Sunday, December 25, 2011
The Ripple Effects of the Political Crisis in Iraq
What are the dangers posed by the spreading political crisis in Iraq, both domestically and in the larger region? Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's gambit of issuing an arrest warrant forVice-President Tariq al-Hashimi on charges of having been involved in the 2006 bombing of the Shiite al-Askari mosque in the city of Samarra and of being complicit in the assassination attempt of former deputy prime-minister Salam al-Zawbai'i in 2007 ring hollow.
First, these charges are not new. Coming immediately after the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, they smack of sectarianism and a power grab. The charges leveled against deputy prime minister Salih al-Mutlak, of administrative irregularities, which effectively prevents him from serving in his current post, also seem highly dubious, since corruption and malfeasance plagues much of Maliki's current administration. These charges were leveled a day after Multlak referred to Maliki as a "dictator."
First and foremost, al-Maliki's actions threaten to further undermine efforts at national reconciliation among Iraq's 3 main ethnoconfessional groups and, in the process, erode Iraqi federalism. That both al-Hashimi and al-Mutlak are Sunni Arabs strikes many Iraqis as sectarianism on the part of Maliki's Shiite dominated government. Already the Sunni Arab Provinces of north-central Iraq have voted to create their own semi-autonomous region on the model of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), although the Diyala Provincial Council subsequently rescinded its vote after widespread demonstrations against the province becoming a semi-autonomous region (see al-Hayat, Dec. 21).
Second, Maliki's efforts to consolidate power in his hands increases Iranian influence in Iraq since they are designed to reduce the influence of secular and anti-Iranian political forces. Maliki has not only alienated Iraq's Sunni Arabs but the Kurds as well. It was Kurdish deputies in parliament who allowed Maliki to create a ruling coalition after 9 months of wrangling following the March 2010 parliamentary elections.
The semi-autonomous KRG suffered attacks by Iranian forces earlier this year, ostensibly to root out PJAK guerrillas who fight Iran from Iraqi soil to improve conditions of Iran's Kurdish population. Certainly , the KRG is loath to see increased Iranian political clout in Baghdad. That the Kurds are sheltering al-Hashimi in the KRG is indicative of their displeasure with Maliki's actions.
Third, both the Kurds but especially the Sunni Arab population sees Maliki's actions as an attempt to marginalize them politically. This process further undermines trust between the central government in Baghdad and the provinces, threatening to stokes the flames of civil unrest. Now that American troops are gone, the prospect of a reemergence of the Sunni Arab insurgency and increased conflict between the KRG and Baghdad over the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other areas along the so-called "Green Line" separating the KRG and Arab Iraq have increased and could lead to renewed bloodshed.
Fourth, Maliki's moves have created apprehension in Saudi Arabia and among the Sunni Arab dominated Gulf states which are already nervous about Iran's efforts to become a regional hegemon as evidenced by its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. As the crisis in Bahrayn makes clear, there is great concern on the part of the Saudi and Arab Gulf monarchies that their own Shiite populations will demand more political rights. If the current crisis in Iraq continues, the result will be further efforts of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to interfere in Iraq's domestic politics on the side of the Sunni Arab population as they did when the insurgency led by al-Qai'da in the Mesopotamian Valley began after 2003.
Fifth, Maliki's actions at consolidating political power in an authoritarian manner have enhanced the cynicism of the populace at large and undermined their confidence in the democratization process. Just when many Iraqis thought that the March 2010 parliamentary elections heralded a turn towards real democratization, Maliki manipulated the political process to exclude al-Iraqiya, the winning coalition. Hence Maliki's ability to ignore the people's will by not ceding any meaningful cabinet posts and political power to al-Iraqiya has undermined Iraq's still fragile democracy.
Sixth, if the crisis continues, it will accelerate the "brain drain" that Iraq is suffering as educated Iraqis from the middle and upper middle classes seek to leave the country to fulfill their professional goals. The loss of the educated classes has many negative consequences. It hinders improving the quality of the services provided by the state bureaucracy which is populated by many employees who do not possess the necessary education or training for the positions that they hold. It also undermines efforts at economic development because the state lacks the competent officials required to facilitate foreign investment, not only in the dominant hydrocarbon sector but in the developing private sector as well.
Finally, while Maliki's short-sighted policies may enhance his political power, the resulting political discontent and instability that these policies engender could undermine foreign investment. Already the Maliki government is embroiled in a dispute with Exxon-Mobil which is owed $50 million for the energy giant's work at increasing oil production in the West Qurna field in southern Iraq.
What makes this conflict especially troubling is Exxon-Mobil's signing of a separate contract with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which has infuriated the central government in Baghdad. Analysts have suggested that the Iraqi government is withholding payment over what it considers an illegitimate contract signed by Exxon-Mobil with the KRG.
If political instability increases, including attacks by insurgents on foreign companies engaged in exploration of Iraq's oil fields (and natural gas fields as well), the entire process of foreign investment in Iraq's energy sector could grind to a halt. Since the Iraqi government began awarding contracts to foreign oil companies in 2008, the profits derived from these contracts, known as Technical Service Agreements (TSA), have been very small.
While foreign companies must invest large sums of money upfront In Iraq in the hope of gaining more lucrative contracts in the future, there is no incentive for them to take such risks if these investments will not produce profits in the long term. The key phrase here is long-term. No foreign firm will invest in Iraq if it thinks that the country is politically unstable.
KRG president Masoud Barzani has called for a national conference of all political parties to confront the ongoing crisis. President Jalal Talabani has expressed doubts in the charges leveled against Tariq al-Hashimi (al-Hayat, Dec. 21), and Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist bloc, one of the mainstays of Maliki's parliamentary coalition, not only called Maliki a "traitor" for traveling to Washington, DC to meet with President Obama (al-Hayat, Dec 12), but now has called for new parliamentary elections to address the current crisis.
Maliki may have overplayed his hand. There are calls for a no-confidence vote in his government and al-Iraqiya has proposed replacing Maliki with either Ibrahim al-Ja'fari or Adil Abd al-Mahdi. While Maliki's attempt to dispense with the cumbersome 3 party structure that requires compromise with political forces he finds distasteful, such as the Kurdish bloc and al-Iraqiya, he should realize that national reconciliation is not only in his own personal interest - namely retaining his position as prime minister - but in finally beginning the healing process that Iraq so desperately needs.
While the Iraqi people look on with great dissatisfaction, if not disgust, Iraq's political elite has yet to learn the lesson that there can be no authoritarian regime such as that of the former dictator Saddam Husayn. Compromise and national reconciliation represent the only road forward in Iraq, Failure to do so will have serious negative consequences that will only serve those forces that want to see Iraq become a weak and fragmented nation-state.