U.S. leaders continue to voice confidence that a drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq will proceed as planned next summer, despite a recent spate of devastating bombings in Baghdad. But Sam Parker, an Iraq Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace, says al-Qaeda’s continued lethality is playing out against a shaky political backdrop, which could increase the Iraqi willingness to look to the United States for continued support, "especially on the intelligence side." Parker says the recent bombings could also have repercussions for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who will seek to maintain his hold on power when Iraqis go to the polls in national elections, scheduled for March. "The improvement of the security situation is the heart of his political appeal; all these attacks hurt him the most," says Parker. "That means that he also has to face the other side of that, which is to take the blame when things go wrong, even if the overall security situation is still good."
Iraq’s fragile security environment was highlighted on December 8 with a series of coordinated bombings that killed more than 120. Do these strikes alter the calculus of the planned U.S. drawdown of combat troops?
The fact is, despite all the security gains, Iraq still does face a very tenacious al-Qaeda threat, but it doesn’t face an insurgency anymore. And it will continue, like many states, to have a terrorism problem that’s going to be a challenge for it to deal with. One consequence of these past three bombings has been an increased willingness to look to the United States for support by the Iraqis, in trying to deal with these issues, especially on the intelligence side, and trying to get a picture of where the threats are and where their gaps are in their own security forces. So that support relationship will endure, and it could potentially endure beyond 2011.
"[There is] a mutual interest of every political [party] not aligned with Maliki to weaken him going into these elections, and particularly to hit him at his strongest point--on the security question."
You said al-Qaeda was responsible. But Maliki has blamed disenfranchised Baathists holed up in Syria. So to reiterate, are we clear on who is responsible?
The U.S. military says that it’s al-Qaeda, or really, [an umbrella group of al-Qaeda]. And then al-Qaeda itself, or the Islamic State of Iraq, says that they did it (AP). So that’s a lot pointing in favor of al-Qaeda. But then you look at Iraqi political actors, first of all Maliki. Maliki has every reason politically to play the anti-Baath card, especially among the Shia; it’s a winner from a domestic political standpoint. And certainly to the extent that he can point fingers at Syria or just deflect the blame for these attacks to anybody, he benefits from that. There are all sorts of domestic political incentives for him to go that route. The Iraqi political actors, depending on their perspectives, point fingers in multiple directions. Given all of that and all those incentives [to make politically charged allegations], I’m going to be comfortable sticking with the al-Qaeda explanation.
Senior military officials say this attack is indicative of a trend: a major attack followed by a couple of months of calm. Their analysis is that whoever is doing these attacks is weakened, and can’t plan more than one strike every couple of months. Your thoughts on that assessment?
First, you’ve got these staggered attacks, and the assessment that you gave about their capabilities points to that. Another thing is that inevitably in any institution, right after an attack, you’re going to have the incentive to tighten up so you don’t have another one again. But then [Iraqi security forces] get lax and things get loosened up and then these vulnerabilities come back. It’s also because when they tighten, that has this very negative effect on the life of your average Iraqi citizen in terms of checkpoints and [blast walls] and all these other extreme measures that are currently containing the al-Qaeda threat in Iraq. Maliki, earlier this year, had this big campaign to take down the [blast walls] in Iraq and then you had the huge August bombings that put a stop to that, or for the most part put a stop to that.
There have been allegations made against Maliki that he’s paying too much attention to his political future, and not enough on the task of protecting the public. What’s behind these claims?
Maliki is the most popular Iraqi politician on the Iraqi street, and the reason is because people believe his line--and I think with good reason--that he has been the strong leader that Iraq needed for a long time, that he’s brought Iraq back from the brink. This is a very exaggerated selling of it, but there’s an element of truth to it, too. And the improvement of the security situation is the heart of his political appeal. So all these [bombing] attacks hurt him the most. That means that he also has to face the other side of that, which is to take the blame when things go wrong, even if the overall security situation is still good. The issue [of blaming Maliki for politicizing security (NYT)] relates to this broader question of Maliki’s centralization of power into his own office and his undermining of the civilian institutions like the [Ministry of Interior] and [Ministry of Defense] that are responsible for security.
In Baghdad since January 2007, the Baghdad Operations Command, which is an Iraqi army entity that has direct ties to the prime minister’s office, has been in charge of all the [Iraqi Security Forces] including the police in Baghdad. The [Ministry of Interior] has lost a lot of authority and responsibility when it comes to security in Baghdad, and this has been [Interior Minister Jawad al-] Bolani’s point, as he’s saying, "We don’t have control anymore, and that’s why all these attacks are happening."
"[W]hen it comes to the issue of Kirkuk and the broader Arab-Kurd file, we are waiting until we get a new set of leaders in Baghdad before we can go forward with a big diplomatic push."
What does this rising opposition to Maliki’s security record say about his viability as a candidate?
Certainly everybody, particularly the opposing Shia parties, but really everybody, has an interest in weakening Maliki because he’s so popular and also because this narrative, which was accurate at the time, that he had this crushing victory [in the January 2009 provincial elections] is in many ways true. He did get three times as many votes as any other bloc. But that narrative has had this effect, as media reporting often does, of building on itself and getting stronger and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So now there’s this conception among the Iraqi political elite that he is hugely dominant. These are exaggerated perceptions leading to these worries, but [there is] a mutual interest of every political [party] not aligned with Maliki to weaken him going into these elections, and particularly to hit him at his strongest point--on the security question.
Let’s talk a little bit about the election law that passed this month (LAT) after a previous veto. Talk about the gap between November 8--the first veto--and the law that has emerged.
Much of the election law for months up until November 8 was focused on the question of Kirkuk and how to deal with it in the context of elections. The Arabs and Turkmen, the anti-Kurdish forces, were saying that the Kurds had flooded Kirkuk with a bunch of immigrants tilting the demographic balance in their favor and even that they had allegedly tampered with the voting registry, again designed to make Kirkuk more Kurdish. The only thing that the anti-Kurd side got was a mechanism in the law itself that stipulates or creates a mechanism for potential fraud to be investigated after the elections. But basically, like many of these issues, the fact that they remain unresolved at their heart means that lots of little things or lesser things like the elections law fall victim to it and that you have three months of wrangling with no real progress on the fundamental issues.
Because of the focus on Kirkuk, and because of the intense time pressure to pass a bill, you had a lot of Iraqi parliamentarians not realize what they were agreeing to. And there were issues that would have been better treated in the actual debate itself but because everybody was so focused on Kirkuk, they didn’t get to. This would first include the mechanism for dealing with the refugee vote. There was a stipulation for out-of-country voting for refugees, but the way those votes were counted was that they were only counted insofar as they contributed to that nationwide vote total, effectively not counted at all, a fraction in a fraction. So, say that there were fifteen million nationwide votes, and then a million refugees’ votes. When they distributed those compensatory seats, they would take those one million votes, add them together, determine the various party divisions between and then award the compensatory seats based on those ratios, on those totals. So it’s a really minimal way of counting refugee votes. And so Tareq al-Hashemi, the vice president, Sunni (and a lot of the out-of-country voters are Sunni), objected to this.
So the second iteration of the law did address some of these issues?
The big story of the second law was that it took the seats from the Sunnis and gave them to the Kurds, effectively. But then it also addressed the refugee issue in a way that they stuck with in the final iteration, which is very positive, which is now [that] refugees vote in the provinces that they come from. If you’re from Baghdad, then you vote on a Baghdad ballot.
Will the outcome of the March national elections have any impact on the status of Kirkuk?
In some ways yes. You will have a new government, and who knows what the composition will be. The Kurdish representation in it will be roughly the same, you will still have 20 percent to 22 percent Kurdish representation, who will still have the same ideas, the same maximalist ideas about Kirkuk and oil and all these other issues, that they already have. And it’s also very likely that, as is the case now, the Kurds will be part of the new government, and they will continue to be able to play the political game in Baghdad with great skill, and therefore have a lot of leverage to affect whatever ways the central government might try to address this problem. But when it comes to the issue of Kirkuk and the broader Arab-Kurd file, we are waiting until we get a new set of leaders in Baghdad before we can go forward with a big diplomatic push, and get the negotiated settlement process really going. Whoever the government is, we want to make sure we’re dealing with the right people, and the people that can follow through on these commitments.