Is Iraq Lost?
Things fall apart . . .
The reemergence of civil war in Iraq would be disastrous for the United States and its allies. It would be an enormous political and moral defeat for the United States and could rapidly expand to spark a regional conflict with the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia confronting Iran and its proxies in Mesopotamia. It would also very likely shock the oil market, which has been pricing in expected increases in Iraq’s oil production that will very likely be delayed, possibly significantly. Considering that the Obama administration had accepted the European position against sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank for fear that rising oil prices could undermine fragile economic recoveries, the prospect of falling Iraqi oil production should also raise concerns about the well-being of the global economy. State fracture or collapse in Iraq, finally, would create conditions favorable to the reemergence of both Sunni and Shiite militias and terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The withdrawal of all American military forces has greatly reduced America’s leverage in Iraq. U.S. military forces were a buffer to prevent political and ethno-sectarian friction from becoming violent by guaranteeing Maliki against a Sunni coup d’état and guaranteeing the Sunnis against a Shiite campaign of militarized repression. The withdrawal of that buffer precipitated this crisis and removed much of our leverage. The withdrawal is complete and unlikely to be reversed. Still, the United States maintains some leverage in Iraq and considerable leverage in the region. The Obama administration will have to use all of its skills to maximize the impact of what leverage it retains.
The key players in the denouement of this political crisis will be the Kurds, who hold the swing bloc of votes in the Iraqi parliament. If the Kurds back Maliki, either explicitly or simply by refusing to vote no-confidence in him, then the prospect of any Sunni-Kurd alliance will evaporate, and the Sunni Arabs will very likely move toward federalism and, when Maliki opposes the partition of Iraq, violence.
If the Kurds align with the Sunnis and threaten to vote Maliki out, more options open. A Kurd-Sunni alliance would have to resolve disputes in Nineveh Province, which is also central to Baghdad politics since the Nineveh provincial governor, Atheel Nujaifi, is the brother of the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Osama Nujayfi. Such a Kurd-Arab deal could secure stability in Nineveh and possibly provide a more stable cross-ethnic base to create a soft landing for federalist movements in neighboring Salahaddin and Anbar Provinces. Such a Kurdish position could conceivably persuade Maliki to back away from the most extreme steps he has taken—causing the arrest warrant for Hashimi to be revoked by the “independent” judiciary that issued it, for example, and restoring Mutlaq to his position. If Maliki retreated in that way, the crisis would not be resolved—fundamental elements of trust have been shattered, and it is almost impossible to see a stable cross-sectarian government in Baghdad now with Maliki as prime minister. But it would open the way to negotiations both among the Shiites (who are by no means monolithically aligned with Maliki) and between the Shiite and Sunni leadership at both national and provincial levels.
The United States does continue to have significant leverage on the Kurds, who still look to Washington as guarantors of their security in the event of a renewed ethnic civil war. Above all, the Kurds are extremely leery of the planned sale of F-16s and M1 tanks to an Iraqi military that could be attacking Kurdistan again should things go badly. Turkey has even more leverage with the Kurds, since Erbil sees Ankara as the alternative to the United States should a Kurd-Arab fight reemerge. U.S. policy should now be heavily focused on getting Erbil to play a constructive role in mediating the intra-Arab dispute rather than pursuing shortsighted attempts to capitalize on it. This requires the kind of “smart power” that this administration supposedly excels at, and it requires the full backing of the Congress and the full attention of the White House and the State Department.