It’s not going well in Iraq.
Violence in Iraq might not yet be at Syria-type levels, where a full-scale civil war has left as many as 60,000 dead since 2011, but the latest reports from Baghdad say that 4,471 civilians died in Iraq in 2012. That’s up from 4.059 in 2011—and it looks like things will be getting a lot worse in 2013.
Heckuva success, W!
Ten years after the neoconservative-led invasion of Iraq—which, it must be noted, was a war of aggression against an innocent country that had no ties to terrorism, no WMD, and which had never attacked the United States—Iraq is still in chaos. And the war in Syria, next door, has helped to reignite the Sunni-led insurgency in northern and western Iraq, especially in Mosul and in Anbar Province.
An increasingly authoritarian regime under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has intensified a crackdown against dissent, whether peaceful or not. Since the departure of the last American forces at the end of 2011, Maliki has tilted sharply toward Iran. He launched phony terrorism charges against Iraq’s Sunni vice president, freed a Shiite-Hezbollah terrorist against US wishes, allowed Iran to ferry supplies through Iraq at will to aid Tehran’s ally in Damascus, and now he’s initiated a political jihad against the Sunni finance minister of Iraq. If Maliki had any intention of trying to maintain a balance between the United States and Iran, it appears that he’s given up trying to do so. The potential collapse of President Assad’s government in Syria would bring to power a Sunni power in Damascus, in which the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical elements, including Al Qaeda, would have traction. Already, Syria’s Sunnis are coordinating with Iraq’s anti-Maliki Sunnis in a manner that is driving Baghdad and Tehran closer together.
The attack on the finance minister provoked massive, peaceful demonstrations in parts of Iraq, including Anbar, and Maliki is threatening to use force against the protesters. Meanwhile, more radical groups in Iraq have over the past year or so carried out wave after wave of car bombings and assassinations that have left hundreds dead.
Sounding like Assad, and like Egypt’s Mubarak earlier, Maliki is blaming conspiracies and foreign elements for the protests, including “enemies of the political process, the armed terrorist groups and the remnants of the former regime,” even though the protests have been led by many thousands of ordinary Iraqis. Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious-minded Shiite cleric who’s been a thorn in Maliki’s side for years, is tilting nationalist once again, threatening to support the anti-Maliki protests. “The Iraqi spring is coming,” he said. That’s a portentous comment, since it was support from Sadr that allowed Maliki to assemble his ruling majority in parliament.
Writing in The National Interest, Henri J. Barkey notes that the war next door in Syria gravely threatens Maliki’s control:
Today Iraq is held together by a shoestring. Violence is on the upsurge, and Maliki is increasingly demonstrating his authoritarian tendencies as he pushes forward with an agenda that has not won him any friends in the region. The Saudis have not given him much quarter and would like to see him go. He has made an enemy of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as each accuses the other of putting sectarian interests ahead of regional interests and stability. Turks provided refuge to the Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who escaped following his indictment on charges of helping Sunni death squads to operate in Baghdad. This increasing regional rift may be music to the ears of many Iraqi Sunnis, who have been heard saying, in effect, “the Ottomans are back in Istanbul, the Umayyad are about to re-conquer Damascus, and next Sunni Abbasid power will return to Baghdad.”
And he concludes: “A Sunni victory in Damascus will necessarily mean a shift in the regional sectarian balance of power.”
It’s even more complicated, because the Kurds, who’ve carved out a semi-independent fiefdom in northern Iraq, may revive their bid for outright independence. In the middle of it all is Exxon, which is inexplicably trying to drill for oil in territory that is hotly contested between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs. As The Washington Post reported last month:
Although leaders on both sides are negotiating a walk back from the brink, they also say their armies could easily be provoked into battle. One of the most sensitive tripwires is Exxon, which is preparing to drill for oil in the disputed territories at the heart of the military standoff. Iraq’s two most explosive political conflicts — over land and oil — are primed to combust.
“The prime minister has been clear: If Exxon lays a finger on this territory, they will face the Iraqi army,” said Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament and confidant of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “We don’t want war, but we will go to war, for oil and for Iraqi sovereignty.”
The Kurds are moving closer to Sunni-led Turkey, which has enormous interest in Syria and Iraq. And if the Kurdish Regional Government sees Sunni power gaining in Iraq and Syria, it might join with Turkey to worsen the split against Maliki. As Barkey writes:
Although the KRG has no intention at the present time of initiating a process that would lead to de jure independence and hence the formal territorial breakup of Iraq, it will not shy away from declaring independence were Iraq to fall victim to centrifugal forces emanating from the Sunni-Shi‘a conflict.
There’s not much that the United States can do about any of this. The best that could happen would be a US-Iran agreement over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, which might allow a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. That would ease the intensity of the Sunni-Shia split in the region. In Washington, some foolish strategists seems to believe that the United States might gain by helping to assemble a Sunni regional bloc against Iran and its remaining allies, but that’s stupid for two reasons: first, it would likely lead to war; and second, the Sunnis, including the rising Muslim Brotherhood, ain’t too friendly either to the United States or Israel. A regional bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t something that Washington should envision building on.
As secretary of state, where would John Kerry take US foreign policy? Check out our editors’ “Tough Questions for John Kerry” in this week’s issue.