violent, over the structure of the state system (federalism/regionalisation and the degree of power devolution); ownership, management and distribution of oil and gas wealth (a hydrocarbons law); internal boundaries (particularly of the Kurdistan region); mechanisms for settling relations between post-Saddam “winners” and “losers” (for example, de-Baathification, amnesty, reintegration); and the way in which groups gain power (elections vs. force).

A small number of agreements have been reached and are regularly trumpeted. But they have made virtually no difference. Without basic political consensus over the nature of the state and the distribution of power and resources, passage of legislation is only the first step, and often the least meaningful one. Most of these laws are ambiguous enough to ensure that implementation is postponed, or that the battle over substance becomes a struggle over interpretation. Moreover, in the absence of legitimate and effective state and local institutions, implementation by definition will be partisan and politicised. What matters is not principally whether a law is passed in the Green Zone. It is how the law is carried out in the Red Zone.

Three things are becoming increasingly clear: First, the issues at the heart of the political struggle cannot be solved individually or sequentially. Secondly, the current governing structure does not want, nor is it able, to take advantage of the surge to produce agreement on fundamentals. Thirdly, without cooperation from regional actors, progress will be unsustainable, with dissatisfied groups seeking help from neighbouring states to promote their interests. All this suggests that the current piecemeal approach toward deal making should be replaced with efforts to bring about a broad agreement that deals with federalism, oil and internal boundaries; encourages reconciliation/accommodation; and ensures provincial and national elections as a means of renewing and expanding the political class. It also suggests yet again the need for the U.S. to engage in both genuine negotiations with the insurgency and for vigorous regional diplomacy to achieve agreement on rules of the game for outside actors in Iraq.

In the U.S., much of the debate has focused on whether to maintain or withdraw troops. But this puts the question the wrong way, and spawns misguided answers. The issue, rather, should be whether the U.S. is pursuing a policy that, by laying the foundations of legitimate, functional institutions and rules of the game, will minimise the costs to itself, the Iraqi people and regional stability of a withdrawal that sooner or later must occur – or whether it is simply postponing a scenario of Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, protracted and multilayered violence, as well as increased foreign meddling.

The surge clearly has contributed to a series of notable successes. But the question is: Now what? What higher purpose will they serve? For the first four years of the war, the U.S. administration pursued a lofty strategy – the spread of democracy; Iraq as a regional model – detached from any realistic tactics. The risk today is that, having finally adopted a set of smart, pragmatic tactics, it finds itself devoid of any overarching strategy.

Baghdad/Istanbul/Damascus/Brussels, 30 April 2008

Iraqi PM-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi who is at the parliament for vote of confidence in Baghdad, Iraq makes a speech on May 06, 2020. Anadolu Agency via AFP

On Third Try, a New Government for Iraq

The new Iraqi prime minister has several daunting tasks. Not only must he navigate the politics that delayed his cabinet’s formation, but he must also deal with plummeting state revenues, simmering public discontent and – last but hardly least – rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

On 6 May, after five months and two earlier failed attempts, Iraq’s parliament confirmed the – still incomplete – government of the new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The country had been without a functioning government since the resignation of Adil Abdul-Mahdi in late November 2019 following weeks-long mass protests against the ruling elite. Just like his predecessor, Kadhimi will preside over a broad coalition government that must cater to the interests of nearly all the country’s major political forces. He will be highly constrained in his ability to initiate long-overdue reforms, but having so many constituencies to satisfy may help preserve the precarious balance between the U.S. and Iran on which Iraq’s security relies.

A Convoluted Process

Iraq’s fractured political landscape has made government formation increasingly difficult over the years since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. From the May 2018 elections, two rival blocs emerged, Binaa and Islah, each comprising a Shiite core with allied Sunni, Kurdish and minority parties. The Binaa bloc, which is dominated by the pro-Iranian Fateh coalition led by Hadi Ameri, brought in the Sunni Force Alliance of Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by the Barzani family. The Islah bloc, centred around the Sairoun coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr, was an unprecedented alliance of Islamist and secular parties of all ethnicities. Sairoun made common cause with the Iraqi Communist Party, the Sunni Muttahidoon alliance headed by Osama al-Nujaifi and the Kurdish New Generation movement led by Shaswar Abdulwahid, as well as several minority parties.

Fragmentation within and between the various party coalitions led to splits and defections, making the question of which bloc was the largest increasingly contentious.

According to the Iraqi constitution, it should be the prerogative of parliament’s largest political bloc to nominate the prime minister-designate, who then forms the government. But fragmentation within and between the various party coalitions led to splits and defections, making the question of which bloc was the largest increasingly contentious. After five months of wrangling, the two camps settled on a compromise candidate with no political affiliation and no party base of his own. Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, whose cabinet was only partially confirmed in October 2018, ended up heading a government that had to include all sides while respecting ethno-sectarian allocations (muhasasa), by which all major population groups expect to receive proportionate representation at the top ranks of state institutions. As a result, his new government was exceptionally weak.

When Abdul-Mahdi resigned, forming a new government once more required an elaborate balancing exercise between and within the two blocs to sift through the pile of suitable candidates for a new cabinet. The primary factor behind the scenes was the main party leaders’ desire to preserve their hold on ministerial portfolios as a way to consolidate their patronage networks. The arithmetic was made more difficult by the fact that the political players were weighing compromises on cabinet portfolios against prospects of securing other powerful or lucrative positions such as the prime minister’s chief of staff, the national security adviser and the heads of directorates such as customs and border control.

A winning candidate needed to be acceptable to Iraq’s two rival external partners, Iran and the U.S.

At the same time, a winning candidate needed to be acceptable to Iraq’s two rival external partners, Iran and the U.S., in order to garner enough votes from these powers’ Iraqi allies. This task became more delicate still in early January 2020, when the U.S. killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the chief of staff of the paramilitary al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis with a drone strike near Baghdad’s airport, and Iran retaliated with missile attacks on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.

Neither of the two candidates who preceded Kadhimi was able to clear these bars. The first nominee, two-time minister of communications Mohamed Taufik Allawi, whose name was put forward on 1 February, insisted on appointing technocratic ministers of his own choice and thus ran afoul of the major parties’ desire for influential portfolios. Next up was the former governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurfi, who launched his attempt on 17 March but soon faced rejection, in particular by members of the Binaa bloc, for being too close to the U.S.

Kadhimi, for his part, had forged strong relations with both Iran and the U.S. in his position as intelligence chief since 2016. He was thus able to gain both sides’ approval. During cabinet formation, Kadhimi went out of his way to generate consensus, with the line-up presented on 2 May listing two, in some cases even three, candidates for key ministries, such as interior and defence, for the parties to choose from. Despite his efforts, Kadhimi will still have to find replacements for five of his chosen candidates who were rejected in the 6 May parliamentary session, while the vote on two so-called sovereign ministries, oil and foreign affairs, was postponed. Thus, the interim tally left Kadhimi with a measure of support that represents only a marginal improvement over the result achieved by Abdul-Mahdi in 2018, who had eight empty slots, including the important defence and interior portfolios. Meanwhile, the challenges facing the new government have grown dramatically.

A Bumpy Road Ahead: Economy and Security

An immediate challenge for Kadhimi will be the severe fiscal deficit that has resulted from tumbling oil prices.

Under a caretaker government, Iraq has been largely incapable of responding to a significant set of problems. Plummeting oil prices have led to a rapidly growing fiscal deficit, while the restrictions imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have dealt a heavy blow to an already sluggish economy. The situation could get even worse if rancour between the U.S. and Iran were to spill over into the economy, for instance in the form of U.S. sanctions on Iraq. Having the apparent initial support of the U.S., Kadhimi will be better placed to mitigate this risk than his predecessor, who only gained Washington’s backing after its preferred candidate, then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, lost the election. On the security level, tensions between the U.S. and Iran’s allies in Iraq heated up dangerously at the beginning of the year and continue to simmer, while insurgent attacks by remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS) are on the rise.

An immediate challenge for Kadhimi will be the severe fiscal deficit that has resulted from tumbling oil prices. While the budget is based on a per-barrel price of $56, oil was trading for half of that in April. State revenues, some 90 per cent of which come from oil sales, shrank from just over $6 billion in January to less than $3 billion in March and $1.4 billion in April. Public-sector salaries alone cost the state around $3 billion each month. Iraq’s already bloated government budget inflated to historic size in 2019 as the Abdul-Mahdi government resorted to creating even more public-sector jobs to placate protesters.

With a prolonged period of low oil prices now increasingly likely, Kadhimi may have to preside over austerity measures that will make it difficult to retain the broad political support he needs to govern. A harbinger of trouble to come was the most recent spat over the budget allocation for the Kurdistan Regional Government, after Erbil failed to commit its agreed share of oil exports to the State Organisation for Marketing Oil. While this problem has been recurrent in Baghdad-Erbil relations, it will be particularly difficult to resolve under the current economic strain as the KRG likewise struggles with dwindling revenues from its own oil exports.

When Iraq found itself in a similar situation in 2014, it was able to obtain external support, including from the International Monetary Fund, thanks not least to the exceptional challenge it faced with the fight against ISIS. Yet in the time of COVID-19, international credit may be in far shorter supply, and so may international good-will. U.S. intentions in particular remain a question mark, as over time Washington may be reluctant to lend full support to an Iraqi government that includes affiliates of parties aligned with Tehran.

So far, that has not been the case. The U.S. sent a strong signal of approval immediately after Kadhimi was sworn in as prime minister, announcing that it would extend its sanctions waiver for gas and electricity imports from Iran by 120 days. Continued waivers are crucial to Iraq, as a quarter of its electricity consumption depends on imports from Iran, which may take at least three years of uninterrupted domestic production capacity development to replace. Under Abdul-Mahdi, the U.S. had reduced the most recent extension to 30 days at a time, causing uncertainty that hurt the economy.

With the persistent danger of escalation between Washington and Tehran, Baghdad’s position remains precarious.

Yet with the persistent danger of escalation between Washington and Tehran, Baghdad’s position remains precarious. Two issues in particular loom. First, if at any given point, the Trump administration opts no longer to extend the sanctions waivers, the Iraqi Central Bank and Trade Bank could become direct targets for U.S. sanctions, with unforeseeable consequences for the Iraqi economy. Secondly, Iraqi groups sympathetic to Iran have been clamouring for a complete U.S. military withdrawal in the wake of the Soleimani and Muhandis killings and have been targeting U.S. forces in-country to that end.

Under Kadhimi’s leadership, the risk of U.S. sanctions is no longer immediate, but he should use a honeymoon in relations with the Trump administration to turn the economic crisis into a political opportunity to address both threats. The U.S. plans to hold a strategic dialogue with Iraq in June, in order to reset the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement covering bilateral economic and security relations. Indeed, Iran, with a deteriorating economy of its own, may be loath to see its neighbour – the second biggest importer of Iranian non-oil products – suffer economic collapse. Some of Iraq’s pro-Iranian groups are strongly opposed to entering into a strategic dialogue with the U.S., and continue to push for a complete U.S. troop withdrawal, but their voices have lost in strength. By allowing Kadhimi to become prime minister, most in the ruling elite demonstrated an understanding of the even greater economic damage that a deterioration of Baghdad-Washington relations would cause. This may give the prime minister some extra flexibility in negotiating the two countries’ future security relationship, in a manner satisfactory to both Iran and the U.S.

The Trump administration’s main grievance over the last two years has been the Iraqi government’s inability to prevent Iran-aligned groups embedded in the Hashd from attacking U.S. forces. The Abdul-Mahdi government and most Shiite parties, by contrast, have accused the U.S. of breaching its sovereignty, notably in killing Soleimani and Muhandis. Pro-Iranian groups will likely continue to harass U.S. forces, actions that Kadhimi will find just as hard to curb as his predecessors. Yet the withdrawal of U.S. troops from several forward bases in the fight against ISIS has cut the number of targets for Washington’s enemies. Kadhimi can also help shift the anti-ISIS effort’s burden to other coalition members, giving an enlarged role to NATO, as was already under discussion before the COVID-19 outbreak, thereby allowing Iran and its allies to claim at least partial success in their endeavour.

Domestically, too, Kadhimi may have some manoeuvring room.

Domestically, too, Kadhimi has some manoeuvring room. Pro-Iranian groups have criticised Kadhimi for being “too vague” on the steps he intends to take to implement parliament’s January 2020 non-binding resolution to expel coalition forces from Iraq. Yet Shiite parties hold different views on this point as well. All except the Nasr coalition of former Prime Minister Abadi, which was part of the Islah bloc, endorsed the motion, which came as an expression of Shiite solidarity after the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis. But since then, some have signalled that they may support a continued limited coalition presence. Moreover, with resurgent ISIS activity, and Sunni and Kurdish parties dead set against a U.S. troop withdrawal, Kadhimi may be able to strike the delicate balance between Iraq’s rival partners on which the country’s security will depend.

A Looming Resurgence of Protest

Beyond the immediate economic and security challenges, Iraq’s political system is facing a grave crisis of legitimacy, which, after years of bubbling popular discontent and occasional flare-ups of unrest, reached an apex with the 2019 protests. Kadhimi is beholden to this very same system and depends on it for his survival. He is unlikely to be able to embark on serious reforms to tackle corruption and the ethno-sectarian allocation system. It is therefore unclear how he will manage the new wave of protests that is almost certainly coming in response to fresh austerity measures.

One way to accommodate a new surge of protests would be to finalise aspects of the electoral law that parliament passed on 24 December, including reforming the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, one of the protesters’ principal demands. Kadhimi has made early elections a top priority, an aim he is unlikely to achieve due to opposition by some blocs, which will use their parliamentary power to delay legislation. Keeping the process of electoral reform and early elections alive, however, may be just as important in gaining credibility in the street.

Another significant test for Kadhimi will be whether he can limit state violence if and when protests pick up again.

Another significant test for Kadhimi, who has been in communication with the protest movement (although he was rejected by some representatives for being part of the ruling elite), will be whether he can limit state violence if and when protests pick up again. In his first cabinet decision after assuming office, Kadhimi announced that detained protesters will be released and a committee set up to investigate crimes. He would do well to build on this momentum to create a platform for dialogue on the parameters of reform with the protesters, who are divided between those who reject negotiations with the government and those who are more amenable. After all, the protesters started calling for the fall of the entire political system only after the government responded to their non-violent methods with lethal force.

Kadhimi is facing an extraordinary set of challenges. His success in forming a government has given him the chance to do a reset of Iraq’s strained relations with the U.S., an important step to secure economic support. Iran and its allies are most concerned with the security relationship, and Kadhimi will have to use the benefit to both Iran and Iraq of keeping sanctions waivers and economic support as a means of balancing diverging opinions of the U.S. troop presence. If he can help keep a relative peace between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq, Kadhimi may have the space he needs to address the economic downturn, popular protests and resurgent ISIS activity. This task, which will require pragmatism in both Washington and Tehran, may be his toughest test of all.