May 27, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Iraq Election Amid Insurrection

• The results of the April 30 election put Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in a commanding position to secure another term

• The strong showing of Maliki’s State of Law slate reinforces his belief that use of force is the best way to end an insurrection led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria that has spread from al-Anbar Province

• The Obama Administration, increasingly concerned about the inability of the Iraqi security forces to halt the ISIS-led rebellion, is rushing weaponry to Iraq and developing new programs to train Iraqi forces.


The Election and Coalitions

Despite the ongoing violence in al-Anbar Province, Iraq held its third post-Saddam Hussein era parliamentary elections on April 30—the first elections since the end of the US military presence in Iraq in 2011.  Maliki’s State of Law coalition remained relatively intact since the 2010 elections, whereas rival coalitions fractured, leaving Maliki facing a weakened field. In particular, the strong Iraqiyya bloc, composed mostly of Sunni Muslims and which won more seats than did State of Law in 2010, broke into three Sunni slates for the 2014 election. The results released May 19 showed State of Law winning a commanding 92 seats, more than triple the total of each of two competing Shi’a Muslims slates.

Still, Maliki’s bloc does not have an outright majority in the 328 seat parliament, and he will require other factions to forge a coalition that secures him a third term as prime minister. All rival factions—Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurd—vowed  during the campaign to oppose a third term for Maliki. However, the strong showing for State of Law, particularly in Baghdad, will make it difficult for a rival politician to wrest that post away from Maliki in the government formation process. 

Maliki opponents are likely to eventually acquiesce to a third term, although they will demand positions and policy favors in return for their support. Even if the two rival Shi’a blocs fall in line behind Maliki, it still leaves him slightly short of the 165 seats needed to form a government. The Kurds, who won 62 seats in the election, supported Maliki in 2010 but now bitterly oppose him over the central government’s refusal to allow the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to export oil separately to Turkey. The KRG began separate exports to Turkey in late May, via a newly constructed pipeline—in defiance of the central government. The Kurds expect that Maliki will grudgingly support the Kurdish oil exports in order to gain their political support for his third term.


The Violence Defies Easy Resolution

The US and its allies are assessing the effect of the Iraqi election on the ongoing Sunni insurrection in al-Anbar Province, which has spread to other Sunni-dominated provinces such as Nineveh and Salahuddin. The US, in particular, reportedly hoped that Maliki’s bloc would perform poorly in the election and that a new prime minister would be selected who is willing to take a different approach toward the Sunni rebellion. Sunni unrest has been simmering since 2011 as Maliki consistently sidelined senior Sunni politicians, but the unrest broke out into a significant rebellion in January 2014 when ISIS, joined by Sunni tribal fighters and others, took over the Anbar cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Most of the Sahwah (“Awakening”) fighters recruited by US forces to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later given permanent security roles, remained loyal to the government, but some joined the rebellion. Maliki’s approach—criticized by Washington and Europe—has been to brand all Sunni rebels as “terrorists,” refuse to make concessions to the Sunnis, and to deploy the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) to recapture lost territory. The strategy succeeded in Ramadi but failed in Fallujah, which  remains in the hands of ISIS despite ISF shelling of the city from outside. ISIS and other armed rebels have also since seized control of several towns in the province. The rebel presence in Abu Ghraib, a mere ten miles from Baghdad, forced the government to close the famous prison there in late April. Since that time, ISIS and its allies stepped up the frequency of suicide bombings in Baghdad in elsewhere, killing hundreds of civilians.

The US and European fear is that Maliki will interpret his strong showing in the election as a mandate from his core Shi’a constituency for his military solution approach to the rebellion. The US and allies believe ISF action should be targeted at ISIS alone and coupled with overtures of political compromise and economic largesse, steps Maliki has been reluctant to undertake.

US Response

Even as the US encourages Maliki to address the Sunni grievances that led to the uprising, it supports ISF efforts to combat violent extremists. ISIS draws its strength not only from Sunni unrest in Iraq but also from the branch of the organization in neighboring Syria, and has established training camps in far western Iraq, near the Syrian border. To help the Iraqis attack the camps, the US is rushing deliveries of several hundred Hellfire missiles as well as unarmed surveillance drones. However, deliveries of 36 F-16s already sold to Iraq will not begin until Fall 2014, and Iraq for now has only propeller-driven combat aircraft. As the rebellion gained strength, the Administration also obtained concurrence from the US Congress to proceed with the sale and lease of 30 AH-64 Apache helicopters. Some in Congress had held up that package because of concerns the government would use the weapon against peaceful Sunni demonstrators and against the Kurds.

While ruling out any reintroduction of combat troops to Iraq, the US has moved to address the deterioration in the skills of the ISF—particularly the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS)—since the US troop drawdown. Pentagon officials told journalists in late May that US Special Forces will train the CTS in Jordan in June.


• Maliki is likely to secure a third term as prime minister as various factions pledge their support in exchange for various policy shifts

• He is likely to continue his military-first approach to the violence in Anbar, but doing so is likely to inflame rather than suppress the rebellion

• The US will likely continue to accelerate weapons deliveries to and training for the ISF, provided the Iraqis continue to target ISIS and not use US weapons against Sunni civilians who peacefully oppose the Maliki government.



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