|Iraqi M1A1 Abrams tank during Army Day celebrations|
Iraq's political crisis began as an effort to prevent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from continuing to accrue ever more power and become a new authoritarian leader (see my post, "Could deposing Maliki be a step towards democracy in Iraq?" June 9). It has morphed into a much larger and more contentious conflict which now involves Iraq's neighbors. As the cleavages between the main domestic players intensify, especially between Maliki and the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the possibilities of military intervention in the crisis loom ever larger.
If Maliki becomes frustrated enough with ongoing efforts to introduce a no-confidence vote in the Iraqi parliament and begins to rely on the Iraqi army and security services, Iraq could see a tacit military coup d'etat, even if that were to involve the Iraqi government being run by a civilian leader. With Maliki refusing to compromise with his opponents, he is sharpening cleavages with many segments of Iraq's political elite, thereby painting himself into a political corner.
Rather than negotiate, Maliki's main strategy in countering calls for him to implement the democratic reforms which he promised after the March 2010 national parliament elections is to posture as a strong leader. In an effort to enhance his nationalist credentials, Maliki is focusing on protecting Iraq's borders with Syria to prevent radical elements from entering the country. Maliki knows that appearing to be a strong leader has already won him support among Sunni tribal leaders in al-Anbar and other parts of the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle (indicating that the crisis is not sectarian in origins) who fear that his ouster will result in a further deterioration of the security situation in the Sunni Arab provinces along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Recently Maliki ordered Iraqi army troops to occupy a border crossing in Ninawa Province which has been under Peshmerga control. Maliki cited the danger posed by the civil war in Syria spilling over into Iraq as the reason for the deployment. He has argued that the federal government, not the three majority Kurdish provinces which form the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), should control the country's national borders. The Kurds have responded that they already have troops at the Fishkhabour border crossing and do not need federal troops. In any event, the Peshmerga prevented the Iraqi army units from deploying in northeast Ninawa Province (see al-Hayat, August 1).
The deployment was really an effort to challenge the Kurdish leadership which is actively seeking to have a vote of no-confidence take place in the Iraqi parliament that would bring down Maliki's government. By forcing the issue of who should be responsible for border security, Maliki seeks to demonstrate the illegitimacy of Peshmerga forces continuing to control border crossings and areas of the Iraqi border in the disputed territories north east of Mosul which include a large portion of Ninawa Province along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Meanwhile, relations with Turkey hit a new low when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited the disputed city of Kirkuk on August 2nd, after meeting with KRG President Masoud Barzani where they discussed the status of Syria after the fall of the Bashar al-Asad regime. Apart from the fact that the Arbil discussions constituted a slap in the face to the central government, and Maliki in particular, matters were only made worse when Davutoglu met with Kirkuk Governor, Najm al-Din Karim, who is close to the KRG leadership.
Davutoglu's comments that his visit to Kirkuk was "historic" and that it demonstrated Turkey's support for the "backbone" (al-'umud al-faqri) of Iraq's territorial integrity (see al-Hayat, Aug. 3 and 4) brought a swift reaction from Baghad. Government spokesperson, Ali al-Musawi, condemned Turkey's interference in Iraq's internal affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in Turkey's Charge d'Affaires in Baghdad to lodge a strong protest. Davutoglu's trip underscored the ever closer relations between Turkey and the KRG and the increasing distance between Ankara and Baghdad.
Maliki's reluctance to call for the ouster of Bashar al-Asad represents another source of tension with Turkey, which is actively seeking to overthrow Syria's Ba'thist regime. Aside from having spent many years in exile in Damascus, Maliki's position reflects the strong pressure Iran is placing on him to help it protect the al-Asad government. Should the Ba'thist regime fall, Iran would not only lose an important ally in Syria, but also its ability to transship weapons and materiel to its main Lebanese ally, Hizballah.
Complicating matters still further is the Sadrist Movement. Recently, Maliki invited Muqtada al-Sadr to visit Tehran where they met with Revolutionary Guard leader, Qassem Solimani. Both Maliki and Solimani tried to persuade al-Sadr not to visit Arbil as part of upcoming talks which have been continuing between forces seeking to oust Maliki.
In an article published on his website, "The noble goal of visiting Arbil" (al-hadaf al-nabil min ziyarat Arbil), Sadr refused Maliki and Solimani's entreaties not to attend the meeting which they said would constitute "national suicide." Playing his own nationalist cards, Sadr responded by saying that the Kurds are one of the most important components of Iraq's "national entity." He also indicated that he didn't see any danger in the Arbil meetings, saying that they are intended to serve the needs of the Iraqi people.
Sadr's comments on the Tehran meeting were biting. First, he pointed out that Maliki remains in power largely due to US and Iranian support. Thus he was implicitly making both countries responsible for allowing Maliki to continue to accrue authoritarian powers. Further, in describing the Arbil meeting as an effort to improve relations between Iraq's Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shi'a, Sadr is also implicitly arguing that Maliki is a sectarian and anti-nationalist who does not want these relations to improve.
As I noted in a previous posting, "Is Muqtada al-Sadr the new kingmaker in Iraqi politics?," (July 31), Sadr is continuing to keep his cards close to his chest. What he ultimately decides politically could well determine the future direction of Iraq politics since his 40 votes in the Council of Deputies is crucial to those seeing to oust Maliki though a vote of no-confidence. However, Sadr's choices are constrained because he does not want to alienate Iran which already is supporting forces opposed to the Sadrists, such as the League of the Righteous People militia (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq), a splinter of Sadr's now defunct Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi).
Iran is becoming increasingly worried about its position in Iraq, espedcially as the status of the al-Asad regime deteriorates. If Maliki is ousted, the new government will not be as cooperative. Already al-Iraqiya and the Kurdish Alliance have rejected an Iranian proposal to provide Iraq with assistance in protecting its borders against infiltration by radical forces. Because Maliki called for neighboring countries to help Iraq patrol its borders, this rejection of Iranian help, not just by the two political parties but by other members of the political establishment, represents a further slap in the face to the Iraqi prime minister.
With tensions mounting and Maliki unwilling to make any concessions to the powerful coalition mobilized against him, one option is for him to increasingly use the army and security services to intimidate those who oppose him. This strategy is already evident in his efforts to deploy Iraqi army forces along the Syrian-Iraqi border in disputed areas of Ninawa Province as indicated above. Maliki also has developed direct lines of reporting with certain security services which are in effect under his personal control.
Could a military dictatorship emerge in Iraq? Maliki could use the deteriorating security situation in the Arab areas of Iraq to declare a state of emergency, suspend the constitution and dissolve the parliament. While such a scenario is unlikely, large segments of Iraq's Arab population might support such moves if the political crisis remains unresolved and bombings continue throughout the country. If this scenario were to materialize, all the progress towards democratization which culminated in the March 2010 elections would be placed in serious jeopardy.