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Difficult Times Ahead for Iraq

Interviewee: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 10, 2013

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The Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, faces difficult times ahead, says Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a former top official dealing with Iraq in the Bush administration. "The coming year will not be an easy one for Iraq," she says. "It will need not only to address a host of persistent internal issues, but also must contend with regional forces which--in themselves--would be sufficient to challenge Iraq's progress." She says Maliki is under strong pressure not only from Sunnis and Kurds, but also from fellow Shiites, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who is now opposed to many of Maliki's policies. O'Sullivan says that even though Iraq is now rich with oil profits, the ordinary Iraqi is still not benefiting much. "[M]ost Iraqis do not see these significant revenues as translating into better lives for themselves and blame the government for incompetence and corruption," she says.

It has been more than a year since the last U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq. How would you describe the situation that exists there today? Has Iraq's political system stabilized?

The last year since U.S. troops withdrew has neither met the worst fears nor come close to the greatest expectations of Iraqis and Americans. On the security side, while bombings have continued, there has not been a serious escalation of violence resulting from the departure of U.S. forces and the full assumption of security responsibilities by the Iraqi security forces.

The last year since U.S. troops withdrew has neither met the worst fears nor come close to the greatest expectations of Iraqis and Americans.

In contrast, on the political side, the trajectory is clearly downward. The year 2012 was marked by continuous political crises, beginning almost immediately after the American withdrawal was complete. Today, the logjam between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) seems more intractable than ever, with the forces of each side nearly coming to blows just two months ago. Sunni political leaders are claiming their community is being "ghettoized" and sharply excluded from the political process; thousands of Sunnis have taken to the streets motivated by these feelings. There is even a political crisis within the Shiites, with Muqtada al-Sadr accusing the prime minister of turning Iraq into "a farce" and seeking to rally his own supporters in street protests. For the second time in less than a year, Iraqi watchers are doing the math and trying to determine whether a feasible combination of opposition parties have the parliamentary votes to bring a vote of no confidence against the prime minister.

The big picture is that few of the fundamental issues that have divided Iraqis have been addressed, despite the significant improvements in the security situation since 2007 and the departure of foreign troops. While Iraq is more stable, its institutions have gained in strength, and its economy in some ways is thriving, there has been little reconciliation between the country's groups and no development of a shared vision for the country--and therefore only a tenuous basis on which to move forward.

The protests against Maliki organized by Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been calling for an "Iraq Spring" to match what has happened in other Arab countries, seem to be aimed at trying to weaken Maliki's control. There are provincial elections set for the spring in Iraq, but do you think Maliki will try to disband parliament and have new national elections?

Prime Minister Maliki's challenges right now are not so much with parliament, but more with Iraq's political elite. The prime minister has managed to alienate most of the elite, even while remaining popular with many ordinary Iraqis. Early elections are, in fact, one of the demands of the political groups opposing Maliki who want nothing more than to replace the prime minister. This could be achieved either through early elections or a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Some would settle for a pledge from Maliki that he will not seek a third term in office.

The vote of no confidence route was tried last summer and failed, largely because the Sadrist bloc backed away from their pledges to support the ouster. Maliki, in provoking the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Sadrists (who are Shiites) all simultaneously, may have pushed his luck too far this time. [However,] the chances of these groups staying united in parliament long enough to conduct a vote of no-confidence is still unlikely, not least due to the inevitability of Iranian counter-pressure.

In theory, the street, more than parliament, could be the source of political pressure on Maliki, but this would require the Sunni movement merging with a robust Sadrist street movement. Although there have been efforts over the past days to broker this marriage, much history and suspicion lie between the two groups, making an effective merger a challenge. Moreover, most Iraqis, after decades of trauma, are not disposed to take to the streets to change their government, when (unlike the other "Arab Spring" countries) elections provide an option.

There was a tense time last year when Maliki sent troops to border areas. Where are the Kurds in all this now?

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani championed last summer's efforts to remove Prime Minister Maliki--and the Kurds have borne the brunt of this failed attempt ever since. Maliki took Barzani's opposition to heart and has since taken multiple steps to marginalize the Kurds. He established a parliamentary committee to examine how much money the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government] "owes" Baghdad for unsanctioned exports. He began holding cabinet meetings in the territories contested by Baghdad and the KRG in an effort to establish Baghdad's primacy over them. Of even greater concern, Maliki established the "Tigris Command," an operational command structure unifying the police and army in the disputed territories under the control of one general who reports directly to Maliki, rather than through the minister of defense and the normal chain of command. Maliki has also concluded a number of weapons deals to increase the capability of the Iraqi security forces, in his own words, "to fight the terrorists in the desert and the mountains." (It was not lost on the Kurds that they are the ones who live in the mountains.) In November, there were clashes between the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish peshmerga forces along the now-contested line demarcating the borders of the KRG; such clashes are not entirely new, but are occurring in an increasingly tense atmosphere.

While Iraq is more stable, its institutions have gained in strength, and its economy in some ways is thriving, there has been little reconciliation between the country's groups and no development of a shared vision for the country.

In short, always tense relations between Baghdad and Erbil are at an all-time low since 2003. But, while the bilateral relationship may be at a standstill, Kurdish development is moving ahead briskly. The fifty or so oil deals inked between the KRG and international oil companies--and the expectation of a booming oil economy that will come with their fruition--continues to drive stunning development in the KRG. Trade between Turkey and the KRG--estimated to be nearly $8 billion of the total $11 billion of Iraq-Turkey trade--has also transformed the region. Particularly in light of the ongoing tensions with Baghdad, the future of the Kurds in no small part rests on not-yet-existent pipelines from the KRG directly to the north and their ability to convince Turkey that it should accept, should push come to shove, exports of Kurdish oil even over Baghdad's objections. While such an idea would have been fanciful five years ago, the remarkable rapprochement between Ankara and Erbil--and the growing animosity between Ankara and Baghdad--no longer make this vision seem farfetched.

Is Iraq's economy finally improving?

One could say that Iraq's economy is booming, largely due to the oil sector, which had a banner year in 2012. After a few years of frustrated development, Iraq's production exceeded 3 million barrels a day by the end of the year and the country seems poised for substantial additional gains in 2013; some anticipate that in 2013, Iraq could break its all-time production high of 3.8 million b/d from 1979, the year before [former president] Saddam Hussein launched the Iran-Iraq war. These high levels of production, and international oil prices buoyed by geopolitical worries, delivered Iraq close to $100 billion for the year.

Nevertheless, most Iraqis do not see these significant revenues as translating into better lives for themselves and blame the government for incompetence and corruption. Electricity is more widely available, but from private vendors who charge a premium, not from the government. The combination of Iraq's burgeoning oil revenues and weak institutions are cause for serious concern. Iraq has all the hallmarks of a country which will suffer from the "resource curse"--the proven tendency of resource rich countries to grow more slowly than resource poor ones.

Two small glimmers of light suggest some awareness of this possibility. First, Iraq just became the largest oil-producing country to be EITI compliant (an international mechanism to encourage transparency in the oil sector); second, the World Bank just pledged to provide Iraq with $900 million over the next four years, primarily to help it better manage its oil revenues.

In regional terms, how are Maliki and his government handling the crisis with Syria? Are extremists crossing the border into Syria regularly? How closely aligned is Maliki with Iran right now?

It is difficult to speak of an "Iraqi" foreign policy, because Iraq's internal divisions mean that there are different individuals and groups advocating conflicting policies and building external alliances that they believe can suit their own interests. As a result, Iraq as a state has not really been able to pull its weight as a regional player up to this point.

Syria is a good example of how different groups have different objectives. Maliki has tried to portray Iraq as neutral in the current conflict, but it is no secret that he and his supporters fear the fall of Assad and have not been 100 percent cooperative in stemming the likely transfer of support to it from Iran. Most observers see this as evidence that Maliki is a "stooge" of Iran, but the reality is more complex. Quite apart from any Iranian pressure on Maliki (and there undoubtedly is some), Maliki sees the possibility of huge pressures on Iraq emanating from a post-Assad Syria.

Many Shiite Iraqis anticipate that, once successful in overthrowing the Alawite regime in Syria, radical Sunni groups will shift their focus to Iraq, renewing violent challenges to Baghdad. Maliki and others, rightly, are also nervous that a Syria which fractures will create greater pressure from the Kurds of the region. While the Assad regime was clearly no friend of Baghdad throughout the past decade, this is certainly a case where Maliki would prefer the known devil over the unknown. In contrast, Iraq's Kurds see possible benefits emanating from Assad's downfall, as Syrian Kurds become more vocal for their own autonomy. Some in the Kurdish community are contemplating whether regional forces are going to provide a historic opportunity for Kurdish independence.

The coming year will not be an easy one for Iraq. It will need not only to address a host of persistent internal issues, but also must contend with regional forces, which in themselves would be sufficient to challenge Iraq's progress.

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