Stormy Times in Iraq as US Withdraws

Political violence in Iraq killed 456 Iraqis in August, the highest monthly death toll since July 2008. And with the U.S. showing no sign it plans to reverse the troop withdrawal that is now well underway, numerous struggles for power are shaping up inside Iraq.

They involve both competing factions within the country and also, perhaps more ominously, several neighboring countries.

These levels of violence are deeply entwined, as was shown by the aftershocks of the most deadly of August’s acts of violence: on Aug. 19, unknown parties, suspected to be disgruntled Sunnis, detonated large vehicle bombs outside three Iraqi ministries, killing 95 people and injuring more than 600.

Shortly afterward, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Syria of giving safe haven to the men who masterminded the bombings, whom he identified as followers of Iraq’s former Baathist rulers. (Close observers of the Iraqi scene are divided on the authenticity of the televised "confessions" on which he based this charge.)

As the heat of Maliki’s accusations rose, he withdrew his ambassador from Syria. That decision was all the more notable since just days earlier he had made a very friendly state visit to Damascus, where he and his hosts signed several important agreements.

In preceding months, Syrian officials had repeatedly stressed that they saw a strong interest in Maliki’s government successfully stabilizing its rule throughout Iraq. (Syria also started to work semi-quietly with U.S. military planners to help achieve this.)

But as Maliki escalated his accusations against Syria, the previously burgeoning cooperation between the two governments lay in ruins. Syria, which had been one of the earliest Arab states to recognize Maliki’s government, also withdrew its ambassador from Baghdad.

The Aug. 19 bombings were timed, perhaps deliberately, to be carried out on the anniversary of the massive truck bomb that in 2003 wrecked the U.N. mission in Baghdad, killing its head and many of his staff members.

That earlier bombing marked a turning point in Iraqi affairs. Before it, many non-Iraqis and even many Iraqis hoped that somehow, with the U.N.’s help, Iraq could emerge fairly peacefully from the devastation that the U.S. military had inflicted in its assault and invasion of the country just five months earlier.

After the August 2003 bomb, that hope lay in tatters — and the U.N. greatly downgraded its engagement in Iraqi affairs.

After the Aug. 19 bombings of this year, the hope that Iraq might emerge fairly peacefully from the six-year-long U.S. occupation has been similarly seriously dented.

The three ministries targeted were each known to fall more thoroughly under the sway of Iraq’s big ethnosectarian factions than under Maliki’s direct control. (That was one result of the system of "apportionment" of state positions and patronage among Iraq’s sects and ethnicities that was introduced by the U.S. occupation.)

So it is plausible that strong Iraqi nationalists, whether Ba’athists or others, who have been very disturbed by the emergence of these factions may have been behind the bombings.

Another possibility, mentioned by more than a few Iraqis, is that forces near to Maliki himself may have had a hand in them, in an attempt to cut down the factions’ power.

In the same period the Aug. 19 bombs were being planned, all the other Shi’ite factions that in 2006 had helped boost Maliki to power formed a new coalition — but without him, or his Daawa Party. Indeed, Maliki’s party and its non-Shi’ite allies did much better in last January’s provincial election than any of the other Shi’ite parties with which it was previously aligned.

"Right now, Maliki seems much happier hanging out people from the Sunni party he’s allied with than with his previous allies in the Shi’ite parties," veteran Iraqi-American political scientist Adeed Dawisha told IPS.

There are further wrinkles in the story. Maliki is very close to the Iranians and receives strong backing from them — but so do just about all the other factional leaders who he is now opposing.

Iran has been a powerful player inside Iraqi politics ever since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein. Now, as the U.S. military footprint in the country contracts, Iran’s power there is growing very visibly.

This has greatly concerned all Iraq’s Arab neighbors — including Syria, despite the Damascus government’s lengthy de-facto alliance with Tehran.

So one possible explanation for the vehemence with which Maliki accused Syria may be the Iranians urged it on him, in an attempt to deny the Syrians any potential influence over the Baghdad regime.

One notable aspect of the political tempests now swirling around Iraq is that neither in Iraq nor in the U.S. has there been any significant movement calling for the U.S. to delay or reverse its continuing pullout.

In the U.S., much more attention is now being paid to the military’s deeply troubled engagement in Afghanistan.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement that Pres. George W. Bush concluded with the Maliki government last November, all U.S. troops should be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But significant voices inside and outside the Pentagon are now urging speeding up that timetable, to free up additional troops for Afghanistan.

When U.S. commentators refer to the ongoing violence amongst Iraqis, which is not often, they express some mild regret. But none go on to urge that the U.S. military there should do something active to bolster Iraqi security.

"There really is nothing the U.S. can do in the security sector, at this point," said Dawisha, whose latest book is Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation.

He also judged there is very little the U.S. — or any other outside powers — can do to intervene at the political level, to help Iraq’s 30 million people meet the many other political challenges that lie ahead.

The only outside power Dawisha saw as potentially able to make a small difference for the better was Turkey. He was very dismissive of the idea that the U.N. could do anything useful.

Right now, two major issues top the country’s political agenda. One is the still-simmering contest between ethnic Kurds and ethnic Arabs over Kirkuk, an oil-rich region long coveted by the Kurds. The other is the next round of national elections, scheduled for January 2010.

Dawisha noted that not all the news from inside Iraq is bad.

He pointed in particular to signs that new cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic alliances are now emerging. "One of the most interesting is the ‘Hadba’ alliance that’s being built around the list of that name that did very well in the provincial elections in the northern city of Mosul," he said. "And now, they’re making plans to field candidates in a number of other provinces, too, in the January elections."

But the situation remains precarious. "The reconstituted Iraqi security forces have the numbers they need now, and much of the training," Dawisha said. "But there is still a real risk they could implode if the internal politics can’t be stabilized."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at