Iraq without the U.S. military: New dawn
By Richard Weitz - Second Line of Defense SLD
June 4, 2012
Iraq is a central player in GCC security. What
happens to Iraq has a decisive effect on the region.
Credit Image Bigstock.
Today’s Iraq is an aborted democracy that falls
considerably short of the original U.S. goal of
creating an attractive democratic, prosperous,
ethically mixed country that partners with the
United States to maintain regional stability and
Iraq’s political leaders cannot cease feuding, wary
investors hesitate to make the plunge in a country
desperately seeking foreign capital and technology,
and Iraq’s neighbors, though distracted by the other
upheavals in the Arab world, nervously watch to see
if the country’s sectarian tensions will escalate
into renewed civil war or a proxy battlefield
between Shiite Persian and Sunni Arab rivals.
Meanwhile, most Europeans and even Americans have
lost interest in the country and now focused on
Iran, China, and above all on their economic
problems and heated domestic political contests.
Iraq’s historical legacy is rich in authoritarianism
and internal and external conflict.
Like many Middle Eastern states, it suffered a
colonial legacy of exploitation and artificial
boundaries. Since independence, Iraqi leaders have
experimented with different ideologies but regularly
returned to a system of authoritarian rule that
relies on power rather than justice for legitimacy.
Iraq’s current instability is a direct product of
this legacy of internal division, international
pressure, and the exacerbation of sectarian tensions
by brutal authoritarian rule.
The country’s numerous acute divisions between
rich/poor, urban/provincial, Sunni/Shiite,
Arab/Kurd, coupled with a century of limited popular
political participation, has institutionalized
suspicions among power-hungry factions and throttled
consensus building around the country’s key
political and social institutions. And as long as
these remain weak and undeveloped, Iraq lacks a
ready means to resolve political disputes among the
country’s main societal forces.
The current manifestation of this crisis is evident
in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s refusal to share
power with his political rivals in the Iraqi
National Movement bloc, led by Ayad Allawi, a former
Iraqi prime minister.
Al-Maliki has monopolized all key national security
posts in the hands of his Shiite-dominated State of
Law Coalition, with the prime minister himself
retaining several additional cabinet posts, such as
the position of defense minister. He has also
removed leading Sunnis from national and local
offices on the grounds that they either have
supported Saddam Hussein’s deposed Baathist regime
or were aiding anti-Shiite terrorists.
Al-Maliki may very well believe he is acting in
Iraq’s interest by seeking to provide the country
with decisive leadership in Iraq’s time of troubles,
but his confrontational style has prompted Allawi’s
members to boycott parliamentary proceedings and
energized autonomy movements in Iraq’s Sunni- and
In response, al-Maliki has retaliated by arresting
more senior opposition politicians and threatening
to form a new government coalition without the Iraqi
National Movement. At present, Iraqi politics is in
deadlock. Al-Maliki’s powers are constrained by
Iraq’s parliamentary and federal systems, while his
opponents are weakened by divisions over ethnicity,
region, ideology, and competing personal ambitions.
Though a return to civil war between Iraq’s Shiite
and Sunni populations has been the most commonly
evoked threat to domestic stability following the
withdrawal of all U.S. troops in December 2011, it
is possible that deepening tensions between Arabs
and Kurds could result in open conflict as well.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has taken
steps toward strengthening its de facto autonomy,
including in the area of foreign policy. It has
developed trade and diplomatic connections with
signed oil deals, and independently held meetings
with foreign heads of state. These efforts reflect
the Kurdish desire for a decentralized Iraqi
government instead of the strong centralized state
favored by al-Maliki but also by many other
political leaders based in Baghdad. Iraq’s
constitution recognizes the KRG and the Kurdistan
Parliament as autonomous regional institutions, and
the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) as a legitimate
regional military force.
Instead of law and order, the new Iraq is marked by
corruption and chaos.
Justice is perverted because the law has become an
instrument to hobble political rivals and exploit
opportunities for corruption. Political parties are
weak while clan, sectarian, and especially family
ties are strong, resulting in family fiefs and
nepotism throughout the bureaucracy.
And when the law proves inadequate, then the
political leaders and factions employ their ruthless
security forces to suppress adversaries, sometimes
torturing them in private detention centers, and to
cow the population at large. Politicians aspire to
become another Saddam Hussein who can rule without
constraints, if not in all Iraq, than at least in
those parts that fall under their control.
Iraqis are living in fear of renewed outbreaks of
mass sectarian violence, manifested in strife
between the so-called Islamists and the Shiite
militias. Despite billions of dollars of U.S.
investment, Iraqis suffer from inadequate public
They also fear their country’s deepening division
into cantons and the interference of neighboring
countries, some with predatory aims, in Iraq’s
Despite its incomplete and perverted application,
Iraq’s constitutional and political framework seems
adequate to giving Iraqis a better life. The problem
is more one of political culture, degraded by years
or authoritarian rule and political strife, as well
as the past months of ethnic, tribal, and religious
divisions and protracted political infighting.
Time is needed for the influence of sectarianism to
decline and democratic and pluralistic practices to
take root. Iraqi politics will become more stable
when Iraqis see themselves less often as Sunnis,
Shiites, and Kurds, and more in terms of their
occupation (laborer, business person, etc.)
political affiliations (liberal, conservative), and
other sources of identity.
This can best be accomplished through a broadly
inclusive coalition government that would not leave
any important Iraqi religious, ethnic, or political
group politically excluded and alienated. The
continued devolution of some governing powers to
federal bodies is also essential for checking a
return to centralized authoritarian rule as well as
empowering local political participation.
Another important task is to restructure Iraq’s
security forces to ensure that they become more
effective and less prone to potentially explosive
At present, Iraq’s security conditions are worrisome
but not alarming. Whereas Iraq did not have a
functioning army, air force or navy in the months
immediately following the 2003 Anglo-American
invasion, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) now number
more than 700,000 people in the aggregate.
Although various insurgent and terrorist groups are
able to detonate bombs targeting police officers and
hapless civilians, they are no longer able to hold
Iraqi territory in the face of sustained ISF action.
And Iraq’s neighbors, though perhaps uneasy about
the course of events, have refrained from
intervening with conventional military forces in
But neither of these conditions is predestined to
last forever. Iraq’s territorial integrity remains
Iran continues to lay claim to its petroleum-rich
border region with Iraq. The porous frontier with
Syria continues to see mass refugee flows in both
directions while Sunni terrorists exploit the lax
border controls to kill people in both countries.
The Turkish military regularly attacks Kurdish
terrorists in northern Iraq and sometimes send
ground troops into Iraqi Kurdistan despite Baghdad
Strengthening the ISF requires progress in three
First, Iraq’s security forces need to continue to
develop the capacity to suppress the remnants of
anti-government insurgent groups.
Second, the ISF must achieve the capacity to defend
Iraq from potential future foreign aggressors.
Third, Iraq needs to develop an effective and
mutually acceptable military partnership with the
Iraq’s oil wealth and powerful military has
historically made it a claimant for Arab leadership,
while its geography and ethnic mix have required
both limiting and managing its powerful Persian
Shiite neighbor. Now that all U.S. troops have
withdrawn from Iraq, neighboring powers are actively
maneuvering to advance their interests in the new
Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states,
led by Saudi Arabia, have been the most prominent
rivals for influence in Iraq, competing directly and
through local proxies.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other GCC governments
oppose Tehran’s ambitions but lack the means to
balance Iranian influence in Iraq, so they appear to
be turning to Turkey to defend Sunni interests
Iran has become the most influential foreign actor
in Iraq due to geographic proximity, Iraq’s newly
self-conscious and empowered Shiite majority that
respects Iran’s centrality to the Shiite faith, and
influential pro-Iranian factions embedded within
Iraq’s political, military and religious
establishments. Iran also enjoys clear military
superiority over Iraq’s armed forces in eastern
Iraq. Iranians want Iraq to remain under the control
of a subservient pro-Tehran coalition in Baghdad
that does not challenge Iranian military primacy in
the Persian Gulf.
The two countries have signed more than 100 economic
cooperation agreements, with bilateral trade
reportedly reaching $7 billion in 2009 and Iranians
heading numerous reconstruction projects in Iraq.
Iran has made up for Iraq’s electricity shortages by
supplying about 10 percent of Iraq’s needs, and the
percentage is much higher for several border
Iran’s main exports to Iraq include fresh produce,
processed foodstuffs, cheap consumer goods, cars and
construction materials such as cement, glass and
bricks. Iraqi exports to Iran consist largely of
crude and refined oil products.
Iran’s economic ties with Iraq are especially
important given all the sanctions constraining
Iranian economic exchanges with other countries. In
March 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
became the first Iranian president to visit Iraq
since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Al-Maliki has
made several state visits to Iran since 2006.
Although ties between Iran and Iraq are strong,
unresolved sources of tension persist.
In dumping cheap, subsidized food products and
consumer goods into Iraq, Iran has undermined Iraq’s
agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Iran’s
damming and diversion of rivers feeding the Shatt
al-Arab waterway has harmed Iraqi agriculture in the
south and hindered efforts to revive Iraq’s
marshlands. Iran’s periodic border incursions, such
as against the Fakka oil field in late 2009, sustain
Iraqi suspicions regarding Iran’s ultimate
intentions for their country.
The incursion is also one of several examples of how
Iran’s policy toward Iraq has at times lacked
consistency. Iranians have publicly supported the
Iraqi government while at the same time assisting
violent militias that undermine Baghdad’s authority.
Iranian efforts to influence Iraqi politics have
also been poorly integrated with other activities,
such as Iranian pressure regarding border disputes
or heavy-handed efforts to influence Iraq’s
Despite these intra-governmental coordination
problems in Tehran, Iranian influence in Iraq will
remain strong due to the strength of Iranian
friendly forces in Baghdad, the ethnic and sectarian
divisions debilitating Tehran’s opponents in Iraq,
and the decreased influence of the United States and
its local allies in Iraq.
Turkey perhaps presents the strongest counterweight
to Iranian influence in Iraq. As the main successor
state to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s relations in
the Arab world have traditionally been fraught with
ambivalence. Turkey and Iraq have long fought over
water access and accused each other of supporting
Although opposing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by
U.S. forces, Turkey took advantage of the lapse in
sovereignty in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region to
carve out a sphere of influence. More recently,
Turkey has emerged as an important actor in the
Iraqi economy by investing heavily in key sectors of
the Iraqi economy.
Turkey’s relations with the KRG are especially good,
with Turkey providing Iraqi Kurds with their main
foreign economic partners and receiving extensive
KRG cooperation against the PKK insurgents based in
Yet, the United States and other states should be
cautious about seeking to use Turkey as a proxy
against Iran. Turkey can best advance U.S. interests
in Iraq when it is not seen as an instrument of U.S.
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