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Growing Shadows in an Unsettled Iraq

Interviewee: Sean Kane, Iraq Program Officer, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 30, 2011

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June was the worst month for U.S. troop casualties (NYT) in Iraq in three years and sectarian tensions have revived in reaction to regional protests. At the same time, Iraqis are concerned about an increasingly authoritarian state, widespread corruption, and continuing acts of terrorism, says Iraq expert Sean Kane, who recently returned from the country. Kane says tensions between Shiites and Sunnis have been "remagnified" by the popular revolt in Bahrain against a Sunni monarchy backed by Saudi Arabia, and by events in Syria, where the Alawite leadership of President Bashar al-Assad is under pressure. As to the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of this year, Kane says there's a broad political consensus that some U.S. troops should remain, and that Iraq isn't ready to take full charge of its external defense. But neither Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, nor Ayad Allawi's opposition, want to take the first step and call for the extension of U.S. troops.

Has a sense of normalcy returned to Iraq, or do the continuing acts of terror and complaints of corruption and inefficiency make that a dream?

They're certainly substantially better than they were in the dark days of 2006. At that point, you had about 3,800 civilians a month killed in violent attacks. It's around 175 to 200 civilians a month now--still high by any standard, but substantially better than it was. From a political standpoint, what's interesting is that the concern then was about state failure and state collapse. I was in Iraq last week, and the concern you hear the most is that the state is becoming too strong and authoritarian again. It's a measure of progress that you're not worried about a situation like Somalia, where the government ceases to exist and everything breaks down. But given Iraq's history of authoritarian governments, it is a concern if things go too far in the opposite direction.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been in charge since 2006. After last March's elections, it took nine months before the political parties could agree on Maliki as prime minister again. What are the politics like?

One reason it took so long to form the government is that [former prime minister] Allawi and Maliki each got about 25 percent of the seats in parliament. So the question was who could form the majority coalition in parliament, and who could form the government. That took nine months. One thing people are concerned about is that the minister of defense and minister of interior still haven't been named, and in some ways, those are two of the most important ministries. They're very important to internal security and would be involved in any decision about the future of U.S. troops in the country.  Maliki is filling them himself in an acting capacity. In terms of Maliki's ability to govern, there's certainly concern about his ability to work with parliament--but what I heard a lot last week, is the executive branch is becoming perhaps too strong, and the role of parliament is being somewhat marginalized.

It's a measure of progress that you're not worried about a situation like Somalia, where the government ceases to exist and everything breaks down. But given Iraq's history of authoritarian governments, it is a concern if things go too far in the opposite direction.

Iraq's Shiites, though the majority population, were ruled for years by Sunnis. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Shiites have been in charge. But there's this constant background noise of attacks and bombings. What's going on?

To some extent, [sectarian tension has] been remagnified by this period of the Arab Spring. As sectarian tensions in the broader region between Iran and Saudi Arabia have increased, that has reawakened some of those feelings inside Iraq. You've seen senior Shiite political figures, including Maliki and the Shiite clergy, criticizing the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to reinforce the ruling Sunni monarchy who have cracked down on Shiite protestors. And you've seen certain Iraqi Sunni figures accepting it, if not outright supporting it. Then you've seen the Shiites standing up for Assad in Syria, a leader of the Alawites, a Shiite offshoot.

In terms of the violence in the country, there is still al-Qaeda in Iraq launching high-profile attacks, particularly in the north and center. There have been some provincial council buildings taken over by al-Qaeda who then killed people there. These were symbolic acts against the government. In the last two months, there has also been an increase of targeted assassinations of senior government and security officials. These look a lot like people trying to position themselves for after the U.S. government leaves, by taking out potential rivals. In the south of the country, [there has been] an increase in the tempo of attacks by Shiite militias on U.S. forces and remaining bases. That is part of their narrative that they're driving U.S. forces out of the country.

U.S. troops are supposed to be out of the country by the end of December, although Maliki has said he'd be willing to keep them if the political parties agree. What's the situation on that?

Timeline: The Iraq War

There are two groups whose views are very clear. The Sadrists [led by Muqtada al-Sadr] want all the U.S. troops out, and have threatened to reawaken the Mahdi army militia if they don't leave by December 2011. On the other hand, the Kurds would like to see U.S. forces stay; it makes them feel more secure given the past history of conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdish region. In between, though, is really where the margins of those decisions are going to be made, with Maliki's State of Law coalition and Allawi's Iraqiya coalition. Both groups so far have been reluctant to come out with a firm public view.

Maliki has left the door open a couple of times, but he's very much not wanting to come out and be the first one to say that perhaps U.S. forces should remain in the country. He's said that any decision has to be made by political consensus, and if there's a vote, perhaps U.S. forces could stay. Iraqiya, likewise, doesn't want to be the first to come out and say that they want foreign troops to stay, so their argument is that Maliki as the commander in chief needs to give a presentation on what assistance we need, and we can discuss and vote on it.

What a lot of people will say in private, and this is what we heard from a number of figures this week, is that Iraq still needs help with its external defense. They are not able to maintain control of their air space, they're not able to protect their oil export terminals in the Gulf from terrorist attacks--which would be disastrous, since those oil exports produce about 95 percent of government revenues. They still need help training and equipping Iraqi security forces, and they still need help with intelligence coordination on counterterrorism operations. There was a meeting last week with about twenty Iraqi senior officials--and what we understand from talking to a couple of people who were there is that Maliki did mention these areas of external defense as ones where some assistance would be required. So it looks like while the conversation is starting on the Iraqi side, the politics of it are very, very delicate.

What's the Iraqi economy like now?

What a lot of people will say in private is that Iraq still needs help with its external defense. They are not able to maintain control of their air space. . . . They still need help training and equipping Iraqi security forces, and they still need help with intelligence coordination on counterterrorism operations.

It's still heavily centralized and state-dominated, highly oil-dependent. Oil is about two-thirds of GDP, over 90 percent of government revenues. A lot of the population depends on the government for employment. Iraq is one of the lowest employment-to-population ratios in the region. There's an important need to diversify, to increase the strength of the private sector. But there is still this mentality that it's the government that's responsible for providing jobs and services, and that oil resources can fund that.

Is oil production higher than it was before the war?

It is, and it has been increasing over the last two years since a number of oil contracts were signed by the central government with major international oil companies in late 2009. They're up to about 2.8 million barrels per day of production and have some very ambitious targets--which most people feel are unrealistic--to get that up to twelve million barrels a day. The more realistic targets are probably in the four to five million barrel range in the next five or six years, which is still a very substantial increase in the revenue that would be available to the government. The challenge is [the need for] overall storage and export infrastructure, which requires parallel expansions and improvements for that type of production to then be able to be exported outside of the country.

What is the mood of the population? Do they feel they have a say in the government?

This sort of question about the mood of the population is one of the things that worries me about Iraq. People like that democracy has given them the ability to vote; they like that they have the ability to speak their minds and get different viewpoints in newspapers and on TV, but they have a very hard time tying democracy to any tangible improvements in their lives. Rather, they see service deliveries being worse, and corruption being worse. And I think that dynamic, in the long term, is a very challenging one for how legitimate and effective democracy is seen as being as a political system in Iraq.

What does it mean when you say corruption? How does it affect the ordinary person?

Obviously, corruption existed under Saddam before 2003. But I think there's a feeling now that whereas before, it was very much the regime and the family and the tribes close to Saddam taking a cut--there's a feeling now that everyone at every level takes a cut. So you have forty-two ministers in government, and each ministry takes a piece of the pie--and every official at every level takes a piece of the pie. Before, there used to be some shame associated with the idea of corruption--the idea now is that you're a fool if you're not doing it, because everyone else is. So from what I understand, [in] almost every daily interaction with government, there is some push for an extra payment [and] increased difficulty getting things done if you don't do that. It is a huge source of anger and discontent.

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