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A Year of Endemic Instability in Iraq

Commentary, 3 January 2013
Middle East and North Africa
Sectarian and ethnic polarisation now dominates Iraq's political landscape. It could lead to toxic instability in 2013 as the Syrian civil war bolsters a restless Sunni Iraqi opposition while the Kurds continue to assert their independence from Baghdad.

Iraqi leaders

Since 2003, the Anbar province of Iraq has shown itself to be home to powerful and formative forces that have altered the country's direction of political developments at key moments. It was the change in position of key tribes and groups in Anbar in 2005 that led to the formation of the Anbar Awakening that ultimately led to the broader Sunni awakening of 2006-7.

This awakening, along with the standing down of the Mahdi Army of Shi'a leader Muqtada al-Sadr, was just as responsible if not more so as the vaunted 'surge' of US military forces for the ending of Al-Qa'ida associated activities that had threatened to derail the fragile Iraqi government. Once again, Anbar is awakening, but this time the dynamics and the environment are very different: Anbar is stirring against the government of Nouri al-Maliki; it is doing so at a time when the Kurds are taking increasingly strident positions against Baghdad; and this is happening when there is no possibility of a second US surge rescuing the prime minister from threats that could turn into attempted coups.

Whether sectarianism and ethnicism have been perennial features of the Iraqi political landscape, or were empowered or even constructed by the post-2003 architects of Iraq's political system, they now define the political life, actions, and future of Iraq. Indeed, the ethno-sectarian rules of the game were displayed to the full by Prime Minister Maliki's issuing of an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, following the withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011.

Since then, the lines between Sunnis and Shi'as, Arabs and Kurds, have been very clearly drawn, with the prime minister continuing to centralise power around his immediate office, the Kurds moving towards ever higher levels of autonomy through the control of their own oil and gas sector, and the Sunni Arabs becoming increasingly exasperated by what they view, with reason, to be their marginalisation and subordination within a Shi'a-dominated state.

Antagonising Sunni Iraqis

This exasperation has been growing over the last year following successive events that have been interpreted as being anti-Sunni. The last of these events - the arresting of ten bodyguards of finance minister Rafi al-Issawi on 20 December - saw protests and demonstrations erupt across what was known in the days of the civil war as the Sunni Triangle, and focused upon Anbar.

Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul - all saw demonstrations against the Maliki government, with some, including Mosul, calling for the withdrawal of the Iraqi government and police forces. Never one to shirk from a challenge to his power, Maliki has responded with ominous language - including calling up protesters to 'end their strike before the state intervenes to end it'.

Strained Relations with Erbil

While Maliki has faced threats from the Sunni areas before, he has never faced them in isolation. This time, however, the Kurds are no longer his allies and instead have increasingly common cause with their Sunni neighbours. Following years of poor relations between Erbil and Baghdad, caused over disputes over oil and gas policy, budgetary allocations, the status of the disputed territories (including Kirkuk), and an overall disenchantment within Erbil towards the Maliki government, the relationship between the two capitals has, by the start of 2013, become appalling.

Following a military stand-off in the disputed territories at the end of 2012, the scene is set for 2013 to be one of the Kurds moving ahead with securing their autonomy by strengthening their relationship with Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, and by exporting oil and gas directly to their northern neighbour. In order to protect their region, it would make sense for them to do so from the disputed territories themselves, and so raise the spectre of increased military confrontation with Maliki in such volatile flashpoints as Kirkuk, Diyala, and Ninevah. This is a confrontation that the Kurds, with at least tacit Sunni support, may feel capable of winning. The Kurdistan War of 2013 may not be too unlikely, looking at the current pieces on the board.

Syria's Civil War Played Out in Iraq

All of these developments are taking place within a wider regional setting of instability, with all roads arguably leading to Baghdad. It is no surprise or coincidence, for example, that demonstrators in Anbar are flying the flag of the Syrian revolution alongside the former flag of Saddam's Iraq. The ties that bind the populations of Anbar and other Sunni areas in Iraq with those in Syria are strong and were forged in the fires of the Iraq civil war of 2005-7. A post-Assad Sunni-dominated government in Syria would have a profound impact upon the pattern of political power in Iraq - something that Prime Minister Maliki seems to be clearly aware of.

The Kurds, too, are engaged in Syria, with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) actively engaged in the capacity-building of Kurdish militia forces, and attempting to broker power-sharing arrangements between the myriad Syrian Kurdish factions in an attempt to ensure that their own interests, as well as those of Turkey, are protected. For his part, Prime Minister Maliki's foreign policy - which is only one of three within the increasingly fractured state - seems to be one of hoping for the survival of the Assad regime, if only to ensure that the full focus of Tehran's security concerns do not become focused upon ensuring Iraq's compliance in the aftermath of Syria's Sunni ascendency.

If matters could be made even more inflammable, Iraq is now entering the election season. Local elections are to be contested in April 2013, followed by parliamentary elections in 2014. Already, the blocks being constructed for the local elections display clear sectarian and ethnic logic, and there is little to suggest that this will change over the forthcoming year. With few voices willing or capable to challenge the rhetoric of sectarianism and ethnic nationalism (with President Jalal Talabani being one of the few able to do this, and who remains out of the political fray in hospital in Germany), the scene is set for Iraq to have a very difficult 2013.

Gareth Stansfield, Senior Associate Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies


Gareth Stansfield
Senior Associate Fellow

Professor Gareth Stansfield is a Senior Associate Fellow with special reference to the Middle East and Islamic world. He is professor of... read more

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