Shadow Government

The new strategic situation in Iraq

By Philip Zelikow The provincial elections in Iraq are the opening salvo of a new phase in Iraq’s history. The U.S. military presence remains a large, vital, reality in Iraq. But U.S. influence over the political direction of Iraq is traded in a futures market. Right now everyone is selling it short. So Iraqis are now deciding ...

By Philip Zelikow

The provincial elections in Iraq are the opening salvo of a new phase in Iraq’s history. The U.S. military presence remains a large, vital, reality in Iraq. But U.S. influence over the political direction of Iraq is traded in a futures market. Right now everyone is selling it short.

So Iraqis are now deciding what kind of state they really want to have after the Americans are gone. I do not take anything for granted about how this will work out. I do not assume that the current Iraqi constitution will be in place even three years from now.  

The whole way the U.S. thinks about its interests in Iraq must change. Look forward, not backward. I am extremely interested in the story of U.S. policy toward Iraq to date, and the Sunday papers had major stories about how to reinterpret the recent past. Fascinating for me. Yet, riveted on the drama in the rear-view mirror, we may not be noticing that we’re driving into eight lanes of merging traffic.

We should be asking: What are the emerging issues in Iraq’s future? What should we care about? How does that connect to the way we dispose of the 140,000 troops and vast investments we now wish to withdraw or reconfigure into something else?

Just as a start, here are a few thoughts on the significance of the recent provincial elections:

1. Maliki did well, but not as well as the U.S. press makes it seem.  His party’s best numbers, in Baghdad, were 38%. In general his party has about 10-20% support.

2. The big winner was fragmentation. From a familiar set of party blocs we have been following for years, the political landscape is morphing into a fresh variety of factions and leaders. The United Iraqi Alliance bloc is disintegrating. The Sunni parties are more powerful, but they are much more fractured. Again, today, they could not agree on a new speaker for Iraq’s parliament. 

3. There was a spectacular loser: ISCI (formerly SCIRI). This was the dominant Shi’a party, the most powerful in Iraq. It appears to be irretrievably shattered. In Baghdad in 2005 it won 54.9 percent of the vote; it now won 5.4 percent. In Basra ISCI had 48.7 percent in 2005, now it won 11.6 percent. ISCI is tarred as a religious party, linked to Iran (highly unpopular), with a more rural, less educated base. The big cities are voting for Iraqi nationalism and centralism.

4. Incidentally, this means that Maliki’s old party, Dawa, is molting its old shell and becoming the new "state of law" party, standing for nationalism, central power, and modern services. If this evokes memories of other Arab national socialist movements of the past … yup.

5. Iran is another loser. Though the Iranians have a large and highly diversified portfolio of investments in Iraqi politics (and not just money), the results for ISCI send a message. Iran is especially interested in the future of Basra, not just Baghdad. So the Basra results are especially interesting for Iran.  Maliki — credited with cleaning out the plague of Iran-sponsored militias there — did especially well there. The current provincial leaders, separatist and corrupt, are being shown the door.

6. Al Qaeda lost too. Sunni Arab nationalists who hate America may think they can find enough autonomy or common cause with the new Iraq that is taking shape. Violent insurgencies and criminal groups may focus even more on power struggles closer to home.

7. And the Kurds may turn out to be the biggest losers of all. Their old political strategy of allying with ISCI for an agenda of regional autonomy no longer seems viable. The regional agenda may look better in coming months, but ISCI looks like a broken partner. The Kurds’ other major patron, the United States government, has diminishing political influence. (And the United States is less inclined to go to bat for the Kurds than many Iraqis think. The reasons for the degree of U.S. official disaffection with the Kurds, even while the American officials like and rely on many particular Kurdish leaders, are manifold and tragic. But that’s another story.)

8. As predicted, a vital province in Iraq’s future — Nineweh with Mosul — went decisively Sunni, and lined up behind a Sunni party that defines itself by its anti-Kurdish agenda. The Kurds will lose provincial control there.  They have lost most ground they had in Salahuddin province. And Kirkuk was frozen.    

What does all this mean for U.S. interests?  Here are a few tentative hypotheses:

First, the elections will intensify the disconnect between the emergence of authentic local political movements and Baghdad’s central control over money and services. And, remember, the central government does not reflect these new election results. The national government and allocations of ministries are now clearly out of sync with popular trends. And the decline in oil prices will constrain the national government’s largess.

Even in the big cities, where Maliki’s party may be in charge, the disconnect will be there. Sure, the coalitions led by Maliki’s party will try to show they can deliver central power, money, and patronage in Baghdad and Basra. But Maliki and his political allies do not yet control many relevant ministries at the national level. The United States will be caught in the middle of some of this tension even while, pressured by the SOFA and the new administration, the Embassy and coalition forces are trying to decide how to unwind their recent, successful strategic emphasis on delivering local security and services.

Second, the provincial governance fights may become dress rehearsals for the coming national election fight, due at the end of this year. The result of fragmentation will be coalition building, but among parties who then find they have relatively little real authority or resources. So what will happen next? Maliki’s people, weak in most provinces, might leverage central resources to become local kingmakers. Or the local movements might unite on blaming "Baghdad" and Maliki, unless the Iraqi government can find a new way of bridging the central-local governance problems that have plagued the state ever since Saddam was overthrown.   

Third, Americans will be asked to keep killing and being killed, without anyone wanting to give them credit or much attention either way. It is in Maliki’s interest to use U.S. help privately to keep after al Qaeda and limit Iranian influence and intimidation. The Iranian issue will be especially acute in Basra, as Iran’s power ministries decide what they want to do as the United States takes over advisory responsibility for this vital adjoining area from the UK. Meanwhile Maliki and Obama will want to show the United States is leaving fast.  How to reconcile these private and public purposes may be the central dilemma for policymakers in both capitals.

Yet, meanwhile — and fourth — there are growing dangers of civil conflict in northern Iraq. The best window for a UN-led settlement of the interlocked issues of the north — Kurdish boundaries, Kirkuk, oil, security — may now have closed. The Sunnis have now won much of what could have been put on the table. A peaceful solution might now be even harder to achieve. And, as local political power shifts, old bulwarks of U.S. security partnerships in Nineweh/Mosul and throughout the north — many of which involve Kurdish partners — may be threatened.  

As important as Anbar is in the "Sunni story," Mosul may turn out to be much more significant for the future. The United States could find itself caught in the middle between Kurdish friends, local Sunni nationalists, and a central government in Baghdad that might be tempted to win Sunni friends by "dealing" forcefully with the Kurds. The Kurds might be a tempting scapegoat for a government that wants to highlight itself as an Arab national unifier.

An encouraging point: Generals Petraeus and Odierno both have significant experience in northern Iraq from their first tours in that country in 2003.  They know its issues better than most.

Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.

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