Iraq: After an American departure, a (different) battle continues by Christian Chung

Half a year after the complete withdrawal of all US forces from active operations, Iraq continues to be a tense battleground. This time, however, it’s not the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or threats of sectarian civil war which form the most fundamental threat to the success of a post-Saddam Iraq (though attacks are by all means still a part of daily life). Instead, it’s the toxic political firefights that have called into question the continued viability of the Iraqi state.

The crisis stems from the attempt of opposition groups in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, the unicameral parliamentary body, to bring down Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who they argue is single handedly grabbing political power in a push both unconstitutional and reminiscent of the previous regime. The opposition, a wide ranging coalition of unlikely allies across the Iraqi political spectrum, includes Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraqqiya Front leader and Shi'ite Ayad Allawi, and Speaker of the Parliament Usama Nujayfi.

The military, nominally under control of the Chief of Staff of Iraqi Joint Forces General Babaker Zebari, is now mostly under control of the Prime Minister’s office. As Massoud Barzani recently said in an address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy during a visit to the US, the constitution is breached on a daily basis, and the same individual holds the powers of prime minister, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, defense minister, chief of intelligence, and interior minister. The central bank may soon be under his purview as well. It is important that these constitutional violations be addressed.

Budget allocation to the federal autonomous Kurdistan region, required by the constitution to be 17% of the national budget (commensurate with the proportional population of the Kurds in Iraq), has failed to ever surpass 13%, according to senior KRG officials. Prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, perhaps one of the most powerful political actors in Iraq not formally in government, has broken ranks with his Shi’ite colleagues in the governing coalition to join the movement against Maliki out of stated concern regarding the increasing influence of Iran in the future direction of Iraq (though recent statements following Sadr’s visit to Iran leave many to question his commitment to the opposition, and demonstrate the day-by-day nature of political allegiances in Iraq). Meanwhile, the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, rival to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and whose consent is needed to legitimize any petition to bring about a no-confidence vote, recently struck down the alleged collection of signatures for the measure and eliminated the possibility of ousting Maliki through this route. Tensions are at critical mass not only between the opposition groups and the federal government in Baghdad, but within the fractured opposition themselves: between the Kurds, Shi’ites, with Iranian involvement thrown in for good measure. The internal political situation is not only complex and fragile but also explosive and intensely destabilizing to the country and the region.

Yet this high stakes political showdown is about more than which group commands the most power or who adheres to the constitution the most. Instead, it’s a vital test of the durability of the constitution, and, by extension, the ability of the Iraqi state to accommodate the three main ethnic/religious groups into a viable pluralistic and democratic federal system.

In many ways, Iraq is becoming the “new Lebanon”: a battleground state between Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states and the US, that serves as a litmus test of regional tensions and political events. But far from being just another canary in the mine of the Middle East, Iraq is a critical opportunity for America to curb its waning political and diplomatic capital in the region.

At stake for the United States in all of this is what the nature of our influence in Iraq, and the broader Middle East region, will be. Perhaps the most sensitive area of American involvement in Iraq is the nature and extent of US security assistance to the Iraqi National Security Forces, sometimes at the expense of building on a long-established relationship with the Kurds. After Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Barzani alleged that Maliki mentioned the possibility of using American-supplied F-16 fighter aircraft against the Kurds, he began a campaign to prevent their delivery to the federal government. The US previously signed a deal worth more than $6 Billion USD to supply the fledgling Iraqi Air Force with 36 F-16 aircraft, beginning in 2014.

Yet for America to seize the initiative and ensure the continued viability of US diplomatic power in Iraq, it must engage the current actors in the political crisis more forcefully. To date, US policy has been to treat the crisis as an “internal matter” for the Iraqis and support any decision that “the Iraqi people make within the framework of the democratic and constitutional process,” though of course after the Iraqis fight it out amongst themselves. But this is irresponsible and demonstrative of the lack of leadership the Obama Administration has shown in Iraq, primarily for domestic political purposes.

So, how is this all actually playing out on the ground? If you talk to most Iraqi Kurds about the political crisis, the common answer mimics that of the KRG’s leaders: Maliki is a dictator who isn’t respecting the agreed-upon constitution and needs to go. If you talk to Arab politicians in Dawa, the line is that the Kurds are engaging in illegal political activities (read: signing lucrative oil contracts independent of Baghdad), and their autonomy is getting out of control. Caught in the middle are marginalized Shi’ite clerics and the sidelined Sunnis. And, this is all taking place in a deteriorating security situation, with major attacks on Shi’ite pilgrims occurring on a weekly basis, most likely the work of Sunni extremists and Al- Qaeda remnants trying to reignite a sectarian civil war.

The short version is that the situation is obviously not sustainable. For it to end without escalating into another full-blown civil war, the US must step up to the plate and become engaged, instead of shying away from the inevitable world of nasty and unpredictable Iraqi politics. The chance and the necessity is there to restore confidence in US leadership in a country where so many Americans sacrificed so much. We should not let it pass us by.

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Christian Chung is a sophomore in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently working in northern Iraq as the Security and Political Reporter for the English language section of Rudaw News, with a focus on Iraqi political and security developments, Arab-Kurd relations, the political challenges faced by Iraqi ethnic groups, and security throughout the country since the American withdrawal.