Iraq is on its way to dissolution, and the United States is doing nothing to stop it. And if you ask people in Iraq, it may even be abetting it.
With very few exceptions, an important event in Iraq went unnoticed in the U.S. media this month. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki sent a force that included helicopters to western Iraq to arrest Rafi Issawi, the former finance minister and a leading Sunni Arab opposition member. Issawi, who was protected by armed members of the Abu Risha clan, one of post-2003 Iraq’s most powerful Sunni tribes, escaped capture.
This action came on the heels of Maliki’s telephone conversation with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and took Washington by surprise. Had a confrontation ensued, the results would have been calamitous. It could even have provided the spark for the beginning of a civil war. Still, Maliki’s actions represent another nail in the coffin for a unified Iraq. Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, had previously accused Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a leading Sunni political figure, of terrorism, forcing him to flee Iraq in 2011. Hashimi was subsequently tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
Maliki’s policies have significantly raised tensions in the Sunni regions of Iraq. There are demonstrations in many of the Sunni provinces that seek to emulate those of the Arab Spring. They are one reason Maliki has targeted Issawi. He wants to contain the dissent before it spreads.
Maliki’s confrontational and increasingly dictatorial style has also alienated Iraqi Kurds, who, unlike the Sunnis, have succeeded in having the Iraqi Constitution recognize their federal region and the Kurdistan regional government. The Kurds, for all intents and purposes, run an autonomous area with its own defense forces. However, the relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil has become severely strained as the central government has made cooperation difficult, if not impossible. Baghdad, ostensibly, is angry at the Kurds’ attempts to make independent deals with foreign oil companies.
But at the heart of Maliki’s policies is his unease with the developments in Syria. Convinced that Syrian President Bashar Assad, who belongs to the Shiite-related Alawite sect, is on his way out, Maliki fears a tidal wave of Sunni fighters will cross the border to rekindle the civil war that has threatened to erupt in Iraq since the U.S. occupation. He thinks the Kurds have established their region and that their independence is only a matter of time. Hence, his primary concern is to solidify his control over the Shiite Muslim regions and Baghdad.
Maliki’s increasingly dictatorial tendencies are ensuring that the country will split along sectarian and ethnic lines. This is not what the United States wants, nor is it conducive to stability in the region, as Iraq would succumb to the interference of its often-rapacious neighbors.
Washington has abetted the process by playing into Maliki’s hands. It seems every time the U.S. engages Maliki, he feels emboldened and takes risks. Washington has not tried to contain him. Take, for example, the U.S. relationship with the Kurdish regional government. The Kurds complain that Washington has been siding with Baghdad at their expense. From the oil deals to simple education exchanges, Washington seems petrified about crossing Maliki.
What explains this seeming American inattention to Iraq’s deepening problems? One possible explanation is that the U.S. sees support for Maliki as a last-ditch effort to contain the Shiites in Iraq and prevent them from becoming Iran’s wholly owned subsidiary. After all, Iran exerts a great deal of influence in the Shiite provinces of Iraq and is likely to increase its hold in Iraq as sectarian tensions intensify, especially if Syria collapses.
Making matters worse is the absence of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who suffered a stroke in December and is being treated in Germany. Wily and savvy, Talabani’s primary function was to provide adult supervision to all the quarreling parties in Baghdad. His illness has created a dangerous vacuum. It is unlikely that anyone will replace him any time soon because within the Kurdish regional government, where he is revered, any mention of succession is taboo.
Iraq may be destined for a breakup. But the way to prevent it is not by strengthening the hand of the one person who is most responsible for pushing the parties apart. The answer is for Iraq to further develop its federal structures, make Baghdad a federal district and devolve power to the provinces. Then it needs to create a stake for all to want to remain within such a federation. Decentralization with a promise of equitable sharing of the country’s oil revenue is the only glue that will hold the country together.
The next time Maliki, buoyed by real or imagined U.S. support, resorts to force against his opposition, the outcome may not end as quietly as it did in the Issawi incident.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.