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 and some have led to protester deaths.
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
will likely affect provincial elections in April 2013 and national
elections for a new parliament and government in 2014.
The violent component of Sunni unrest is spearheaded by Sunni insurgents linked
to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I), apparently emboldened by the Sunni-led
uprising in Syria. They are conducting increasingly frequent attacks
against Shiite religious pilgrims and neighborhoods and Iraqi Security
Force (ISF) members. The attacks are intended to reignite all-out sectarian
conflict, and might succeed in that objective if violence worsens. 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 its immediate
neighborhood, the United States is seeking to prevent Iraq from falling
under the sway of Iran. The Maliki government has built close relations
with the Islamic Republic, and, fearing that a change of regime in Syria
will further embolden the Sunni opposition, Maliki has joined Iran in
supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime. However, the legacy of Iran-Iraq
hostilities, and Arab and Persian differences, limit Iranian influence
among the Iraqi population. Another limitation on Iranian influence is
Iraq’s effort 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: February 20, 2013
Number of Pages: 58 Order Number: RS21968 Price: $29.95
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