Monday, May 6, 2013

The Iraq crisis: will the US try to remove Nuri al-Maliki?

Protest poster saying "No to sectarianism"
As the crisis in Iraq spreads, calls for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to leave office have grown as well.  A May 2nd New York Times Op-Ed, "Why Maliki must go" argued that the US and its European allies should put pressure on al-Maliki to resign.  Is there any reason to expect that this scenario will become a reality?  What would the Iraqi government look like were Maliki to be deposed?

First, there is little chance that the US will bring pressure to bear on Maliki to resign.  Since its withdrawal of troops in December 2011, US influence in Iraq has dramatically declined. Part of the reason for this decline is not just the US troop withdrawal, but the decision of the Obama administration to put Iraq on the back burner in terms of its policy priorities.

Second, the US does not want to open a "second front" with Iran.  It is already discovered that, the severe sanctions imposed on Iran notwithstanding, Iran has still not indicated any willingness to curtail its development of a so-called nuclear energy program, which experts believe is actually intended to produce a nuclear arsenal.

The US had an option to hold Maliki's feet to the fire in 2010 when his State of Law Coalition narrowly lost the March national parliament elections.  According to the Iraqi constitution, Ayad Allawi, the head of the al-Iraqiya Coalition, which won 91 seats to State of Law's 89 seats, should have been asked to form a new government.  The US and Iran tacitly cooperated to make sure that Allawi was not allowed that opportunity.

Whether Allawi would have been able to form a government is beside the point.  The US looked the other way as Maliki used a variety of dubious manuevers to maintain the post of prime minister.  Instead, the US tried to have Maliki create a new National Council for Security Affairs that Allawi would head.  Maliki promised to create the new government agency and give its a wide range of powers over domestic security and national defenses.  However, once he saw that he would be not ousted, he reneged on all his promises.

The US cooperated with Iran to keep Teheran's man in Baghdad in power.  It was following the timeless US policy of  supporting strongmen rather than acceding to the wishes of the populace at large.  One would think that the US would have learned from its experiences with the Shah in Iran, Mubarak in Egypt, Bin Ali in Tiunisa, Qaddafi in Libya and Salih in Yemen that supporting dictators to achieve "stability" inevitably backfires.

There is a yet another reason why the US will not suppoort efforts to depose Nuri al-Maliki: arms sales.  As one of the world's largest producers of oil (and soon natural gas as well), Iraq's resource base will grow dramatically in the near future.  The US has already sold Iraq F-16 fighter aircraft and is helping it rebuild its navy as well.  The US hopes that Amercian businesses will find a myraid of investment opportunities in Iraq as well.

Forcing Maliki from power would anger Iran which would step up its support for Shiite militias in the south of the country.  Iran would try to make life miserable for any of Maliki's potential replacements.  This would be especially true if that political actor were someone who leaned towards the United States.

Authoritarian legacies also play a part in the reluctance to replace Maliki, not just on the part of the US but domestically in Iraq as well.  Saddam Husayn was careful to execute any politician who he perceived as a possible future threat to his power, including his boyhood friend Adnan Khayrallah, who became popular as defense minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.  There were few politicians with any national credibility still alive when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

The Bush administration erred when it brought a slew of Iraqi expatriate politicians back to Iraq in 2003, including Nuri al-Maliki.  These politcians which included the likes of Ahmad Chalabi, the incredibly corrupt head of the Iraqi National Congress, and Abd al-Aziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, did not retunr to Iraq with any civic agendas.  They were and still are, as Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael refer to them, "carpetbaggers."

Turning to the current crisis, many Iraqis who oppose Maliki do not want to see him removed from power bercasue they fear even more instability.  This is especially true in light of the spillover of the Syrian civil war in Iraq's so-called "Sunni  Arab Triangle" in the north west and north central region of the country.

A number of tribal leaders in al-Anbar and Ninawa provinces see Maliki as a strongman who will prevent al-Qa'ida and its arm, the Islamic State of Iraq, and the so-called Naqshibandi Army (jaysh al-Naqshibandiya), led by the former number two leader in Iraq's Ba'th Party, Izzat al-Duri, from reestablishing themselves in the Sunni Triangle.  These shaykhs remember the extent to which radical forces encroached on their economic and political prerogatives during the sectarian violence of 2004-2008.

Indeed yesterday, the Acting (Sunni) Defense Minister, Sa'dun al-Dulaymi, attending a memorial for Iraqi army troops recently killed in al-Anbar and Ninawa provinces, called upon local tribal leaders not to allow sectarian militias to reestablish themselves in Sunni areas indicating that that would lead to chaos (al-fitna) and a catastrophe (al-karitha).  Clearly, Maliki is using al-Dulaymi to swing tribal leaders to support his government rather than see a return to the highly destructive violence that followed the toppling of Saddam Husayn's regime in 2003 (see the Iraqi al-Sabah newspaper, May 5, 2013).

al-Dulaymi also attacked the convening of an Istanbul "Iraqi Spring" conference of anti-Maliki dissidents, arguing that the conference constitutes an interference by Turkey in Iraq's internal affairs.  In his statement, the Iraq Defense Minister again called attention to Turkey's attacks on Iraqi territory in pursuit of Kurdish PKK guerrillas who operate from the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Maliki's tactics are to "divide and conquer" in Iraq';s Sunni heartland by setting powerful tribal leaders against Sunni demonstrators who feel Maliki has marginalized them from political power and government employment, while accusing Turkey for being responsible for fomenting the crisis presenting facing Iraq.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has encouraged Maliki to negotiate with the Kurds to solve their problems over oil and the "disputed territories" along Iraq's Green Line which separates Arabs and Kurds in northeastern Iraq.  Indeed, Maliki's efforts to engage the Kurds is probably only a temporary move designed to further isolate his Sunni Arab opponents by preventing a Kurdish-Sunni Arab alliance.  Maliki cannot come to terms with the Kurdish leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) because he would then be seen as ceding control to the Kurds of Iraq's oil resources in the north.

The recent negotiations between a Kurdish delegation from Arbil and Maliki's circle has smoothed over for the moment the contentious disputes between  the Baghdad and the KRG.  But Iraq's fragmented political elite has been down this road before and there is little doubt that the KRG's move to closer economic and political ties with Turkey presages more conflict in the future. 

Indeed, if Ankara is able to resolve its conflict with the PKK, and Turkey's large Kurdish minority feels its interests are finally being met, the temptation for the KRG to declare independence might be overwhelming, especially if Maliki and the Baghdad political elite do not curtail their hostile approach to Iraq's Kurdish population.  With Turkey's "Kurdish problem" under control, Ankara would be far less apt to see a KRG declaration of independence as threatening Turkey's national interests.

Maliki's calculus with regard to the KRG is much more shot-term in scope.  He sees any agreement that gives in to Kurdish demands for more control over their oil resources and any concessions on the disputed territories along the so-called Green Line as an invitation to his opponents to try and force him from office.  In his view, giving in to the Kurds would undermine his nationalist credentials and make him appear as only the leader of Arab Iraq.

The "wild card" in the crisis is the powerful Shiite populist, Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the Sadrist Trend which holds 40 seats in parliament.  Over the past year, Sadr has been in the forefront of trying to impose term limits on the post of prime minister and other top political offices.  Sadr has always tried to maintain close ties to the Sunni community as a way of bolstering his nationalist credentials.  While he came out and criticized Israel's attacks on Syria yesterday, he still has not weighed in on whether he truly wants Maliki ousted as prime minister. 

In short, the US will not be seeking to oust Nuri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister.  The US has few options available to it in trying to solve the current crisis in Iraq.  It can urge Maliki to limit the use of force in confronting angry Sunni Arab demonstrators, cease accusing them all of being agents for al-Qa'ida and other radical forces, and give their political leaders greater representation among his cabinet ministers and in top posts in the state bureaucracy.

At the end of the day, the US has to realize that Maliki is yet another example of poor foreign policy decision-making.  The time to have dealt with Maliki was 2010 when there was the opportunity to strike a blow for democracy and help support Iraq's efforts at implementing a democratic transition.   Instead, the US helped ensconce an authoritarian ruler who has progressively alienated almost all segments of Iraqi society.

At the end of the day, Maliki still has an ace in the hole.  He can continue to use his plentiful reserves of  oil wealth to coopt just enough of his opponents, including Sunni Arabs such as his defense minister, thereby keeping those enemies who will not play by his rules of the game off balance.  For the US, the chickens have come home to roost,  As the saying goes, "you reap what you sow."

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