Public unhappiness boiled over earlier this year with some help from the Arab Spring. Emboldened by the success of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, Iraqis organized their own “day of rage” in Baghdad on February 25, 2011. What was striking about Iraq’s unrest, however, was that it expressed Iraqi anger at the inability—or maybe unwillingness—of the government to address the persistent lack of basic services, particularly, but not limited to, electricity. Unemployment was also a complaint, as was the frustrating politics of Baghdad. But unlike the protests they were copying elsewhere in the Arab world, the Iraqis were demanding that the government get its act together; they weren’t demanding the end of the government itself. There were some who wanted to see the prime minister or the cabinet ousted, but no one wanted to see Iraqi democracy overturned.
The mass demonstrations in Baghdad panicked the political leadership. The government feared that it would suffer the same fate as Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Although a wonderfully positive moment of truth for Iraqi leaders, the ultimate outcome has been less good. The leadership attempted to do the right thing, briefly. Prime Minister al-Maliki announced that within one hundred days, every ministry would have to demonstrate tangible progress or else face the consequences. But he then did little to energize his ministries, and when the one-hundred-day deadline came and went, there were no consequences—for him or any of his ministers. No one was held accountable. No one suffered for their failure or even inaction. The Arab Spring simply bolstered the leadership’s sense that it could ignore the desires of the electorate with no price to pay. The moment passed.
IRAQ’S BIGGEST winners? Violent extremists. In return for backing al-Maliki’s return to the prime ministership, the Sadrists got control of a number of important social ministries and a free hand in southern Iraq. Already the Sadrists are throwing their weight around in Basra, Amara, Nasiriya and other cities. They have ousted local officials and told all who would listen that the prime minister has effectively ceded the south to them, and that no one will be able to look to Baghdad to protect them with another “Charge of the Knights.”
The greatest problem with the Sadrist trend is not its connection to Iran, although that is a worry. Rather it is that the Sadrists make no bones about the fact that they seek to employ a Hezbollah model to create “a state within a state.” Eventually they plan to dominate Iraq. This is an insidious model to combat, as recent developments in Lebanon make all too clear. The longer that the Sadrists have political cover—no matter how reluctant—from the prime minister to do as they like in the south, the harder it will be to stop this trend and the more likely that Iraq will someday find itself in a situation like Lebanon’s.
In the near term, the Sadrist deal with al-Maliki has meant that violent Shia groups with names like Asa’ib al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizballah and the Promised Day Brigade of Moktada al-Sadr’s own Jaish al-Mahdi have been able to operate with relative impunity. Their attacks on U.S. troops are creating a real force-protection problem for the United States in ways that could undermine American public support for a renewal of the U.S. military commitment to Iraq (assuming that the Iraqis actually ask for a continued presence). Of greater importance, rising Shia violence, mistreatment of the remaining Sons of Iraq, and the growing sense that the Shia “stole” the election and are now using their control of the government to deprive the Sunni community of its fair share of power and economic benefits appear to be pushing many Sunnis back in the direction of fear and violent opposition. Slowly growing support for Sunni terrorist groups like Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandia (The Men of the Army of the Naqshabandia Order) is a particularly important canary in the coal mine because they represent a more nationalist opposition compared to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which remains largely discredited by its foreign influence and extreme religious beliefs. Worse still, many Sunni tribal leaders and mid-level officials talk openly about having to take up arms to defend their communities from the Shia terrorists, since the government won’t and the Americans are leaving.
AFTER THIRTY years of Saddam Hussein’s misrule, three foreign wars, a dozen years of comprehensive international sanctions and an intercommunal civil war, Iraq needs all the help it can get. Over here, the only question that Americans seem to ask is whether the Iraqi government will agree to a new pact that would permit American troops to remain in country past December 31, 2011. It’s not that this is meaningless to what happens in Iraq, only that it may prove to be beside the point. What matters moving forward is not the number of troops the United States is able to keep on the ground but the authorities they retain. If they are not able to continue to serve as peacekeepers holding Iraq’s fractious political system together, then there is no good reason to have them there at all.
The Iraqi government seems deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, American troops provide considerable logistical, training and even combat support to the Iraqi security forces (ISF). Many Iraqi officials, particularly Iraqi generals, worry that without it, the ISF will stumble or even collapse—not something the prime minister and his allies can afford. On the other hand, American military forces, acting as peacekeepers to prevent bloodshed, often insert themselves into situations where someone isn’t playing by the rules—which virtually every group in Iraq does at different times. For instance, in late February 2011, Kurdish leaders deployed two brigades of their Peshmerga fighters south of the heavily disputed tinderbox city of Kirkuk, where they were not supposed to be, prompting an immediate and very tense confrontation with senior U.S. military personnel who eventually convinced the Kurds to pull back to their side of the city.
Even the government itself, including the prime minister’s own staff, acts extraconstitutionally, unconstitutionally, illegally or downright dangerously from time to time. Whenever that happens, they don’t really like it when the U.S. military steps in to defuse the situation and enforce the letter and spirit of the Iraqi political system. Consequently, Baghdad may ask for a small number of American troops to remain, but then confine them to a few large bases without the authority to play their vital peacekeeping role. That would be a bad deal for the Iraqi people and for the United States. Our troops would be reduced to spectators as various Iraqi groups employ violence against one another. Moreover, if we have troops in Iraq but do nothing to stop bloodshed there, it would be seen as proof of Washington’s complicity. If American forces cannot enforce the rules of the game, they should not be in Iraq, period, lest they be portrayed as contributing to the destruction of the country.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi economy remains a basket case, and Iraqis from across the country and across the political spectrum recognize a need for America’s help in rebuilding infrastructure, agriculture and industry; reforming their educational system, business regulations and bureaucratic operations; reintegrating Iraq into the global economy; overcoming a series of lingering diplomatic problems; and preventing excessive intervention by any of their neighbors. Many Iraqis even recognize that their fragile democracy would benefit from a continued American military presence—if only to restrain predatory indigenous politicians and neighboring states alike.
All of these needs and desires create leverage for the United States. They are all things the Iraqis want from Washington. Thus, the most important source of U.S. influence moving forward is conditionality. Because Iraq’s domestic politics is the key to the future stability of the country, and because it remains so fragile, it must be the principal American focus. This means that several important standards must be met: continuing progress on democracy, transparency and the rule of law; ongoing development of bureaucratic capacity; no outbreak of revolutionary activity, including coups d’état; no emergence of dictators; reconciliation among the various ethnosectarian groupings, as well as within them; and a reasonable delineation of center-periphery relations, including a workable agreement over the nature of federalism. On the economic front, U.S. assistance to Iraq should be conditioned upon the Iraqi authorities putting in place oversight and accountability mechanisms aimed at limiting the corrupting effects of their oil economy. Fortunately, there are key areas of the Iraqi economy where U.S. diplomatic support, technical assistance, consulting services, and technology and knowledge transfers could deliver substantial benefits. America has the goods to bargain. The question is whether Washington will.
THERE IS extensive scholarly literature on how civil wars start, end and recur, and Iraq’s experiences over the past eight years conform to these patterns frighteningly closely. Historically, states that have undergone an intercommunal civil war like the one in Iraq have an unfortunate tendency to slip back into such conflict. This is especially true when the state in question has major, easily looted resources—like oil.Image: Pullquote: If American forces cannot enforce the rules of the game, they should not be in Iraq, period. Essay Types: Essay