Will Iraq explode again?

March 5, 2010

Eric Ruder looks at the backdrop to Iraq's parliamentary elections that the U.S. government hopes will create a reliable client state.

AMID AN upsurge in sectarian wrangling and violence, Iraqis head to the polls on March 7 for the most important parliamentary elections since the U.S. occupation of Iraq began in 2003.

In response to a series of bombings aimed at government buildings and police forces in recent weeks, Iraqi officials plan to put hundreds of thousands of security officers on the streets. On Election Day itself, all civilian vehicles, including motorcycles and bicycles, will be prohibited on the streets of Baghdad.

The violence appears to be aimed at undermining the appeal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose support depends in part on the improved security situation in Iraq. At the height of the sectarian violence in 2007, 3,000 bodies a month were piling up in the morgues of greater Baghdad, compared to a few hundred killings per month in 2010.

In Washington, Obama administration figures hope the outcome of the vote will lead to a credible government that bows to U.S. interests.

The election is the second parliamentary vote since the U.S. occupation began, and will decide which candidates win seats in Iraq's 325-member parliament. The party (or alliance of parties) with the most seats will get to nominate the next prime minister, appoint a cabinet and form a new government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

But there's no guarantee that the outcome will create a sufficiently stable government that will allow the U.S. to continue its pullback of troops.

In January, the election campaign took a sectarian turn when Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission banned some 500 candidates (later reduced to 145) from running for office for their alleged ties to the Sunni-dominated Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.

Though the list of banned candidates contained Sunni, Shia and Kurdish politicians, the most prominent excluded candidates were Sunni, such as Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads the National Dialogue Front, which is currently the second-largest Sunni faction in parliament.

Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite politician who was once the first choice of the Bush administration to run Iraq, but who has since emerged as a strong ally of Iran, played a critical role in pushing through the commission's decision to ban the former Baathists. This stoked fears that the ban was aimed at enhancing the prospects of Iraq's Shia and pro-Iranian candidates.

In response to the ban, al-Mutlaq initially announced that his party would boycott the election, but later, he reversed himself, fearing a repeat of the disastrous decision by the Sunni parties to boycott the first post-occupation election in 2005 that left Sunnis largely shut out of political power. "We do not want to be a reason the Sunni people lose," said al-Mutlaq.

AS THE campaign increasingly turns on mobilizing voters on the basis of their religious and ethnic identification, the essential needs of Iraqis--greater security, reconstruction of Iraq's battered civilian infrastructure, and breathing life back into Iraq's economy--have fallen by the wayside.

One of the chief accelerants of the sectarian politicking is the extent to which the Iraqi election is shaping up as a proxy contest between the U.S. and Iran in their bids to develop an Iraqi regime friendly to their respective geopolitical interests.

Immediately after the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration insisted on a blanket policy of "de-Baathification"--rooting members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party out of elected office, security forces and other public institutions--and in the resulting power vacuum promoted what it considered U.S.-friendly Shia political parties.

This had the unintended consequence of enhancing Iran's influence in U.S.-occupied Iraq. This was, of course, the exact opposite of what the U.S. invasion was supposed to accomplish--namely, the encirclement of Iran by an ever-growing web of pro-U.S. Arab regimes to the west and Afghanistan to the east.

Today, however, the U.S. is pressing for greater Sunni participation in the elections, a complete about-face from five years ago. Having bought off former Sunni resistance leaders and re-branded them as "sons of Iraq," the U.S. wants to keep them in the political mix to prevent them from once again taking up arms against the Iraqi government and renewing the civil war.

At the same time, the U.S. needs help consolidating the Shia-dominated government. So despite the sharpening of anti-Iran rhetoric from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. politicians, it appears that the U.S. may still be pursuing an awkward collaboration with Iran in maintaining stability in Iraq.

The U.S. military's unwillingness to confront Iranian-backed paramilitaries inside Iraq, as well as the reluctance of the U.S. to give the green light to Israel's desire for war with Iran, both signal the continuation of this power-sharing agreement between the U.S. and Iran, according to journalist Nicola Nasser.

But the dynamics of Iraqi politics may well frustrate U.S. attempts to create a stable client regime. In 2009, Prime Minister Maliki tried to move beyond the narrow Shia appeal of his Dawa party that had relied heavily on U.S. support for its hold on power. He sought to forge a broader, nationalist coalition called State of Law that could more effectively compete in this national election.

But in his quest to hold on to a Shia base of support, Maliki faces increasingly stiff competition from the Iraqi National Alliance, based among followers of Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Although armed elements of these two parties engaged in violent street battles as recently as 2008, they've formed a bloc to try undercut Maliki's following among Shia Muslims. This pressure compelled Maliki to back the ban on Sunni candidates, possibly undermining the broad national appeal that State of Law was supposed to attract.

IF MALIKI doesn't win an outright victory, it seems likely that it will take weeks or months for a governing coalition to form. This presents any number of concerns for the U.S., including the anxiety that the first but still fragile advances made by Western oil corporations in Iraq since 1972 may come to a screeching halt.

"Parliamentary elections may produce a weak or unstable government incapable of tendering new oil contracts, [according to] Samuel Ciszuk, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight," noted a Bloomberg wire report.

"One thing that's fairly certain is there won't be a strong coalition, so it may take time for the next government to get its act together," said Ciszuk. "Bottlenecks could hold up production increases [if no government forms by June]."

Meanwhile, the explosive ethnic struggle for control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk could also spark open confrontation--one that ultimately could pull the entire country apart.

During his reign, Saddam Hussein had systematically encouraged Arabs to settle in and around Kirkuk to ensure Baathist influence in the area, which is also home to a large number of Kurds and Turkmen. Since Saddam's ouster, Kurds have sought to supplant the political influence of the Arab population. The situation was so volatile, and the issues about how to conduct an election so thorny, that voters in Kirkuk did not even participate in the 2005 elections.

Whatever the results of the March 7 vote, there is certain to be bitter recriminations about the outcome. And it's far from certain that Iraq's central government will succeed in containing the possible fallout.

With all these question marks hanging over Iraqi politics, the Obama administration's pledge to withdraw all combat troops by August 2010 looks doubtful. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, suggested in late February that this deadline may be extended in the face of what U.S. ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill has described as Iran's "malevolent" meddling in Iraq.

U.S. officials have always been deaf to the irony of complaining about the meddlesome intervention of "outside parties" in Iraq while weighing in on every last matter of import to U.S. interests.

But the Obama administration is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Administration officials want to withdraw from Iraq and declare victory. Yet sooner or later, they must confront the fact that the presence of 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will likely be necessary for years to come in order to ensure a postwar Iraq that's "friendly" to the U.S.

Time will tell if Vice President Joe Biden's declaration that stabilizing Iraq could be "one of the great achievements of this administration" was in fact premature.

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