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Iraq's 'Precarious' Future

Interviewee: Ned Parker, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 14, 2012

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A series of explosions in Iraq June 12 targeting Shiite Muslims celebrating a religious holiday marked the worst violence since the U.S. military withdrawal in December. With ongoing bloodshed and charges of corruption in Iraq, the country's "future is a huge question mark," says CFR's Ned Parker, a longtime news correspondent in Baghdad. Parker says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to build the coalition government promised after the 2010 national elections and has alienated his opposition. For the Obama administration, Iraq is a disappointment, says Parker: "They did not want the end of that war to be seen as a failure." Adds Parker, "probably the administration is banking on the fact that most Americans don't care about Iraq."

At least sixty-six people were killed in the recent attack, with many more wounded. Has this been typical since American troops left?

Since the elections, Iraq's politics have stagnated. In fact, the atmosphere has become far more poisonous.

If you look at the number of attacks in Iraq since the Americans left, at least every month there has been a large-scale attack, whether in one or multiple cities. When you look at the overall levels of violence, the number of deaths and attacks have stayed quite even since 2009, meaning that those committing acts of violence are still able to do so. While it's not anywhere near the heights of violence that occurred in the years 2006-2007, the fact is there are armed groups, sometimes with links to political parties, other times just groups that are extremist with no ties to political figures operating on the ground.

The attacks on Wednesday were believed to be carried out by Sunni groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, which is a Sunni group. Is that your understanding?

Yes. The series of attacks was most likely carried out by a Sunni extremist group like al-Qaeda in Iraq. But when you look at the day-to-day level of the violence that occurs, for example assassinations of civil servants or officials working for political parties, it is far more nebulous about who is doing it and why. Last week, the secretary to the first deputy speaker of parliament was assassinated in Baghdad. Anyone could've done it. It could've been from a rival in the government, a rival from a Shiite political party; it could be personal, or the assassination could have been carried out by a Sunni extremist. The violence in Iraq [tends to be] very opaque in terms of the motivations for the violence and who carries it out. Attacks like Wednesday's large-scale bombings are more obvious, and they likely come from al-Qaeda or an al-Qaeda-inspired group.

When the last national elections were held in Iraq in 2010, there was hope that some kind of unity government could be formed that would include the Sunnis. That didn't happen. Is there any effort at reconciliation?

Since the elections, Iraq's politics have stagnated. In fact, the atmosphere has become far more poisonous. You have Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his alliance, a bloc of Shiite Islamic political figures. Then there is the opposition bloc of Iraqiya, led by former prime minister Ali Allawi, who's a secular Shiite, but whose bloc contains mainly Sunnis. Since the election and the formation of the government, no real power sharing has happened. Iraq's politics remain trapped in the past.

The mindset of most of Iraq's political figures is deeply entrenched in Iraq's old ways of conspiratorial politics and thinking things through the mindset of being a strongman, meaning, "If I'm a politician I can never really trust another party to build up institutions or build up decent security forces, or compromise on legislation, because to do that will expose me to my enemies; therefore, as a politician, [when] I'm dealing with others, it is in the context of keeping them weak and keeping myself strong."

That's been the politics since 2010. As a result, Prime Minister Maliki has been accused of being a dictator by the Iraqiya bloc and by the Kurds, and even Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, but at the same time they are not offering much of an alternative. They are just plotting to bring him down; therefore, he acts to maintain the power that he has and to try to intimidate his opponents. Maliki exploits and benefits from his opponents' disunity and failure to present a common vision for the country.

What is the status of the effort to have a vote of no confidence in Maliki in the Iraqi parliament?

Since the government was formed at the end of 2010, all efforts of power sharing among Prime Minister Maliki and the main Sunni political bloc, Iraqiya, the Kurds, and even some of his Shiite partners has faltered. As a result, the three security ministries that were supposed to be shared among all of the political blocs remain under the prime minister's control.

The cabinet as it functions now allows the prime minister to rule by decree. Those bylaws were supposed to be revised. That has never happened. An oil law was also supposed to be passed, and that hasn't happened. As a result, mistrust has grown on all sides.

Since late April, the primary Sunni bloc--Iraqiya--the main Kurdish bloc, and Sadr's Shiite lawmakers have all come out in favor of a vote of no confidence against Maliki. This effort climaxed last weekend when the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, was asked to call for a vote of no confidence in the parliament. But Talabani, who is a Kurd but has very close ties with Maliki, at the end of the day said that there were not enough signatures to call for such a vote. So now Maliki's main competitors--the Iraqiya block, the Sadrists and the Kurds--are trying to gain more signatures to force Talabani to call a vote of no confidence. But if not, they are saying they're still going to call Maliki to the parliament--which technically they can do--for hearings, for questioning, and then after that, they want to call for a vote for no confidence. All of that shows the trust has broken down in Iraqi politics.

For the Americans, who've invested lots of blood and money in Iraq since 2003, is this a great disappointment or did they know this was going to happen?

It is a disappointment. From the administration's perspective, the most important thing was to end the American troop presence in Iraq, and they did not want the end of that war to be seen as a failure. Prime Minister Maliki came to Washington last December and President Obama greeted him with praise of Iraq as an emerging democracy with a coalition government.

But the reality was far from that. It was a coalition government on paper, but literally within a week of getting back from Washington, the prime minister was prosecuting his vice president, Tariq al Hashemi, who's a Sunni, for terrorism; threatening to arrest his finance minister, who's also a Sunni, for terrorism; [and] trying to fire his deputy prime minister. None of the power-sharing agreements had been fulfilled. So Washington wanted to present success where there really has not been. When you look at the comments of the president's nominee to be the next ambassador for Iraq, Brett McGurk, he acknowledges in his testimony that the politics in Iraq remain deeply conspiratorial, that the people in power have yet to overcome the legacy of their sectarian war.

So the idea of a flourishing democracy is not taking hold?

Iraq remains mired in corruption and violence; the things that need to happen to make Iraq a strong state have so far failed to happen. Gradually, the idea of democracy, at least among the political elites, is losing legitimacy.

Probably the administration is banking on the fact that most Americans don't care about Iraq; it's seen as a misadventure, costly to the U.S. military and to the government in terms of lives and treasure. So I don't think the administration sees Iraq as a kitchen table issue for most citizens.

How much corruption is there in Iraq?

Right now, the head of the outgoing electoral commission is facing charges on corruption for offering bonuses of around $100, maybe a little bit more, to five employees. This is happening while Iraqi officials are scheming to get hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts through front companies. The belief is that the prime minister, even though he denies it, deliberately brought the charges against the head of the electoral commission because he wants to intimidate him.

The new electoral commission--which is supposed to preside over local elections in 2013, and national elections in 2014--hasn't been set up, but when it is, Maliki's political rivals will question whether this electoral commission will be fair and independent. If the prime minister wins again and the election's results are seen as far from clean, it creates all kinds of potential for real violence among the Shiites themselves, within the Sunni community, and also the old, classic divisions that we saw in 2006 and 2007 of Shiite versus Sunni. Sadr's rift with Maliki is huge because it shows the internal discord and fear inside the country's Shiite political elite regarding the prime minister's intentions. They worry if they lose more ground it will cause their obsolescence.

So Iraq today is in a very precarious situation. Oil revenues are going up, but the institutions that preside over the state are seen as partisan to one side, to a personality, and do not work to ensure good governance. Where that leaves Iraq in the future is a huge question mark.

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