Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 1, December 15-19, 2011.

Last week, a troubling political crisis emerged in Baghdad that has placed Iraq on a worrisome path that could potentially unravel and threaten its stability. The speed at which developments are moving and the seemingly impulsive reactions and counter-reactions by actors are a testament to Iraq’s political insecurity and unpredictable environment. The political crisis, which is the most severe since 2007, comes immediately after the U.S. ended to its military presence in Iraq and entered into a normal bilateral relationship. Despite the gradual decline of combat missions since 2009, the U.S. military’s presence still served a peacekeeping and pacifying role in Iraq. In northern Iraq, U.S. troops had deterred potential physical confrontation between Arab and Kurdish forces over disputed territories. However, the U.S. presence had more importantly provided a psychological effect that helped stabilize and bound Iraqi political discourse within expected behavior. Their premature removal from the political space has altered the manner in which Iraq’s actors interact with and behave towards one another. Hence, the withdrawal and subsequent turmoil could have profound consequences for Iraq. While the details and origins of the crisis remain murky at best, the following is a brief summary and analysis of the events that have unfolded and what is likely to follow.

Timeline of Political Crisis

December 15: Tanks and government forces under the control of Maliki surrounded the residence of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab and senior politician from the Iraqiyya bloc. Two of his guards were arrested and beaten, forcing false confessions that allegedly implicate Hashemi on terrorism charges of being involved in the attack on the parliament in late November. Reports also surfaced that tanks were placed at the end of the street of Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a Sunni Arab and prominent Iraqiyya politician.

December 16: Maliki’s political allies threatened a vote of no-confidence of Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq in parliament for his criticism of Maliki during a recent CNN interview. Mutlaq had accused the prime minister for moving the country toward a dictatorship while Maliki was in Washington, DC. Ambassador James Jeffrey met with both Mutlaq and Hashemi, and Vice President Joe Biden called Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. An “emergency meeting” was held between Iraqiyya lawmakers in Hashemi’s residence to discuss the bloc’s next move.

December 17: Iraqiyya suspended its participation in parliamentary sessions due to the recent intimidation campaign by Maliki and the use of armed groups by the central government to intimidate and harass Sunni Arabs in Diyala province. Soon after, Maliki requested that the parliament hold a no-confidence vote to unseat Mutlaq as deputy prime minister. An arrest warrant was supposedly issued by Maliki against Hashemi for the terror plot in the parliament.

December 18: Government forces de-board Hashemi from a plane to Sulamaniya, where he was traveling for a meeting with President Jalal Talabani. He is later allowed to re-board the plane, allegedly after Talabani intervenes. Five of Hashemi’s guards were arrested by government forces. Vice President Khudar Kuzai, a Maliki ally, traveled with Hashemi. Issawi and Mutlaq were also reportedly de-boarded from a plane to Arbil on their way to meet with Barzani. Maliki agreed to give Hashemi his request of two days to prove his innocence against accusations of financing the terrorist attack on parliament.

December 19: Maliki reportedly bans Mutlaq from the Council of Ministers. Five judges sign off on arrest warrant for Hashemi, citing that confessions by his bodyguards linked the vice president to acts of terrorism. Hashemi and Khuzai arrive in Arbil from Sulamaniya to meet with Barzani.

Diyala’s Turn The growing appeal from Sunni Arab provinces to embrace federalism is a direct response to Baghdad’s growing consolidation of power and resources at the expense of the governorates. The conspiracy-driven arrest campaign of mostly former Sunni members of the Ba’ath party in late October prompted the provincial council of Salah ad-Din to exercise Article 119 of the Iraq Constitution, which lays out the process of forming federal regions by holding a provincial referendum. On December 12, Diyala became the second Sunni Arab majority governorate to successfully declare its intent to establish a semi-autonomous region, intensifying the long-simmering Sunni and Shi’a tensions. Located along the Iranian border, Diyala’s mixed ethnic makeup includes a sizeable Shi’a minority. Shi’a Islamist parties have been far more aggressive in demonstrating their opposition toward Diyala’s decision to carry out Article 119 than in Salah ad-Din, which is predominantly Sunni. Sadrist Member of Parliamen Baha al-Araji accused the provincial council in acting in a provocative manner and suggested it was following “foreign agendas.” The Sadrist bloc had even encouraged the Shi’a residents to take to the streets in protest of the provincial council’s decision. The Iraqiyya bloc accused the central government of supporting unofficial armed groups in Diyala in order to intimidate the provincial council for embracing federalism. On December 15, Diyala Governor Abd al-Nasser al-Mahdawi, a member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, stated that armed gunmen had attacked the provincial headquarters. While it remains unclear the role of the central government with regards to intimidating Diyala officials, the decision to establish autonomy from Maliki has inflamed tensions between rival sectarian blocs in Baghdad.

Maliki’s Hostility Toward Hashemi The motivations behind the current hostility between Maliki and Vice President Hashemi are still unclear. Though both men have always viewed one another with suspicion and mistrust, it appears that Maliki has two separate rationales that have prompted him to aggressively target Hashemi by deploying tanks to surround his residence and arresting several of his bodyguards. Both allegations appear exaggerated. Maliki’s opportunistic recognitions and ongoing efforts to consolidate power and marginalize his political opponents are most likely serving as the underlying logic in his decision-making.

Assassination Plot: The Maliki government is accusing Hashemi of allegedly financing a recent terrorist attack. In early December, the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) suggested that the November 28 attack on the parliament was aimed at assassinating the prime minister. The BOC first implied that Speaker Nujaifi, a senior Iraqiyya politician, was complicit because video evidence showed the bomber drove directly behind Nujaifi’s vehicle in order to receive entrance privilege. Iraqiyya, however, stated that the assassination attempt was against Nujaifi himself. Regardless of the questionable evidence, or lack thereof, the ease at which the accusations are being made by the central government is unprecedented.

Instigating Federalism: During an interview with Niqash published just days before tanks surrounded his residence, Hashemi responded to a question regarding the establishment of federal regions by mentioning that the “people in the central and southern areas” are demanding to exercise federalism “because they are unwilling to accept further injustice, corruption and bad management from the central government.”3 It appears that soon after making his comments, Hashemi was accused of instigating federalism movements in the Shi’a south. A statement issued by Hashemi’s media office rejected the allegation that he called for the southern Shi’a provinces to announce a federal region. Hashemi’s statement maintained that the decision to form federal regions is entirely dependent on the inhabitants of the provinces and that any reports to the contrary have no credibility. Nevertheless, Maliki’s recent efforts to intimidate Hashemi may be one way the prime minister is seeking to suppress the growing calls to establish federal regions.

Iraqiyya’s Miscalculation An “emergency meeting” was held by Iraqiyya lawmakers in Hashemi’s residence in the late hours of December 16 to discuss the bloc’s next move in light of the recent developments, particularly the unofficial armed groups operating in Diyala and the deployment of government forces and tanks to intimidate Iraqiyya members in the Green Zone. The next day, Iraqiyya announced the suspension of its participation in parliamentary sessions. The bloc expressed its dissatisfaction with of the government’s policies of marginalization, politicization of the judiciary, and the lack of equality in Iraq’s institutions, neglect of the constitution and its laws, and the uses of intimidation tactics to terrify the citizenry of Iraq. Threats of withdrawal by Iraqi political groups have usually been effective in the past when their backing was critical to the authority of another participatory actor, often the prime minister. Concessions would be offered in return for continued support for which Maliki calculated as necessary at the time. Yet, Iraqiyya’s suspension in parliament appears to be executed hastily, and without an adequate appreciation for either the bloc’s weak position or the diminished role of parliament as a decision-making body of government. The executive branch has consolidated much authority at the expense of parliament and has cultivated a pliable judiciary. For some time, Maliki has been able to govern through his ministers and effectively marginalize opponents without parliament’s consent. It is by no surprise that Maliki recognized an opening following Iraqiyya’s unilateral move to suspend participation and requested the parliament to carry out a vote of no-confidence to unseat Deputy Prime Minister Mutlaq in response to his comments about Maliki in a media interview.6 In effect, Maliki has created political leverage vis-à-vis Mutlaq and Iraqiyya, regardless of whether or not he has the votes to achieve this initiative.

Possible Courses of Action

A Renewed Push for Federalism: Unlike the governorates of Salah ad-Din and Diyala, both Ninawa and Anbar province have not yet declared the intention to establish a federal region. However, both provinces have threatened to exercise Article 119 should the prime minister continue on his path of consolidating power and targeting Sunni Arabs in their areas. Should further provinces decide to embrace federalism, the political crisis would worsen dramatically and likely force Maliki to take drastic measures, possibly involving the deployment of security forces to threaten provincial leaders. Ironically, this response is only likely to further intensify calls for establishing federal regions, perpetuating a cycle of societal fragmentation and regionalization that threatens to divide Iraq along sectarian identities.

Hashemi’s Arrest, Mutlaq’s Removal: Either one of these potential political events will inflame the crisis to a dangerous level, with implications on security. It is uncertain, however, whether Maliki actually intends to carry out the initiatives against Hashemi and Mutlaq. Maliki may prefer to have the threat lingering in the background in order to manipulate the behavior of both Sunni actors and to coerce them into choosing Maliki’s favored outcome. Maliki perhaps recognizes that either arresting or removing the Iraqiyya leaders would work against him on the federalism issue, which represents a strategic threat to Maliki’s power and control of resources. The BOC’s decision to cancel the supposed investigation of the terrorist attack on the parliament may have coincided with Maliki’s decision to allow Hashemi forty-eight hours to prove his innocence.7 Mediation Efforts: Thus far, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrist bloc, and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari have offered to mediate between Iraqiyya and the State of Law coalition.8 Given Hashemi’s visit to Sulamaniya to speak with President Talabani and the reported visits to Barzani by other senior Iraqiyya officials, the Kurds appear to have already adopted a mediating role in calming tensions and bringing both sides to arranged negotiations. The Kurdish bloc is likely the only third actor that is able to credibly mediate between the two blocs. Given the lack of U.S. leverage, the White House appears to be working directly with Barzani in order to resolve the crisis before it escalates any further.

Conclusion Rather than street celebrations marking the end of foreign occupation, Iraqis are weary of the severe political deterioration they are currently witnessing in Baghdad. Although adhering to the timetable stipulated by the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement, it is becoming more and more apparent that the full U.S. withdrawal was premature. Iraq’s politics and discourse have not matured toward a level of stability that can reinforce confidence in the political system. The U.S. exit had removed a critical deterrent from Iraq’s political environment that helped stabilize discourse and expectations between the various conflicting factions. Today, the level and type of rhetoric, accusations, and the lengths that the Maliki government has gone to intimidate and undermine political rivals demonstrates an unprecedented era of political hostility not seen since Iraq’s sectarian war. Considering Ambassador Jeffrey’s various meetings in Baghdad and the phone calls from the highest levels of the White House, the Obama administration recognizes the seriousness of the political crisis. Yet, unlike in the past, the worrisome events appear to be rapidly cascading with little obstruction, perhaps as an illustration of the ineffectiveness of U.S. diplomacy devoid of troops on the ground. Given that the Maliki government will now have a freer hand with which to confront and marginalize its political rivals, the current political crisis casts doubt that Iraq would experience another free-and-fair election. Without the pacifying effect of the U.S. military’s presence, uncertainty and fear are likely to be the dominant forces shaping Iraq’s politics. As a consequence, such an environment will be prone to unpredictable scenarios and behavior that move Iraq towards armed conflict and societal fragmentation.