The recent decision by the largely Sunni Iraqiya party to end its boycott of parliament would seem like an end to Iraq’s crisis. It isn’t. At best, it is a lull.
The crisis that engulfed Baghdad before the last American soldier had even left Iraq was a product of structural problems in Iraqi politics that this week’s events have not even begun to address. However, the Iraqiya decision creates a new opening to begin a process that could eventually deal with these underlying problems. If all sides seize that opportunity, there will be real hope for Iraq. If, as seems more likely, they don’t, Iraq will lurch from crisis to crisis and eventually end up in civil war, an unstable dictatorship or a failed state.
It is important to understand what actually happened this week. Iraqiya ended its parliamentary boycott but not its boycott of meetings of the Council of Ministers. The parliament is due to consider Iraq’s annual budget, and the Iraqi leadership felt it would be disastrous for their party and the communities they represent if they were not present to ensure that they received their fair share of Iraq’s governmental pie. Iraqiya has not ended its ministerial boycott of Council of Ministers meetings, with the result that its ministers are still under suspension by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and it has threatened to withdraw from the parliament again if the prime minister does not end his attacks on them.
Maliki’s Missed Opportunity
It was Maliki who provoked the current crisis with his assault on Iraqiya, in several instances employing unsavory and even unconstitutional acts to do so. If he is willing to make some concessions to Iraqiya, it might be possible not just to defuse the current crisis but also to begin a larger process of compromise and national reconciliation that could start addressing the problems in Iraqi politics that gave rise to this crisis.
Unfortunately, the prime minister appears to see Iraqiya’s decision as a victory—he outlasted them, broke them, forced them rejoin the government without getting anything that they wanted. Indeed, Maliki has shown no sign of relenting, although he and his allies did tone down their rhetoric in recent weeks. But the prime minister has continued to fire and arrest senior Iraqiya leaders, insist that the Kurds hand over Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi for trial—despite charges that the warrant for his arrest was based on confessions induced by torture—and steadfastly refused to agree to a national conference to resolve the current impasse as proposed by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and accepted by the Iraqiya leadership. Although the Kurds have their own differences with Iraqiya and the Sunnis (and their own reasons for wanting to reconcile with Maliki), they see the prime minister’s actions as “final proof” that he is determined to make himself a new dictator, and so they have refused to hand over Hashimi.
What’s truly stunning is that multiple reports have surfaced to indicate that the United States has decided that the real long-term problem is Iraqiya and that Washington’s solution is to try to split the party and convince the part they see as more “progressive”—along with the Kurdish parties—to join Maliki in a new, majoritarian government that would be somewhat smaller and nimbler than the ridiculously unwieldy national-unity government that the administration foolishly insisted on back in 2010.
The Road to Hell
Perhaps the only good news in this story, if it is true, is that it almost certainly won’t work. First, if the crisis has demonstrated anything, it is how precipitously American influence has declined in just the past six weeks. The premature withdrawal of American troops removed the one thing that Iraq’s bad guys—and many of its political leaders are still bad guys—still feared. It was also the one thing its good guys still respected. Moreover, because the administration failed to put in place a comprehensive program of aid and cooperation between the United States and Iraq that average Iraqis would see as beneficial (and therefore would be loath to jeopardize), Washington did not replace the loss of American military influence with new political or economic influence. Unsurprisingly, the Iraqis have barely paid lip service to the administration’s demands.
Moreover, the Sunni leadership of Iraqiya has so far stood staunchly united, and the evidence indicates they are likely to remain such. In Iraq, there is always the risk of political defection, and the prime minister controls numerous, powerful levers he can use to try to pry apart rival coalitions. Indeed, the lure of rewards from the prime minister and the importance of retaining ministerial posts as massive patronage networks had prompted a handful of Iraqiya leaders to break ranks and return to the government several weeks ago.
But none of the principal Iraqiya leaders acquiesced. This is because the Iraqi Sunni community believes that Prime Minister Maliki is making himself into a sectarian dictator who plans to oppress the Sunnis the way that Saddam oppressed the Shia. Thus, the Sunni communities remain united in their determination to resist Maliki’s efforts to decapitate the Iraqiya (read: Sunni) leadership. Key Sunni leaders like parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and Vice President Hashimi have all stood firm because each of them represents important constituencies within the Sunni community, and those communities are absolutely determined to remain in lockstep opposition to Maliki. Thus, unless Maliki can promise something that changes the perspective of these communities and makes them willing to sell out their brethren elsewhere in the Sunni community, it is unlikely that either the prime minister or the Americans will be able to split the principal Iraqiya leadership.
It’s very important that this remain the case, because if the United States succeeds in splitting Iraqiya the situation likely will get much worse, not better. It probably will trigger a new civil war, either immediately or indirectly by first producing a new, unstable Iraqi dictatorship.
Like everything in Iraq, the problem is complicated. If Maliki is able to form a majoritarian government with his own State of Law party, the Sadrists, the Kurds and a handful of Iraqiya deputies, he will be in a position to run the country without having to account for Sunni fears or desires. (The truth is that he does not need any Iraqiya deputies at all if he has the Kurds and the Sadrists, but having a few Iraqiya deputies would look better.) Given how little effort he has made to reconcile with the Sunnis while they have been a key part of his government, it seems highly unlikely that he will be more amenable to compromise with them once he no longer needs them.
What’s more, such a result would be the ultimate victory for his bid to remove the Sunni Iraqiya leadership by a variety of legal, semi-legal and illegal methods. That is certainly how the Sunnis and every other Iraqi community would read it, and they would expect Maliki to do the same to anyone else who opposed him, and to achieve the same success, since no one was able to stop him from doing it to the Sunnis.
How would the Sunni community react to the establishment of such a de facto Shiite dictatorship? It seems unlikely that they would simply acquiesce, but even if they did, it would be no guarantee of stability for Iraq. Since Iraq gained (nominal) independence from the British in 1932, it has been wracked by countless coups d’état. The country proved almost impossible to govern for one autocrat after another, each of whom found himself locked in various battles (often literally) with one unhappy group after another. Saddam Hussein was arguably the only Iraqi dictator to create a somewhat stable autocracy—and he was certainly the only one who was able to rule continuously for more than a few years. Of course, he was able to do so only by creating a Stalinist totalitarian state and employing near-genocidal levels of violence. Especially because of the recent experience of the Sunni insurgency and the Iraqi civil war, the likelihood is that a Maliki dictatorship would prove short-lived and unstable, and it could easily end in a new civil war.
It is far more likely that the Sunnis won’t acquiesce to Maliki as dictator, even if merely in an opaque, de facto sense. Then the question will be whether they decide to revolt and mount a violent opposition suddenly or more gradually. Either way, we would likely see the Sunni-dominated provinces of al-Anbar, Diyala, Salahaddin and Ninewah distance themselves from the government, demand regional status, cease cooperation with Baghdad, and prevent Iraqi government officials—likely including federal police and army formations—from gaining access or moving around freely in their territory. Terrorist attacks would increase in both intensity and geographic scope as more money and recruits poured in from the Sunni community in Iraq and from neighboring Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Eventually, those terrorist attacks would expand into a full-blown insurgency. If the Iraqi army were to fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, allowing Sunni soldiers to bring their training and heavy weaponry with them to the Sunni side, we could see pitched battles between government forces and well-organized Sunni militias. Iraqis would once again find themselves sliding into all-out civil war, this time without the prospect that the United States would—or even could—save them from themselves.
A Way Forward
What should the United States be doing instead if not trying to help fracture Iraqiya? Washington has relinquished so much of its influence in Iraq. But at the very least, we can and should be outlining what a good solution to the current crisis would look like.
First and foremost, Prime Minister Maliki will need to be convinced to back off from his campaign against the Sunni leadership. Although he blames the Sunnis for starting things by agitating for a regional devolution of power, a right enshrined in the constitution, all he can legally do is insist that they follow the procedures established by law—and then try to persuade Iraqis not to support their bids. Instead he has tried to head off these moves by using all manner of legal and illegal actions to eliminate the Sunni leaders supporting regional status.
Thus Maliki must agree to some face-saving mechanism that would effectively eliminate the arrest warrant against Hashimi (even if it were simply to be placed in some kind of administrative limbo) and enable either Mutlaq to remain as deputy prime minister or allow Iraqiya to choose his replacement. This would have to be accompanied by a renewed commitment by the prime minister to implement the terms of the Erbil agreement, which outlined how the prime minister, the Kurds and Iraqiya would work together to govern Iraq. These conditions will be hard for Maliki and his advisors to accept, but the last will be the hardest by far, since the Erbil agreement mandates real curbs on the prime minister’s power. The Sunnis and Kurds (and perhaps some Shia too) now feel these curbs are more important than ever given how he used his powers to go after the Sunni leadership, exactly the sort of thing that the Erbil agreement sought to prevent. Unfortunately, Maliki has so far adamantly refused all of these moves, particularly the elements of the Erbil agreement intended to limit his power.
That said, Iraq’s problems go well beyond the actions of the prime minister. Everyone shares blame, even if it has been the prime minister’s actions that have caused the current crisis. If Maliki were willing to take such steps—and he has given no indication he would—it would be reasonable to allow him some concessions. For instance, Iraqiya might agree to a moratorium on provincial bids for regional status until a new process could be negotiated to address them. Iraqiya could also agree to a new deputy prime minister, someone other than Mutlaq, and a governmental commission to address oil contracts, another key problem for Maliki and the government.
The current crisis stems from the underlying flaws in Iraq’s political structure—flaws only partially addressed in what now seem the “good years” of 2007–2009. Like so many states that had emerged from decades of totalitarian rule—and in Iraq’s case, the shattering impact of an intercommunal civil war in 2005–2007—Iraq required more time and assistance by the United States, the United Nations and other constructive forces to build a new, stable and functional political system. That task remains incomplete and the premature withdrawal of American peacekeepers has placed enormous pressure on the very fragile, nascent system they left behind.
Unless Iraq can establish a new process to address its structural political problems, the country will undoubtedly face similar crises down the road, no matter what happens with the current one. And eventually, one of them will push the country into dictatorship, civil war or state failure. The United States cannot simply help the Iraqis paper things over and end the crisis as fast as possible. Instead, we must try to establish a more meaningful process of compromise and reconciliation, heading off what will otherwise be future crises to come.
Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is coauthor of the new book, The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East.
Editor's Note: Please note that this piece has been amended to more accurately reflect the author's suggestion that it would be a reasonable concession to Prime Minister Maliki for Deputy Prime Minister Mutlaq, not Vice President Hashimi, step down.