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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Accelerating 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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