Two big forces are bringing us to a watershed moment in Iraqi politics, according to Toby Dodge.
Dodge, author of the Adelphi book, Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism – which The Economist named one of the books of the year for 2013 – discussed the recent developments in Iraq at an event at the IISS on 27 January.
As a confrontation between the jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the Iraqi government led by Nuri al-Maliki, plays out against increasing protests, sectarianism and displacement, the forthcoming April election could mean that Iraq is heading towards greater instability, or it could be a ‘moment of truth’, said Dodge.
The current violence in Anbar was triggered when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a campaign of operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Anbar province. Maliki used the cover of these counter-terror operations to move against long-standing political protests in the region.
‘These political protests were the legacy of Maliki’s previous moves against the popular Sunni Minister of Finance, Rafi al-Issawi, whose house was raided in December 2012,’ said Dodge.
The targeting of Issawi, and his subsequent resignation, was seen as another attack on the Sunni minority, who felt increasingly and deliberately excluded from Iraqi politics.
As the protests in Anbar continued, Iraqi troops arrested a prominent Sunni MP – Ahmed Alwani – and in doing so killed his brother.
‘I think what Maliki was doing, in arresting Alwani and killing his brother, was throwing down a gauntlet to the protestors of Anbar, saying “we will not only target [Islamic militant groups] but will use our forces against you as well”’.
In previous elections – especially in 2010 – Maliki has always attempted to solidify the Shia vote behind him, explained Dodge. This may now prove difficult, given that the mass alienation and sectarian tensions have gone beyond his control; there are now population transfers reminiscent of the start of the civil war in 2004-05 – according to the UN, 22,000 families have fled.
‘I think Iraq is at a fascinating crossroads,’ said Dodge. Previously, he explains, he would have said that the military dominance of the Iraqi armed forces and the extent of state control would be enough to hold the centre and prevent another civil war.
But although some of that still stands, the increasing violence, population transfers and the domination of the military mean that even a million-man army might not be enough to keep things under control. Iraq could be moving towards further instability – but it is also possible that the election could change this trajectory.
Questions and answers
During the Q and A session, Dodge discussed US Senator John McCain’s recent comments at the BBC World Debate in Davos, in which he implied that Iraq’s crisis was caused by Obama’s policy of retreating from the global stage, and presiding over a waning of US power and influence.
Earlier, on 4 January, McCain had also made a statement blaming Obama for failing to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 2011.
Dodge, calling it the ‘the myth of abandonment’, explained that McCain was wrong for two reasons.
The first is that the structure of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 2008, which formed the blueprint for US troop withdrawal, was negotiated under Bush’s tenure. When the agreement was being negotiated, Iraq’s leverage grew as the US’s diminished; Maliki and the government – buoyed by public support under the banner of nationalism and realising that Bush needed a deal before he left office – would not accept the first draft of SOFA, which Dodge describes as ‘almost quasi-imperial’. The SOFA that was eventually passed contained the non-negotiable 2011 withdrawal dates. ‘It was George W. Bush what done it,’ he observed.
Secondly, when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approached Maliki to ask permission to leave a residual force behind, the idea was roundly rejected. Maliki had made it clear that all US soldiers must be gone by the deadline.
‘Maliki then sealed this by saying any amendments to the SOFA had to go through parliament,’ said Dodge, ‘and there was never going to be a majority there who would support a continued US military presence.
‘This failure is a failure of neo-conservatism and regime change, and has very little to do with Obama,’ Dodge argued.
The US now faces a conundrum: if it provides long-term counter-terrorism support to Maliki against insurgency, they will be supporting a government that went a long way to creating the terrorism problem in the first place.
Responding to a question on whether Maliki would make the transition difficult if he were not re-elected, forcing international organisations to step in, Dodge joked that ‘it is always the best questions I can’t answer,’ but pointed out that when Maliki lost the parliamentary elections in March 2010 by two seats to a rival coalition, he said his party would not accept the result; the UN then stepped in to urge all parties to accept, and to guide the negotiations.
Dodge said the fact that Maliki has not yet transgressed the rules or hampered electoral oversight meant there are some grounds for hope – but currently the influence of the US, UN and EU in Baghdad is fairly minimal; these are the first national elections that are going to be fought on Iraq’s terms – without international partners ‘looking over their shoulder’.