Potential ’Political Chaos’ in Iraq
from Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

Potential ’Political Chaos’ in Iraq

As the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq this month, an emerging political battle among the country’s top leaders has raised concerns over its stability. It underscores the difficult road ahead for the fragile democracy and potential for greater violence, says CFR’s Ned Parker.

December 28, 2011 10:33 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

On December 19, the day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki announced an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (Reuters), a Sunni leader. With the departure of U.S. troops, "leaders like Maliki are seeing how far they can push their power," says Ned Parker, CFR’s Edward R. Murrow press fellow. Parker, who recently served as the Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, warns of political chaos ahead in Iraq. The political battle between Maliki and Hashimi, he says, underscores how the different sides have failed to agree on a new social contract. Parker adds that even though the United States still has influence in Iraq, it appears loath to use it. "The only thing that, perhaps, will push all sides to compromise is the fear of chaos," he says.

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Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a leading Sunni, is a representative of the Iraqiya party, which won the most votes in the 2010 elections. Is the attempt to arrest him a sign of political chaos in the country?

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There’s potential for chaos. There’s a political vacuum. Now that American force[s] [are] gone, leaders like Maliki are seeing how far they can push their power. Prime Minister Maliki deeply distrusts the vice president, sees him as a Sunni extremist, and he wants to eliminate him or weaken him. As soon as the Americans were out the door, he moved to arrest him. It’s a test of power.

Hashimi, who was in Kurdistan when this happened, says he’s not returning to Baghdad until the arrest warrant is rescinded. What’s going to happen?

It’s impossible to know what will happen. None of the political players trust one another and they see politics really as a zero-sum game. They are prisoners of the past so they see their opponents not just as political rivals who can push them out of office, but as people who might kill them or imprison them. So that makes it hard to compromise.

No one is all-powerful in Iraq, neither the prime minister nor the opposition, so that makes it hard for either group to win. That’s also dangerous because it does create a vacuum where it’s not clear how anyone backs down, and it provides space for armed groups and extremists to exploit the vacuum to try to create chaos.

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Going forward--because no one can truly win--it’s likely that all sides will find ways to paper over this recent conflict, but the prime minister will feel that he has emerged more powerful. What Iraqiya achieves or wins is not clear. The only thing that perhaps will push all sides to compromise is the fear of chaos.

Over the weekend, the political bloc of Muqtada al- Sadr, who helped put Maliki in power, called for new elections. How does that play into these events?

Politics in Iraq is a nasty game; sometimes it seems the leaders are like [out of the] "Godfather," a collection of crime families getting together. The Sadrists have never loved Maliki; Maliki has never loved them but they saw that they could have a marriage of mutual convenience, and that’s really what their relationship is.

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In 2008, Maliki was able to be seen as a nationalist figure because he ordered his troops to attack the Sadrists. In 2010, after the elections, he brokered a deal with them so he could stay in power. In return for that, the Sadrists received ministries with lucrative finances. They had members of their movement, who had been imprisoned for violent crimes, amnestied even though there was no legal basis for their amnesties.

When you hear the head of Sadr’s political bloc, Baha’a al-Araji, issuing a statement calling for new elections, it’s as much a shake-down as it is a real call to arms. It’s more a rumble to see what else the Sadrists can get from Maliki.

Earlier this month, Maliki visited the White House and President Obama called Iraq a "sovereign, self-reliant and democratic state." Is it a democracy or is that just political rhetoric?

It is political rhetoric, just as [statements that] this current administration has lost Iraq can be considered political rhetoric. I don’t think America has ever won in Iraq, and whether Iraq will be stable shall be determined in this coming period.

Politics in Iraq is a nasty game; sometimes it seems the leaders are [out of the] " Godfather," a collection of crime families getting together.

But what we’re seeing now with the political battle between Prime Minister Maliki and Vice President Hashimi is underscoring how much needs to be done, how the sides have not agreed at all upon a new social contract, how they’re very much still fighting the wars of the past, and how the potential is there for these struggles to blow up in violence if the sides aren’t careful. It’s a very real and dangerous threat.

Is Maliki popular?

Maliki has lost popularity because his government has failed to deliver. Most Iraqis see their politicians as a corrupt class, [which] has failed to deliver security, jobs, and better [social] services. He has not been able to separate himself from this phenomenon.

You’ve been living in Iraq on and off since the war began in 2003. What’s the United States’ influence there since the departure of the troops?

America has influence. Evidently, it’s less, given that [the] troops have left, but America still has much soft power from the sales of weapons to Iraq, the need of Iraqi counterterrorism forces to work with U.S. Special Forces. Then there’s the issue of America helping Iraq with investment, getting foreign companies in, and the issue of ending Iraq’s Chapter Seven status at the UN, which prevents Iraq from having its full sovereignty because Iraq continues to pay reparations to Kuwait. So there are many ways that the United States can help Iraq.

In terms of influence, it’s a question of how America uses it and how it leverages it. Even when America had U.S. forces in Iraq, particularly in the last three years, America has been very reluctant to use its influence or clout to the maximum.

But the United States helped to put together the current coalition government in Iraq, right?

Exactly. And that’s an example, and even in recent days you’ve seen that Maliki has met with the new head of the CIA, General David Petraeus; he’s met with General Raymond Odierno who’s the U.S. Army chief of staff. America is still very much a player; it’s just a question of how does it want to use its soft power.

America’s often played the part of choosing winners and losers in Iraq, and in a sense continues to do so by backing Maliki.

America can take the stance, which it does at times, that we should not interfere; these are decisions for Iraqis to make. In a sense, America’s policy is schizophrenic because, as you pointed out, in November 2010, America helped broker the deal that formed the current government, but then it backed off from ensuring [its] implementation. There’s a limit to what any country can do to ensure [the] implementation of an internal agreement of another country, but America’s often played the part of choosing winners and losers in Iraq, and in a sense continues to do so by backing Maliki. So on the one hand America says, "Oh, we can’t interfere, these are decisions for Iraqis to make," but then on the other hand, America will do things such as help broker the deal that forms the government.

Former prime minister Ayad Allawi led the Iraqiya bloc in last year’s elections and was supposed to get some kind of a national security job, but he seems to have disappeared.

The Iraqiya bloc is a very broad coalition and everyone else in his bloc got a concrete position, so that put him at a disadvantage. Now the vice president is looking at possible time in prison, then you’ve got Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, whom the prime minister is trying to [remove from power]. Several of the senior members of the list who have significant followings have major positions in the government, and that was the case from last November when the deal was brokered for a government, and Allawi was supposed to receive this position of head of [the] strategic council for higher policies. Allawi’s been in and out of the country, but Maliki has effectively marginalized him at times. Allawi has said he does not want the cabinet position because the prime minister has not been sincere in giving it to him. Some of Allawi’s critics would say he hasn’t been able to use his popular clout to ensure that he had a real position in the government. It’s a debate whether or not Allawi’s been an effective player, whether Maliki’s outsmarted him, or whether he’s been his own worst enemy.


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