Iraq After the U.S. Withdrawal

The Obama administration had three years to push Iraqis toward genuine national reconciliation, the most critical component in securing a stable Iraq over the long term. The White House failed to leave behind a representative government that respects the concept of power-sharing and the rule of law under the Iraqi Constitution. Instead, the central government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is riddled with sectarian and authoritarian elements that were bound to capitalize and expand after the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq. Several recent events have occurred that paint a grim picture of Iraq’s future: In addition to Salah ad-Din province’s call to form a federal region in late October, most recently, Diyala province had decided to take the same path and embrace federalism out of fear and frustration of the central government. These increased movements towards federalism present the most critical threat to Maliki’s authority, after years of consolidating and centralizing power and resources. In retaliation, Sadrist MPs have encouraged Shi’a locals in Diyala to take to the streets in protest of the provincial council’s announcement. There are reports that armed groups from outside the province have been deployed in response to Diyala’s efforts to establish a federal region. The governor of Diyala is also said to have fled in fear. Sometime earlier this week, Baghdad forces and tanks had been placed around the residencies of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, both belonging to the Iraqiyya coalition, the prime minister’s rival bloc. It is reported by Hashemi’s office that several guards were beaten and arrested, and forced to make false confessions of implicating the vice president in acts of terrorism. The forces were reportedly led by Ahmed Maliki, the prime minister’s son, who now controls security in the Green Zone, and General Farouq al-Araji, the head of the Office of the Commander-in-Chief. The intimidation of the highest political officials of Iraqiyya comes just after a nation-wide arrest campaign of former members of the Ba’ath party, many of whom were Sunni military officers and intelligence officials. Thus far, it is unknown what had caused the harassment and intimidation campaign against Iraqiyya’s political figures. Some elements of the government are accusing Hashemi of encouraging the southern Shi’a provinces to also declare federal regions and establish a level of autonomy from Baghdad. Hashemi’s office had put out a statement rejecting such accusations as propaganda, claiming that the decision to form regions belong only to the inhabitants of those provinces. In addition, security officials had hinted that elements of Iraqiyya had tried to assassinate Maliki earlier this month, when a car bomb exploded after failing to enter the Green Zone. Regardless of how baseless the accusations, it appears Maliki believes that his position and life are in jeopardy. In response to these recent actions, Iraqiyya feels it is running out of options. Fully aware of the dangerous consequences, Vice President Biden’s office and the State Department have been working to calm tensions, but their efforts are less effective due to the loss of leverage the U.S. has experienced in Iraq. Today, the Iraqiyya bloc has suspended its membership in the Iraqi parliament. It is unclear what underlying factor or set of factors are motivating Maliki and his allies to aggressively move against Iraqiyya members. But it is clear that the withdrawal of U.S. forces has removed an important deterrent from Iraq’s political environment that helped stabilize discourse and expectations from the various conflicting factions. Without the pacifying effect of the U.S. military, uncertainty and fear appear to be shaping Iraqi politics, making scenarios where actions spiral towards armed conflict and fragmentation more likely.