In early April 2009 Anthony Cordesman, one of the top military analysts on Iraq, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released the latest version of his briefing on the war, “The Changing Situation in Iraq: A Progress Report.” Cordesman comes from the camp of American think tank writers who believes that the U.S. needs to stay long-term in Iraq to ensure its stability. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) however, Iraq’s military presence will end in 2011. This comes at a time when Iraq is facing a plethora of new issues including elections, power sharing, and a financial crisis, along with continuing violence. There is no telling whether the Iraq government will be able to maneuver through these problems, which means that the U.S. will have a lot to work on while they still have substantial forces in the country.
Iraq is a different place from what it was just a few years ago. A recent public opinion poll by ABC, NHK, and BBC from February 2009 detailed here shows that most Iraqis are feeling positive about their future. When asked how things were going in their life 65% said they were good compared to 35% who said that it was bad. This was the highest positive response since the poll was started back in 2005. Then 71% said things were going well in Iraq. After that the numbers dropped to 39% in February and August 2007, before climbing back up to 54% in March 2008. When asked how the entire country was doing at the time 58% said it was doing well in February 2009 compared to 43% in March 2008, 22% in August 2007, 35% in February 2007, and 44% in 2005. At the same time military and security issues dropped from being the most important issue at 58% in August 2007 to 33% in March 2008 to 22% by February 2009. Economic issues now predominate at 67% in February 2009. These match similar results found by polls coducted by the State and Defense Departments. As attacks and deaths have decreased since their peak during the sectarian war of 2006-2007 Iraqis are feeling better about their lives and the future of the country, while hoping that the economy, services, and government improve.
That doesn’t mean that security is not still a concern. Cordesman believes that Iraq could see violence for the next 4-5 years. He warns that Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency, and the Shiiite militias are down, but not out. In March 2009 Interior Minister Jawad Bolani warned that there were still Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the country, and the recent spate of bombings shows that militants are still active in the country. What has changed is the number and intensity of the fighting. Attacks are now down to 2004 levels. Most of those are concentrated in just four provinces, Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa and Salahaddin, whereas before they were across the entire nation. The February 2009 poll found that Iraqis are experiencing one-third less violence than they did in August 2008. IEDs and suicide attacks still persist, but crime, corruption, and the lack of rule of law are becoming more important.
The political arena is where most of Iraq’s rivalries and struggles are now taking place. Cordesman argues that the January 2009 provincial elections were the beginning of a political transition in Iraq. The balloting was important because it showed Iraqis that their votes counted as almost all of the ruling parties were replaced. It also raised expectations that the incoming councils would be more accountable, perform better, and provide services. The problem is that almost all of the provincial councils will require a coalition to rule. Some of these will not be stable and may break into factions. New politicians also don’t automatically mean better governance.
Cordesman noticed several trends in the provincial balloting that are different than other commentaries on them. First Arab nationalism rather than Iraqi nationalism was a winning theme. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list and new parties like al-Hadbaa in Ninewa ran on this platform championing a strong central government, but general opposition to the Kurds. As a result, they were the biggest losers. There were many reports that the election was a defeat for the religious parties and a move towards secularism, but Cordesman believes it was actually ones promising technocrats and better management that were successful. Maliki of course was the biggest winner, having rode into the voting with a 70% approval rating. Even his standing amongst Sunnis increased from 10% in February 2008 to 33% before the election. Maliki’s State of Law List won in Baghdad and across the south except for Karbala as a result. The Iraqi Islamic Party and and the Sadrists also did well despite some writing them off. The Sadrists will play an important role in coalitions in the south, while the Sunnis got greater representation after having boycotted the 2005 provincial vote.
The election also brought out the on-going struggle for control of the south and leadership of the Shiites. After the 2005 elections the Supreme Council was dominant. They suffered a crushing defeat after they claimed they would win Najaf, Babil, Qadisiyah, and Dhi Qar, and be the largest bloc in the rest of the south. They ran on a religious and federalist platform that was largely rejected for Maliki’s call for good governance and strong control.
More problematic is the increasing Arab-Kurdish divide. Only 44% of Iraqis say that relations between the two groups are good. In the provincial elections the Kurds lost control of Ninewa and Salahaddin. That will probably mean that there will be more tension there. This is already being seen in Ninewa where the Kurds are boycotting the al-Hadbaa headed council. The issue also threatens the unity of the Iraqi security forces. In the summer of 2008 for example, when Maliki sent the Iraqi Army into the Khanaqin district of Diyala a Kurdish battalion commander and 200 of his soldiers in Ninewa deserted and went to Irbil in Kurdistan in protest. A Kurdish brigade in Diyala also refused to take orders from the central government at that time. The fact that the insurgency is now largely based in the north in those exact same provinces is only making the matter worse. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani has not helped the situation either as he has made monthly attacks on Baghdad and Maliki. The U.S. believes that this is the number one source of instability in the country, and could lead to new violence in the future.
The provincial elections were just the opening salvo of these two struggles. Cordesman thinks that they will continue up to and after the parliamentary elections. They are scheduled for December 2009, but it could take up to six months afterwards for a new government to be formed and take office. There is also the added issue of dissatisfaction with Maliki’s rise to power. Some think that he has too much strength. The Prime Minister has direct control over the special forces and counterterrorism units for example. These fears could be moderated by the necessity for coalitions to rule. Maliki will have to have a Sunni party in this alliance, and might also join with the Iraqi National List of former Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi. On the other hand, Maliki may reject compromising with his foes if he comes out victorious. None of these problems is really being address, but are rather being exploited by political parties for votes and support.
On top of all this Iraq is running into a budget crisis. This will affect all the other problems in the country. Cordesman argues that money was one of the main things that held Iraq together over the last couple years. Each year Iraq’s budget increased as oil prices rose. This money was distributed to the various ministries, each of which is controlled by a different political party, and used for patronage and to garner support. Now Iraq is expected to run a $24 billion deficit in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, and a $13 billion one in 2010-2011. Security will be affected as the Interior Ministry announced that it is having a hiring freeze, and is canceling its plan to hire 66,000 new police. This will also hold up crime prevention and the establishment of rule of law, which are increasingly becoming important to the Iraqi public. The rest of the armed forces will also not be able to buy new equipment and weapons. While the Iraqi forces are getting better at counterinsurgency operations, Cordesman believes that they are still 3-5 years away from being able to defend their own country from other nations. Some U.S. commanders are worried that the U.S. will leave Iraq before the Iraqi forces are capable. U.S. advisors will still remain with Iraqi units after the June 2009 deadline to be out of Iraq’s cities, and have until 2011 to conduct training operations. The Iraqis can also extend those dates if they want.
With better security and new elections Iraqis are also expecting better services. This too will be slowed down by the budget problems. The political divisions have slowed developing Iraq’s oil resources, and many Iraqis are opposed to foreign companies doing business in the country fearing exploitation. The government is also the largest employer in the country. The budget deficit will mean few new hires. Salaries and pensions that form the backbone of the operational budget take up 90% of spending, leaving only 10% for development and investment, known as the capital budget. The amount of money Iraq has been able to spend overall has increased each year since 2005, but capital budget expenditures remain anemic. In 2007 Iraqi spent 80% of its $29 billion operational budget, but only 28% of its $12 billion capital budget. That increased to 39% of the $24 billion capital budget in 2008. That year the core ministries that raise revenues and provide services only spent 23% of their $16 billion capital budget.
Foreign investment has also been slow due to laborious government regulations. The World Bank’s 2009 Ease of Doing Business Report for example, ranked Iraq 152 out of 181 countries in ease of investment. That was down six spots from 2008. The 2006 National Investment Law doesn’t have a means to implement it, the National Investment Commission doesn’t have a chair, and the provincial investment commissions are weak. Kurdistan is the only region of the country that has large-scale investment coming in at about $15 billion. The country overall still needs billions of dollars to reach its targets for oil, electricity, and water production. That’s not likely to come any time soon.
Cordesman finishes by saying that real success in Iraq requires political reconciliation. While he provides a checklist of the benchmarks set by the American Congress during the Surge on key legislation, he seems more concerned about the actual actions of Iraq’s political parties. There the struggle for power is intensifying with the elections. That could last for years. Not only are the Shiite parties competing with each other, but the Sunnis still lack strong leadership, and the Arab-Kurdish dispute is only growing in intensity. At the same time, with violence down, average Iraqis are thinking more positive about their current and future situation. According to the February 2009 public opinion poll 59% of Sunnis and Shiites say relations between them are good. That’s up from 48% in 2008. At the same time, only 33% of Sunnis say they feel safe in their neighborhoods compared to 67% of Shiites and 85% of Kurds. That reflects the fact that the Sunnis were the losers politically with the fall of Saddam Hussein, and were then defeated by the Shiites in the sectarian war. Economic issues are also coming to the fore at just the time that the country is running out of money with the collapse of oil prices. As stated before, Cordesman is one of many American think tankers that believes Americans need to stay for the long-term in Iraq until its problems are solved. In practice that means an open ended commitment, and Cordesman’s report is part of that argument as it outlines the myriad issues facing the country that are not going to be resolved anytime soon. Cordesman does now seems to have come to terms with the fact that American forces will be out by the end of 2011 with the Status of Forces Agreement. That means that while American military forces will eventually be out, U.S. diplomats will still be working there for years.
Abouzeid, Rania, “Arabs-Kurd Tensions Could Threaten Iraq’s Peace,” Time, 3/24/09
BBC, ABC, NHK, “Iraq Poll February 2009,” 3/16/09
Cordesman, Anthony, “The Changing Situation in Iraq: A Progress Report,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4/1/09
Derhally, Massoud, “Iraq Freezes 66,000 New Police Hires, Minister Says,” Bloomberg, 3/22/09
Gamel, Kim, “Iraqi budget woes force security hiring freeze,” Associated Press, 3/20/09
Zelikow, Philip, “The new strategic situation in Iraq,” Foreign Policy Online, 2/9/09