When Iraq holds nationwide parliamentary elections on Wednesday, is it possible for Washington to secure a victory for the Iraqi people and enhance U.S. interests? The answer depends on awareness of past bipartisan mistakes, effects of those blunders, and willingness to use U.S. leverage more wisely than after prior Iraqi elections.
Following 2006 parliamentary elections, President George W. Bush’s ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, helped select Nouri al-Maliki to become prime minister. After Khalilzad’s intervention, Sunni and Kurdish politicians endorsed Maliki’s candidacy, and within three months, he became Iraq’s prime minister.
In 2010 parliamentary elections, Maliki came in second to Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition. But Washington foolishly joined Tehran to assist Maliki form the new government. Fortunately, Sunnis and Kurds are less likely to side with him in 2014, but Washington may be sticking with Maliki.
Prior to a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in 2011, President Barack Obama stated that the United States "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as it was reckless going in." But he hastily drew down the U.S. military when Baghdad resisted providing immunity to the American troops that would be a residual presence. Obama, however, failed to follow his own principle. Maliki capitalized on the American drawdown to reinforce the hold of his Shiite government in Baghdad, over Kurdistan in the north, and the Sunni heartland in the west.
Partly due to an absence of U.S. military power but also because of Maliki’s sacrifice of Iraq’s stability for his personal gain, Iraq is on a path to disintegration. If there is another Maliki term and he pursues similar policies, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) may move toward secession and an al Qaeda affiliate might become more powerful in Sunni areas of Iraq — rupturing the country into three parts.
After speaking with many Iraqi Sunni leaders, Struan Stevenson, a senior member of the European Parliament who chairs the Delegation for Relations with Iraq, said, "Iraq is plummeting rapidly towards civil war." This assessment is shared by American analysts. Stevenson laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Maliki. In response to peaceful Sunni demonstrations in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, he ordered massive military onslaughts. A January report from the Center on Research on Globalization, a Canadian research and media organization claimed, "Men, women and children are being massacred in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi in relentless bombing raids, rocket attacks, and tank battles, under the pretext that these people are all members or supporters of Al Qaeda."
There also is the problem of an Arab-Kurdish city, Kirkuk, in which Baghdad has huge political differences with the KRG. Partly as a result, Ali Balu, a senior energy advisor in the KRG, stated that the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq would declare independence within five years.
Maliki has also tried to impose restrictions on the Kurdish share of the country’s economy. Kurdistan sits on approximately 45 billion barrels of oil reserves and over 110 trillion cubic feet of gas. Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani has warned that the Kurds would seek independence if Baghdad continues to violate Kurdish constitutional privileges. They consist of the right to export oil and receive 17 percent of the national budget.
The KRG views Washington as contributing too much to Baghdad’s rearmament without using U.S. leverage in favor of more inclusive politics. Moreover, it sees these arms as a threat to its security and as reinforcing the paradox that Washington’s policy is closer to Tehran’s than to its own.
Sunnis and Kurds also differ from Baghdad in its mistreatment of Iranian dissidents held under prison-like conditions in Camp Liberty, Iraq. Iraqi MP Neda al-Jabouri, a member of the Iraqiya coalition leadership, criticized inhumane conditions in Liberty and described this camp as a prison. And Iraqi MP Qasem Mohamed from the Kurdish Coalition said he is against the blockade on refugees in Camp Liberty, especially banning of food, medicine, and humanitarian needs for their daily lives.
After the 2014 Iraqi elections, Obama will have two options: First is support Maliki as Obama did in 2010, which is unacceptable to the Iraqis and would transform Iraq into a satrap of Iran; second is to support the Iraqi people’s growing coalition against Maliki.
Ayad Allawi captured two more seats than Maliki’s faction in 2010, and yet Maliki received the mandate to form a government. Just as Washington backed Tehran’s preference for Maliki then, it is in the interests of the Iraqi and American people to align with the Kurds in support of the democratic opposition, including Allawi, now. In this way, Obama might snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.