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

It may have been checked off President Obama’s to-do list, but the Iraq war is far from over. Sunday saw suspected Sunni insurgents stage the single deadliest day of bombings since U.S. troops withdrew last December, coinciding with an Iraqi court delivering a death sentence in absentia to the country’s most senior Sunni politician, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi. Those events, read alongside last week’s reports of the U.S. complaining that Iraq is allowing Iran to use its airspace to resupply the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria, suggest that Iraq remains one of the hotter theaters of the regional Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

More than 100 Iraqis were killed in the  bombings that struck most of the country’s major cities. The attacks are believed to be the work of Sunni insurgents whose fortunes have been boosted by a combination of their community’s alienation from the Shi’ite-dominated political order, and the civil war in next door Syria, which pits kindred rebel fighters backed by key regional players such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Iran-backed Assad regime. Hashemi, meanwhile, was sentenced to hang on charges of leading a death squad responsible for the killing of a number of Shi’ite political figures. The Vice President, who fled an attempt to arrest him the day after U.S. forces left, strongly rejected the verdict in a statement from Turkey, deeming it little more than a sectarian political gambit by his arch-enemy, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Whatever the merits of the case, the verdict has deepened the sectarian tension that the political system looks increasingly incapable of resolving.

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The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq delivered a tectonic shock to the sectarian balance of power of the entire Middle East. Since 1979, the main indigenous fault line had been the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and allied Sunni autocracies, and the revolutionary Shi’ite regime of Iran. Saddam Hussein, who launched an eight-year, Saudi-backed war in which Iran lost as many as 1 million of its citizens, was Iran’s most reviled enemy. His ouster by the Americans created space for Iraq’s Shi’ites to press the Bush Administration to reluctantly accept that the Iranians would democratically choose their own government as early as 2005. Once it went to the vote, the Shi’ites’ demographic advantage took care of the rest. In one of the great strategic ironies of the 21st Century, a full-blown U.S. ground invasion mounted at massive cost to Washington produced a regime closer to Iran than it is to the U.S.

The Sunni minority, stripped of the relative privilege it had enjoyed under Saddam, produced an insurgency that was ultimately contained and defeated by a combination of two factors: the effective ethnic cleansing of cities and neighborhoods in which the communities lived cheek by jowl, largely at the expense of the Sunnis, and the U.S. cultivation of the Anbar Awakening movement, which involved putting many thousands of Sunni insurgents on the American payroll to turn them against the local al-Qaeda chapter. The U.S. expected Maliki to integrate Awakening groups into the national security forces, but he viewed them as a potential threat and turned on them, cutting off their funding and arresting many of their leaders.

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Hopes of integrating the Sunnis into the new order by giving them a representative stake in the political system also suffered a major blow when, despite winning the largest share of the vote, the predominantly Sunni Iraqiyya bloc was outmaneuvered by Maliki, who appealed to Shi’ite unity to forge a deal with rival parties to reclaim the top spot. Even then, in order to get the new parliament seated, Maliki needed a deal with Iraqiyya, which was eventually hammered out in Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, and envisaged Maliki handing key portfolios to Iraqiyya bloc. Maliki failed to deliver, instead consolidating his personal control over the security forces. Indeed, Sunni and Kurdish complaints of Maliki assuming “dictatorial” powers and preparing to hold onto power when Iraqis vote for a new parliament in 2014 have been echoed even by Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shi’ite cleric on whose support the Prime Minister depends for a parliamentary majority.

Still, despite the alienation of the Sunnis from the post-Saddam order, sectarian violence today remains confined largely to terror attacks, with full-blown territorial warfare unlikely, notes Douglas A. Ollivant of the Council on Foreign Relations, because Shi’ites and Sunnis “are no longer significantly intermingled in population centers, making it difficult for one to attack the other.” Shi’ite communities no longer respond primarily through sectarian militia retaliation, perhaps because of their dominance in the state security apparatuses. The state is relentlessly pursuing suspected insurgents, with 96 men hanged this year alone, mostly on treason and terrorism convictions.

Terror attacks have remained a constant in Iraq, but they don’t represent an existential challenge to the Maliki regime. More dangerous to him, perhaps, are efforts to use Iraq’s institutions to oust him, via a motion of no-confidence in the legislature, courting not only Sunni and Sadrist support, but also the Kurds. Baghdad and Erbil have been at loggerheads for months over oil revenues and contracts signed by the crypto-secessionist Kurdish Regional Government, and Kurdish leaders appear to have made common cause with the challenge to Maliki. Efforts to oust him through the political institutions are likely to see an escalation of his authoritarian efforts to consolidate power.

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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.

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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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