Iraq as the elections approach

On Jamestown Iraqi Insurgents Take the Offensive as Parliamentary Election Approach By: Ramzy Mardini
Regional Conflicts of Interest

Another major concern for Iraq in the context of the parliamentary election is the role of the country’s neighbors. What happens in Iraq concerns many surrounding political actors, especially when considering the changing dynamics of the regional balance of power. For example, Iraq’s maturing military is making advances in its capabilities and weapons systems through the U.S. foreign military sales program. The Strategic Framework Agreement, signed as a separate document alongside the SOFA, fosters a long-term strategic partnership with the United States – effectively nurturing Baghdad as a future power player in the region.

Some nearby states, however, may feel uneasy about Iraq’s increasing military capability. Uncertainty prevails in the region over the direction Baghdad is actually heading - federal and democratic or a consolidated central government. Moreover, Sunni Arab leaders are not sure whether a Shi`a Iraq would ally itself with Iran.

Such security concerns give the results of the upcoming Iraqi election a strategic interest for outside states. Neighboring governments have meddled and backed political lists in the past, as was the case in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Iran may now be concerned about al-Maliki’s agenda as he plans to achieve a broad-based national coalition with Sunni Arab nationalists at the expense of closer Iranian allies like the ISCI, the Sadrists, and the Badr Organization. Activity inside Iraq by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards appears directed towards ensuring a pro-Iranian Shi’a government in Baghdad.

Recent discoveries of new weapons caches in southern Iraq suggest that Shi’a militias are stockpiling arms in connection with the upcoming parliamentary elections (Arab Times, August 31). Many of the manufacturing dates on the weapons (grenade launchers, silencers, sniper rifles, automatic weapons, and explosives) were as recent as 2008, with Persian inscriptions found on the rockets. The findings suggest that many of the weapons arrived in Iraq after al-Maliki’s spring 2008 crackdown on the Shi’a militias that uprooted al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi group from its territorial strongholds. According to Iraqi police, investigations now hint that Shi’a militias opposed to al-Maliki are recruiting fighters to undermine his electoral prospects. As one high-ranking police officer described it; “Their aims are to destroy the image of the prime minister and pull the carpet from under his feet by making it impossible for him to claim he has succeeded in improving security” (Reuters, September 1).

Surrounding Sunni Arab states may also feel compelled to undermine al-Maliki’s electoral advantages ahead of the parliamentary election, as his rhetoric and consolidation of power has been of some concern to them lately. In reacting to an upsurge of violence targeting low-income Shi`a neighborhoods in June 2009, al-Maliki pointed the finger toward Arab governments for fueling the instability: “There are states which are silent on fatwas (Islamic decrees) urging killings and branding others [as] infidels.” (Azzaman, June 27). Although al-Maliki did not mention the states he perceived responsible, it is likely his remarks were at least partly directed toward Saudi Arabia.

Suspected involvement of Syrian intelligence officials for the August 19 bombings in Baghdad has suggested conflicting interests exist between al-Maliki’s re-election campaign and some factions in Syria. Iraq believes it has collected evidence that implicates AQI, Syrian intelligence officials and Iraqi Ba’athists based in Syria in the attacks. According to al-Maliki, “Confessions by conductors of this terrorist act revealed that the operation is not internally made but carried out by [foreign] countries” (Kurdish Globe, August 29). Both Damascus and Baghdad have recalled their ambassadors in a dispute over the bombings.


Regardless of the security gains made in Iraq, the country is still riddled with poor institutions, ethnic and tribal rivalries and an absence of genuine reconciliation efforts. With the gradual disengagement of U.S. combat forces, the ISF will likely be tested on their capability and integrity as a non-sectarian institution that is dedicated to the protection of all Iraqis. The trust and confidence of the Iraqi people in the ISF is essential for continuing a counterinsurgency campaign. Iraqi insurgents and terrorists alike are no longer carrying out operations intended to seize territory inside Iraq. Rather their short-term goals are now concentrated on damaging the central government’s credibility, fomenting sectarian strife between the different ethnic segments of society and promoting the perception that the ISF is inadequate to protect Iraqi neighborhoods. If successful, these goals will render any counterinsurgency strategy ineffective, as collaboration and information sharing between the local population and the ISF become increasingly difficult to achieve.
Cordesman in the damning The Critical Failures In Planning, Programming, Budgeting And Resourcing The Afghan And Iraq Wars had this to say recently:
These years of underfunding the Afghan conflict have created a dilemma for the Obama Administration where it must now pay far more to compensate for a past Administration’s grand strategic failures or risk losing the war in Afghanistan. Moreover, neither DOD nor the State Department budgets now fund an adequate or well-defined plan for the civil side of either war, and it is unclear that the Department of Defense plans to sustain the US military advisory effort in Iraq at anything like the level required. The US finds it easy to announce “strategies” and concepts; it has yet to show that it can back them with efficient and effective plans, programs, and budgets.

The end result is that President Obama must now deal with two badly managed and budgeted wars. In the case of Iraq, he must deal with the withdrawal of US combat forces from a war with no clear plan or funding for making the transition to a civilian-dominated nation building effort or supporting the development of Iraqi security forces. It the case of Afghanistan, he must either make unpopular and costly decisions to compensate for seven crippling years of underresourcing the war, or risk losing it.
Obviously the Pashtun war has been a neglected sideshow but I do wonder now about Iraq.

DC has plainly been eager to leave Iraq for the past few years. The very language of The Surge signaled this. Only the political kamikaze McCain showed a real willingness to persist much longer in Iraq. The sensible lowering of grander ambitions in Bush's last term has led DC to a position where an expedient exit is available but is it devoid of longer range strategic considerations?

Barry has walked away from his election promise to withdraw a few "combat brigades" a month, his strategic patience has stretched somewhat but the SOFA agreement the previous administration arranged may in fact lead to a precipitous US withdrawal. The Iraqi's are likely to vote for a end to the occupation at the beginning of next year and the eviction will begin. For Barry this may be domestically useful. But what will be left behind in this now unbalanced region?

The antics of Joe Biden recently are not that encouraging. The Second Biden Mission to Iraq by Reidar Visser
Someone who certainly has not got his analysis right is Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who days ago described Biden’s previous visit as follows: “He read them the riot act, and he had the most credibility of anybody in the administration to do that”. If anything, what these visits have demonstrated twice is that US leverage is quickly disappearing from Iraq. Biden today informed the press that no further “benchmark legislation” would be passed this side of Iraq’s parliamentary elections scheduled for 16 January 2010 (hopefully that statement was offered as a prognosis, since this issue supposedly is for the majority of the Iraqi parliament to decide!), whereas Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki used the opportunity of his joint press conference with Biden to coolly steer clear of any reference to national reconciliation issues. (The rather meek nature of Biden’s own reference to “efforts of [Maliki’s] government to strengthen national unity” suggests that Maliki during their meeting stuck to his previously-expressed policy that with the possible exception of the Arab-Kurdish track, no American assistance is called for.)

Biden’s frank assertion that he expects no major national reconciliation initiatives prior to the elections is useful in two ways. Firstly, it is good news in itself. It is often not realised that to leave these issues in suspense during the elections could actually have a positive impact on Iraqi politics in that voters may get the opportunity to discuss basic constitutional issues in Iraq in a less sectarian and confused atmosphere than that which prevailed during the two 2005 elections and ahead of the constitutional referendum that year. There have been certain rumours to the effect that the current parliament will make an attempt to push through a limited package of constitutional reforms, without addressing the deeper issues but instead seeking to perpetuate some of the ethno-sectarian power-sharing features that originally had been limited to the first parliamentary cycle (such as the tripartite presidency). Hopefully Biden’s comment means that no US support for this kind of sham constitutional revision will be forthcoming. A repeat of the Bush administration’s meddling in August 2005 – which led to a premature constitution and a flawed process – would be a disaster.

Biden’s comments are also useful in that they highlight the limited window that remains for the Obama administration to exercise diplomatic influences in Iraq’s internal political process. If Biden is correct, not much more will be attempted this side of the 16 January 2010 elections. On that day, it is possible that the Iraqi people will reject the SOFA in the referendum that will coincide with the parliamentary elections, in which case the Maliki government will notify Washington that they have one year to leave the country and the logistics of getting out will likely become the preoccupation of the Obama administration. But even if the SOFA is accepted by the Iraqi people, the time that remains for the US between January and the end of 2011 is in practice highly restricted. Combat forces must be out by August 2010, and Washington has already factored in a couple of months in the post-election period to secure a stable transition – meaning that by the time a new government has been formed and serious discussion of national-reconciliation issues can recommence, probably no earlier than April 2010 if past experience is anything to go by, the mechanisms of withdrawal will probably occupy most of the Obama administration’s attention. On top of this, the first batch of constitutional revisions will be passed by a straightforward majority decision in the Iraqi parliament; any crisis over Kurdish objections will erupt only after a subsequent referendum, probably in late 2010 at the earliest.

So, if this was not a desperate and totally unrealistic attempt at triggering some major national-reconciliation initiative prior to the elections (which Iraqi politician would want to give too much to Arbil before the elections?), what was the objective of the latest visit by Biden? Two issues stand out. The first is an apparent attempt by the Obama administration to underline its support for multiple centres of power in Iraq (as opposed to the Bush administration’s more unconditional backing of Maliki), with an itinerary that featured as many people as possible in addition to Maliki – including the president, the vice presidents, the deputy premier and the president of the Kurdistan federal region. This seems to reflect a Washington phenomenon which tends to materialise almost automatically as soon as there is a degree of stability in Iraq: the fear of power becoming too concentrated. The neo-conservative iteration of this has been laid out bluntly by Ken Pollack in a recent policy paper that called for changes to the SOFA; equally important, however, is the liberal variant that was articulated by Senator John Kerry during the recent Senate hearing on Iraq, where he, too, found it necessary to bring up the issue of the danger of “concentration of power” in Iraq. (Biden himself has signalled this kind of stance earlier, for example last year when he told reporters that although Maliki did not like the “Biden plan” of a federal Iraq, “the rest of the government liked it.”) But whereas it seems prudent to try to counteract semi-authoritarian tendencies in the new Iraq, it is depressing that in doing so most senior US policy-makers seem to fall back on Washington’s old friends as the only alternative, as if there had been no maturation of Iraqi politics since 2005 (for example, during the Senate hearings, both Kerry and Ambassador Chris Hill still seemed to concentrate on the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq as a key player).

The second plausible issue where there may have been an attempt at exercising influence is the elections law, due to be debated as the Iraqi parliament reconvenes after the Eid al-Fitr holiday which ends next Wednesday. For the elections to go ahead on schedule, the new law (or modifications to the existing one from 2005) must be adopted by 15 October. Agreement has apparently been reached on most contentious issues (including the principle of open lists), but everything will hinge on the Kirkuk issue. For practical reasons, any failure to pass new or amended legislation by the deadline will mean that the 2005 law will be used, with closed lists and no special arrangements for governments Kirkuk. It is however unclear how the US could inject any new ideas into this debate. So far, the fronts have been quite hard between a group of Iraqi nationalists headed by Arabs and Turkmens from Kirkuk who have insisted on four, ethnically defined electoral constituencies in Kirkuk, and the Kurds who want no changes (or an extension of the quota principle to Diyala and Nineveh). Neither suggestion seems particularly promising: Separate constituencies would only reify divisions in Kirkuk, whereas keeping the status quo would extend legitimacy to the Kurdish position in a one-sided way. So far, perhaps the most constructive compromise alternative involves a critical examination of the existing register of voters.

Finally, it is interesting to see how far Biden has travelled from his erstwhile ideas about national reconciliation in Iraq. Whereas he previously believed Sunnis and Shiites needed “separate federal spaces in which to breathe”, he now considers that the prospect of a sectarian conflict has diminished (even if the state has become more centralised). Similarly, a year back ago, he stressed over and again the need for “a political settlement” as the key to a US withdrawal, without which “we’re going to be back there in another year or two or three or five”. He now seems to accept that national reconciliation will likely be carried out in the dying days of the US military presence in Iraq.
And in response to a comment on Biden's Kurd fetish:
I agree, Washington is super-leveraging the Kurds for no good reason. It is one of those recurrent paradoxes of US policy in Iraq. People in DC say the Kurds are the most pro-American force in Iraq and yet they turn a blind eye to the fact that the Kurds keep derailing the constitutional process in Iraq with their demands, many of which are so retrograde that it is a shame they are being taken seriously by the rest of the world. For example, many of the claims under the “disputed territories” heading could have been be suitable for the atmosphere at Versailles anno 1919 but hasn’t the international community progressed a little since then? Much of this expansionist nationalism is related to a Milosevic way of thinking (except that some of Milosevic’s claims had a slightly less fictitious relationship to history) and yet it keeps receiving highbrow consideration at Capitol Hill. For example, the “Kirkuk issue”, frequently described in the international media as relating to a vision of a “Kurdish Jerusalem”, is in reality a demand that was abruptly concocted by Mustafa Barzani around 1970 during the time of the autonomy negotiations and has since been inherited by his son. The only way I can make sense of this contradiction in US policy is that someone must be dreaming that the Kurds can deliver bases to the US in the north, but they should know that the Kurdistan region is likely to get expelled from Iraq in the moment any such bases materialise. As long as they keep sticking to their maximalist demands, what usefulness to the United States is there really in the pro-American sentiments of the Kurds?
The Kurds are now probably the most dangerous factor in the fragile post occupation jigsaw. A collision between Baghdad and Erbil over the Kirkuk field is probably inevitable. Qom plays both sides in that game, DC would be wise to do that as well.

Visser has more on this in America’s unwitting support for Tehran’s strategy in Iraq.
Today most analysts, including many in Washington, agree that emphasising sectarian identity – “playing the Shiite card”, in Ignatius’ terminology – is Iran’s preferred method for maximising its leverage in Iraq. For his part, after having been treated for three years by Washington as its special partner among Iraq’s Shiites, Ammar al Hakim is now playing a leading role in putting this Iranian strategy into operation: he is working to recreate a Shiite-dominated alliance for the next parliamentary elections, though this time with a veneer of Iraqi nationalism aimed at tapping into the anti-sectarian sentiment that seemed popular with voters in the local elections in January. Washington has now pinned its hopes on the idea that Maliki can resist Iranian pressure to join Hakim’s Shiite alliance by appealing to a national, nonsectarian agenda.

But even if the United States now seems to recognise how an ethno-sectarian framework plays into Iran’s hands, specific American policies continue to bolster the sectarian status quo – thereby marginalising the very nonsectarian trends that are a declared American policy objective. One example is the proposal revealed last month by Ray Odierno, the top US general in Iraq, whereby the Americans, along with troops from the central Iraqi government and forces belonging to Kurdish federal authorities, will jointly police a string of territories in northern Iraq considered “disputed” by the Kurds (who want to annex them to the federal region of Kurdistan). The plan seems to reflect the latest anxiety among Washington think-tankers – that an Arab-Kurdish conflict over territory is the next potential Armageddon in Iraq. But while the Odierno plan may well originate from the best of intentions, its reception in Iraq suggests that it may be yet another nail in the coffin of Iraqi nationalism, and thereby also help consolidate Iranian interests in Iraq, albeit more indirectly.

In practice, the Odierno plan is helping isolate Maliki from the nationalist and secularist constituencies that he is now supposed to win over in order to be something more than just a Shiite strongman. In governorate after governorate in the affected areas, local politicians have rejected the Odierno scheme, portraying it as a dangerous recognition of land grabs by the Kurds (who, naturally, instantly embraced the plan), and a green light for the partition of Iraq. Importantly, these reactions represent a universal pattern across the Nineveh, Salahaddin and Tamim governorates, comprising Arabs, Turkmens, Christians, Shabak and even some Yazidis.

These are mixed but Sunni-dominated areas where local politicians fully support the central Iraqi government, call for more Iraqi security forces and defend the 2005 constitution – precisely the sort of values Maliki should be looking for if he is sincere in his declared ambition to reach out beyond his own Shiite core constituency. But the politicians here also think that it would be far too extreme to embrace the Kurdish interpretation of what constitutes “disputed territories”. That term was deliberately left undefined in the 2005 constitution and the 2004 transitional administrative law (only Kirkuk was explicitly mentioned) and the Kurdish demands – which form a shopping list of both realistic and highly unrealistic irredenta, many of which rest on no serious historical foundation whatsoever – are only one side of the story. Other Iraqis believe many of these areas are not “disputed” at all, but they now fear that the Odierno scheme of joint patrols will effectively mean a recognition of the Kurdish view.

Where does Iran fit into this battlefield, which mostly straddles areas of northern Iraq where relatively few Shiites live? Twenty-five years ago, on October 10, 1984, in the middle of the Iran–Iraq War, a remarkable article appeared in the Liwa al-Sadr newspaper in Tehran. The newspaper was published by the party of the Hakim family, then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had been set up in Iran in an attempt by Khomeini to gain control of the Iraqi opposition. The article heaped praise on the Sunni Islamist movement of Falluja, which was commended for bravely resisting the secular regime of Saddam Hussein and upholding Islamic values – including a ban on alcohol. The article highlighted both the contribution of the Fallujans to the uprising against the British in 1920 as well as the refusal of these Sunni Islamists to serve in the ongoing war against Iran. Today, Iran’s main goal in Iraq still appears to be to prevent any resurgence of Iraqi nationalism: As long as it does not translate into irreconcilable extremism of the al Qa’eda variety, Tehran prefers the articulation of “Sunni” rather than “Iraqi” identity in the central and northern parts of the country. Provided that the overarching framework remains ethno-sectarian – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds sharing power – Iran will always enjoy the upper hand through its clients among the Shiite majority.

Today Tehran is not only looking to strengthen the Shiite alliance and maintain its long-standing ties to the Kurds, but also to identify tacit partners among the Sunnis that are willing to play the role as defenders of “Sunni” (or, if need be, “tribal”) rather than “Iraqi” interests. So far, the potential partners that stand out are tribal groups in Anbar (one of these has already been enrolled in the new Shiite-led alliance), as well as the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), an Islamist group with historical roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In recent statements to the Iraqi press the IIP has openly appealed to specifically Sunni sentiments, saying they want the “Sunni Arab street” to vote as a unified bloc come election time. Crucially, while alliances between groups like these and Shiite parties will have the appearance of multi-sectarian lists, they will not seek to transcend ethno- sectarian identity. Rather they will cultivate sub-national identities, providing Iran with a permanent sectarian trump card that can always be played.

To the Iranian regime, the Iraqi situation would be problematic only if Shiite Islamists began participating in genuine cross-sectarian alliances with parties like the secular Iraqiyya, Hiwar, the Iraqi Constitutional Party, the Hadba movement in Mosul or the new, explicitly cross-sectarian party being formed by the Sunni former speaker of parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani and the Shiite Nadim al-Jabiri, formerly the leader of the Fadila party.

Forget about the conspiracy theories and the alleged Iranian crew of Maliki’s private jet: If the Iraqi premier signs up to the Odierno project and abandons his potential allies north of Baghdad, it will mean that he is boxed in more than ever before. The likelihood of him succeeding on his own as an Iraqi nationalist will diminish dramatically; instead, there will be stronger prospects of some kind of future alliance between the Kurds, the IIP (or any other Sunni sectarian party prepared to step in) and the Shiites (whether in two quasi-national blocs or as a single, overtly sectarian ticket).

The Americans, always worried about Maliki becoming too strong, constantly harassed by strong Kurdish lobbies in Washington, and with a fond weakness for several IIP leaders, will be very happy. So too will Tehran.

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