Friday, January 27, 2012

The Many Moving Parts of Iraq's Current Political Crisis


What are the key components of the current Iraqi political crisis and what does it tell us about the future of Iraqi politics?

The most important dynamic is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's effort to marginalize his political opponents and centralize power in his own hands. This effort was discussed in an earlier post (Dec. 23, 2011) and is described in great detail in a recent report by Human Rights Watch that has received a high profile in the Arab Press (see al-Hayat, Jan.23).

Maliki’s efforts to impose a new form of authoritarian rule has been incorrectly analyzed in purely sectarian terms. The processes in motion are much more complex and go well beyond sectarian politics. Maliki’s arch enemy, Ayad Allawi, is a fellow Shi’i as is his other nemesis, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri).

Maliki is trying to eliminate Allawi’s al-Iraqiya Coalition (which received many Shi’i and Kurdish votes in the March 2010 parliamentary elections) through a campaign of arrests in which those detained are accused of having engaged in terrorist attacks. Many of those arrested are former members of the Ba’th Party as well as members of the al-Iraqiya Coalition.

The core dynamic is the ongoing struggle over Iraq’s political identity. Will Iraq become a state dominated by Shi’i Islamists such as those in Maliki’s Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da’wa al-Islamiya) which controls the broader State of Law Coalition (I’tilaf Dawlat al-Qanun)? Or will Iraq return to the legacy of the Iraqi nationalist movement which was dominated by secular politics?

Secular politics was the norm from Iraq's independence in 1921 and through at least the first decade of Ba’th Party rule between 1968 and Saddam Husayn’s seizure of power in 1979. Fearing the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 might spread to Iraq, Saddam began to promote sectarianism after invading Iran in September 1980.

While all Iraqi regimes (except that of Abd al-Karim Qasim between 1958 and 1963) favored Sunni Arabs for cabinet positions and positions in the state bureaucracy, Maliki seeks to impose the obverse of that system which now privileges Iraq's Shi’a. The difference with former regimes is that Maliki’s model is Islamist and anti-secular and thus precludes the type of cross-ethnic coalitions - such as represented by al-Iraqiya - that rose to prominence in the Arab Provincial Legislature elections of 2009 and the March 2010 parliamentary elections.

The most high profile case of those accused of terrorism is Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi who currently remains under the protection of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Most Iraqis feel that Maliki’s attempt to arrest al-Hashimi is political since the charges against him have been known since 2006. The KRG government is loathe to turn over al-Hashimi because that would both increase Maliki’s power and implicitly recognize Baghdad’s judicial authority within the KRG.

An important complicating factor is Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani’s declining health since he is al-Hashimi’s most important patron in the KRG. Talabani is increasingly worried about the sectarian policies that Maliki is pursuing. If Maliki is able to eliminate the secularists’ power, both Sunni and Shi’i Arab, Talabani and the KRG leadership realize that the Kurds will be the next target on Maliki’s list of political opponents.

Second, the struggle with his political opponents is not limited to Maliki’s dispute with secularists and al-Iraqiya. The Iraqi prime minister has been under constant attack by the Sadrists who have castigated him for his unwillingness to bring government corruption under control and to improve the quality of government services. Since the Sadrists represent poor Shi’a in Sadr (Revolution) City in Baghdad and throughout Iraq’s southern provinces, social services are the core factor in attracting support for their movement.

Maliki is also trying to undermine the power of the Sadrists by giving support to its arch-enemy, the League of the Righteous (‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq). Now that US forces have left Iraq, the Iraqi government is negotiating to have the League put down its arms and enter the political process. This was a brilliant move by Maliki because it increases the League's power and visibility and power and has forced the Sadrists to shift their attention from attacking his government to fending off the League’s new found strength.

The League of the Righteous developed within the ranks of the now disbanded Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) beginning in 2004. That year the JAM challenged US forces by mounting an assault in the holiest Shi’i shrine city, al-Najaf. The Najaf uprising led to its defeat but created resentment among fighters that the JAM failed to mount further major offensives against American forces.

JAM units in a number of provinces and cities were gradually transformed into units loyal to the newly created League. These units included the "Abu-l-Fadl al-'Abbas" brigade in Amara Priovince, the "Musa al-Kadhim" brigade in Baghdad, the "Imam al-'Askari" brigade in Samarra, and the "Imam Ali" brigade in al-Najaf. The League has also received assistance from Iran where its fighters have received training (al-Hayat, Jan 4)

Under the leadership of Shaykh Qays al-Khaz’ali, the League grew to the position of influence it now holds. al-Khaz'ali studied under Sadr's father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq alp-Sadr (assassinated by Saddam's regime in 1999) which enhances his legitimacy among poor Shi'a. With Iranian help, and given added legitimacy by the Maliki government, the ranks of what we may call “populist Shiism” are divided between those who support the Sadrists and those who support the League (or a number of smaller militias that have formed in the south).

Over the past few months, Muqtada al-Sadr’s attacks on the League have escalated. The underlying theme of al-Sadr’s attacks have been that the League is a criminal organization which has nothing to do with religion (qutla la din la hum). Sadr has called for making the organization illegal. In a recent interview, Qays al-Khaz’ali indicated that he does not see the League reconciling with the Sadrist Trend. He also rejected assertions that his return from Iran indicates that he seeks to become the “Nasrallah of Iraq.”

The struggle between the Sadrists and the League of the Righteous not only enhances Maliki’s power but also that of Iran, which has given training and military support to both organizations. As their conflict intensifies, Iran always maintains the option of serving as an important mediator between these organizations as well as among competing Shi’i factions in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq.

A third level of struggle reflects the impact of “neighborhood effects” on Iraq's domestic politics. Recently a scandal ensued in response to remarks supposedly made the Ali Solimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, before a large gathering of youth in Tehran, including those from several Arab countries. According to those at the gathering, Solimani indicated the Iran maintains decisive influence over the politics of Iraq and southern Lebanon (al-Hayat, Jan. 22).

The response in Iraq to Solimani's remarks was immediate. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad for an explanation. Iraqi politicians were quick to attack Iran for interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs and for its failure to respect Iraq’s sovereignty.
At the same time, Turkey has criticized the Maliki regime for its sectarian policies and the possibility that they could lead to new instability. These remarks infuriated Maliki leading him to to protest to the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad. The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded by saying that nations which are friends are allowed to comment on theri respective politics and that Turkey’s criticism of Maliki’s policies were entirely appropriate (al-Hayat, Jan 21).

A fourth “moving part” is Maliki’s efforts to circumscribe the power of the Hawza, particularly that of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shiism's most prominent religious figure. Maliki despises al-Sistani for his continued criticism of the rampant corruption in the state bureaucracy and the prime mister’s unwillingness to prosecute corrupt elements in his government. Maliki is also angry that al-Sistani has consistently refused to meet with him or any of his representatives (al-Sharq al-Awsat, Nov. 26, 2011)

It is no surprise that Maliki welcomed the Iranian government's decision to send Iraqi born Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi to al-Najaf to become Guardian of the Jurists (Wali al-Faqih) for Iraq, ostensibly to oversee the thousands of Iranian pilgrims who visit Shiite shrines in south central Iraq, especially in al-Najaf and Karbala’.

By appointing Shahroudi, a prominent cleric who once headed Iran’s judiciary, Wali al-Faqih for Iraq, the Iranian regime has mounted a direct challenge to the Najafi Hawza and its efforts to keep Shiism out of Iraq's daily politics. It also indicates that there will be intense competition over the successor to al-Sistani, who is in poor health.

The struggle for control of Iraqi Shiism pits the "quietist" clerics, who seek to keep power politics out of religion, and those who adhere to Iran's politicized form of Shiism, evident in the concept of State of the Jurisprudent (Wilayat al-Faqih). Maliki hopes that the Najafi Hawza will be forced to spend more time trying to contain Iranian influence being spread through Shahroudi’s office and thus have less time to criticize his government.

Maliki’s political decision-making is “penny wise, and pound foolish,” to use an old adage. He has put his opponents on the defensive and ingratiated himself with Iran. His political calculation is that he can ignore Turkish and American protests against his recent actions. Turkey will not go beyond criticism of his government because the Erdogan government does not want to jeopardize the Nabucco Pipeline project which will carry Iraqi natural gas through Turkey to Europe. For its part, the US does not want to loose lucrative arms contracts as Iraq rebuilds its air force and navy.

The longer term scenario is not as promising for Maliki. Marginalizing al-Iraqiya and continuing arrests of Sunni Arabs could easily lead to a renewal of violence, especially as the Sunni community sees Maliki working to create a sectarian based army in which Sunni Arabs (and Kurds) have little influence. A renewed insurgence in the so-called Sunni Arab triangle of north-central Iraq would have severe consequences for Iraq’s political stability.

The attempt to reduce the power of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Najafi Hawza is likewise poorly conceived. Certainly, it will alienate many pious Shi’a who consider al-Sistani much more than just their spiritual leader. al-Sistani’s efforts to promote social justice and democracy has made his beloved among large segments of Iraq’s Shi’i population (and Shi'a outside Iraq as well).

The Turks may decide to place more of their political eggs in the KRG basket and back off from investments in the Arab south, especially if political unrest and violence increase. If the Kurds feel Turkey is a solid ally, they may be encouraged to declare independence, especially if they see no change in Maliki’s unwillingness to make more concessions to the KRG. The current Iraqi budget, for example, has come under criticism from the Kurds (and local provincial legislatures) for not devolving government revenues to the KRG (al-Hayat, Jan. 23)

As Maliki attempts to consolidate power, he is becoming ever more dependent on the Iranian regime. The sensitivity of this issue is evident from Iraqi responses to Ali Solimani’s comments mentioned above. If attacks from the Sunni Arab community, the Sadrists and the Kurds increase, Maliki may find himself isolated and even more dependent on Iran. If he does become largely an Iranian puppet, his regime will face constant instability.

Democratic politics is not just a normative desideratum. It is ultimately the most stable and effective form of governance. If Maliki had decided after the March 2010 parliamentary elections to share power with al-Iraqiya, and to negotiate seriously with the KRG, he could have retained the prime ministership and put Iraq on the road to meaningful political and economic development. Maliki certainly has not learned the lesson that has led to the ouster of multiple autocrats in the Middle East. The processes he has set in motion can only lead to disastrous outcomes, both or Maliki and for Iraq.