ISW in Brief: Downward Spiral in Iraq

by Elizabeth O'Bagy

February 2, 2012

More than 400 people have died in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal in mid-December. Coupled with the political struggles that broke out days after U.S. troops departed, Iraq’s worsening instability leaves little hope for developments that could augur an end to the crisis. Politics in Iraq remain paralyzed as deliberations among Iraqi political factions and parties continue to falter, despite a promising sign with Iraqiyya’s return to Parliament. This backdrop has set the stage for armed conflict and the likelihood of sectarian war.  

Efforts to convene a National Conference to repair the political crisis lost momentum last week as President Jalal Talabani traveled to Germany to receive medical treatment. With Talabani out of the country, a number of provocative statements were issued by political leaders from all sides. State of Law members argued that there was no need for the National Conference because a political crisis did not exist. Instead, the bloc reportedly supports a series of meetings between political leaders to resolve what they characterize as personal disagreements. Meanwhile, firebrand Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement citing his refusal to participate in the conference because he is a religious figure, not a politician. This bodes poorly for the conference as Iraqiyya bloc leader Ayad Allawi conditioned his participation on the attendance of Sadr and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. Shortly after Talabani’s return from Germany on January 29, he met with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to revive preparations for the Conference. Following the meeting, both leaders reaffirmed the conference’s importance in solving the current political problems facing Iraq, though no tangible progress was made in outlining further preparations.   

As hopes for a National Conference dim, Iraqiyya leaders have discussed other alternatives to solving the political crisis, including opting out of the government and becoming a parliamentary opposition. The Iraqi media reported disagreements among the bloc’s leadership on how to proceed with regards to pulling out from the government, with Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and party leader Jamal Karbouli reportedly in favor of remaining in the government, Iraqiyya bloc leader Ayad Allawi and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in favor of establishing a political opposition. However, Iraqiyya claimed reports about division were false, and on January 29 announced that they would end their month-long boycott of Parliament. On January 31, the Iraqi parliament reconvened with the majority of members in attendance. Though the move does not signal the end of Iraq’s political crisis, it does mark the first positive sign that Iraq’s leaders may yet halt the sectarian conflict that has raised fears of civil war.

Iraq’s political crisis has also continued to increase tensions with its neighbors.  On January 25, a number of statements inflamed the current rift between Iraq and Turkey. Tribal leaders in Najaf province issued a joint statement that called for Baghdad to stop the export of oil through Turkish territory until Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for his criticism of Maliki’s recent political choices. In addition, Iraqi Vice President Khudhair Khuza’i told the Turkish ambassador that Erdogan’s comments were “inciting” and “not constituting a friendship” between the two countries. Meanwhile, Erdogan refused to apologize and continued to express his concerns about Iraq’s direction, saying, “We can’t remain silent, if you [Maliki] start a process of sectarian conflict.” But as some government officials on both sides continue to exacerbate the tenuous situation, others have sought to mend relations. ISCI leader and Shi’a religious cleric Ammar al-Hakim visited Turkey on January 26, meeting with President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.  Hakim stated that both sides are in need of efforts to “strengthen our bonds of friendship.”

Recent comments from Iran also incited controversy in Iraq. Iraqi politicians were outraged following Iranian Al-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani statement that that Iraq was in “one way or another” under Iranian influence and “subject to the control” of Iran. Though the Iranian government denied it, saying that Suleimani’s Arabic quote was translated incorrectly, politicians from all sides of the Iraqi political spectrum reacted in anger. However, despite the fury coming from parliament, a harsh response from the Iraqi government has been noticeably absent. While the Iraqi Foreign Ministry posted a statement on its website criticizing neighboring countries for trying to intervene in Iraqi affairs and showing a “lack of respect for Iraqi sovereignty,” Maliki has remained silent on the issue. In response, Iraqiyya spokesman Haider al-Mullah denounced the Iraqi government for its “double standard” in dealing with neighboring countries, pointing out Maliki’s hard-line attitude towards Turkey’s recent comments compared to its lack of response to Iran.

With little incentive for leaders to compromise or reconcile, it remains unlikely that Iraqi politicians will be able to come together to build a stable and functional political system as envisioned by the National Conference.  Unless Iraq can establish a new process to address its political problems, the country will likely be pushed towards civil war or state failure. This will open the gates for foreign influence to the ultimate detriment of Iraqi and U.S. interest in the region.

Elizabeth O'Bagy is a Research Intern at ISW.