Is the Regional Showdown in Syria Rekindling Iraq’s Civil War?

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Stringer / Reuters

Residents stand at the site of a bomb attack in Washash neighbourhood in Baghdad Sept. 10, 2012

The institutions set up by the U.S. to regulate political competition in the post-Saddam Iraq that have suffered from perennial deadlock and breakdown, may now be locked in an irrevocable stalemate. As the International Crisis Group recently noted, “The constitutional order the U.S. occupying power midwifed was an awkward patchwork that did not address core issues – the nature of the federal system; the powers of the president, prime minister and parliament; even the identity of the state and its people. Worse, by solidifying an ethno-sectarian conception of politics, it helped fuel a conflict that at times has been more violent, at others more subdued, but has never wholly vanished.”

Even if they could bring Maliki down (and that remains a huge “if”), however, it’s unlikely that his opponents could find consensus on an alternative, which would leave him in charge as caretaker until 2014. And his authoritarian style of governance has raised fears that he has no intention of relinquishing power, and would tamper with the electoral process to ensure a favorable outcome in next year’s provincial elections and the following year’s legislative poll. An election whose legitimacy was questioned would likely accelerate the slide towards civil war. The resurgence of the Sunni insurgency, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq in particular, is a sign that they’re finding a relatively hospitable environment in at least some of the Sunni communities from which they were driven at the height of the U.S.-Anbar Awakening alliance.

Al-Hashemi, from his exile in Turkey, has been urging the U.S. to return to the fray, warning that Maliki is a sectarian dictator in the thrall to Iran. Not much chance of that, of course — Maliki and his allies put the kibosh on U.S. hopes of maintaining a residual force of 8,000 troops after the December 2011 departure, and even when there were 140,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Washington had precious little influence over Iraq’s political decision makers.

(MORE: Power Struggles in Baghdad and Beyond Mean Opportunities for Iraq’s Kurds)

The Hashemi imbroglio is a reminder that the question of power in Iraq remains dangerously unsettled, and the regional power struggle that is at its sharpest in Syria is further undermining the prospects for stability and improving the outlook for the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. “From the outset, the [Iraqi] political system’s frailty has drawn in neighbouring states but rarely in so perilous a fashion as now,” warns the ICG. They write:

Following the U.S. troop withdrawal and the growing sectarian rift that has opened in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Iraq could fast become a privileged arena for a regional slug fest. While all attention today is focused on Syria, regional actors, the Maliki government included, appear to see Iraq as the next sectarian battleground, particularly should Bashar Assad’s regime fall. Founded in reality or not, the perception in Baghdad is that the emergence of a Sunni-dominated Syria would embolden Sunni militant groups at home; the prime minister also feels that a broad Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey has painted a target on his chest as part of their cold war with Iran and, more broadly, with Shiite Islam. Maliki has thus essentially thrown in his lot with the regime next door, notwithstanding their tense relations in years past; some neighbours likewise are convinced he has grown ever closer to Tehran.

The stakes for Iran — and other regional and international players — were underlined by last month’s report that Iraq had, for the first time since the 1980s, surpassed Iran’s oil output, to become OPEC’s second largest producer. That was testimony not only to Iraq’s recovery, but also to the impact of sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. But if Iraq’s expansion is helping mitigate the impact of Iran sanctions on world markets, that underscores the importance for both sides of the geostrategic battle for Iraq’s loyalties. It’s a battle that’s far from over, and which could prove as, if not more, significant as battle for Syria.

MORE: Baghdad Bloodbath Threatens Sectarian Chaos in Iraq: Will Iran Stoke or Douse the Fires?

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