Reading the Tea Leaves in Iraq

August 19, 2013

The year 2013 has been a bloody one for Iraq. After dropping out of international headlines in 2012, the recent resurgence of attacks executed by Sunni Islamic militant groups has many fearful of a return to the wanton sectarian violence that nearly tore apart the country from 2005-2007. Following yet another violent day of multiple, coordinated attacks earlier this week, current estimates stand at more than 4,000 dead and nearly 10,000 wounded in terrorist strikes since January. The number of violent deaths suffered so far this year is already on par with the totals from each of the past three years. The ongoing civil war in Syria has served only to stoke the sectarian flames, with the Shi’a dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki providing diplomatic backing to President Assad  and the majority of Iraq’s Sunnis backing their rebel brethren. Taken together it is not surprising that the past few weeks have spawned “Iraq-on-the-brink” articles in numbers not seen since early 2007.

The United States should not, however, be too quick to write off Iraq based on recent violent trends. After all, if there is anything that should be remembered from years past it’s that the Iraqi populace can endure astonishing levels of violence and still maintain confidence in the survival of the state. Before declaring the Iraqi state a failure, a couple of points bear mentioning.

First, Iraq’s politicians are still acting very much like politicians with infighting and alliance building continuing apace and elections proceeding without significant irregularities. This shows that despite an enduring lack of political consensus, politicians and the public continue to respect the system. On the political landscape, the Sunnis have plenty of company when it comes to disillusionment with Maliki. Back in April when Maliki controversially postponed provincial elections in the Sunni majority provinces of Anbar and Ninewa, one of the loudest protests came from Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Questioning Maliki’s motives, al-Sadr referred to the marginalization of the Sunnis as an “unforgivable disaster” and has for months been backing Sunni protests of the Maliki government in these provinces. Even the recent prison breaks in Abu Ghraib and Taji that freed upwards of 800 Sunni prisoners became political fodder for contending Shi’a powerbrokers. Maliki issued the first salvo, accusing militiamen affiliated with al-Sadr of complicity in the attacks. A few days later, al-Sadr joined fellow Shi’a bigwig (and rival) politician Ammar al-Hakim in demanding resignations from a host of senior civilian and security force leaders, to include Maliki.  Finally, in May Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani hosted an eclectic group of prominent Iraqi politicians in Erbil that resulted in the signing of a letter demanding that Maliki address a list of nine items or face a vote of no confidence. Signatories included Iraq President Jalal Talibani, Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi, Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and al-Sadr – a Kurd, a secular Shi’a, a Sunni, and a radical former militant Sh’a.

As for the elections themselves (the first held since the departure of U.S. forces), they have now been held with minimal claims of irregularity in each of the 14 provinces for which they were originally planned. The results reflected a level of plurality among the Iraqi electorate. As Reidar Visser explains, in the 12 provinces that held elections on schedule: four will be governed by a plurality led by Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and the Sadrists or Ammar al-Hakim’s ISCI bloc; five will be led by State of Law and/or local State of Law supporters; and three will be led by blocs considered to be anti-Maliki. In Ninewa, the previously dominant al-Hadba party and its Mutahidun alliance took a hit and finished in second place behind the Kurdish bloc while in Anbar the al-Hadba list maintained the majority of seats, but only three more than a Maliki-allied bloc. That politics continues to make strange bedfellows is a sign of an Iraqi political system that is working, or at the very least one that is not facing imminent collapse.

Second, al Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), appears to be struggling with its identity. Over the past few months the ISI has significantly increased its attacks on predominantly Shi’a areas and seems as motivated as ever to instigate sectarian warfare. Recently, however, there have been signs that ISI leadership has run afoul with the broader al Qaeda conglomerate. Back in April, it looked as though ISI had achieved a significant boost after its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced his group had merged with Syria’s al-Nusra Front. Subsequent reports, however, suggest that al-Baghdadi has gone rogue in claiming leadership of the amalgamation-that-wasn’t and has persisted in his claims despite clear declarations to the contrary by al Qaeda’s number one, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Relations between ISI and al-Nusra have reportedly become so strained over al-Baghdadi’s power grab that there are fears the two sides might come to blows.

So why would al-Baghdadi defy al Qaeda leadership and by extension put his personal legitimacy and that of his organization at risk? It remains too early to determine for certain, but the whole episode suggests desperation. With international forces no longer occupying Iraq and with the anti-Maliki bandwagon so crowded that it holds the likes of al-Sadr and al-Hakim, the ISI could be grasping for a cause to justify its continued commitment to violence.

Let’s be clear: things are far from rosy in Iraq and the trends are heading in the wrong direction.

Since the U.S. withdrawal, outstanding issues such as the status of Kirkuk and the equitable sharing of Iraq’s natural resources remain unresolved. ISI and other Sunni militant groups are clearly on the offensive and this is exacerbated by the possibility that the Iraqi Security Forces have regressed without their U.S. mentors. As John Amble pointed out, state collapse in Iraq or even something close to it would catapult Iraq ahead of Syria as the primary challenge in a region with many serious issues.

Nevertheless, as long as Iraq’s political elite continue to use rhetoric and alliance-building as their primary tool in jockeying for position and Sunni militant groups like ISI fail to offer anything more substantive than carnage, Iraq may get ugly (perhaps real ugly), but it will most likely remain in one piece.


Jason H. Campbell is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation


Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Sharhonda R. McCoy