April 23, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Conflict Zones Series-Iraq: Deterioration But Not a Disaster

Relations among the major political factions will continue to deteriorate throughout 2012, threatening Iraq’s stability and the legacy of the U.S. mission. The infighting will prevent progress on key issues, such as the enactment of national laws regulating foreign investment in Iraq’s energy sector.

• The political crisis will not worsen to the point of all-out civil war, but it is unlikely to be fully resolved, providing political space for al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni Muslim insurgent groups to continue to conduct high-casualty attacks in the country.

As of late April 2012, the political differences among Iraq's major communities - Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and ethnic Kurds – are not close to resolution, and are in some ways worsening. The U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 ousted the minority Sunni Arab government of Saddam Hussein and, as a result of a series of elections in 2005-2010, produced a government mostly dominated by the majority Shiite Arab community (about 60% of the population are Shiite Arabs). The Sunni Arabs (about 20%) never truly accepted their political displacement and conducted a major insurgency during 2003-2008, which was suppressed by the heavy presence of U.S. combat forces. The Kurds, also about 20% of the population, run an autonomous government in northern Iraq. The Kurds have thus far been aligned with the Shiites, but are increasingly at odds with Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.


Crisis Follows U.S. Withdrawal

The power-sharing arrangement that existed during the years of U.S. troop involvement in Iraq, although always tenuous, broke down significantly as the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011. Throughout 2011, Maliki critics accused him of centralizing power and attempting to gain undisputed control of the security services and key institutions, such as the higher electoral commission. But the disputes remained muted as U.S. diplomatic leverage, supported by a still significant troop presence, convinced all factions to continue to work together.

As U.S. troops withdrew in December, Maliki and his allies, always fearful that the Sunni Arabs are plotting a comeback and without the restraining influence of the United States, arranged for the purge and arrest of two top Sunni leaders. Most notable among them was the first Vice President (Tariq al-Hashimi), who fled to the Kurdish region. This triggered a severe political crisis that brought the work of the cabinet and parliament to a virtual halt. Diplomatic intervention in January by Vice President Joseph Biden and CIA Director David Petraeus, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, caused Sunni officials to return to their work in February 2012, but the underlying issues - influence over decision-making and economic resources – were not resolved. The crisis seemed to worsen again in early April when the President of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, visited Washington D.C. and publicly criticized Maliki as an emerging dictator and threatened that the Kurds might eventually break with Baghdad unless Maliki returned to the earlier power-sharing arrangements. His threats suggested the Kurds might sever their alliance with Maliki and attempt to bring him down politically through a vote of no-confidence in the parliament. A national conference that was to try to resolve the underlying disputes, tentatively scheduled for April 5, was cancelled and no new date has thus far been set. 


Violent Attacks Continue, and Legislation Remains Stalled

With underlying disputes unresolved, Iraqi governance has deteriorated to the point of virtual dysfunction. The long-stalled national laws needed to clarify the regulations of foreign investment in Iraq's energy sector have not been taken up in parliament; the Kurds continue to oppose the drafted laws as giving Baghdad too much power relative to the Kurds' own nascent oil industry in the north. U.S. energy giant Exxon Mobil, which has signed deals with both Baghdad and the Kurds, is being punished by the central government for doing work in the north. On April 20, Baghdad excluded the firm from the list of bidders on oil fields newly tendered for outside investment. Other energy giants remain deterred by the uncertainty in Iraq's oil sector. Little progress has been made toward increasing the supply of electricity – a state of affairs that generates popular anger during Iraq's blazing summers. The arrest of top election figures in April 2012 clouds the prospects for fair provincial elections in 2013 and the next national elections in 2014. Maliki has said he will not attempt to win a third term as Prime Minister, but his political opponents doubt he will fulfill that pledge, and fear he and his Shiite allies will use their control over the electoral machinery to ensure their continued dominance.

The disputes among the major political factions have provided political and physical space for Sunni insurgents, led by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I) to continue attempts to destabilize Iraq. High casualty, multiple-city attacks occur regularly, although not necessarily frequently. These attacks are intended to spark a return to sectarian warfare that prevailed during 2006-2008, in which Sunni insurgents committed acts of violence against Shiite civilians and the government, and Shiite militias took revenge on Sunni civilians. Should AQ-I attacks escalate - without the restraining hand of the U.S. military -  it is possible, although not likely, that Iraq could deteriorate into a failed state. For now, however, the 700,000 member U.S.-trained Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), mentored by U.S. personnel (mostly contractors) still in Iraq, appear able to prevent violence from escalating out of control.

Still, the news is not all bad. Iraqi officials did manage to stay sufficiently focused to produce a successful Arab League summit in Baghdad during March 27-29, which marked Iraq's return to the Arab fold after two decades of ostracism. Iraq also announced in March that it had surpassed a key benchmark – 3 million barrels per oil produced per day – a milestone not seen in two decades. Iraq's oil exports have now reached about 2.1 million barrels per day, making Iraq nearly as large an oil exporter as next door Iran. These political and economic indicators of progress have been accompanied by positive signs in the security realm, where high-casualty AQ-I attacks have thus far failed to spark a revival of the sectarian conflict that prevailed during 2006-8.




• Iraq's political crisis will not be resolved in 2012 and will require near-constant U.S. diplomatic intervention to broker temporary compromises that keep the government and parliament operating at even a minimum level of effectiveness.  Mass casualty, multi-city attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq will continue at regular intervals.



• Over the longer term, the political crisis will worsen to the point where Maliki's opponents will seek to oust him. The parliament and cabinet will become dysfunctional to the point where governance is nearly absent. AQ-I attacks will become increasingly frequent and investors in Iraq's energy sector will be deterred. However, there are no foreseeable circumstances in which U.S. troops will be sent back into Iraq.


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