Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Crisis in Iraq

Developments over the past few days represent the continuation of a disturbing political trend since the March 2010 parliamentary elections. Methodically, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been maneuvering to gain complete control over Iraq's political system. Placing independent government agencies under his control, such as the Central Bank and the Independent High Election Commission, intimidating the judiciary to adjudicate decisions that favor his rule, and creating security services that report directly to him, Maliki is on his way to establishing an new authoritarian political system.

President Obama's comments that we leave behind a stable and democratic Iraq indicates one of the problems with US policy in Iraq. The US has not been forceful enough in criticizing Maliki's moves to undermine Iraq's nascent experiment with democratization. While respecting Iraq's sovereignty as an independent nation-state, the issue is not one of interfering in Iraq's internal affairs but one of keeping the pressure on authoritarian rulers and authoritarian wannabes throughout the world, including Iraq.

For those who argue that what is happening in Iraq - particularly the efforts to marginalize the Kurds and arrest Sunni political leaders such as Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi on charges of engaging in terrorist activities - reflects its "artificiality" as a nation-state, we need remember that the March 2010 parliamentary elections. These elections witnessed a large nation-wide turnout of well over 60%, were devoid of violence, were said to be fair and free according to international observers, and were won by a cross-national coalition based in secular politics. That coalition - al-Iraqiya - won the votes of Sunni Arabs , Shiites and not an insignificant number of Kurds. The new reformist Gorran (Change) Party. that won a large number of seats in the Kurdish Regfional Government parliament elections of July 2009, along with its coalition partner, the Services and Reform List, won 8 parliamentary seats in the March 2010 elections.

The point here is that the problem is not Iraq's artificiality as a nation-state, but the quality of its political leadership. And we need remember that the current leadership gained power with US help when it facilitated the return to Iraq of large number s of expatriate politicians, including Nuri al-Maliki. Beyond the need to criticize repressive regimes, the US bears considerable responsibility for the current political state of affairs in Iraq.

What should the US be doing given Maliki's high stakes actions that could lead Iraq back to sectarian violence and even the possibility of its splitting up as a country? The US still has many cards in its hand. First an foremost, it controls the flow of new weapons and military technology to Iraq. Second, it is involved in training of Iraqi troops, security personnel and police forces.

Third, the US continues to advocate on Iraq;'s behalf in international economic fora, such as helping Iraq conclude its debt obligations to Kuwait resulting from the 1990-91 occupation of that country. Fourth, the US plays an important role in mediating relations between Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states which view the Maliki government as a Trojan Horse for Iran. Finally, for all the talk of Iranian influence, Iraq's political elite still seeks to use US influence as a counterweight to Iran. In short, the US still wields considerable influence in Iraq.

In the short term, the US should maintain some patience since a political solution to the current impasse between Maliki, and the Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders may still be worked out. However, in back channels, it needs to make known in the most vigorous manner, its alarm and dissatisfaction with Maliki's behavior. If such behavior intensifies, public criticism will be in order.

If Maliki continues to pursue his authoritarian policies, the US needs to ask itself whether it wants to be drawn in to another situation such as occurred in Egypt under the rule of Husni Mubarak. Is it worth maintaining a strong position for US military and police trainers and selling weapon systems to Iraq if the Maliki government comes to replicate the type of dictatorial rule that was overthrown in 2003? Is the US willing to once again support authoritarianism with the idea that the benefits gained by not criticizing Maliki are offset by its ability to use its position in Iraq to offset Iranian influence in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula?

The disastrous US policies in Iran that led to the revolution of 1978-79, the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt with the resulting chaos and threat to stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the turmoil that resulted from supporting Muammar al-Qaddafi's rule in Libya demonstrate the self-defeating consequences of supporting authoritarian rule in the Middle East (and elsewhere).

The Obama administration needs to realize that democratization in Iraq is not just an abstract question of creating a desirable political system. Failure to push forward with democratization in Iraq means to effectively exclude the Sunni Arab population as well as the Kurds from political participation and power. The danger here is a return to violence and the possibility of Iraq breaking up into 3 mini-states. Already, the demands of the Sunni Arab provinces in north-central Iraq to create a regional government such as the KRG point to the centrifugal political forces at work.

A fragmented Iraq would not be in Iraq's interest, the interest of the broader Arab Mashriq, and certainly not in the interest of the United States. The Obama administration needs to carefully assess whether the short term gains of maintaining its position in Iraq are worth not calling Maliki to task for his destructive political policies.

Iraq is at a tipping point. Is the US ready to meet the challenge or will it hide its head in the sand and continue to foster the illusion that Iraq is on its way to becoming a "sovereign, reliant and democratic country"?


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