Iraq is entering its seventh year since the U.S. invasion. Many things have changed in that time period, from the chaos that followed the collapse of the state after Saddam was overthrown, to the civil war that erupted, to the Surge. At the end of 2009 three Iraq analysts, Sam Parker of the United States Institute for Peace, Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation, and Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute of International Relations, wrote pieces speculating on what lay ahead for Iraq. All three agree that politics is the main forum for disputes within Iraq now, but don’t see much hope for the country’s elites to overcome their differences any time soon.
Sam Parker in his article “Is Iraq Back?” for Current History, and Michael Hanna in “Transitional state” in the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National start off by talking about Iraq’s current political situation. Both believe that politics has replaced violence as the main way groups in the country now resolve their problems. This started in early 2005 when some militants first began turning on Al Qaeda in Iraq, which would eventually snowball into most of the insurgency switching sides and giving up the fight to join the Anbar Awakening and the Sons of Iraq. Sunnis also greatly regretted boycotting the 2005 elections, which isolated them from local and national governments. In the 2009 provincial elections, Sunni turnout was very high as a result, and deaths have taken a sharp drop since then as a result. This process will continue in the 2010 vote, and has led Iraq from being a failed state to a fragile one.
What the central government now faces are three large and daunting problems, the first of which is sectarianism. Parker believes that this is now more about identity than religious differences, as Iraqis tend to vote for candidates of their own community. That means any future government will have to continue to include representatives of each of the major groups, the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. These large groups however, are breaking up into smaller factions. The Shiites for example, ran on one large list in 2005, the United Iraqi Alliance, but in 2010 will be competing in two lists, the State of Law led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the National Alliance made up of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Sadrists. Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute of International Relations in “COIN to Nowhere? Lesson from Iraq, Questions for Afghanistan” adds that he believes that these sectarian divisions have solidified rather than weakened. For example, while Maliki’s State of Law tried to create new cross-sectarian alliances after the 2009 elections and attempted to reach out to Sunnis and former Baathists, he was later stopped by criticisms by the other Shiite parties, pressure from Iran, and the Obama administration, which continues to stress a grand bargain between the three major groups. He then agrees with Parker and Hanna that any new Iraqi government will look and operate very much like the old one as a result.
The ethnosectarian groups also have long-standing differences over things like federalism versus centralism, oil policy, and the Arab-Kurd dispute. Hanna writes that there have been no serious efforts to deal with any of these issues, and that any new government is likely to be just as divided as the current one. Many of these problems have their origins in the 2005 constitution, which was drafted while the Iraqi state was weak and the sectarian war was just about to take off. The Arab-Kurd divide prevents any major changes to the document, leading to more deadlock. Hanna doesn’t believe that these divisions will lead the country back to civil war, and oddly adds that not dealing with them right now may be the best thing for Iraq right at the moment. He’s afraid that any move towards majority rule, and away from consensus could do more harm than good because the country’s weak institutions may not be able to deal with winners and losers. Visser has written extensively arguing the opposite, that the Iraqi system of consensus and quotas within the government should be ended because it only maintains the sectarian divisions.
The paralysis in Baghdad means that more mundane issues like basic governance, services, the displaced and refugees, corruption, jobs, poverty, etc. can’t be addressed. Technical issues like boosting oil production, and election laws for example get endlessly delayed because of the larger disputes between the ethnosectarian groups. The lack of development and the Arab-Kurd divide also allows militants to continue their attacks in Iraq.
All three analysts bring up important issues for Iraq’s future. Iraq is no longer a failed state as it once was. It is gaining back both its sovereignty and domestic standing. Violence is also down to its lowest level since the 2003 invasion, and the struggle for political power through peaceful means is now paramount. The inability of Baghdad to deliver on many basic needs however, its corruption, and sectarianism continue to eat away at its standing with the public. The continued factionalization of Iraq’s three major groups also means that it will be harder rather than easier to put together a new government and get things done. Parker and Hanna point out that this makes Iraq not much different from many other Third World countries who not only struggle with development, but also power sharing and ethnic differences. The problem is that public dissatisfaction with a government that seems dysfunctional can undermine a nascent democracy, and lead to a return to autocracy or worse, and that may be Iraq’s largest dilemma in the long-term.
Hanna, Michael, “Transitional state,” The National, 11/26/09
Parker, Sam, “Is Iraq Back?” Current History, December 2009
Visser, Reidar, “COIN to Nowhere? Lessons from Iraq, Questions for Afghanistan,” Iraq and Gulf Analysis, 12/1/09