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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Nearly two years after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, increasingly violent sectarian divisions are undermining the fragile stability left in place. Sunni Arab Muslims, who resent Shiite political domination and perceived discrimination, have escalated their political opposition to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki through demonstrations and violence. Iraq’s Kurds are embroiled in separate political disputes with the Baghdad government over territorial, political, and economic issues. The rifts impinged on provincial elections during April—June 2013 and could affect the viability of national elections for a new parliament and government expected in March 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 as well as perceived discrimination against Sunni Iraqis, are conducting attacks against Shiite neighborhoods, Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members, and Sunni supporters of Maliki with increasing frequency and lethality. The attacks appear intended to reignite all-out sectarian conflict and provoke the fall of the government. To date, the 800,000 person ISF has countered the escalating violence without outside assistance and Iraqi forces have not substantially fractured along sectarian lines. However, a July 2013 major prison break near Baghdad cast doubt on the ISF ability to counter the violence longer term.

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. Some outside experts and some in Congress have asserted that U.S. influence over Iraq has ebbed significantly since, tarnishing the legacy of U.S. combat deaths and funds spent on the intervention. Program components of what were to be enduring, close security relations—extensive 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 or are ending 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. Still, Iraqi efforts to acquire sophisticated U.S. equipment such as F-16 combat aircraft, air defense equipment, and attack helicopters gives the Administration some leverage over Baghdad.

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. However, the legacy of the 1908-88 Iran-Iraq war, Arab and Persian differences, Iraq’s efforts to reestablish its place in the Arab world, and Maliki’s need to work with senior Iraqi Sunnis limit, Iranian influence over the Baghdad government. Still, fearing that a change of regime in Syria will further embolden the Iraqi Sunni opposition, Maliki has not joined U.S. and other Arab state calls for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to leave office and Iraq has not consistently sought to prevent Iranian overflights of arms deliveries to Syria. 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. In June 2013, the relationship with Kuwait helped Iraq emerge from some Saddam-era restrictions under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

Date of Report: August 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 50
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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