Iraq's New Sectarian Storm Clouds
At stake is the vote of what might be called the Shiite "silent majority." Nearly all Kurds will vote for the Kurdish alliance in Iraq's north, giving the Kurdish parties about 20 percent of the seats in the 325-member Parliament. And the vast majority of Sunni voters are guaranteed to vote for one of the Sunni-led parties or for secularists like Allawi. So Maliki and the INA are competing for the Shiite vote. And Iraq analysts say there is probably a big chunk of Shiite voters--especially among the middle class, the educated elite, shopkeepers and capital-intensive farmers in the south--who aren't happy with the religious parties and who blame Maliki for his failure to improve the economy or deliver services. Like the McCarthyite Republicans of the 1950s, who tried to tar liberals and leftists with charges of sympathy for communism, Maliki has apparently decided that scaring his base with the fear of a Baathist comeback is his best option.
Until this past August, Maliki had hoped to base his re-election campaign on a carefully cultivated strongman image, trumpeting the idea that his US-trained security forces had defeated militias and terrorists. "His political strategy was to go for the Schwarzenegger image," says Charles Ries of the RAND Corporation, an ex-ambassador who served in the US Embassy in Baghdad. But a series of devastating car- and truck-bomb attacks that leveled huge portions of downtown Baghdad in August, October and January, destroying the foreign ministry, the finance ministry and other government landmarks, demolished Maliki's credibility as a security candidate.
Maliki's problem now is that even if he manages to do well in the election--in part by taking advantage of his ability to use state funds, the media and even the Iraqi armed forces on his behalf--neither he nor the INA will be able to claim legitimacy if the vote is marred by bans, purges and a Sunni boycott. Like President Ahmadinejad in Iran and President Karzai in Afghanistan, both suffering after fraud-stained elections, a Maliki-INA-Kurdish alliance ruling Iraq again would be unstable at best. "I don't have any doubt that if Maliki is willing to kiss and make up with the [INA] and do a devil's deal with the Kurds, then he can form a government," says David Mack, a retired US Foreign Service officer who served twice in Iraq. "But it will be an unstable one, because it doesn't do anything to heal the rift between the Shia religious parties and the Sunni and Shia secular groups."
And if another lethal insurgency erupts, pitting Sunnis, dissidents, Baathists and even a revived Al Qaeda in Iraq against the government, countrywide violence could draw Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others into the fight. After all, Iran is not the only country backing allies in Iraqi politics; Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states are, on a smaller scale, backing Allawi and various Sunni candidates, an Iraqi source reports. "The Saudis don't operate directly," he says. "They operate through a route of deniability, using Lebanese businessmen, environmental charities, an assortment of princes and so on."
At its core, the crisis in Iraq is also a struggle between Iran and the United States for influence in Iraq and across the oil-rich Persian Gulf. As the United States withdraws its forces, and as Iran builds up political, military and economic influence, Iraq will likely be pulled into Iran's orbit. "It's almost like watching gravity work," says CAP's Brian Katulis. Barring the outbreak of civil war, the most likely outcome of a rigged election in Iraq would look very much like the coalition that governs Iraq today, but it would be even more closely aligned with Tehran. "I think we'll see an increasingly authoritarian regime with close ties to Iran," says Visser.
As the deadline for pulling US forces out of Iraq gets closer, American influence is likely to wane. The fact that Biden, Petraeus, Odierno and Hill couldn't persuade Maliki to reverse the Chalabi-imposed ban is a sign that the United States is no longer calling the shots in Baghdad. In fact, there is rising awareness in Washington about the inevitability of Iran's growing power in Iraq, coupled with the realization that there is little or nothing the United States can do to reverse it.
Many of the Iraqi politicians opposed to the Shiite-Iranian alliance in Iraq want the United States to halt its withdrawal and throw its weight behind them, if only to checkmate Iranian influence. So far, at least, there is little sign of that. During Allawi's last visit to Washington, well-connected friends tried to get him an appointment at the White House with Denis McDonough, one of Obama's top advisers at the National Security Council, but the White House rebuffed Allawi. "I told them, 'You're dissing the man who could be Iraq's next prime minister,'" says Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Obama, most recently in his State of the Union address, pledged once again that US forces in Iraq, now at 98,000, would fall to 50,000 by August, and that all American troops would leave Iraq. Among other things, the Pentagon needs those troops for its growing presence in Afghanistan. That provides an even greater incentive for a US-Iranian accord that would extend beyond the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program to include Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism. But the Iranians, who are expert chess players, know that their ability to make things in Iraq better--or worse--for the United States gives them important leverage over Washington. Having few moves to make, Obama has no choice but to follow through on the US commitment to get out of Iraq.