Iraqi Democracy or Civil War

President Obama is anxious to end our involvement in Iraq in order to shift resources to other efforts such as Afghanistan.  But there is trouble on Iraq’s horizon and rushing to the exits could squander our investment and push that country back into civil war.

Last year Obama told an audience of Marines “how the war in Iraq will end.”  The commander-in-chief said we’ll leave “…by August 31 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”  He didn’t preface that promise by saying it depended on conditions.   

Even though Iraq has made significant progress the conditions are not yet right to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops.  But that day will come once Baghdad is capable of containing domestic violence and keeping its interfering neighbor Iran at bay.  Those conditions are about to be tested.

Iraq’s March 7th parliamentary elections will test that nation’s ability to assume total sovereignty.  This will be the first election since the 2003 invasion that will be totally under Iraqi security control.  Optimistically, the election will take place with little violence and a new government will be quickly seated.  But recent events indicate the fundamental issues that triggered the 2004-2007 civil war could cause that country to spiral back into chaos.  

Consider four sources of pre-election tension that could thrust Iraq into civil war and what Obama must do to prevent it from happening.

First, the Kurds, a semi-autonomous ethnic group in northern Iraq, seek control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city 156 miles north of Baghdad.  Kurdish plans to reclaim Kirkuk are causing serious problems among Iraqi Arabs.  

Former dictator Saddam Hussein “Arabized” Kirkuk by forcing ethnic Kurds out of the city and resettling Arabs from Iraq’s south.  After the American invasion Kurds started returning home to Kirkuk, but Arab residents rejected the Kurd’s claim to property and citizenship.  

The Iraqi government failed to reconcile this dispute which is mandated in the constitution.  Now, under the election law approved in November 2009, all residents registered to vote in Kirkuk have the right to cast their votes to include returning Kurds, but the law set up a process to review eligibility after the election.  That review and Baghdad’s constitutional neglect will create controversy among Kurds, Arabs and the Shia-controlled government in Baghdad.  This explosive issue could tear at Iraq’s fragile cohesion and fuel Kurdish calls to break-away from Baghdad.

Second, Iraq’s Sunnis mostly sat out the 2005 elections but are now anxious to increase their role in government.  But many Sunnis are being denied the opportunity to participate in the political process because of their former associations with Saddam Hussian’s Baath party.  

Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government panel, the Accountability and Justice Commission, charged with de-Baathification, has banned as many as 500 potential candidates and 15 political parties from running in the March 7th elections because of their ties to the Baath party.   The de-Baathification process began shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and has resulted in the firing of thousands of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, from civil service and education professions.

Not surprisingly, most of those on the 500-member de-Baathification list are Sunni Muslims.  Reidar Visser, an Iraqi commentator, refers to Baghdad’s “selective de-Baathification” process as singling out Sunni political opponents when Shias cooperated with the old regime as well.  Understandably, Sunni candidates are outraged and charged the ban is an effort to disenfranchise Sunnis and some warned that it could lead them to a return to support for insurgents.

Further, the ban fuels the Sunnis’ already fractious relationship with their Shiite and Kurdish counterparts, which make it clear why political observers worry whether Sunnis will turn out on election day.   A Sunni boycott would deprive the election of legitimacy, undermining efforts toward reconciliation in the country.

Third, Iran’s involvement in Iraqi politics has grown since 2003.  Many Shia-Iraqi leaders spent years in exile in Iran and now serve throughout the Baghdad government.  Iran taps these people to serve as their proxies, which make some Iraqis, especially Sunnis, fear their country will become a client state of Iran once the U.S. withdraws.

Iran is engaged in Iraq’s upcoming elections via its proxy, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), whose leaders spent years in Tehran.  The ISCI, the former Badr Brigade, seeks to maintain influence in Iraq by forming a national front between its Iraqi National Alliance and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new independent secular political coalition, the State of Law party.  The ISCI is pressuring Maliki to join forces using Tehran’s ample Iraqi political, economic and security connections.

Iran also curries favor with the independence-minded Kurds to leverage Baghdad.  Last month Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with the Kurdistan regional government leaders to endorse regional solidarity.  That endorsement creates tension with Baghdad which opposes the Kurdish independence movement and prefers to avoid the Kurd’s “Arabization” issue in Kirkuk.

Finally, a major source of pre-election tension is the surge in violence which is intended to undermine the election’s legitimacy.

Bombings near government buildings since August have killed more than 400, creating deep public skepticism about Baghdad’s ability to protect the people.  Recently, sectarian attacks have increased public skepticism such as the anti-Shia suicide bombings in Hilla and Najaf which claimed 23 lives.  A Sunni candidate for Iraq’s parliamentary elections was killed in Fallujah and several suicide attacks killed at least 31 in the Sunni Anbar Province.

Last week a wide-ranging plot to bomb Baghdad ministries and political assassinations was uncovered.  The plot which involved sending suicide bombers in their vehicles packed with explosives to blow up government ministries and public places was blamed on Sunni elements of the Baath party and al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni extremist organization.

Even Iraqi election workers are targeted by those who want to unnerve voters.  Recently, election workers were killed and kidnapped much like workers targeted by Sunni insurgents ahead of three nationwide votes in 2005.  Those attacks were designed to intimidate Iraqis from taking part and Iraqi officials anticipate violence will increase ahead of the March 7th ballot as well.

Iranian inspired violence accompanies Tehran’s political maneuvering as well.  Last month Iraqi security forces arrested seven suspected Hizbullah members in Iraq.  Iran uses Lebanese Hizbullah forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to train and supply Iraqi Shia militia, which attack coalition forces and political rivals.  Additionally, last month the IRGC seized an Iraqi oil field to intimidate the Baghdad government into cooperation.

These tensions could cause Iraq to spiral into another civil war.  That’s why America’s security and strategic arrangements with Baghdad must be flexible, much like the agreements we had with Germany and Japan after defeating both in World War II.  Our patience and flexibility in both cases led to stable long-term partners; Iraq deserves as much.

President Obama should help stabilize Iraq by working closely with the Baghdad government to keep it apolitical in order to give sectarian and ethnic differences time to heal.  This includes keeping the Iraqi security forces non-partisan law enforcers.  

Obama’s apparent design to leave Iraq hurriedly no matter the outcome of the March 7th election is a high risk strategy given that signs of long term stability are at best sketchy.  Leaving too early endangers millions of Iraqis, American lives elsewhere in the region and encourages America’s enemies to attack our other interests at home and abroad.