Iraq on the Edge of the Abyss

With elections in 2014, the situation in Iraq may unravel, with ramifications not only for the stability of the Iraqi government, but for the broader security of Iraqis and even the integrity of Iraq itself.

By Gareth Stansfield, Senior Associate Fellow, RUSI

Maliki and Barzani

Iraq is in a precarious state. If deaths are a blunt indicator of Iraq’s stability, then both the numbers, and the trend, present very worrying reading. The United Nations states that at least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of Iraq’s security forces were killed in violent acts in 2013, with 759 killed in December alone.

The respected UK NGO Iraq Body Count presented an even bleaker picture, suggesting that 9,475 civilians were killed in 2013, making last year the most violent in Iraq, by this measure, since the end of the civil war in 2008 when some 10,130 were killed. If raw numbers were not worrying enough, then the trends should give cause for concern: the figure in 2008, high though it was, represented a decline compared to previous months. The figures for 2013, and going into 2014, are increasing, giving rise to concern that 2014 may prove to be a distinctly bloody year.

The deterioration of the security situation in Iraq has been ongoing arguably since the end of the civil war in 2008, and has increased in momentum over the months and years. In short, the civil war of 2006-08 ended in Iraq because of a combination of factors that no longer exist in the country today.

These factors included the presence of an overwhelming US presence, and the willingness of US commanders to utilise overwhelming force against those Sunni insurgents (whether Iraqi Islamist, Al-Qa’ida jihadist, or Iraqi nationalist) that were deemed ‘irreconcilable’; the strategy of splitting Iraqi insurgents away from the Al-Qa’ida associated jihadists, and then bringing them into a series of local security arrangements known as the ‘Sons of Iraq’ or the ‘Awakening’, and using these new forces against the Al-Qa’ida presence; and the seeming willingness of the Maliki government to accept the US strategy for working with Sunni militias, and the plan to integrate them into the security offices of the state in a post-US setting. Now, none of these conditions exist, and the Sunni Arabs are less willing to accept promises, when previous ones have never been delivered.

Nouri al-Maliki’s Role

It is for these reasons that the current, dangerous, situation in Iraq is increasingly being laid at the door of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Accused by his detractors of pursuing ‘sectarian’ policies and targeting his Sunni Arab opponents, Maliki is now portrayed as a divisive figure, incapable of either generating trust between political elites of different groupings, let along enacting policies that build mutual cooperation.

This view of Maliki is persuasive when events in recent years are reviewed. These include the the indicting of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on charges of terrorism – for which he was subsequently sentenced to death in absentia in 2012;  the demonstrations of mid-2013 in Anbar that indicated clearly that parts of the Sunni Arab community had reached the limits of their patience with the Maliki government. And now there is the current insurgency in Anbar led by the reformed and highly potent Al-Qa’ida-affiliated group the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a figure who has gained well-deserved infamy across Iraq and Syria over the last year.

In all these instances, Prime Minister Maliki has shown himself to be either incapable or unwilling to identify and implement a political solution to the problem of building a government inclusive enough to satisfy the demands of the Sunni Arab political leaderships, whether insurgent, nationalist, tribal, or of the established parties.

Since 2003, Iraqi politics has tended to muddle through based upon an alliance of two of the three principle communities working together, usually a Shia block and the Kurds, with the Sunnis reacting to the realities they make. This balance now seems to have changed, with the Kurdish leadership increasingly in disagreement with the Maliki government over the ownership and exploitation of the oil and gas reserves in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed territories to the south; over financial claims issued against each other; and over the future of the sensitive disputed territories themselves.

Kurds Become More Independent

The Kurdish leadership seem to have adopted a strategy of seeking forgiveness rather than permission for the actions they have taken – although in all likelihood it is the case that they do not seek forgiveness either, such is their belief that they are totally, constitutionally, justified in signing a bilateral export agreement with Turkey at the end of 2013. With Baghdad’s remonstrations sounding increasingly shrill and impotent, the scene is set for a very difficult 2014 between the Kurdish leadership and Maliki, with the options available to Baghdad to stop the Kurdish initiative becoming limited, to extreme measures – meaning either the withholding of budgets for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) or the possible use of military force against Kurdish interests – something that would be very dangerous for Baghdad to pursue indeed.

The problems facing Iraq and the Maliki government are therefore immense and, as stated earlier, the factors that ended Iraq’s civil war in 2008 no longer exist today: there is no US presence to either quash the insurgency or to pressure the Kurds to act in the interests of Iraq’s integrity (indeed, it seems that the US has relatively little leverage with Iraqi politicians these days).

The Sunni Insurgency

There is now, perhaps, increasingly common cause between home grown Sunni Arab nationalists and those forces affiliated with ISIS, or at least a short-term convergence of interest. This is a possibility that, even if theoretical, would surely serve to sensitise the already deeply suspicious circle of Prime Minister Maliki. Moreover the Sunni Arab community at large appears to have been consolidated by the treatment meted out to them and their leaders by the Prime Minister over recent years. It is no longer correct to say that this community is tired and exhausted.

Prime Minister Maliki therefore has a serious set of tasks ahead of him, before the national elections take place in April 2014. His response in Anbar was initially to play the card of being the ‘hard’ Iraqi leader, and to threaten to take Fallujah and Ramadi by force. But this has proved to be easier said than done: the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are losing many troops every week, and the ISIS presence seems to be determined, professional, and capable, hence the ISF has made little headway in restoring the writ of the state in these areas.

It would be a mistake to view the ISIS presence in the Sunni-dominant areas of Iraq as being transitory. Buoyed by successes in Syria and the resources that are being made available to them from Sunni Arab states of the region, ISIS is a different entity to the previous iteration of Al-Qa’ida in Iraq – the Islamic State of Iraq – as it has a degree of local and regional legitimacy that ISI never enjoyed. Hence, for as long as the situation continues in Syria, and the status quo remains in Iraq, ISIS is set to increase its capabilities, influence, and successes.

Maliki’s ‘hard’ leader routine is therefore being questioned by his lack of progress in Anbar and other places. It is also now openly questioned by the Kurdish leadership’s strategy of ignoring Baghdad’s pronouncements on how the oil and gas sector will be structured and managed, and instead making their own realities by signing a bilateral export agreement with Turkey.

The strength of the Kurdish position is readily evident in the way that Baghdad’s position has shifted towards them in recent months. Even though Deputy Prime Minister Shahristani remains capable of delivering stern rebukes and threats aimed at the Kurdish leadership, the overall pattern shows a softening of the Maliki government’s position towards the Kurdish leadership’s position. Three years ago, the government was resolutely opposed to the Kurds’ actions; now, they are doing what they can to show they are supportive of their actions, but merely need to identify the details of how the two sectors (the KRG and the Iraqi oil and gas industries) will work together. However, Kurdish suspicions of Maliki remain high, and not least because of the unveiling of new plans to create a new Assyrian/Christian region in the disputed territories, in addition to further regions in Tuz and Talafar – both in the disputed territories – and with all initiatives running counter to Erbil’s wishes.

Will Maliki be Re-Elected?

What does this mean for the Prime Minister and for Iraq? Irrespective of these problems he faces, Maliki remains extremely popular among the Shia. It is highly likely that his coalition, the State of Law, will be the most successful entity in the April election, due to Maliki’s popularity and the fact that his Sunni opponents remain broken and fissiparous.

Yet he will still face challenges from within the Shia community, with different power groupings increasingly showing their dissatisfaction with his ability to quell the ISIS insurgency, with Amr al-Hakim of the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Muqtada al-Sadr, and Ayatollah Ali Sistani himself all, in different ways, showing their discontent with Maliki’s handling of Shia-Sunni relations.

These dynamics and trajectories therefore suggest that 2014 is going to be a dangerous year for Iraq. The elections of April will almost certainly see Maliki returned as prime minister, which would be met with a continuation of the Anbar insurgency and the continued development of opposition in the wider Sunni Arab territories.

If Maliki is seen to be weak, then he could well face very strong challenges from other Shia political poles that could also result in conflict, and there is little to suggest that the Kurdish leadership will refrain from their current successful strategy of pursuing economic independence that could well lead to political independence in the future. Very quickly indeed could the situation in Iraq unravel, with ramifications not only for the stability of the Iraqi government, but for the broader security of Iraqis and even the integrity of Iraq itself.

Follow Gareth Stansfield @GRVStansfield 

Gareth Stansfield

Senior Associate Fellow

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