Marc Lynch

Iraq’s Moment to Rise or Burn

Baghdad could be the key to unlocking the region's worst conflicts -- if only it could get its own house in order.


Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is scheduled to visit the White House on Nov. 1. It’s a good time for his country to crack the crowded regional agenda. Iraq is facing a rising death toll, with more than 5,000 recorded deaths from a horrific wave of car bombs, and attacks by a reinvigorated insurgency driven by Syria’s war and by Maliki’s obstinately sectarian and autocratic politics. Washington needs to do more on this visit than mouth pleasantries about security, pluralism, responsibility, and enduring partnership. It needs to persuade Iraq’s leaders to finally play the role in mediating the region’s brutal political divides — a role only Baghdad can play.

Iraq’s fate matters not only because of the thousands of Americans and reportedly half-million Iraqis who died in the course of a decade of war. Iraq stands at the heart of the Gulf’s tenuous balance of power, sharing long borders with Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Its viciously renewed insurgency already represents one of the most devastating spillover effects of Syria’s war. And as a Shiite-ruled semi-democratic Arab state, it crosses three of the starkest lines dividing today’s Middle East: Sunnis against Shiites, monarchies against would-be democracies, and the Gulf Cooperation Council against Iran.

Without a new sense of urgency, the White House meeting will likely cover little more than platitudes about the reinvigoration of the long-neglected Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) promising cultural, economic, and political relations, which was negotiated between the two countries in 2008 alongside the deal that facilitated America’s military withdrawal. That was the topic of August’s meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. The SFA certainly is important as a vehicle for building some kind of normal and positive relations out of the wreckage of a decade of war and occupation. And it is clear that Maliki has some things in mind that he’d like from Washington, such as renewed intelligence sharing and the delivery of arms systems.

But high-minded, empty discussions of the SFA can’t be the only thing Washington gets out of Maliki’s November visit. It should be a vehicle for Maliki and President Barack Obama to have a frank talk about Iraq’s domestic political crisis and its potential role in a changing regional order. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, recently told a Washington audience that his primary message to America is that Baghdad could be a reliable ally in a turbulent region. Such an ally is sorely needed — particularly one that stands to be deeply affected by the outcome of U.S.-Iranian negotiations and by the trajectory of Syria’s civil war. But for Iraq to play such a role, it will have to reverse Maliki’s long-standing exclusion of Iraq’s Sunni minority and the centralization of his own power.

Maliki might be forgiven for rolling his eyes at another lecture on the need for national reconciliation — a shared goal written into the SFA, for what it’s worth (and something that some might hope to see out of the U.S. Congress, too). American officials have been urging that upon the prime minister, as well as every other Iraqi politician who would sit still for more than 15 minutes, for more than half a decade. The political failure in Iraq is nothing new and has very little to do with the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Maliki ignored such advice when there were 140,000 American troops in Iraq; he ignored it when those troops began to withdraw; and he ignored it after they left altogether. He was never going to make such concessions unless he felt them absolutely necessary for his own survival. In part due to the temporary security gains of the U.S. "surge" and co-optation of the Sunni insurgency, he never really felt that he did.

Things might be different now, though. The harvest of his exclusionary politics has been long months of sustained Sunni protest, renewed insurgency, and an increasing perception that the country is coming apart at the seams. A dramatic increase in violent deaths has driven a widely held fear that Iraq is unraveling and that the fire is again burning. The perverse consequence of this year’s growing violence and political crisis could finally be that the carnage is finally enough to push him to such belated, reluctant concessions. His own political survival instincts, not American leverage, might finally bring him around. With fateful elections looming next year and troubling signs emerging about the contours of the new electoral law, the White House should do whatever it can during his visit to nudge him in that direction — and condition all of the incentives that might be activated under the SFA (like the military and intelligence assistance Maliki wants) upon his doing so.

There is little question that Maliki’s persistent exclusion of Sunnis and consolidation of power has kept Baghdad’s perpetual political crisis boiling. The initially peaceful protest movement that broke out among Iraqi Sunnis earlier this year was driven by widespread grievances over his sectarian politics, his government’s corruption, and his consolidation of autocratic power. Frustrations grew over his refusal to compromise, and exploded over the government’s brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, such as April’s bloody attack on protesters in Hawija. Realistically, Maliki could still probably have gotten away with his power grab and selective co-option of Sunni elites were it not for the spillover from Syria. But his obstinate political approach created a perfectly toxic environment for Iraqi insurgents to build upon their successes in Syria.

The ever-intensifying interaction between the insurgencies on both sides of the porous border goes beyond the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The appeal of jihad in Syria combined with the growing political crisis in Iraq seems to have reactivated a wide range of disaffected Iraqi Sunni groups, including armed factions that had turned against al Qaeda as part of the "Awakening." A recent International Crisis Group report, for instance, quotes a member of the Islamic Army in Iraq (a key resistance group during the Awakening) as saying, "We are counting on the success of the Syrian revolution, which will provide us with a surplus of men and weapons.… We see in these protests a chance to liberate Iraq from Iran." Maliki would not disagree; he has similarly argued that "the internal situation in Syria is playing a major role with what’s happening in Iraq."

Iraq’s internal polarization has been inflamed by the regional environment, of course. The Gulf regimes and individuals funding and supporting the armed insurgency in Syria have taken a similarly dim view of Maliki and have reacted with fury to his perceived support for the Assad regime. For years, they had viewed Iraq’s government through a hard sectarian lens and disparaged Maliki as an Iranian puppet. Iraq’s tolerance of Iranian resupply overflights to Damascus and ambivalent attitude toward the Assad regime made things worse. Gulf support for Iraq’s Sunni protest movement (if not the armed insurgents) has been widely rumored. While Maliki’s denunciation of the protests as a foreign-backed plot should be understood as politically expedient scapegoating, there is little doubt that Iraqi politics remain thoroughly penetrated by the same regional sectarian proxy wars now afflicting Syria.

For all the grim circumstances, then, Maliki and Obama should actually have more basis for productive discussions than in their previous meetings. Even Maliki understands the growing scope and nature of Iraq’s security challenges. He will likely be looking for more American security assistance and support for what he will surely describe as counterterrorism. Washington might finally be able to get him to make the necessary political reforms as part of such a security assistance package. This would cut against the grain of every move he has ever made as prime minister, of course, and nobody should be optimistic. But the combination of the greatest security crisis his government has yet faced and his growing recognition of the value of American assistance just might now make him more receptive.

The American decision to not bomb Syria last month should also help. It was not only Iraqi Shiites who were opposed to such a military strike, after all. Most prominently, the leading Sunni politician Usama al-Nujayfi also publicly warned against it: "The military strike will not be beneficial towards Syria and will ignite a fire that will possibly extend to Iraq and nearby countries." Having wisely backed away from bombing Damascus, the White House should now push Baghdad even harder on allowing Iranian supply flights to transit Iraq. It also should look for ways to work with Baghdad on their common interest in combating the jihadi groups wreaking havoc on both sides of the border. A shared interest in fighting ISIS must not be taken as license to further repress Iraqi Sunnis, however — Obama should make clear that he views political reforms and Sunni inclusion as an essential part of any new security cooperation towards that shared goal.

The tantalizing prospect of a U.S.-Iranian political bargain, however remote such a deal may seem, should also be a key part of the new dialogue with Iraq. There are few countries that would benefit more from a cordial working relationship between Iran and the United States. While it hasn’t often felt like it, Iraq still represents a natural potential bridge between Iran and the United States, and the greatest potential challenge to the alarming regional sectarian division along Sunni-Shiite lines. The United States has a profound interest in seeing Iraq break its vicious cycle of sectarian polarization, autocratic entrenchment, and insurgency. Maliki has never behaved as if he shared those interests. But Obama’s coming meeting with his Iraqi counterpart would be the ideal time to test the possibility of pushing him to change his course.

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