A Violent New Year in Iraq

In the wake of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, new data shows that internal violence is on the rise. Maliki's power grabs haven't helped.

Much that happens in Iraqi politics has nothing to do with decisions made in any foreign capital. Nevertheless, it is strongly arguable that the recent security deterioration in Iraq has been deepened by an unfortunate combination of U.S. military withdrawal with a hands-off U.S. approach to Iraqi politics at precisely the moment Iraqis need reassurance and, in the Iraqi government’s case, restraint.

U.S. military withdrawal alone did not destabilize Iraq. In fact, in the two years since U.S. forces began to ebb away, incidents of violence decreased. In November 2008, when the U.S.-Iraq security agreement was signed, there were 1,488 attacks, with this total dropping to 302 by November 2011. The final U.S. military withdrawals may have been the proximate cause of this moment of political fragility, but the post-December surge of violence in Iraq was not inevitable. In fact, it was eminently predictable and might have been offset by U.S. diplomatic action.

What went wrong? When successive Iraqi governments were formed in Iraq between 2004 and 2010, Washington consistently supported consensual politics and the emergence of broad “governments of national unity.” Though these political compacts were deficient in many ways, they were vital for stability; at this early stage of Iraqi political development, they created a system in which there were no absolute winners and no absolute losers in Iraqi politics.

U.S. policy seems to have quickly shifted away from this model since December 2011. Though the United States has pushed for a national conference to solve the political crisis, the weight of U.S. support seems to stand firmly behind Prime Minister Maliki and his effort to centralize power over the cabinet, the security services and the federal courts. Maliki is prevailing in the present political crisis, splintering the Sunni Arab politicians of the Iraqiya bloc and setting the conditions for a majority government in which some Sunni political groups and provinces are undisputed losers. This is fertile ground for a reinvigorated insurgency, the leading edge of which we are already seeing.

What can the United States do? Iraq’s postwithdrawal years are likely to be raw with emotion and witness some anti-U.S. backlash. This does not mean that U.S. influence in Iraq has collapsed; rather it shows that political capital needs to be invested thriftily to influence the issues that matter most (an approach that Iran smartly adopts in Iraq). Prime Minister Maliki has risked taking on all Iraq’s factions simultaneously precisely because he believes Washington is one of the external powers standing firmly behind him (the other one, ironically, being Tehran). Maliki clearly returned from Washington emboldened in mid-December, without having received a single cautionary reproach from the Obama administration on any of the issues of concern that should have merited a demarche, such as extraconstitutional appointment of security leaders or mass arrests of alleged Baathists.

The United States should publicly reverse this uncritical acceptance of Maliki’s behavior. The White House should have put Maliki on warning during his mid-December visit to Washington, and the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq should take a tougher line from the outset. The administration may be only temporarily backing Maliki to maintain stability in Iraq and to keep the country out of the headlines in this election year. Even so, both of these outcomes are more likely if Maliki is looking over his shoulder instead of running rampant.

Dr. Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, heading the Institute’s Iraq Program. As a consultant to the private-security industry, he worked closely with the Iraqi security forces in a number of provinces in 2011 and continues to collate security metrics directly from the Iraqi government following the U.S. withdrawal. He is the author of The Iraqi Security Forces: Local Context and U.S. Assistance.

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