Can Iraq Be Saved?

"The situation in Iraq, as well as the one in Syria, demonstrates that the United States cannot wish away the problems of the Middle East."

The sudden fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and large swaths of the country’s Sunni regions to groups of insurgents and extremists spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a grim manifestation of the failure of the country’s leaders to implement a system of governance as agreed in the constitution. Iraq’s mistakes—and those of the international community, including the United States—were not unavoidable, though, and the lessons learned can help resolve similar governance dilemmas in Syria and Afghanistan.

The Iraqi constitution plotted a path for creating a system that protects the country from relapse to dictatorship and emphasized concepts that are appropriate for a country with a history of authoritarian rule and in which ethnic and sectarian divides run deep. The constitution included robust checks and balances, a clearly defined federal system, and provisions for a fair sharing of power and resources among the country’s various communities, provinces and regions.

Although the political process had a shaky start as the Sunni community largely boycotted the first post-Saddam election, intense diplomatic efforts by the United States eventually convinced Iraq’s Sunni leaders to conditionally support the moving forward with the referendum on the constitution, which received more than two-thirds support. The Sunnis also participated in the post-referendum national elections in late 2005. As a result, the framework garnered the buy-in of the country’s key groups—Shia, Sunni, and Kurd. As Iraqi communities were coming together, the Al Qaeda attack on Samarra shrine, a revered site for the Shia, in February 2006 resulted in a massive increase in violence verging on a sectarian civil war.

Despite the increase in violence, and with U.S. commitment and help, the Iraqis came together and replaced Prime Minister Jaffari with Nouri al-Maliki and formed a national unity government. Supported by increased U.S. troops during the surge, the tide was turned. The improvement in security following the surge and the successful election in 2010 offered Iraq the security space to consolidate democracy and advance toward stability. The chance, alas, was squandered.

Iraq could have capitalized on that progress at the time and avoided this fate if it had implemented the roadmap that was prescribed in the constitution.

Instead, a number of mistakes were made. Contrary to the constitution, the party that won the largest number of seats in the 2010 election—the secular and cross-sectarian Iraqiya led by Ayad Allawi—was not allowed to form the government. Instead, in a deal backed by the United States and Iran, Prime Minister Maliki remained the country’s prime minister. Instead of implementing a power-sharing agreement, which was the basis for Maliki remaining in office, he began to eliminate political rivals (especially among the Sunni Arabs), politicize the military and security services, and monopolize (rather than share) power. He also undermined the implementation of the federal system that was clearly stipulated in the country’s constitution. The consequences were twofold.

First, large segments of the Sunni community lost trust in the government, and more dangerously, lost hope that they would be treated with dignity and fairness as partners in governing the country.

Second, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan region also deteriorated to the extent that Kurdish leaders became convinced that Iraq’s federal structure had failed because the Maliki government repeatedly ignored or violated the political compact enshrined in the constitution, which was the basis of Kurdish assent to remain in a new Iraqi federal state.

The United States could have played a vital role in helping Iraq stay on the right path. Instead of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops and consequent political disengagement from Iraq’s affairs, the United States should have sought to maintain a residual security presence in the country, coupled with robust diplomatic engagement, to provide the core security support necessary for the democratic political process to resolve the country’s problems peacefully.

Sustained presence and stabilizing influence over decades is in great part what allowed Germany, Japan and Korea to undertake the long-term sustained effort to build the political and economic institutions required for long-term stability and prosperity.

Continued robust U.S. military and political engagement in Iraq in the past few years could have prevented today’s crisis if the United States had done the following:

- Functioned as a credible buffer between different communities, bridging communications and diffusing tensions by ensuring that each side understood their rights and responsibilities (for example, facilitating joint military mechanisms along disputed territories);

- Overseen the proper implementation of power-sharing agreements and checked the excesses of the ruling party/coalition, which would have restrained Maliki’s behavior;

- Provided the sophisticated but essential capabilities that Iraq’s established military did not possess (e.g., intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; complex operational planning; high-quality training, etc.);

- Prevented Iran from using Iraqi land and airspace to drag Iraq into the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar Assad’s regime, with all its consequences for internal Iraqi cohesion;