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Iraq at Crossroads Amid U.S. Disengagement

Interviewee: Kenneth M. Pollack, Acting Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 30, 2009

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As U.S. combat forces finalize their withdrawal from Iraq's cities, in compliance with the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, Iraq expert Kenneth M. Pollack says he remains "very concerned" about the political situation in Iraq. Pollack cites a number of internal faultlines, including competition among Shiite political parties, tensions between Kurdish and central government forces in Kirkuk, and a lingering threat posed by the terror group al-Qaeda in Iraq. Pollack says it is crucial for the Obama administration to be flexible in carrying out the timetable for U.S. withdrawal by 2011. He says there is certainly "a very real prospect for Iraq to work out well. It's not going to be Switzerland in the next five or ten years, but it could be a stable, functional, pluralistic state. But that's going to require the continued attention of the United States."

When we talked last December, when the the security agreement had just been worked out between the U.S and Iraqi governments, you were apprehensive. What's your feeling now as the first phase of the agreement goes into effect with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities?

I remain very concerned about the situation in Iraq, and the events I've seen over the last six months have suggested to me that those concerns are well-founded. There is increasing evidence of growing problems in Iraq. I don't think this is the time to push the panic button and I don't think that a civil war has become inevitable. But the trends that I saw in December remain, and there is growing evidence that those trends are starting to deepen. These are issues that we need to start paying a little bit more attention to, because we are still in an early phase and there is still plenty of time to catch them before they deteriorate into something truly meaningful.

[W]e're seeing all of Iraq's various political factions vying for power in a way that serves their short-term good, but not necessarily the long-term good of the country.

Why don't you detail them?

It does all start with Iraqi politics. Right now that is the principal issue in the country. You still have a number of signs out there that indicate all of the different groups remain very distrustful of one another. In some cases they may actively be plotting to grab more power for themselves than they otherwise might be entitled to, or they may just be so afraid that some other group is going to do so that they're taking steps that could ultimately provoke the same kind of an internal fight. We've seen an increase in violence in some of Iraq's cities recently. That probably is the work of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq. On the one hand it's somewhat disconcerting that you're getting the rise in the number of attacks, but what's more meaningful is the number of Iraqis who are begining to get concerned about what these attacks have to say about their political system--that their political system is not bringing about reconciliation, it's not bringing about an improvement in the security situation, and that as the U.S. forces increasingly pull back, it seems the violence is getting worse.

What's the implication of that concern?

It's making Iraqis start to worry, just as they did in 2004 and 2005, that the government is not going to be able to protect them from these terrorist groups, and that's what led them to form and to join militias in the first place, and of course it's those militias and insurgent groups that sucked Iraq into civil war. In addition we're seeing all of Iraq's various political factions vying for power in a way that serves their short-term good, but not necessarily the long-term good of the country. I'll give you just a couple of examples. First, it looks like the Iraqis are going to push forward and go for "closed-list elections" in next year's parliamentary vote. We fought very hard to have "open-list elections" in the provincial elections, which actually turned out quite well this past January.

Explain the difference between closed-list and open-list elections.

In the former you vote for a party. In an "open-list" you vote for candidates and you can vote for multiple candidates all from the same party, but you get to pick them and it means that the individual candidates are responsible to their constituents in a way that they aren't under a closed-list. A closed-list is simply responsible to its party; the party wins a certain number of seats, and the party picks who gets to occupy their seats, as opposed to an open-list where the people pick the representatives directly.

What other problems do you see?

The Iraqis have scheduled a referendum on the security agreement with the United States to happen simultaneous with the national election for the parliament in January 2010 [this referendum was originally scheduled for July 2009 but news report indicate it may be delayed]. That is very dangerous because it's likely to make the election itself a referendum on the security agreement. This may be a case of Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki trying to discredit all of his political rivals, all of whom he knows want the United States to remain in Iraq until the end of 2011, and this might force them to either change their position on that or be voted down by the voters. Or alternatively, it may be his effort to try to get the United States out early, because having a referendum at the same time as the election is actually a very good recipe to have the security agreement terminated by the Iraqi people.

Discuss a bit the political situation in Iraq.

Right now Iraqi politics focuses around Prime Minister Maliki. He and his Dawa party have built the most effective political machine in Iraq and right now they are riding off of Maliki's popularity as a nationalist leader, something that he has been able to develop over the last year or so. In the provincial elections last January, Maliki's Dawa party scored highest of any of the parties. But even then they only won a plurality in every single Iraqi province that they won in; they didn't score a clear majority in any of them and what that suggests is that while Maliki is the most popular figure and Dawa has the best political machine, they are far from having consolidated their power, so they're having to fight very hard. They're opposed by a whole variety of different groups. There is a coalition between the Kurdish factions and Dawa's main Shiite opponents, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). There are also a number of smaller parties that have been trying to block Maliki's efforts at every step and in particular in April they actually handed Maliki a very serious stinging defeat by deposing the speaker of the parliament and putting in place a Sunni Arab speaker of the parliament, Ayad al-Samarraie, who has been a major thorn in Maliki's side, reinforcing again the fact that Maliki is not in complete control.

"The big test for the Obama administration going forward is, as we see strains emerging in Iraq, will the president and his advisers be ready to show the flexibility and the patience which he talked about in his speech?"

Now what's his relationship with the Sadrists, who used to be a major thorn to the Americans?

Well Muqtada al-Sadr is still out of the country and it's anyone's guess what exactly he's up to. His movement remains fairly large but at the moment also badly fragmented and confused. They don't have a clear leadership and where they're going to come out in the political jockeying remains very much up in the air. Dawa Maliki is trying very hard to coopt the Sadrists, to bring them into his camp and even to steal Sadr's voters away from the movement, and make them Dawa voters. In the meantime, the other groups, such as ISCI, are trying very hard to push them their way. Behind all of this is a movement mostly engineered by the Iranians to try to force Dawa and ISCI to recreate the alliance that they had in 2005, when it was called the United Iraqi Alliance, which was a coalition that they ran jointly, and it looks like under Iranian pressure Dawa and ISCI have agreed to do so. These two parties, however, are deeply divided and they have not yet agreed on all of the details that would make that political coalition a reality.

Talk about the Sunnis, such as the Sons of Iraq, former insurgents who were coopted by the U.S. forces. Have they been assimilated into the security forces as they were promised?

One of the more positive stories of Iraq in the last couple of years has been the progress made by Iraq's Sunnis. There are now a number of Sunni political parties which are far more representative than they were in the past. The Sunnis are now in control of most of the provinces in which they predominate, so they got to choose the provincial government and that makes them much happier. They are being given a greater role in the government, they are getting a greater role in the economy, and they're also getting a much greater role in the security services, all of which is positive.

The crises that seem to be unresolvable are Mosul and Kirkuk in the north, right?

Mosul is very difficult right now. Both Sunnis and Kurds are misbehaving up there. But in particular it does seem to be the case that some of the Kurds from within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)- are encouraging Kurds in Mosul to push back on the Sunnis, to not cooperate and that is absolutely creating space for groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq. In Kirkuk of course you've got a different situation where you've got the Kurdish peshmerga [military] and the Iraqi Security Forces jostling over control of that city while a UN political process goes on in the background to try to sort things out. Everyone's fear is that one group or the other, either the central government or the Kurds, are going to take precipitous action, using their military forces to try to steal an advantage over the other which could lead to gunfire. And we've had a number of incidents over the last year where the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces were making very provocative moves toward one another that could have led to gunfire, but American advisers present with Iraqi units stepped in in every case to get the two sides to disengage and it's hard to say that one group is more responsible for this than the other.

With Iran now stealing headlines, you can almost forget we had some problems in a place called Iraq. President Obama announced his plan to end the combat mission in Iraq by August 2010.

In August 2010 we will no longer have a combat mission. It doesn't mean there won't be combat troops in the country, there almost certainly will. It's just that we will no longer have a combat mission. All troops are to be out by the end of 2011. That is a reasonable timetable. I never cared for timetables, but I understand that President Obama was not elected to stay in Iraq. He was elected to get out and as far as timetables go, this is a reasonable one. He said very clearly that we're prepared to be flexible. The big test for the Obama administration going forward is, as we see strains emerging in Iraq, will the president and his advisers be ready to show the flexibility and the patience which he talked about in his speech? If so there's every reason to believe that we can help the Iraqis through this transitional period. But you're right that one of the big problems we have has been this fervent desire on the part of the American people and their political leaders to try to just ignore Iraq as much as we can. The simple fact is that we may not like the war in Iraq but we can't afford to walk away from it. We need to remember that in 2006 the Middle East seemed like it was absolutely about to implode and the driver for all of that was the civil war in Iraq and the reason why the Middle East now seems bad, but not catastrophic, is that Iraq improved to a certain extent. It improved enough so that people no longer felt that it was going to explode and take the rest of the region with it. And so we've got a situation where we have made some progress and there is certainly a very real prospect for Iraq to work out well. It's not going to be Switzerland in the next five or ten years, but it could be a stable, functional, pluralistic state. But that's going to require the continued attention of the United States.

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