Sampler of Expert Articles by:  Royal United Services Institute, UK – 21 Mar 13 – RUSI Analysis – By Henri Barkey & many others

Iraq’s Example to the Region: Ten Years of Democracy in the Recovery Room / Khaled Chouket – March 27, 2013

Ten years after the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s regime, the new Iraq has failed in building a viable democratic state. Everyone living in Iraq today knows that the existing democratic regime and all parties involved in the Iraqi experiment would not have survived a single day had it emerged from the recovery room that it has been inside since the days of Paul Bremer. Likewise, should the sponsors, or those benefiting from the existence of this weak, sick regime, decide to turn off the artificial respirators, it will not survive.

Few countries in the Arab world — perhaps in the entire world — can afford the luxury of keeping a failed democratic regime alive for an entire decade. For the costs of perpetuating Iraq’s failed democracy are so high that few countries could bear the consequences of it. This luxury is not available to the people of Tunisia, for example, or the people of Egypt, where, if their failed democracy continues for another year or two, the countries will suffer from complete ruin and economic collapse. The wheels of the state machine will stop turning and utter chaos will reign throughout the country.

However, this case does not apply to a country like Iraq. With its deep history, civilization, people, and resources, it was believed that the only thing preventing an Iraqi renaissance was freedom. Over the past ten years, it seemed that Iraq had lost the path to achieving freedom, the path to its renaissance. But what is the meaning of this freedom? After Iraqis experienced failure — abysmal, successive, meaningless failures — freedom seems useless; it has lost its credibility. What is the meaning of a freedom that is unable to achieve safety or stop the wasting of blood or terrorist bombings that have claimed the lives of poor Iraqis who were fuel for the dictator’s wars, and who, for the past ten years, were fuel for the wars of those who dreamt of his return?

The Green Zone represents the most prominent location of the recovery room, equipped with the latest American and foreign instruments to keep the sick democracy alive despite its signs of terminal illness. It is truly strange that the men of power and democratically elected officials have languished all this time, unable to do their jobs except from behind high walls, guards, and security forces that resemble those of the dictator in that their duty is to protect the ruler, not the ruled.


In order to break with the culture of an authoritarian presidential system, a system of parliamentary democracy was chosen. However, the Iraqi elite, who are divided along every possible type of division (religious, ideological, political, and regional), render the process of building government institutions after every election almost miraculous. It usually does not take place without Uncle Sam’s intervention and a good amount of arm-twisting here and there. Then, after the official sponsor leaves to attend to other matters in other countries, the politicians return quickly to games of tug of war in Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil, Mosul, or other established, confused cities of Mesopotamia, breaking bones, and going around in circles, games that have emptied the political process of any meaning. All of this has made these political elites wretched and devoid of any value or legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Oil revenue, which has rarely been anything but a curse in Arab lands, only hastens the corruption of morals and the dilution of the lofty meanings of democracy. It transforms the political process into a mechanism for the distribution of rentier booty, replacing the values of transparency, efficiency, professionalism, and respect for laws and justice into habits of bargaining, mutual hiding of corruption, mutual benefits, quotas, and buying consciences and votes. As in other failed states, war has transformed into an economy, a source of profit and exploitation for neighboring countries that have interests in finding a foothold and remaining at the center of influence.

I think back to an article I wrote in the newspaper Al Hayat on April 9, 2003. At the time, I wrote that “any alternative will not be worse.” My heart, then, was caught up in the mental desire and emotional obsession to see Iraqis free as the day they were born. At the same time, I believed that freedom would tear the fabric of Iraq, but that returning it to its rightful state would make it stronger and more beneficial. I thought freedom would create a foundation for the renaissance of science and civilization that the country deserves, and Iraq would return to its role as a model for other countries in the region to follow. But despite the fact that ten years have passed, Iraq’s fate has become nothing but a burden that weighs heavily on the shoulders of those who dream of freedom and democracy, forcing them to ask those big questions again about a nation that has not yet succeeded in building a functional understanding of democracy. Iraq is still seesawing back and forth in the choice between bread, freedom, progress, democracy, history, and identity.

The new Iraq brandishes failed democracy with distinction; such governance threatens the country’s very existence with division. The new Tunisia, the new Egypt, the new Libya, and the new Yemen – all of these cases could go in the direction of Iraq so that Iraq would not be a lone aberration in the region. If these countries fail, Arab democrats will lose all self-confidence and their intellectual and political grounding will be shaken beneath their feet.

Khaled Chouket is a Tunisian writer and journalist



Op-Ed – Iraq’s great divider – Prime Minister Maliki’s actions may lead to the country’s breakup, as the U.S. stands idly by.

By Henri J. Barkey

The Los Angeles Times –  26 Mar 13 – 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 [Kurdistan 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 [Kurdistan 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.



The New York Times – March 19, 2013

Iraq’s Fragile Future  By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

When President Obama withdrew the last combat troops from Iraq in 2011, Iraqis became responsible for their own future. They continue to face political strife, sectarian violence and corruption and mismanagement. As a country in transition in the volatile Middle East, it still merits sustained American interest. Below are summaries of four editorials that have focused on these issues, along with new commentary from the board.

Dec. 21, 2011: Iraq’s Latest Battle

No one expected the dangers and tensions in Iraqi politics to vanish after the last American troop departed. But at least Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a member of the Shiite majority, might have made an effort to step up to the challenges of creating a future for Iraq based on democratic principles. Instead, he is showing a greater interest in reprisals against the Sunni minority than in encouraging inclusion.

Persistent Stalemate:

Iraqis have not learned to compromise and as a result, stresses continue to batter the state. There are also worsening tensions over oil and federal-provincial prerogatives between the central government and Kurds in the semiautonomous region in the northeast.

Sept. 10, 2012: Renewed Tensions in Iraq

Mr. Maliki’s blatant attempts to monopolize power have led Sunni and Kurdish politicians to try to remove him by a vote of no confidence. But opposition groups also deserve blame for the political deadlock. They would better serve their constituents by working with Mr. Maliki to carry out the power-sharing deal struck in 2010, to strengthen democratic institutions and ensure fair elections in 2014.

A Low-level Insurgency:

The best that can be said of Iraq these days is that there is still a political process in play, violence is down from the worst levels of the war and oil production has risen to levels not seen since the gulf war. But violence persists. Al Qaeda affiliates frequently usecar bombs and coordinated blasts to erode Iraqi confidence in the Shiite-led government. The state is still far from the democracy President George W. Bush envisioned.

Dec. 10, 2012: Al Qaeda in Syria

The presence of rebel fighters in Syria that were trained and supported by Al Qaeda poses a serious problem for the United States and Western allies. The Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has become one of the most effective forces fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.

The fear is that the group could hijack the revolution and emerge as the dominant force in Syria after Mr. Assad is ousted from power.

Al Qaeda in Iraq:

American officials seem aware that rebels connected to Al Qaeda in Iraq are playing an increasing role in Syria and that time favors these extremists. The anti-Assad opposition has been losing Syrian “hearts and minds” to these Al Qaeda groups, which have done a better job at delivering assistance to civilians. The Obama administration recently said it would provide more non-lethal aid to the anti-Assad opposition but it will need to be more effective than it has been at getting aid to embattled innocents.

Feb. 28, 2013: Help for Syrian Rebels

President Obama is right to put pressure on Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who has been slaughtering his people for two years, and to influence opposition forces that may one day form the government.

Washington is also expected to increase aid to the political wing of the anti-Assad coalition and train rebel fighters. But the problem for Washington and its European partners is how to support the opposition and accelerate the ouster of a brutal dictator without getting pulled into another war in the Mideast.

Mr. Maliki’s Fear:

One reason the United States and its allies must do more to bring the Syrian civil war to an end is its impact on neighboring states including Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki is worried that if the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is overthrown, he could be next. Mr. Maliki would be less vulnerable if he worked cooperatively with all of Iraq’s ethnic groups, instead of expanding his powers.


RUSI         Royal United Services Institute, UK – 21 Mar 13 – RUSI Analysis

Iraq Ten Years On – a Troubled Past and Unpredictable Future

Iraq is as volatile as it was after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Politics are fought along sectarian lines, and grievances run deep. Nevertheless, Iraq remains united and has the potential to be a regional, and democratic, powerhouse.

By Mina al-Oraibi for RUSI.org

‘Give it five years, ten years maximum, and Iraq will be in a great position’. Some variation of this assessment was often heard in 2003 as the United States-led coalition began its offensive on Iraq. Regardless of whether they supported or opposed the war, the thinking amongst many Iraqis was that the potential of their country -with its strategic location, immense wealth and educated population – meant that not only would Iraq recover but that it would excel within a few years.

Ten years have passed since the war on Iraq, waged at first on a false claim of the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and later on the assumption that Iraq can be a beacon of freedom and success if freed from the shackles of dictatorship. A decade on, and not only has Iraq not fulfilled its potential, it has on many levels regressed. Suffering from a system that was instilled by the Coalition Provisional Authority and based on sectarian divisions that feed into the interests of sectarian parties.

Iraq’s national interest has often been lost in the struggles of parties and militias over power and privilege. From 2003, Iraqis have been treated as different factions to be played out against each other, often to the advantage of regional powers exploiting sectarian and ethnic differences in the country.

Iraq’s Paralysed Politics

As inflammatory rhetoric and political bickering once more paralyse Iraq’s politics, this failed system threatens to give way to violence. In the past few weeks, Iraq’s fragile national unity government has all but unravelled, with various factions in a stand-off with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. As Iraqis marked the ten year anniversary of the war, they had to contend with the current state of failed politics, including the fact that the Iraqi Minister of Finance Rafi’ Al-Issawi was barricaded in Anbar province fearing for his life and with Kurdish ministers including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshiyar Zebari boycotting government meetings and remaining in the Kurdish region. Moreover, the Ministers of the Sadrist movement, led by the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada AlSadr, announced their decision this week to suspend participation in the government.

The political tensions in Iraq today compound the troubles that have been facing Iraqis for the last decade – from car bombs ripping out dozens of lives at a time, to the eleventh hellish summer approaching with accompanying electricity cuts. And yet, the biggest problem thus far in Iraq has been the failure to foster and protect Iraqis as citizens with rights and responsibilities. The considerations of citizens are only acknowledged in times of elections, and in that case they are pushed to identify along basic sectarian and ethnic lines. The false lines drawn on ethnicity and sect have pushed out those whose identity is first and foremost as Iraqis, marginalising and alienating those who do not fall into the crude Sunni, Shia and Kurdish labels used since 2003 for political purposes.

Many point to the fact that parties divided along sectarian lines are the ones that Iraqis vote for. However the experiment of Al-Iraqiya, a mutli-sect political party list which won the majority of votes in 2010 (with 91 of 325 seats in parliament) with Members of Parliament elected from across the country, proved that a large cross-section of Iraqis were looking for national politicians rather than those standing on a sectarian platform. Nevertheless, the political system ruling Iraq meant that a coalition formed on sectarian lines after the election results were announced, was able to form the government (with 89 seats) instead of those who obtained the larger number of seats in parliament. This highlights once again that the obstacle to national politics in Iraq is ingrained in the political system, rather than simply sectarian polarisation in the country.

Furthermore, the failure and even the sabotage of state institutions like the judiciary, trade unions, and independent oversight bodies has resulted in a lack of institutional checks and balances, thus allowing power to corrupt in Iraq at the largest scale. While it is crucial to keep in mind that Iraq’s troubles in no way started in 2003 -Saddam’s tyranny, the Iraq-Iran war, the invasion of Kuwait and sanctions all dealt terrible blows to the country over the past four decades – nevertheless the powers in charge after the 2003 war dismantled Iraqi state institutions and failed to stop political and financial corruption that continue to plague Iraq.

Prospects for a United Iraq

However, the silver lining in the clouds that continue to loom large over Iraq is that, despite all these challenges, Iraqis came back from the brink of civil war in 2007. Moreover, they have maintained a unified country despite all the predictions of its breakup. Now, Iraqis have a chance in April local elections and next year’s general elections to forge a new path. It won’t be easy as the incumbents have an advantage, but if voter turnout is maintained and elections continue to be fair and transparent, there is hope to create some changes via the ballot box – something Iraqis never had prior to the 2003 war.

While there is large criticism of many aspects of the 2003 war, one of the saving graces was considered to be the fact that Iraqis could now go to the ballot boxes to determine their future. Yet, on the day of the tenth anniversary of the war, the Iraqi central government announced that the provincial government elections slated for April would be postponed in Anbar and Nineweh. This decision, made on the backdrop of continued demonstrations in the provinces, will have significant repercussions. It once more signals the divisions between Iraq’s provinces and the discrepancy in political stability between them. It is also an indicator of how political solutions in the country are often based on short-term measures rather than real reforms to tackle long-standing grievances.

Furthermore, this allows regional powers, primarily Iran and Turkey, to take advantage of internal struggles to play different groups off each other inside Iraq. Feeling vulnerable, many parties and militias turn to these regional powers to get political and financial support to fight domestic battles in the constant struggle for power and influence inside Iraq.

Newspaper headlines and hour long documentaries over the past few weeks have revisited the causes of the 2003 war, with many pundits rehashing old arguments or trying to present new positions. Others have used the Iraq war as an example of why, or why not, to intervene militarily, with contrasts drawn with Syria. And while all these discussions are important for various reasons – including holding accountable those who make decisions of war and peace that affect millions – it is pertinent to look to the future.

The promises of a better future are often referred to in terms of economic benefits related to Iraq’s vast oil wealth, with close to 3 million barrels a day in output and expectations for that figure to rise to 9 million barrels a day within five years. However, thus far these figures have only added to Iraq’s troubles, both in terms of the use of oil wealth for corrupt internal purposes and exploitation from abroad.

Iraq’s potential in agriculture, tourism, academic development and as a regional powerhouse is far more significant. Yet, as has happened in the past decade, all these possible avenues of prosperity are on hold as unpredictable forces of political infighting and violence grip the country. In order to make sure that the next decade will hold brighter days for Iraq, the ghosts of the past must be laid to rest. The present and future must be based on a national consensus to embrace an Iraq for all, with rights and responsibilities as citizens, not sectarian and ethnic labels exploited for political ends.

Mina Al-Oraibi is Assistant Editor in Chief of Asharq Alawsat Newspaper, a daily pan-Arab newspaper. An Iraqi-Briton, Al-Oraibi has spent the previous decade reporting on the Middle East, and on US and European policies towards the region. Al-Oraibi is a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Arab World, and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009. She can be contacted on twitter @AlOraibi



RUSI – 3 Jan 13 –  RUSI Analysis :  A Year of Endemic Instability in Iraq

Sectarian and ethnic polarisation now dominates Iraq’s political landscape. It could lead to toxic instability in 2013 as the Syrian civil war bolsters a restless Sunni Iraqi opposition while the Kurds continue to assert their independence from Baghdad.

By Professor Gareth Stansfield, Senior Associate Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies

Since 2003, the Anbar province of Iraq has shown itself to be home to powerful and formative forces that have altered the country’s direction of political developments at key moments. It was the change in position of key tribes and groups in Anbar in 2005 that led to the formation of the Anbar Awakening that ultimately led to the broader Sunni awakening of 2006-7.

This awakening, along with the standing down of the Mahdi Army of Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr, was just as responsible if not more so as the vaunted ‘surge’ of US military forces for the ending of Al-Qa’ida associated activities that had threatened to derail the fragile Iraqi government. Once again, Anbar is awakening, but this time the dynamics and the environment are very different: Anbar is stirring against the government of Nouri al-Maliki; it is doing so at a time when the Kurds are taking increasingly strident positions against Baghdad; and this is happening when there is no possibility of a second US surge rescuing the prime minister from threats that could turn into attempted coups.

Whether sectarianism and ethnicism have been perennial features of the Iraqi political landscape, or were empowered or even constructed by the post-2003 architects of Iraq’s political system, they now define the political life, actions, and future of Iraq. Indeed, the ethno-sectarian rules of the game were displayed to the full by Prime Minister Maliki’s issuing of an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, following the withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011.

Since then, the lines between Sunnis and Shi’as, Arabs and Kurds, have been very clearly drawn, with the prime minister continuing to centralise power around his immediate office, the Kurds moving towards ever higher levels of autonomy through the control of their own oil and gas sector, and the Sunni Arabs becoming increasingly exasperated by what they view, with reason, to be their marginalisation and subordination within a Shi’a-dominated state.

Antagonising Sunni Iraqis

This exasperation has been growing over the last year following successive events that have been interpreted as being anti-Sunni. The last of these events – the arresting of ten bodyguards of finance minister Rafi al-Issawi on 20 December – saw protests and demonstrations erupt across what was known in the days of the civil war as the Sunni Triangle, and focused upon Anbar.

Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul – all saw demonstrations against the Maliki government, with some, including Mosul, calling for the withdrawal of the Iraqi government and police forces. Never one to shirk from a challenge to his power, Maliki has responded with ominous language – including calling up protesters to ‘end their strike before the state intervenes to end it’.

Strained Relations with Erbil

While Maliki has faced threats from the Sunni areas before, he has never faced them in isolation. This time, however, the Kurds are no longer his allies and instead have increasingly common cause with their Sunni neighbours. Following years of poor relations between Erbil and Baghdad, caused over disputes over oil and gas policy, budgetary allocations, the status of the disputed territories (including Kirkuk), and an overall disenchantment within Erbil towards the Maliki government, the relationship between the two capitals has, by the start of 2013, become appalling.

Following a military stand-off in the disputed territories at the end of 2012, the scene is set for 2013 to be one of the Kurds moving ahead with securing their autonomy by strengthening their relationship with Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, and by exporting oil and gas directly to their northern neighbour. In order to protect their region, it would make sense for them to do so from the disputed territories themselves, and so raise the spectre of increased military confrontation with Maliki in such volatile flashpoints as Kirkuk, Diyala, and Ninevah. This is a confrontation that the Kurds, with at least tacit Sunni support, may feel capable of winning. The Kurdistan War of 2013 may not be too unlikely, looking at the current pieces on the board.

Syria’s Civil War Played Out in Iraq

All of these developments are taking place within a wider regional setting of instability, with all roads arguably leading to Baghdad. It is no surprise or coincidence, for example, that demonstrators in Anbar are flying the flag of the Syrian revolution alongside the former flag of Saddam’s Iraq. The ties that bind the populations of Anbar and other Sunni areas in Iraq with those in Syria are strong and were forged in the fires of the Iraq civil war of 2005-7. A post-Assad Sunni-dominated government in Syria would have a profound impact upon the pattern of political power in Iraq – something that Prime Minister Maliki seems to be clearly aware of.

The Kurds, too, are engaged in Syria, with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) actively engaged in the capacity-building of Kurdish militia forces, and attempting to broker power-sharing arrangements between the myriad Syrian Kurdish factions in an attempt to ensure that their own interests, as well as those of Turkey, are protected. For his part, Prime Minister Maliki’s foreign policy – which is only one of three within the increasingly fractured state – seems to be one of hoping for the survival of the Assad regime, if only to ensure that the full focus of Tehran’s security concerns do not become focused upon ensuring Iraq’s compliance in the aftermath of Syria’s Sunni ascendency.

If matters could be made even more inflammable, Iraq is now entering the election season. Local elections are to be contested in April 2013, followed by parliamentary elections in 2014. Already, the blocks being constructed for the local elections display clear sectarian and ethnic logic, and there is little to suggest that this will change over the forthcoming year. With few voices willing or capable to challenge the rhetoric of sectarianism and ethnic nationalism (with President Jalal Talabani being one of the few able to do this, and who remains out of the political fray in hospital in Germany), the scene is set for Iraq to have a very difficult 2013.


RUSI – 26 Nov 12 –  RUSI Analysis – Tension on the Trigger-Line / By Professor Gareth Stansfield, Senior Associate Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies

As the eyes of the world are focused on Israel and Gaza, tension in northern Iraq between the Kurdish regional government and the Maliki administration has been mounting. Any violence between the two factions would be a disaster for Iraq.

The disputed territories of Iraq, a broad expanse of northern Iraqi territory that the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) seeks to include within its autonomous region has remained relatively quiet over the last year. With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki focused upon out-manoeuvring his Sunni political opponents in Baghdad, and seeking to remain ahead of potential Shia challengers, the relative importance of the Kurds’ demands over the disputed territories became subordinated to these other concerns.

Regional Ambitions, Capital Concerns

KRG President Massoud Barzani was also focused on other matters, not least the advancement of the Erbil-Ankara alliance (which also benefited from Maliki’s struggle with the Sunni-dominated Iraqiyya coalition) and the furthering of the KRG’s independent oil and gas sector activities. Some of the world’s major international oil companies (IOCs) have signed exploration and production contracts with Erbil, much to the consternation of Baghdad. But, over recent months, the status of the disputed territories has returned as a key issue in the politics of Iraq. Recent developments have raised the spectre of conflict between the determined and numerous forces of the Kurdistan Region (the peshmerga) that answer only to the Kurdish leadership, and the increasingly organised and well-equipped Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), now very much loyal to Prime Minister Maliki.

At first sight, Tuz Khurmatu would not be at the top of the list of potential flashpoints in the disputed territories. Although ethnically mixed, with populations of Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds, the rather desolate town sits only 170km north of Baghdad, and lies in the southernmost part of the areas claimed by the Kurds. Most of the significant oil-related activities in the disputed territories are located further to the north, around Kirkuk and across Kurdish-controlled territory. The other area of major concern in the disputed territories – the Ninevah governorate and around Mosul – is also far removed from the backwater of Tuz Khurmatu.

However, seemingly innocuous events in Tuz, which appear to have started following a dispute over payment at a petrol station, have threatened to pitch the peshmerga and ISF against each other. Kurdish guards became involved in the dispute, a fire fight followed in which a passing tractor-driver was killed and the ISF attempted to search a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official’s house.

Tension between Erbil and Baghdad have been increasing in the disputed territories over recent months. Following a failed attempt in June to organise a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Maliki, which was pushed hard by President Barzani, relations between the two leaders – never good to start with – became notably frosty. The deployment of ISF units (from Nassiryya) to the disputed territories, in Zummar and Shengal, was then blocked by the KRG deployment of peshmerga units – a move which infuriated Maliki who accused the Kurdish leadership of ‘violating the constitution’.

Economic Emancipation

Underpinning these actions have been the Kurds’ move towards consolidating their hydrocarbon sector independently of Baghdad – including the construction of pipelines to Dohuk, in close proximity to the Turkish border, and the signing of contracts with Exxon Mobil, Total, Gazprom, and Chevron. They have also sometimes allowed operations in areas very close to, if not actually in, the disputed territories. These moves – deemed to be constitutionally acceptable by the KRG – have served as a perennial impediment to close relations between Erbil and Baghdad over several years. The Kurds view their strategy of bringing the world’s most significant IOCs to their region, as creating an unassailable economic reality that will allow the KRG to circumvent political obstacles put in their way by Baghdad. It remains, however, a high-risk game to play with as determined an opponent as Maliki and his deputy Hussein al-Shahristani – himself a vociferous opponent of Kurdish actions.

Making matters even worse was the establishment of the ISF Tigris Operational Command, west of Kirkuk. This brought together two ISF divisions under the command of Lt Gen Abdulamir Zaidi – a figure accused by the Kurds of being involved in the genocidal Anfal campaign committed against them by the Ba’ath regime in the late 1980s – and has been met by Kurdish leaders from all parties with unified opposition. Seeing the development as being nothing less than directly threatening the very existence of the Kurdistan Region itself, President Barzani has maintained the peshmerga on its highest level of alert over the last month. It was therefore very possible that the smallest altercation, in any part of the disputed territories could quite easily escalate into a major confrontation between two forces loyal to two leaders who are locked in a zero-sum struggle.

As of 25 November, reports indicate that a sizeable military formation has been dispatched from Baghdad and is heading north, and with ISF units being reinforced across the disputed territories – including north of Kirkuk City, facing the Kurdistan Region. The peshmerga are also being strengthened, drawing upon their 200,000 strong number, and deploying their tanks and artillery pieces, in addition to scattering themselves around Tuz Khurmato and its environs in preparation for engagement with their Iraqi counterparts. With both sides militarily capable, heavily-armed, and seemingly relishing the prospect of bloodying their opponents, the chances of the KRG and Government of Iraq coming to blows are higher than at any time in the recent past. Politically, this would be disastrous for Iraq and, with Erbil now so closely partnered with Ankara politically and economically, could very easily have wider regional ramifications. If this outcome is once again avoided, expect to see Barzani and Maliki focus heavily on the status of the disputed territories in the run-up to Iraq’s national elections in 2014, while seeing the international community attempt to shore up the fragile political compact that maintains the shaky territorial integrity of Iraq.


RUSI – 24 Aug 10 – RUSI Analysis – Conclusion of US Combat Mission in Iraq: Beginning of the End, or End of the Beginning?

As the US government prepares for its 2011 withdrawal date from Iraq, the finishing post may be further than anticipated. – By Mina Al-Oraibi for RUSI.org

The past month has witnessed intense public engagement on the part of the US government in regards to its policy on Iraq, more than at any other time since Barak Obama entered the White House. And the message from Washington is clear: America’s war in Iraq is ending. Under the low key title of ‘ending the war responsibly’, the Obama administration has overseen the withdrawal of nearly 90,000 American troops from Iraq. Moreover, 31 August 2010 will witness the ‘ending of US combat mission in Iraq’, concluding 89 months of combat operations in Iraq. While 50,000 troops will remain in over a hundred bases all over Iraq, they will no longer be in combat and will be looking to have minimal footprint in a country that has witnessed the heaviest American presence since the Vietnam War.

Changing targets

While the Obama administration has been very careful not to declare ‘victory’ in Iraq, the ending of American combat operations there is a milestone. This could be the ‘beginning of the end’ of the American role in Iraq, concluding fully at the end of 2011 with the promised withdrawal of all US troops. Alternatively, this deadline could be the ‘end of the beginning’ – a rocky start to modern relations between Iraq and the United States that launched with the 2003 war, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime and the installation of a system of US-designed system of government. This phase is now reaching its conclusion. The potential now exists for a new era, in which the United States can help to reshape Iraq after years of chaos and violence, laying the foundations for a long-term partnership throughout the twenty-first century.

‘The end of the beginning’ is certainly how the Obama administration appear to be viewing the current period. ‘Operation New Dawn’ will be the banner under which 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq to aid Iraqi security forces, protect US and international missions and conduct counter-terrorism operations. This last function remains unclearly defined, especially in terms of which operations are considered ‘counter-terrorism’ and who will lead such missions and authorise them. The ‘new dawn’ in the American military presence in Iraq will be crucial in building Iraqi trust in the United States. While Iraqi and American officials insist that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri AlMaliki and former US President George Bush means that Iraqi security forces take the lead on security, American commanders will still be the ones giving directives to their troops.

US-Iraqi relations

This is one of many points of possible contention that may arise in the coming months. While US and Iraqi officials insist that all decisions regulating relations between the two countries have complied with SOFA and the Strategic Framework Agreement, the implementation of these agreements will be heavily scrutinised after September. This is especially true on the part of the Iraqi parliament, where only 50 out of its 325 representatives were members at the time of the original endorsement of SOFA.

While SOFA states that all American troops will be removed from Iraq by the end of 2011, American officials have already started laying public relations ground-work to prepare the public for a future presence in Iraq. Most recently, Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to US Vice President Joe Biden, said that ‘some small number of military personnel’, potentially hundreds, will remain in Iraq post-2011. The one constant statement from US officials has been that any future military presence will have to come at the request of the Iraqis. However, no Iraqi official dares to discuss this during the delicate government formation period, when all public statements must be about strengthening Iraqi sovereignty. When speaking off the record, officials from both sides indicate to a general consensus that a new agreement could be reached to maintain the US military presence in Iraq, even if it is skeletal in comparison to peak troop numbers over the last few years.

Is Iraq ready?

However, there is an even more pertinent issue at stake here: that of Iraq’s political future. US officials, from former US ambassador to Iraq Ambassador Christopher Hill to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl, have been speaking to journalists and opinion-formers, in order to present a narrative of an Iraq ready to take care of itself. While it would be impossible to refute the argument that Iraqis must bear the responsibility of government over their country, the US cannot simply shed responsibility, as it has put in place a political system that is now paralysed. While US Vice President Joe Biden likes to suggest that the political deadlock in Baghdad is a sign of ‘politics breaking out’ in the country, the reality is far from that.

Five months after Iraq’s 7 March elections, different factions continue to fight to gain power and influence, regardless of the number votes they received. Iraqis are increasingly expressing dismay and despair at the delay in government formation; a delay that is largely based on personal interests rather than an open discussion on the sort of state they wish to see emerge.

The five year plan

In an interview with CBS, General Odierno said: “I would say to determine whether we’ve won the war or not, we can see that in three to five years as we see how Iraq turns out”. In effect, the five year timeline will be crucial for Iraq; by the end of that time, the Iraqis will be holding the next parliamentary elections. While it may be difficult to predict how these elections will turn out, particularly given that the most recent ones have still not been fully implemented, Iraq is nevertheless continuing along the (albeit bumpy) path whereby power transitions are carried out by ballot boxes rather than by violence. It is difficult to imagine that the current political operators will willingly cede power in the next round of elections, especially as American and UN pressure at that point would have scaled back significantly.

Building the future

Obama’s new Ambassador to Iraq, the highly knowledgeable James Jeffrey, along with other US and Iraqi officials, will therefore be required to focus on building civilian capacity to bolster Baghdad’s political system and safeguard the process of representation. It is at this point that the Obama administration will either oversee the ‘beginning of the end’ of democratic aspirations in Iraq, or initiate the ‘end of the beginning’ of a flawed implementation of democracy; salvaging what it can to create a new stage of preparations for Iraq’s future, based on equality, sovereignty and freedom.

Mina al-Oraibi is the Washington bureau chief for Asharq Al-Awsat, the international pan-Arab daily.