Kenneth Katzman Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
violence and growing political schisms call into question whether the fragile stability
left in place in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will collapse. Iraq’s
stability is increasingly threatened by a revolt—with both peaceful and
violent aspects—by Sunni Arab Muslims who resent Shiite political
domination. Sunni Arabs, always fearful that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
would seek unchallenged power, accuse him of attempting to marginalize them politically
by arresting or attempting to remove key Sunni leaders. Sunni demonstrations
have grown since late December 2012 over Maliki’s moves against leading
Sunni figures. Iraq’s Kurds are increasingly aligned with the Sunnis,
based on their own disputes with Maliki over territorial, political, and
economic issues. The Shiite faction of Moqtada Al Sadr has been leaning to the Sunnis
and Kurds and could hold the key to Maliki’s political survival. Adding to the
schisms is the physical incapacity of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who
has served as a key mediator, who suffered a stroke in mid-December 2012.
The growing rifts raise the potential for early national elections,
originally due for 2014 but which could be advanced to coincide with provincial elections
in April 2013.
The violent component of revolt is spearheaded by Sunni insurgents linked to Al
Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I), perhaps emboldened by the Sunni-led uprising in
Syria. They have conducted numerous complex attacks against Shiite
religious pilgrims and neighborhoods and Iraqi Security Force (ISF)
members. The attacks are intended to reignite all-out sectarian conflict, but
have failed to do so to date. There are concerns whether the ISF—which
numbers nearly 700,000 members— can counter the violence now that U.S.
troops are no longer in Iraq; U.S. forces left in December 2011 in line
with a November 2008 bilateral U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. The Iraqis refused
to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, believing Iraq could handle
violence on its own and seeking to put behind it the period of U.S.
occupation and political and military tutelage.
Since the U.S. pullout, U.S. training for Iraq’s security forces through an
Office of Security Cooperation—Iraq (OSC-I) and a State Department police
development program have languished. However, the Administration—with
increasing Iraqi concurrence—has asserted that the escalating violence
necessitates that Iraq rededicate itself to military cooperation with and assistance
from the United States. Since August 2012, Iraqi officials have requested
expedited delivery of U.S. arms and joint exercises and in December 2012
signed a new defense cooperation agreement with the United States.
Although recognizing that Iraq wants to rebuild its relations in the Arab world
and in its immediate neighborhood, the United States is seeking to prevent
Iraq from falling under the sway of Iran. The Maliki government is
inclined toward close relations with the Islamic Republic, but the legacy
of Iran-Iraq hostilities, and Arab and Persian differences, limit Iranian
influence. Still, Iraq has aligned with Iran’s support for Bashar Al Assad’s
regime in Syria and may be allowing Iranian arms supply flights to reach
Syria by transiting Iraqi airspace. Some see Iraq instead to reestablish
its historic role as a major player in the Arab world. Iraq took a large step
toward returning to the Arab fold by hosting an Arab League summit on
March 27-29, 2012.
Date of Report: January 15, 2013
Number of Pages: 57 Order Number: RS21968 Price: $29.95
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