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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Ten years after the March 19, 2003, U.S. military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, accelerating violence and growing political schisms call into question whether the fragile stability left in place after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will collapse. Iraq’s stability is increasingly threatened by a revolt—with both peaceful and violent components—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 in part 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 and remains outside Iraq. The rifts have impinged on provincial elections on April 20, 2013, and will likely affect national elections for a new parliament and government in 2014. Maliki is expected to seek to retain his post in that vote.

The violent component of Sunni unrest is spearheaded by the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I). The group, apparently emboldened by the Sunni-led uprising in Syria, is conducting attacks against Shiite neighborhoods and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members with increasing frequency and lethality. The attacks are intended to reignite all-out sectarian conflict, and some fear that goal might be realized. Should the violence escalate further, there are concerns whether the ISF—which numbers nearly 700,000 members—can counter it 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. Iraq refused to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, seeking to put behind it the period of U.S. political and military tutelage and arguing that the ISF could handle violence on its own. Since the U.S. pullout, many observers assert that U.S. influence over Iraq has ebbed significantly. Cornerstone programs of what were to be enduring, close security relations—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. The U.S. civilian presence in Iraq has declined from about 17,000 to about 10,500 as of March 2013, and might fall to 5,500 by the end of 2013. 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. 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. Apparently fearing that a change of regime in Syria will further embolden the Iraqi 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: March 26, 2013
Number of Pages: 57
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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