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Political Situation in Iraq is 'A House of Cards'

Interviewee: Marc Lynch, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 2, 2008

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Marc Lynch, an expert and well-known blogger on Iraqi politics, says that despite security gains in Iraq, the political situation is unsettled, and he worries that progress there might be ephemeral. "Right now Iraq is a political house of cards. There are so many unresolved issues and the risk of this house of cards collapsing is really quite high." Lynch, who lectures at George Washington University, postulates that if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is unable to solidify political gains, some military officers, tempted by the oil-rich state, might attempt a coup.

About a year ago most people here considered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as politically weak. Now suddenly, it seems he has become a major political figure with some power. How do you see Maliki right now?

On the one hand, he's probably in the strongest political position he's ever been in. But at the same time he's got many weaknesses and it is important to recognize both. On the one hand he's riding what he considers to be a winning streak. If you go back to last March, when he ordered a military campaign in Basra to put down the chaos in the region, it first appeared that it was going to be a disaster. It wasn't well prepared, he hadn't coordinated with the United States, and it very much looked like it was going to be a failure. But then with U.S. support and with Iranian mediation he managed to salvage Basra and the move turned out to be quite popular with Iraqis.

And then he followed up in Baghdad, right?

Yes, he launched military operations in Sadr City [in Baghdad] and in a number of other provinces. Many of these campaigns have been more for show than actually a real military confrontation. In most of these cases, he gave plenty of advance warning, which gave time for the potential resistance to either get out of town or lay low. It allowed him to generate a series of public relations successes. All of that is not unimportant because success builds on success and it helps to create his image of strength. His decision to go after Sadr City did make a number of Sunni groups happy. The last part of it, then, is in the negotiations with the United States for an agreement to give a legal basis for the U.S. presence in Iraq. Maliki feels that he has the Bush administration over a barrel because the Bush administration is desperate to get a deal.

While Maliki seems to be in a very strong position, his political coalition is falling apart. He probably no longer commands a majority in parliament. There's a lot of tension between the Shiite and Kurdish parts of the ruling coalition. Even the Shiite bloc is crumbling; there are signs of conflict between Maliki's Dawa party and ISCI, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, [formerly known as Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq] its larger coalition partner. His actual political position is quite shaky, and he probably understands better than most Americans do the tenuous and fragile nature of the security improvements, so he probably recognizes that there's a fairly short window for him to put his stamp on Iraqi politics. Within Maliki, there's a curious combination of strength and weakness right now, and I think that explains his behavior.

Does that also explain why he had an interview with the Associated Press the other day where he said the United States has to stay in Iraq for at least beyond next year because the security situation still demands it?

All things being equal, a genuinely strong Maliki would probably prefer to see the United States stay around because the presence of roughly 140,000 American troops is what gives Maliki's government the ability to pursue the policies that he does. It's a safety net, and it means that he can make fairly risky political decisions without having to worry about the consequences. And that's a major part of why he's able to behave the way that he does. He believes, probably correctly, that as long as he has the United States there, we won't let him fail, and so he can take risky acts and not have to worry about paying the consequences. On the other hand, in these negotiations with the United States, there's a widespread consensus across the Iraqi political system wanting to see some kind of respect for Iraqi sovereignty and some kind of time frame for the U.S. withdrawal. Because he's in a fairly weak political position, this has driven him toward trying to seize that nationalist position, even though in some ways it cuts against his own self-interest.

Where do we stand on those negotiations? There were some reports a little while ago that there was an agreement in principle that the United States would "aspire" to withdraw by the end of 2011. Is that still in the agreement?

It's hard to tell. There have been a number of leaks of different drafts and that sort of thing, so we're all trying to piece this together. It looks like we're going to have the end of 2011 as an aspirational time frame, but my expectation is that there's probably going to be enough loopholes in there to allow for that to not be fully implemented. In other words, I'm sure there's going to be something in there which is going to allow the government of Iraq to request an extension. The major arguments right now are really about the legal status of U.S. troops and contractors. A good part of Iraqi public opinion wants to see jurisdiction of Iraqi courts over the Americans. The United States doesn't want to give that up, and that's been one of the major obstacles in the negotiations. And they've been signaling over the last week or so that the U.S. negotiating team that just went back to Baghdad came with a middle-ground position which might be acceptable, so if they have in fact cleared that bar, then we might get a deal. But keep in mind that the deal has to pass Iraqi parliament, which is anything but a rubber stamp these days, as we saw in the provincial elections.

So let's talk about the provincial elections.

The way the Iraqi constitution is structured, there's a fair amount of power at the provincial level. If you think about American federalism, it's fairly easy to grasp this. The first set of elections in 2005 to these provincial councils, basically the equivalent of state governments, were held at a time when there was almost a universal Sunni boycott of the elections, and there were a lot of irregularities in those elections, and basically they produced some highly unrepresentative provincial councils.

The provincial elections are meant to basically try and bring the power reality in these provincial councils more in line with public opinion. The subtext of this is that the United States certainly would like to see the Sunnis from the Awakening movement, the Anbar Salvation Council, take power away from the existing Sunni power holders and basically be rewarded for their fighting against al-Qaeda and be given a stake in the system. That's what we want the most, probably. On the Shiite side, there's a lot of concern about how the Sadrists are going to do, and many Iraqis interpreted Maliki's move against [Muqtada al-]Sadr less as imposing state sovereignty and more as influencing provincial elections, trying to disrupt and break up the Sadrist networks in advance of the elections. Provincial elections in the Shiite areas are going to be intensely competitive. And in the Sunni areas you can't take anything for granted. The IAF recently returned to Maliki's government, which means they're going to start having a fair amount of state resources and patronage at their disposal.

And these will probably be held, when, at the end of January next year?

January.

The provincial election law leaves out elections in Kirkuk, right?

Basically, the Kurdish provinces simply decided that they're not going to hold elections, so they just won't be held then. The whole controversy was over Tamim Province, where Kirkuk is located, where they simply could not come to any agreement on how to hold those elections in such a way that the Arabs, the Kurds, the Turkmens, and the various other stakeholders believed that they'd be fairly represented. So the compromise basically was to not hold the elections, kick it down the road and form a series of committees to try and solve it in the future. There, by the way, we just have to really point to the efforts of the United Nations. The UN doesn't get a lot of credit in Iraq or anywhere else, but the UN mediator there, Staffan de Mistura, was absolutely tireless in pursing that compromise and was probably pivotal.

It was extremely important to get that compromise because the long, long, long stalemate over this election law was really a sign of real problems in the Iraqi political system. I was very heartened to see that they were finally able to come to a consensus. The key to democracy is really that you need to have uncertainty over the outcomes, which is a problem in that we actually know the outcomes we'd like to see. But it's not democracy if you don't have uncertainty over the outcomes. You can't have disagreement over the rules. You have got to have general consensus and general buy in as to the rules governing the elections, and we've got that now.

So it's a breakthrough for democracy.

Hopefully. On the other hand-and here's where I disagree with a lot of my colleagues-I don't expect this to be a magic bullet that's going to solve all the problems. There's going to be winners and there's going to be losers; it's going to reshuffle the deck in terms of who's in and who's out, but I don't think it's going to be a magic bullet that is suddenly going to resolve all the political problems in Iraq. The problems run deep. Right now everyone supports elections because everyone expects to win.

In the recent presidential debate, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said we're winning. Are we?

I'm actually much more worried about the future in Iraq than McCain is, certainly. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have been saying that the security gains are fragile and reversible. We've made really significant improvements in security, and that's an amazing thing, if for no other reason than for the well-being of the Iraqi people. But right now Iraq is a political house of cards. There are so many unresolved issues and the risk of this house of cards collapsing is really quite high. We've talked about the provincial elections , the Sons of Iraq, and things like that, but there's also going to be issues of unemployment and a shattered economy. You have some five million refugees and displaced persons who are almost completely ignored in all of the Iraqi political debates. There are two million outside of the country and between two and three million displaced inside the country, who are really suffering from a lack of services and support from the Iraqi government. All of them are likely to be disenfranchised in these upcoming elections. Refugees outside of the country won't be allowed to vote, and the internally displaced will be allowed to vote, but the bureaucratic obstacles are so high that most of them probably won't.

There's a lot of things going on inside of Iraq right now which don't fit with any kind of premature declaration of victory, and we really need to pay close attention to where these things are going. When I look ahead at where Iraq might be going, I see two possible scenarios, neither of which is particularly pleasant. One is the kind of collapse where all of the different issues that are up in the air reach critical mass and things fall apart. But the other is in some ways more plausible and one which we need to think seriously about, which is the establishment of a fairly ordinary kind of Iraqi authoritarian system, like in other Arab states. You've got an oil-fueled rich government, and a huge, well-developed army, at a time when almost every other institution of civil society is in shambles. You've got a leader with a very thin political base, who is trying to recast himself as the champion of nationalism. And if Maliki is unable to present himself in that role, it just simply wouldn't surprise me if there were Iraqi officers who thought that they might.

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