Iraq’s de­scent

The coun­try’s sec­tar­ian ten­sions erupt anew, threat­en­ing vi­tal U.S. in­ter­ests

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY KIM­BERLY KA­GAN AND FRED­ER­ICK W. KA­GAN Kim­berly Ka­gan is pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute for the Study of War. Fred­er­ick W. Ka­gan is di­rec­tor of the Crit­i­cal Threats Project and a scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.

Eigh­teen days of protests in Egypt in 2011 elec­tri­fied the world. But more than twice that many days of protest in Iraq have gone al­most un­no­ticed in the United States. Iraqi army troops killed five Sunni pro­test­ers in Fal­lu­jah on Jan. 25, af­ter a month of anti-government protests in An­bar, Nin­eveh and Salahud­din prov­inces and else­where for which thou­sands turned out. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Ira­nian-backed Shi­ite mili­tias are re-mo­bi­liz­ing. Iraq teeters on the brink of re­newed in­sur­gency and, po­ten­tially, civil war.

This cri­sis mat­ters for Amer­ica. U.S. vi­tal in­ter­ests that have been un­der­mined over the past year in­clude prevent­ing Iraq from be­com­ing a haven for al-Qaeda and desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion by be­com­ing a se­cu­rity vac­uum or a dic­ta­tor­ship that in­flames sec­tar­ian civil war; con­tain­ing Ira­nian in­flu­ence in the re­gion; and en­sur­ing the free flow of oil to the global mar­ket.

While ten­sions have risen over the past two years, the trig­gers for re­cent erup­tions are clear. Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki, a Shi­ite, had the body­guards of Fi­nance Min­is­ter Rafie al-Is­sawi, who is Sunni, ar­rested for al­leged ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties on Dec. 20 — al­most ex­actly one year af­ter he or­dered the ar­rest of Sunni Vice Pres­i­dent Tariq al-Hashimi’s se­cu­rity de­tail. Hashimi fled to Turkey and is un­likely to re­turn soon to Iraq, where he was sen­tenced to death af­ter Ma­liki de­manded his trial in ab­sen­tia for mur­der and fi­nanc­ing ter­ror­ism.

The threat to Is­sawi, a mod­er­ate tech­no­crat from An­bar, gal­va­nized Iraqi Sun­nis, who rightly saw Ma­liki’s move as sec­tar­ian and an as­sault on government par­tic­i­pa­tion by Sun­nis not un­der the prime min­is­ter’s thumb. Three days af­ter the ar­rests, demon­stra­tions broke out in Ra­madi, Fal­lu­jah and Sa­marra. Three days af­ter that, a large protest closed the high­way from Bagh­dad to Syria and Jor­dan. The pop­u­lar re­sis­tance spread to Mo­sul on Dec. 27.

Th­ese protests erupted dur­ing a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis and as an ex­pand­ing Arab-Kurd con­flict has be­come in­creas­ingly mil­i­ta­rized. Iraqi Pres­i­dent Jalal Tal­a­bani was in­ca­pac­i­tated by a stroke on Dec. 17 and has been out of the coun­try for treat­ment. Iraq’s con­sti­tu­tion spec­i­fies a line of suc­ces­sion — but with one vice pres­i­dent in ex­ile and the other a Shi­ite and ob­vi­ous Ma­liki proxy, Iraq has been, in ef­fect, op­er­at­ing with­out a pres­i­dent. Po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses that re­quire pres­i­den­tial involvement have been par­a­lyzed, in­clud­ing mov­ing for­ward with long-stand­ing ef­forts by Sun­nis and Kurds to hold a par­lia­men­tary vote of no-con­fi­dence in Ma­liki.

Tal­a­bani had been the crit­i­cal link hold­ing Bagh­dad and Kur­dis­tan to­gether since ten­sions rose fol­low­ing a 10-day stand­off be­tween Iraqi army units and Kur­dish pesh merga troops in Oc­to­ber, af­ter Ma­liki sent the army to­ward the dis­puted city of Kirkuk. That move fol­lowed a se­ries of skir­mishes and mo­bi­liza­tions along the “Green Line” sep­a­rat­ing Kur­dis­tan from Arab Iraq and a se­ries of at­tacks in the area by al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The re­cent protests un­der­score the col­lapse of the in­clu­sive po­lit­i­cal ac­com­mo­da­tion reached in 2007, which had been re­con­firmed by the for­ma­tion of a grand Sunni-Shi­ite-Kurd coali­tion government af­ter par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2010. By Novem­ber 2012, Ma­liki had evolved to openly dis­cussing his in­ten­tion to form a “ma­jori­tar­ian government” that would ex­clude the most im­por­tant Sunni rep­re­sen­ta­tives. In mid-De­cem­ber he par­tic­i­pated in cre­at­ing a Shi­ite grand al­liance as the launch­ing pad for that government. The prin­ci­pal Sunni po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, in­clud­ing Is­sawi, par­lia­men­tary speaker Osama al-Nu­jaifi and An­bari tribal leader Ahmed abu Risha an­nounced their in­ten­tion to form their own coali­tion. In short, Iraqi pol­i­tics was re-frag­ment­ing along sec­tar­ian and eth­nic lines even be­fore the protests be­gan.

Un­der­stood in this con­text, the Iraqi army’s killing of pro­test­ers in Fal­lu­jah last month is a wa­ter­shed event sim­i­lar to the de­struc­tion of the Askariya shrine in Sa­marra in Fe­bru­ary 2006, though the cri­sis will not es­ca­late as quickly. Sunni-Shi­ite ten­sions have hith­erto played out in po­lit­i­cal fo­rums. The key ac­tors in to­day’s cri­sis are not the Sunni po­lit­i­cal lead­ers but, rather, An­bari tribal lead­ers, in­clud­ing Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, one of the most pow­er­ful lead­ers of Iraq’s largest Sunni tribe. Suleiman and fel­low lead­ers of the Du­laim tribe were es­sen­tial to en­gi­neer­ing the An­bar Awak­en­ing in 2007 and Sunni par­tic­i­pa­tion in the government, for which they re­jected al-Qaeda in Iraq and re­nounced vi­o­lence against the state. They re­sponded to the killings of pro­test­ers last month by threat­en­ing open war against the state for the first time since 2007. So far at least, they have re­strained pro­test­ers and re­sisted vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion.

For his part, Ma­liki has sought to deesca­late the con­flict and to mol­lify pro­test­ers. Tehran has also been work­ing — to per­suade Iraq’s Sadrists, whom Ma­liki has alien­ated in his con­sol­i­da­tion of power, to aban­don their sup­port for their Sunni brethren. Their com­bined ef­forts ap­pear to be work­ing: The Sadrist Bloc, which had re­fused Ma­liki’s re­quest for sug­ges­tions to re­place Is­sawi and other Sunni politi­cians, has put forth a sub­sti­tute fi­nance min­is­ter.

Th­ese ef­forts, os­ten­si­bly to­ward po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion, ac­tu­ally in­crease the like­li­hood of sec­tar­ian war by con­tin­u­ing the marginal­iza­tion of Sunni po­lit­i­cal lead­ers with­out ad­dress­ing Sunni tribes’ core griev­ances — and by re-cre­at­ing a Shi­ite front that had splin­tered.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has al­ready taken ad­van­tage of this sit­u­a­tion through its front group, the Is­lamic State of Iraq, which de­ployed com­bat teams in Fal­lu­jah last month that tar­geted Iraqi army po­si­tions and killed sev­eral sol­diers. The ji­hadists’ black flags have ap­peared at Sunni protests and me­mo­rial cer­e­monies for the fallen. The group is back in the havens it held in 2006. If Ma­liki does not al­low proper Sunni rep­re­sen­ta­tion in government, al-Qaeda will gain greater pop­u­lar tol­er­ance and for­eign sup­port.

Over the past year, the sit­u­a­tion in Iraq has be­come ex­plo­sive while sec­tar­ian sen­ti­ment and armed vi­o­lence in neigh­bor­ing na­tions have es­ca­lated dra­mat­i­cally. Amer­i­cans have be­come ac­cus­tomed to watch­ing Iraq ap­proach the precipice and draw back. But cir­cum­stances have changed with the with­drawal of all U.S. forces and Ma­liki’s year-long ef­forts to in­tim­i­date his op­po­nents through po­lit­i­cal, ju­di­cial and mil­i­tary ma­neu­vers. If Ma­liki does not ac­cept many of the pro­test­ers’ rea­son­able de­mands and al­low mean­ing­ful Sunni par­tic­i­pa­tion in government, prospects for stop­ping Iraq’s de­scent into sec­tar­ian con­flict are grim.


Pro­test­ers chant anti-government slo­gans in Bagh­dad on Fri­day.

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