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Wednesday, June 19, 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, increasingly violent sectarian divisions are undermining the fragile stability left in place after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Sunni Arab Muslims, who resent Shiite political domination and perceived discrimination, are escalating their political opposition to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki through demonstrations as well as violence. Iraq’s Kurds are increasingly aligned with the Sunnis, based on separate 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 but who suffered a stroke in mid-December 2012 and remains outside Iraq. The rifts impinged on provincial elections on April 20, 2013 and could affect national elections for a new parliament and government scheduled for 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) as well as groups linked to the former regime of Saddam Hussein. These groups, emboldened by the Sunni-led uprising in Syria, are conducting attacks against Shiite neighborhoods and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members with increasing frequency and lethality. The attacks appear intended to reignite all-out sectarian conflict and provoke the fall of the government. As violence escalates, there are concerns whether the 700,000 person ISF can counter it without U.S. troops to provide direct support.

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 control and arguing that the ISF could handle violence on its own. Since the U.S. pullout, many observers and some in Congress have asserted that U.S. influence over Iraq has ebbed significantly—squandering the legacy of U.S. combat deaths and funds spent on the intervention. Program components 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 in part because Iraqi officials perceive the programs as indicators of residual U.S. tutelage. The U.S. civilian presence in Iraq has declined from about 17,000 to about 10,500 and is expected to fall to 5,500 by the end of 2013.

Although recognizing that Iraq wants to rebuild its relations in its immediate neighborhood, the Administration and Congress seek to prevent Iraq from falling under the sway of Iran, with which the Maliki government has built close relations. Apparently fearing that a change of regime in Syria will further embolden the Iraqi Sunni opposition, Maliki has joined Iran in opposing U.S. and other country calls for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to leave office. 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, and has substantially repaired relations with Kuwait, the state that Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied in 1990.

Date of Report: June 3, 2013
Number of Pages: 53
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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