Iraq: What Remains

Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Research and Information Project | 16 Apr 2013

American soldiers are gone from Iraq, along with much of Washington’s influence. The Obama administration, which came to office opposed to the entire enterprise but then tried, and failed, to extend the troop presence, professes still to play a leading part in what goes on. In reality, it looks more like a bemused bystander who hopes that, somehow, things will not abruptly fall to pieces.

If Iraq has faded from the limelight, it is because more severe crises have overtaken it in the public imagination. The most serious such crisis, the civil war in Syria, is unfolding right next door, however, and to listen to Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum is to risk being infected by their growing sense of panic. Like Syria, Iraq is a mosaic of ethnic and confessional groups. Since 2008, the intercommunal fighting that followed the 2003 invasion has trailed off, but a comprehensive political settlement, or any agreement on the nature of the post-2003 order, has been elusive. Many fear that it is only a matter of time before fighting in Syria sparks a resumption of full-scale civil conflict in Iraq, putting an end to the narrative of calm dominant since the pullout of the last US troops in December 2011.

Relics of Occupation

A traveler to Baghdad somehow ignorant of the fact that the country had been under almost nine years of American occupation would soon detect the telltale signs nevertheless. Traces of the troops’ presence remain in common expressions — “Hey, man!” — and idiosyncratic US military gestures like the extended balled fists that warn vehicles to stop at checkpoints. The US passage through Iraq is also evident in nicknames — the acting interior minister earned the moniker “Triple A” for the three capital As in his name — and aspects of urban architecture, notably the concrete blast walls that enfold critical facilities and several neighborhoods. Humvees are everywhere, now Iraqi-owned and operated. At the gate to sensitive sites, dogs, usually handled by non-Iraqis, search cars. M1A1 Abrams tanks, freshly arrived from the plant in Lima, Ohio, sit at military bases. Soon F-16 fighters will streak overhead, testimony to Iraq’s oil-infused purchasing power, as well as its emerging military strength. The first batch of 36 new jets is scheduled for delivery in 2014. They carry a price tag of $8 billion, part of a $12 billion US program to bolster the Iraqi military with an assortment of heavy weaponry and equipment.

Among the relics of the occupation one would be hard put, however, to find strong evidence of the democratic system the Bush administration vowed to install. Institutions bearing names suggestive of transparency and accountability — the Council of Representatives, the Integrity Commission, the Supreme Court, inspectors general — exist but whatever independent powers they once were invested with appear to be draining away, leaving behind empty shells with operations strong on procedure but devoid of meaningful outcomes. Elections are still on the table, but incessant political bickering could well foil the next brace — local in April and national in 2014. In the spring of 2012, opposition leaders — all partners in the coalition government created in 2010 — fomented a political crisis with claims that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is assuming the trappings of an autocrat. Their failure to bring Maliki down by parliamentary vote temporarily strengthened his position, rendering future elections all the more important as the country’s last hope to remove a sitting leader by constitutional means and establish the principle of rotation of power.

Maliki combines several traits that account for his political survival, authoritarian streak and apparent popularity. Bred in Syrian exile, he is a master of stealthy transactions and undercover operations, tactics that allowed him to evade the Saddam Hussein regime’s henchmen and help build the Da‘wa Party. The resulting fear and distrust he shares with many former exiles, who now face the rather different challenge of running what they claim is a democratic state. He is a consummate tactician, skilled at outmaneuvering his rivals but bereft of — or at most paying lip service to — a unifying vision for the country and a strategy for implementing it. Deploying state resources, he has been adept at bending politicians to his will.

He is a micro-manager, committed to detail and keen to instruct and monitor those under him, especially within the ever widening security and intelligence apparatus. An Iraqi analyst who knows the prime minister well referred to him alternately as “Mr. iPhone” and “Mr. Text Message,” saying Maliki is “talking on the phone and texting non-stop. He runs the country that way.” ‘Adnan al-Asadi, the acting interior minister known as “Triple-A,” told me he talks with Maliki constantly — “by phone and SMS.” Delegation of authority is not one of the prime minister’s strengths.

A National Democratic Institute poll conducted among Iraqis in 2012 indicated that Maliki had become the most popular Iraqi politician, for the first time surpassing the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and several other contenders, including the winner of the 2010 legislative elections, Iyad ‘Allawi. His popularity derives from two factors: More than any other prominent Iraqi politician, he has the ability to speak to people directly in a language they can relate to, based in part on his origins in a small town in the tribal south. He does not apply this talent very often, but he appears to get his message across when he does, for example in his irregular televised addresses to the nation. (Some other leaders, by contrast, are known for their highfalutin — some say poetic — speech that reinforces the image many have of tone-deaf former exiles who returned to Iraq merely to grab power and amass wealth.)

The second factor is the persecution complex he shares with many Iraqi Shi‘a, especially those with a religious bent. This group suffered disproportionately under the previous regime or, as some Shi‘a would contend, under centuries of Sunni rule. Because Shi‘i Arabs are a majority in Iraq, they feel they are entitled to occupying the premiership. Even those who might not have a strong preference for Maliki’s person might end up supporting him if they felt his Sunni opponents were trying to block him from the top spot because he is Shi‘i. In this light, the recurrence of state-sponsored sectarian reprisals that Iraq saw in the 2000s — often in response to horrendous attacks against Shi‘a by al-Qaeda and kindred groups — starts to make sense.

Maliki has adroitly used his almost seven years in power, but especially the past two years, to gut nascent independent institutions of their powers and bring them under his direct control. [1] He appears driven by the notion that the US and Arab Gulf states conspired, through funding and other means, to throw the 2010 elections to his enemy ‘Allawi and deny him a second turn at the helm. He seems to believe that these institutions are controlled or infiltrated by his rivals.

Alarmed by these developments, Maliki’s enemies — all partners in his coalition government — made a concerted drive in the fall of 2012 to push through Parliament a law that would limit the prime minister’s tenure to two terms. Maliki is certain to challenge this law through the Supreme Court, another nominally independent institution that appears to do his bidding. In this case, the constitution, which makes no mention of term limits, would help his case. As for his plans, he has said in both a televised address in 2011 and private conversations since that he considers eight years enough and that he will be ready to pass on the baton in 2014. And yet he also has suggested, in remarks reminiscent of arguments offered by autocrats elsewhere, that his current popularity might compel him to change his mind. In May, he told me: “The NDI poll shows that my approval rating has jumped from 34 to 53 percent, so people are saying I have no right not to stand for a third term.”

More disturbingly, perhaps, some Iraqi leaders, including Maliki, as well as Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, appear to be grooming their sons to succeed them, seemingly impervious to the popular upheavals that have jettisoned the notion of republican dynasties elsewhere in the Arab world. Maliki’s son Ahmad runs his office, and other close relatives also occupy high-ranking positions.

Maliki argues in his defense that in Iraq’s unstable environment, in which remnants of the old order abound, the only way he can build a stable state is by asserting his direct control. On this basis, he has seeded state institutions at senior levels with persons loyal to him — to the extent that he trusts them. Moreover, as he has built up his security apparatus — in close collaboration with the US until 2011 — he has created new, more potent forces that are directly answerable to him rather than to civilian ministries (which in any event he in most cases also controls) or Parliament. Perhaps inevitably in the absence of effective checks and balances, these forces engage in a range of repressive practices, including indefinite detention and torture, eerily recalling an earlier era. Little surprise, then, that some have started to compare him to Saddam, as Deputy Prime Minister Salih Mutlak did in 2011. In response, Maliki threatened to remove Mutlak from office.

Gentlemen’s Agreements

If Maliki is on his way to being Iraq’s next autocrat, he is helped enormously by the weakness of his rivals, whose deep divisions and bumbling incompetence have forestalled the formation of a strong opposition to his rule, whether in Parliament or in the street. Launched in April 2012 by Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader, the drive to remove Maliki rallied a cross-section of the political class, regardless of sect or ethnicity. It was remarkable progress in a country that has seen a Sunni-Shi‘i war and is riven by a deep, ongoing Arab-Kurdish conflict over the division of authorities and resources and the disposition of disputed territories. Maliki was quick to mobilize his own Sunni-Shi‘i/Arab-Kurd counter-coalition, however, and his proved to be more cohesive. Moreover, Maliki benefited from the tacit support of both Iran and the United States, the result of what a Kurdish lawmaker referred to as the two countries’ “gentleman’s agreement” as to who should rule Iraq for now. By contrast, the prime minister’s opponents were a disparate group united solely in their anger at Maliki and divided on everything else, including how to get rid of him and with whom to replace him.

Maliki was also able to build on a latent popular preference for a strong leader who provides a modicum of stability, even in the absence of accountable government and efficient service delivery. Iraqis do not like to say it openly, but many would willingly trade in certain freedoms for an order, however ramshackle, that allows their children to go to school safely, and on this score the prime minister has largely delivered, the continuing violence notwithstanding. Even Saddam, now that he is no longer around, looks less threatening to many ordinary people, and his name is creeping back into the public domain, perhaps even with a trace of nostalgia.

Take one Baghdad neighborhood, for example, known as Saddam Quarter (Hayy Saddam) during regime days, which was promptly rebaptized Sadr Quarter following the US invasion as a tribute to a senior Shi‘i cleric assassinated in a 1999 attack that bore the old regime’s fingerprints. The area, which has a mixed Sunni-Shi‘i population, emptied out during the sectarian war in 2005-2007, but the US surge brought blast walls and restored calm. Residents returned, and so did the municipality, which renamed the area Salam (Peace) Quarter. Baghdad already has a neighborhood bearing that name, however, and so the inhabitants of the new one soon reverted to the original name, Saddam Quarter, and no one seems to have lost a wink of sleep over it.

As for Maliki, an allied parliamentarian noted that even if his Da‘wa Party would prefer that he not seek a third term, it could not afford not to nominate him, as “many Iraqis, despite their complaints about services, will vote for a strongman in the end.” While perhaps self-serving, the lawmaker’s observation reflects a common popular sentiment. His rivals know it: Mutlak, the deputy prime minister, told me in June 2012 that the drive to oust his boss by withdrawing confidence in Parliament would not succeed, but that “if we don’t try now but leave him in place, things will get worse, and in two years’ time we will no longer be able to get rid of him.” Despite his rhetoric, Mutlak had made a deal with Maliki a month earlier and returned to his office; he has been going back and forth since, gingerly navigating Iraq’s choppy political waters.

In governing Iraq, Maliki faces a dilemma not unfamiliar to many leaders in the region who struggle with the impact of globalization, popular mobilization and other forms of rapid social change: Open the system up, and violent spoilers could take advantage of weak institutions to undermine the state; close it down, and state repression could spawn its own violent response. On the continuum between these two extremes, Maliki’s Iraq lies somewhere in the center. Depending on the outcome of the next elections, or on the question whether they will take place at all, the country could slide in either direction.

Battles Real and Perceived

What America left behind, what remains today, can barely be considered a nation. It is a contraption held together solely by the reluctance of its many components to let things again come to blows, and which survives on constant infusions of cash thanks to high international oil prices. It is a house of cards, buffeted by growing regional turbulence. All Iraqi eyes are riveted anxiously on events in neighboring Syria, hoping to learn what its sectarian-tinged civil war will portend for Iraq’s own delicate ethno-sectarian fabric — and for their own fortunes. Maliki and his allies claim to harbor no sympathy for the regime of Bashar al-Asad, yet they find themselves supporting it mainly because they dread what they believe will emerge in the wake of its collapse: a new fundamentalist Sunni order, backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as well as Turkey, that will build on its victory to train its sights on the Shi‘i Islamists ruling Iraq. In the grand scheme of things, as Maliki’s circles see it, what is happening in Syria represents a new episode in a wider Sunni-Shi‘i, as well as Arab-Persian, struggle between the two erstwhile empires, Ottoman and Safavid. That battle could easily be extended to include Iraq’s fractured terrain with its many unresolved conflicts and its politics a shambles.

Whether such multi-state alliances are really girding for battle is less important than the perception that they are, which is shared widely among Iraq’s political class. Some Iraqi politicians speak hyperbolically of a coming “Chernobyl,” a calamity that can no longer be averted and whose impact cannot be contained. This looming clash is then reduced to its constituent parts, with a resort to “ideal types” that misrepresent the rich complexities of the Iraqi mosaic: Sunni Arab vs. Shi‘i Arab, Arab vs. Kurd, pro-Iranian vs. anti-Iranian. Conspiracy theories are rife. The notion that the battle has already begun in its various covert ways helps prepare the ground for the actual fight, which then becomes inevitable, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The way many see things through a strictly sectarian lens is particularly dangerous. Violent attacks continue almost with the regularity of a metronome, killing two score here and a dozen there every so many days. Iraqis have become inured to such violence — to the extent that one can — and it seems to barely affect them in their daily lives. Apart from the blast walls, which are progressively being dismantled, the only signs of a lingering security problem are the many checkpoints that dot Baghdad as well as other cities and the roads connecting them.

Here lies the rub. In the absence of coordinated preventive intelligence, the effort to interdict insurgents ferrying weapons and explosives or driving car bombs relies almost exclusively on a single handheld implement that security officials claim can detect such materials, the ADE-651. This small instrument is ubiquitous in the hands of checkpoint guards, who employ it like a divining rod. It is in fact a magic wand, and just as effective in stopping bombs. Its British manufacturer faces fraud charges at home, and the Iraqi official who purchased the devices (price tag, $85 million) for the Interior Ministry was arrested for corruption related to the case. [2] The astounding fact is that despite the uproar the exposure caused, senior security officials continue to rely on the ADE-651, apparently unable to admit to failure publicly, although in private some express intense embarrassment.

All that would be bad enough, as it certainly explains why attackers continue to slip through the security dragnet. For years, this ease of penetration almost invariably prompted claims from people in affected areas, who are used to omnipresent security, that members of the security apparatus themselves must be complicit in such attacks. In today’s polarized climate, an alternative explanation has taken hold: Bombs go off because members of Parliament, who enjoy immunity, cannot be searched at checkpoints. As an Iraqi observer of the political scene put it to me: “The Baath and al-Qaeda are still very active. Sunni politicians conduct politics by day, but at night they work with these groups.” Others echo the claim that the blame for continuing violence lies with Sunni parliamentarians. ‘Ali al-Adib, the higher education minister and a senior Da‘wa leader, contended that in post-2003 Iraq “there was no clear break with the past like in Germany. Today’s Parliament contains both the past and the present. Some of the bomb makers are right there, in Parliament. The Baath remnants believe that one day they will come back, take control and subvert our democracy.”

In this narrative, the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi in December 2011 and the televised (and likely coerced) confessions of some of his bodyguards supplied incontrovertible proof that the Sunnis are up to no good. Hashimi, who has since been sentenced to death in absentia for running death squads and remains in Turkish exile, has denied the charges, while his Turkish patrons have launched an all-out rhetorical assault on the Maliki government for its sectarian leanings. This move has only fed the notion, common among Iraqi Shi‘a, that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister, is an “Islamist Gamal Abdel Nasser” intent on resurrecting both the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate it once housed. Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition has further encouraged this narrative. In response, new Shi‘i underground groups are coalescing. In an ominous echo of Baghdad’s sectarian fighting some years ago, fliers are again showing up in Sunni neighborhoods warning the inhabitants to leave — or else.

The trope of Sunnis as unreconstructed Baathists looking for a comeback has a counterpart, of course. An Iraqi lawmaker, a secular Shi‘i who has moved between parties, told me: “On balance, Iraqi democracy has been favorable to the Shi‘a. What has happened is that, in response, some Sunni politicians have turned to terrorism, while, on the other side, some Shi‘a politicians have become corrupt. This is hardly a good model for a post-Asad Syria to follow.”

There would be no better way for Iraqi politicians to inoculate their country against whatever fallout the crisis in Syria will produce than to put their own house in order. If Iraq is to withstand the coming turmoil, Maliki and his allies would have to combat rampant corruption, ensure that local and national elections take place on schedule and are free and fair, and start making good on their oft-repeated pledge to rebuild the country and provide basic services to a population for whom round-the-clock electricity remains a distant dream. Maliki would also have to withdraw himself from consideration for a third term. By giving pluralist politics a chance, he would inject new hope into Iraq’s shaky democratic project. On their part, Iraq’s emerging elites would have to make a genuine effort to step back from ethno-sectarian politics and begin to forge cross-cutting alliances, and work toward a national vision that would set the country on a stronger foundation for the rapid growth its vast resources are sure to stimulate.

None of these steps are likely. Maliki and his opponents have dug themselves in for prolonged trench warfare and are positioning themselves to turn Syria’s crisis to their advantage against their domestic enemies, thereby further exacerbating tensions. Whatever lasting legacy the US might have hoped for in Iraq is under threat of being frittered away by the former exiles it installed and of being flushed away by the vast changes that are transforming the wider region.


[1] For an account of Maliki’s early efforts in this regard, see International Crisis Group, Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government(Baghdad/Washington/Brussels, September 2011).
[2] The scandal first attracted international coverage in the New York Times, November 3, 2009. In January 2010, the company’s managing director Jim McCormick was arrested by British authorities, who banned the device’s sale. He told the BBC that he had been selling products like the ADE-651 for over a decade and had sold 6,000 of them to around 20 countries. Scientific testing showed that the device performed “no better than a random selection process.”