U.S. Intervention in Iraqi Politics

Washington’s opposition to the Shiites’ nomination for prime minister highlights the growing strain in U.S.-Shiite relations in Iraq. The reaction of some Shiite leaders suggests U.S. influence in Iraq may be on the wane.

March 30, 2006

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:

Iraq

Democratization

This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The United States is viewed in Iraq as either indispensable broker or main irritant to the political process underway. But its influence has rarely been questioned, until recently. Washington shares the view held by many experts that forming a national unity government can start a process in which Iraq becomes more secure and economic development has a chance to succeed. The threat posed by sectarian conflict undermines this vision and experts say U.S. alarm at militias run by majority Shiites has prompted more U.S. involvement in the Iraqi government talks. Relations have recently worsened between the United States and the religious Shiite bloc that received the most votes in the December national elections, with Washington reportedly voicing its disapproval of the renomination of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister. The Bush administration’s objection to Jaafari may be an indication that the United States feels its influence over Iraq’s political developments is waning, experts say. Others point to the White House’s mounting frustration and impatience with the stalled political process in Baghdad.

What is the role of the United States in Iraq’s political process?

Since the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad last year, the United States has played an active behind-the-scenes role in pushing leaders of Iraq’s three main constituencies—the Shiites, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds—to form an inclusive coalition government. The process has been slowed by the Shiites’ renomination of Prime Minister Jaafari, an unpopular figure among Kurds, Sunnis, and secular Shiites. U.S. officials reportedly tried to relay a message to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior religious cleric, to intervene and help clear the political logjam. Some Iraqi officials have accused the United States of overstepping its bounds and interfering too much in Iraq’s political affairs while others say U.S. involvement is essential to ensuring the formation of a national unity government. "They are the referee," says Howar Ziad, Iraq’s ambassador to Canada. U.S. officials, for their part, claim they favor no particular candidate for any post, including that of prime minister. The White House denies recent reports that President Bush wrote a letter to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), calling for Jaafari’s ouster.

Is the United States losing influence over political events in Iraq?

"We still have substantial influence but we don’t have control and never have had as much control as we thought we had," says Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Military and Security Studies Program. "And it’ll only wane further as we draw down our forces in the coming years." No political figures—Iraqis or Americans alike—appear in control of the situation on the ground in Iraq, particularly with the rise of sectarian militias, argues Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service. "All parties are having trouble restraining their minions," he says. Part of U.S. frustrations are reflected by Khalilzad’s strategy in recent months to take what seems like a more pro-Sunni stance, which has resulted in a worsening of relations with the Shiite leadership. "Since February, it’s been pretty downhill," Katzman says. Washington has reportedly strengthened ties with leaders from the political blocs of Kurds, Sunnis, and secular Shiites—including Prime Minister Ayad Allawi—to prevent Iraq’s Shiite-led government from becoming too heavily influenced by religion or reliant on Iran.

A recent proposal floated in Baghdad would allow members of parliament to directly pick the prime minister. That would supplant the role of the ruling party, in this case the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a religious Shiite bloc, to nominate a premier. Presumably, this would increase the chances of a candidate outside the UIA from winning the nomination. Yet Phebe Marr, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says Washington may be focusing too much attention on the post of premier, instead of addressing the government’s structural problems. "I have to wonder whether we and others are pinning too much hope on a single individual," she says. "We have no institutions, no capacity to mobilize, and no real government in Baghdad to get something done. It’s a structural problem that will take some time to correct."

Why does the United States oppose Jaafari?

Experts say Jaafari, Iraq’s prime minister since last April, is seen by the United States as an ineffectual politician with poor management and leadership skills. Others say he is unpopular because his positions on a number of key issues run counter to Washington’s. Leader of Iraq’s Dawa Party, an Islamist party with close ties to Iran, Jaafari has been criticized for not breaking up Iraq’s Shiite-led militias, including the group led by radical Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr, who—with thirty-two seats in parliament—was influential in getting Jaafari renominated. Sadr’s Mahdi Army, in addition to the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of SCIRI, is accused of infiltrating Iraq’s Interior Ministry, organizing death squads, and waging sectarian warfare against Sunnis. Meanwhile, Kurds accuse Jaafari of stalling a plebiscite, agreed upon under Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), to decide whether Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that is ethnically mixed but claimed by Kurds, should become officially part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The final status of Kirkuk must be decided by December 2007, according to the TAL.

Who does the United States favor for prime minister?

Experts say the two candidates most often discussed as suitable substitutes for Jaafari are:

  • Adel Abdul Mahdi. A trained economist and former finance minister from SCIRI, Mahdi is the most likely replacement for Jaafari. He lost the UIA’s secret ballot for prime minister to Jaafari by one vote. "He’s seen as more mainstream and Western educated," Katzman says. "He’s also more pro-Western even though his SCIRI ties present obvious problems." A proponent of free markets, Mahdi is Washington’s preferred candidate. He is less of a Shiite nationalist than Jaafari, though many of his political views do not parallel Washington’s. He favors greater federalism and an Islamic-style democracy, but some experts say Mahdi may be steered away from SCIRI’s religious leanings. Still, USIP’s Marr urges caution. "It’s a chimera if the administration thinks that Mahdi is the magic bullet to pull this [political process] together," she says.
  • Hussein Sharistani. A leading Shiite and deputy parliamentary speaker, Sharistani is seen as a compromise candidate agreeable to most factions in parliament. The former nuclear physicist has close ties to Ayatollah Sistani but is not tied to any political party per se—or political base, for that matter, say experts. Others say he’s an academic with little political experience who lacks a strong enough personality for Iraqi politics. When his name was floated as a candidate for prime minister following the December 15 elections, he appeared uninterested in the post.

Two other candidates whose names have come up are Kasim Daoud, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s national security adviser and a member of Allawi’s Iraqi National List, and Ali Allawi, a moderate Shiite, former finance minister, and cousin to Ahmed Chalabi.

What other issues are troubling relations between the U.S. and the Shiite-led government in Iraq?

The most sensitive issue, in light of the spike in sectarian violence, is the increased role of militias, some of which appear to have the government’s blessing, experts say. Khalilzad told reporters that militias, not the insurgency, present the greatest long-term security threat in Iraq. Washington has pressured leaders to give the post of Interior Minister to a candidate not compromised by ties to sectarian militias. Khalilzad also threatened to withhold U.S. financial assistance if Iraq’s Shiite leaders refuse to include more Sunnis in its government. Vali Nasr, an adjunct senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a February 2006 New York Times op-ed that "the American policy of pushing the Shiites to compromise with Sunnis will only backfire."

What has been the Shiite response to U.S. criticisms?

There has been rising criticism from religious Shiite leaders in response to recent U.S. statements on their inability to form a national unity government. The Badr Organization, a political wing of SCIRI, called for Ambassador Khalilzad’s dismissal, while other Shiites have accused him of supporting the Sunni-led insurgency. Some Shiite leaders refer to U.S. policy as a "second betrayal," referring to the revolts by Shiites and Kurds in 1991 following the first Gulf War and the U.S. military’s refusal to intervene when Saddam put them down. The result of this recent downturn in U.S.-Shiite relations has been an increase in Shiite support, even among some moderates, for Sadr and his radical brand of anti-U.S. politics. Jaafari says Sadr, given his increase in power, should be brought into the political fold. In 2004, Sadr led a pair of revolts against U.S. forces in Najaf before agreeing to a ceasefire. "Shiites also see American policy as unduly influenced by Sunni rulers in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who have been aggressively lobbying Washington for a greater Sunni role in running Iraq," Nasr writes.

Why are U.S. officials meeting with Iran to discuss Iraq?

The Bush administration has cleared U.S. officials in Baghdad to open negotiations with Iran on issues related to Iraq, including Iran’s support for Shiite militias, its role as a supplier of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to the Iraqi insurgency, and the stalled political process and recent spike in sectarian violence. "It’s in neither of our interests to see things spin out of control," Eisenstadt says. If [negotiating directly with Iran] achieves our objectives, I’m all for it." No date has been set for the start of such talks.

More on:

Iraq

Democratization

Up
Close

Explore More on CFR

Russia

A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, we unexpectedly find ourselves in a second one. The United States and its partners have a large stake in greater Russian restraint while Vladimir Putin remains in power—and in a Russia characterized by other than Putinism after he is gone.

China

Food and Water Security

A historic dry spell has severely affected Cape Town's water supply, and global climate patterns suggest that other cities may face the same fate.