It might seem that the dust had hardly settled on the tracks of the last U.S. convoy that rolled out of Iraq on Saturday before Shi’ite and Sunni politicians were at one another’s throats. That would be a misleading impression, of course, but only because it presupposes — mistakenly — that the ethnic and sectarian factions competing for power in Iraq had achieved some sort of consensus during the almost nine years that U.S. troops had been present. On the contrary, all the major Iraqi factions have simply used the nine-year presence of the world’s largest army to better position themselves for the next phase of a power struggle that had raged on even as the U.S. had 140,000 troops in the country.
On Friday, the Iraqiya political bloc — which had won more seats than any other in the last election, but was shut out of power after Iran persuaded competing Shi’ite blocs to form a single coalition with a majority of seats — withdrew from parliament. The leaders of the predominantly Sunni Iraqiya bloc were protesting Prime Minister Maliki’s centralization of power and refusal to accept Sunni demands for autonomy on Kurdish lines in some of the provinces in which they predominate. The predominantly Sunni bloc, which holds 91 of the 320 seats in parliament also accused Maliki of reneging on an agreement he’d made with the party to end the deadlock that followed the election.
Maliki’s response came a day later with a furious attack on the country’s two most senior Sunni politicians. First, he urged parliament to pass a vote of no confidence in Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq, who in a TV interview earlier this month had accused Maliki of creating a new dictatorship. More ominously, perhaps, Maliki on Monday ordered the arrest of Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. The warrant concerns an investigation into a bombing plot uncovered inside Baghdad’s heavily protected Green Zone, in which three members of al-Hashimi’s security detail have been under investigation. Maliki has claimed to have been the target of this alleged bomb plot. Critics said the judicial panel that issued the arrest order is under the Prime Minister’s sway, and having kept the positions of Defense Minister and Interior Minister for himself, he has ensured that all of the country’s security forces answer directly to him. Mutlaq has reportedly fled into the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq where he hopes he can avoid arrest. (Update: Mutlaq on Tuesday protested his innocence, and said he was willing to stand trial — but only in the Kurdish zone, according to AFP. The Vice President also accused Maliki of being “a dictator” whose Shi’ite government was “oppressing” Sunnis.)
So while his opponents complain of increasing authoritarianism and repression directed at Sunnis, Maliki sees neo-Ba’athist Sunni coup plots. Throw in the Kurds’ persistent desire to roll back Baghdad’s territorial control and give their autonomous enclave in northern Iraq the characteristics of independent statehood, with its own flag, administration, army and, perhaps most contentiously, oil reserves, and the Shi’ite-Sunni-Kurdish power-sharing arrangement the Americans imagined would be achieved by the constitution they created is looking increasingly fanciful.
None of this is news, of course. The Sunnis and their most determined backer, Saudi Arabia, have long viewed Maliki as a sectarian Shi’ite agent of Iran — Saudi Arabia and other Sunni autocracies in the region still keep Iraq’s government at arm’s length. And while the U.S. “rehabilitated” much of the Sunni insurgency by putting it on the American payroll under the rubric of the “Awakening” movement that fought al-Qaeda in Anbar province and elsewhere, Maliki always saw them as a threat. He not only declined to put most of them on the government payroll, as Washington had hoped, but arrested and hounded many of the leaders of the movement so as to keep it on the defensive.
The U.S. had remarkably little political influence in Baghdad after it granted the Iraqis the right to vote for their own leaders in January 2005, with the democratically elected governments that emerged in that first election, and each subsequent one, having been closer to Tehran than they were to Washington. The limited extent of U.S. influence was underscored by the Administration’s failure to persuade Iraq to agree on terms for U.S. troops to remain into 2012 — which, of course, was partly in deference to Iran’s preferences.
But with the U.S. gone, the power game involving Iraq’s neighbors is likely to intensify, precisely because even while Maliki has concentrated much of the power of the nascent post-Saddam Iraqi state in his own hands, that power has strict limits. And because the state of Iraq’s economy and infrastructure remains desperately poor despite nine years of American attention — the unemployment rate is officially around 15%, but in reality may be more like twice that, while electricity supplies remain patchy — it may be the soft power of key neighbors rather than military force that expands influence. And while Maliki may welcome the fact that Iran has stepped in to boost Iraq’s electricity supply, he is sharply resentful of Turkey’s growing presence through trade and investment. That’s because Ankara backed the Iraqiya bloc in the last election.
Still, with a sagging job market, poor infrastructure and ongoing terror attacks, Maliki desperately needs to attract foreign investment to head off the inevitable groundswell of protest against his failure to deliver — particularly when his key sometime-ally, sometime-rival Moqtada al-Sadr, maintains a strong base among the Shi’ite urban poor. The end of the U.S. presence makes Maliki the address for all complaints.
He’s likely to pursue the authoritarian trend to consolidate his power against possible Sunni challenges to his authority — or threats to secede by Sunni provinces — and it’s hard to bet heavily on the Prime Minister keeping the promise he made last March not to run for a third term in 2014.
Other players, particularly Sadr, could make life even more difficult for him by targeting the U.S. Embassy — whose 16,000 member staff complement makes it larger than an Army Division — as an enduring symbol of U.S. involvement in Iraq’s affairs.
Neither Iraq’s power players nor their regional backers have an interest right now in allowing the situation there to deteriorate into a full-blown civil war that draws in the country’s neighbors. But nor have they forged a common idea of how power should be allocated in Iraq, and there’s little sign that the Iraqis, or the neighbors, are going to build “the democratic model for the entire region” of which President Barack Obama spoke hopefully in his valedictory address on the war. Even if Iraq manages to avoid a spectacular meltdown, it’ll surprise few Iraqis if their immediate future turns out to be one of low-key authoritarianism, political turbulence and civil strife.