Who can bring unity to Iraq in 2014? An interview with Joel Wing

Image by Abode of Chaos

Image by Abode of Chaos

Every December, California based analyst Joel Wing and I discuss the coming 12 months in Iraq. Joel has been the author of the Musings on Iraq blog since 2008, providing detailed analysis of political, economic and security developments in Iraq. His work is frequently cited by leading journals and news outlets.

The last year in Iraq has seen a sharp rise in terrorist atrocities. Many commentators predicted this rise in violence, linking it to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s confrontational and aggressive leadership. Next year will be harder to predict because the PM has lost some support at the polls, as seen in the April 2013 provincial elections. As the April 2014 general elections draw near and with the growing strength of The Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) in al-Anbar and Ninewa provinces, Maliki has said “enough is enough”. In the past six months we have seen a higher tempo of operations by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and there have been some reported successes, although this has not been translated into a reduction in attacks. In a recent successful operation, victory had barely been proclaimed when three suicide bombers struck killing 18 ISF members, including 2 generals and 2 brigadiers.

Additionally, while there have been reports of more targeted operations, we still hear of mass arrests, a lack of evidence when detaining suspects, torture and harshly enforced curfews. In short, poor counterinsurgency practices. According to Michael Knights, ISIS is worryingly strong in Mosul, while the Sunni majority governorates are enduring a sustained assassination campaign aimed at a total al-Qaeda takeover. New ISF tactics, such as the increased use of sniffer dogs, “backscatter” X-ray vans and probable intelligence sharing with the US can help, but are unlikely to prove decisive.

Maliki and some Iraqi generals now seem to belatedly understand that the Sunni communities themselves hold the key to ending the violence, but this will take more than just demanding that Sunnis confront terrorists. A handful of sheiks are loyal to Maliki, but nothing like the number who backed the US against al Qaeda in 2007. The PM’s approach will remind many of Saddam’s attempts to buy tribal support. For example, an “industrial city” is supposedly planned for al-Anbar, and the province’s budget has been increased. Sahwa members (fighters who partnered with the US to fight al-Qaeda) are seeing a salary rise, but there are nowhere near enough of them compared to 2007. Finally, there has been attempted political reconciliation with the Anbaris, a move which Joel has described as “one step forward, two steps back.” Many Anbaris are highly skeptical of their leaders visiting Baghdad.

A great many commentators blame Maliki for this widening sectarian chasm. Now the PM is once again trying to portray himself as the reconciler. Are his efforts sincere and can they succeed?

JW: I think Maliki is in a bind. His top priority is to end Al Qaeda’s growing terrorism in the country. Secondarily, he wants to end the protests in Anbar, Salahaddin, etc. because they are opposed to his rule, and he considers them a threat because some are supportive of the insurgency. He has started talks with the Anbar governor, provincial council, and various sheikhs such as Abu Risha and Hayes. His problem with talking to them is hindered by the fact that as Premier he can only do so much. He has talked about releasing some prisoners, backing development projects in Anbar, etc., but the core demands of the demonstrators are to change laws such as those dealing with de-Baathification and terrorism, and those can only be amended by parliament, which can barely pass regular legislation let alone anything important. The coming parliamentary elections in 2014 also make any serious work out of lawmakers very unlikely.

At the same time there is obviously movement within Anbar to reach out to Baghdad because they too are worried about the growing strength of the insurgency. Speaker Nujafi’s Mutahidun party that runs Anbar and some of the sheikhs which I mentioned have basically given up on the protests, and now want to gain some sort of concessions from Maliki. The political parties and tribes were two of the three main pillars of the protest movement along with the clerical establishment so the activists are losing their backers. The demonstrations are split amongst various groups, however, so if a deal were to be made with the premier not all would abide by it. For instance, the Ramadi protest site has withdrawn its support for the Anbar governor to be its representative to talk with the central government.

If Maliki were able to reconcile with Anbar and end the protests that would be a major step but in the big picture it would not lesson the insurgency. Al Qaeda is the major driver of violence right now in the country and the Iraqi forces are not conducting the types of operations that can degrade its strength. The government is wasting its resources by constantly sending the army and police into the border and desert regions of Anbar and Ninewa in raids, conducting operations that allow militants to move back in after the government forces depart. Not only that, but in the cities there are mass arrests, and entire neighborhoods have been closed off. Hardly any of those detained have anything to do with attacks and it only alienates the population. Dr. Knights, who you mentioned, before recently said that the government is purposely ignoring counterinsurgency tactics that it learned from the Americans because it does not want to cooperate with the Sunni population. Until that changes, security will continue to deteriorate in the country.

RT: Now let’s look at Maliki’s rivals among the Shi’a. Recall that in 2007, Ammar al-Hakim visited Ramadi and called the Sunni Sahwa leader Sheik Abu Risha “a true national hero.” Even Sadr has bent over backwards recently to show solidarity with the Sunnis, briefly displaying an FSA flag at a rally. And while many point out the increasingly bad sectarian relations in Iraq, there seem to be plenty of politicians willing to condemn sectarianisation, including former Maliki ally Izzat al-Shabander of the new Awfia Bloc, as Prashant Rao has reported. See @fanarhaddad and @Hayder_alKhoei for more thoughts on this topic.

The ISCI party and the Sadrists will not form a coalition in 2014 as they did in the April elections – see @reidarvisser for more on this. But the prospect of Maliki suffering even greater losses at the polls in April is very real. If the future of al-Anbar, Diyala and Ninewa depends largely on political reconciliation, might we see a better future if Maliki is forced out in 2014? In short, a key demand of protesters is also a red line in Baghdad: greater de-Baathification.

JW: Maliki is very vulnerable right now because of the growing violence, but he’s got a couple things still going for him. Most importantly is the power of incumbency. He has vast resources under his command that he can use to buy off voters. For instance, he started a program to hand out land to the poor and displaced. His opponents are still divided as well, and that will split the vote between them. Finally, the history of Iraqi politics since 2003 is that parties will rally to whoever appears the most powerful after elections, so if Maliki is just able to hold on to his base he should be in a favorable situation. That being said there’s a good chance that he could be deposed. That will lead to a very interesting post-voting period.

As for greater reconciliation if Maliki’s pushed out, it all depends upon who becomes premier. If the Sadrists gain the top position, for example, there will likely be little move towards Sunnis because they are one of the staunchest supporters of de-Baathification, and their comments in support of the protests are simply part of Moqtada’s attempt to portray himself as a national leader and to take jabs at Maliki. I don’t think there is any real commitment on his part to actually reconcile. The Supreme Council would be more likely to try to make deals with the Kurds because they have a long relationship with the ruling parties there, but I’m not sure what stance they would take towards the protests either. It is a great unknown who would become premier if Maliki were replaced, and what policies he would follow.

RT: Worryingly, Maliki still blames the Syrian crisis for the rise in violence. It’s quite a convenient excuse because Iraq’s post-2011 crisis timeline almost matches the timeline of rising violence in Syria. But Iraq’s post-2011 crisis timeline also correlates with major events within Iraq: the US withdrawal, the sidelining of the Sahwa, the end of joint US-Iraqi counter terror operations, the harassment and targeting of Maliki’s Sunni opposition politicians such as Rafa al-Isawi and the ongoing death penalty against Tariq al -Hashemi. Shortly after those events we saw rising Sunni protests, which are ongoing (albeit diminished), not to mention the Hawija massacre which has energized the insurgents’ cause. Some would say the worsening situation was inevitable. Arguably, Iraq has never resolved the core issues that would lead to peace. ISIS undoubtedly benefits from the chaos in Syria and the porous border, but is Maliki just shifting blame? Syria has also sparked a reinvigoration of Shi’a militancy, as Phillip Smyth has documented, and ISIS continue their attempt to merge both nations into a single theocracy, as followers of Aymenn al-Tamimi will know.

JW: I think it’s both. Al Qaeda has obviously been strengthened by events in Syria. There are increasing reports that they have set up extensive tunnel systems and other means along the border to move men and material back and forth between the two countries. They are talking about creating their own Islamist region that would stretch across both Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the major cause for the increase in violence is the breakdown of politics in Iraq. The 2010 national elections was the turning point after many Sunnis and even insurgents participated in the 2009 provincial ones. In 2010 and its aftermath you saw Maliki go from a nationalist agenda to a sectarian one when he felt like he was being outflanked by the other Shiite parties over de-Baathification and banning candidates. Then afterward Iyad Allawi sabotaged his own list, because all he wanted was to become premier, and then Iraqiya fragmented. Basically the religious and secular Sunni and Shiite parties all failed, and you saw many Sunnis move away from politics as a means to further their demands. That has opened the door to the insurgency. Maliki can’t blame his own political shortcomings so he blames his rivals and Syria, as any politician would for the turn of events in Iraq.

Nouri al-Maliki: From strongman to tyrant?

The last Iraqi general election saw the arrest or dismissal of Maliki’s political opponents in the Iraqiyya coalition, some of whom were suddenly found to have had previously unnoticed Ba’ath party ties. Now we are seeing a flurry of arrest warrants and accusations against members of the Sadr Movement (chiefly the current Finance minister) and the al-Dawa splinter party Amal al-Rafidayn, and we still have four months to go until the election. Do you think we’ll see Maliki’s authoritarian streak in full effect next year if his position at the top is threatened? Or might the PM keep one eye on international opinion and hold back from the worst excesses?

JW: Maliki’s modus operandi has always been the carrot and stick. He uses the arrest warrants to threaten his opponents, while reaching out to others. He’s perfectly willing to use those against both his rivals and his erstwhile allies, and has done it for years. He’s arrested Sahwa members in the past only to offer others jobs for instance. Maliki is a very shrewd politician who is focused upon staying in power. I don’t think he’ll be any worse in the run-up to the 2014 vote than he has been before.

A summer of riots

RT: If we see Maliki avoid electoral defeat this April, I imagine we could see protests in many Iraqi towns, some of which could be violent. Many Iraqis seem disheartened with the political elite and it would not be the first time people will have rioted against Maliki. We’d probably see renewed Sunni protests as well. Might 2014 see nationwide anti-Maliki unrest?

JW: There have been protests against the government dating back to 2010. Most were about the lack of services, corruption, etc. None of the protests have had any staying power except for the on-going Sunni ones, because they had powerful backing from politicians, tribes, and clerics. The Summer of 2014 could see some more of the former types of demonstrations about electricity or something, but they haven’t posed any real threat to Maliki. I think the growing cynicism and exacerbation about the political process will simply lead to more people dropping out rather than becoming more active.

Oil revenues: A fair solution ahead?

We keep hearing of a big breakthrough on the issue of Kurdish oil exports to Turkey. Baghdad has gone from raging against the Turks, Kurds and foreign oil majors to a much more conciliatory tone, and Ankara has reciprocated by offering to help Iraq with security cooperation, (apparently to limit Syrian conflict overspill). But with the oil deal, Kirk Sowell (@UtensisRisk) has noted that serious issues still remain and it seems that the current calm may not last. We have seen this in the past with the breakdown of the 2012 oil deal. Perhaps we won’t see a return to military standoffs, but might see Baghdad threatening the Kurdish regional government budget and continued political deadlock. Meanwhile in the oil producing province of Basra, Governor Nasrawi of the ISCI party has threatened to halt exports from the port, and again the issue is oil revenues. That could be a mess of Baghdad’s own making, since the passing of the Provincial Powers Law No. 21 reform act. In Ninewa, governor Uthil al-Nujaifi seems to be getting away with plans to build a refinery with the Kurds in a disputed area. Do you think Iraq is moving in a more decentralized direction, or can we expect a backlash? For more on this issue, follow @PatrickOsgood and @AL_Khateeb. For Kurdish issues see @vvanwilgenburg.

JW: Decentralization would be for the best of the country, but there are too many who want to maintain the centralized system. It’s not just Maliki, but all of the ministers want to maintain their power as well, which comes from controlling public resources.

As for the KRG-Baghdad oil dispute I don’t see that changing much. Deputy Premier Shahristani is still attacking Kurdistan’s oil policies. Baghdad can’t stop the Kurds from shipping oil to Turkey however, so most of this is just political theater. Still with the completion of the new KRG-Turkey pipeline, Maliki may get serious about cutting the Kurds’ share of the budget, which would get support from other parties as well who are opposed to Kurdish autonomy. That issue is holding up passage of the new budget in parliament right now. I think Maliki and others are perfectly happy to have the Kurds act more independently, but they have to do it without all the money from the central government, which accounts for up to 90% of the KRG budget. I think using finances will be the major lever Maliki will use if he wants to retaliate against the Kurds rather than sending the army to the disputed territories again as that achieved nothing, and only raised tensions in an already tense security situation within the country.

About Basra, the governor is complaining because most of Iraq’s oil is based in his province, and he feels like it doesn’t have the respect or budget that it deserves. These types of complaints are often heard from officials there. I think the talk of cutting off oil from there is simply rhetoric rather than a real threat to make a point. Baghdad would never allow the cessation of the majority of its exports and revenue anyway.

Governor Nujafi is in a similar although much weaker position. He would like greater control over development and the oil resources in his governorate, but the security situation prohibits most serious work in any areas other than those controlled by the Kurds in the north. There he would have no real say on projects since the KRG carries out its own independent energy policy. If he were to be included it would be as a very junior partner.


RT: Whoever is PM in 2014 faces huge challenges. In your email conversation with economist Frank Gunter, (I was copied in, I’m not the NSA) he mentioned several alarming prospects for Iraq. I’ll list two. Firstly, many observers say China’s economy could slow next year. I imagine that if China’s economy slows as widely predicted, a reduction in oil demand would be offset by an increase in Indian demand as their economy picks up to an expected 5% rate of growth (UN prediction.) Oil exports have dropped, partly due to attacks on infrastructure in the north, but mainly due to bad weather and infrastructure maintenance, so we can expect exports to pick up, selling at a decent price for Iraq’s budget. Many would justifiably say this means Iraq simply falls victim to more of the same: the resource curse and the battle of corrupt politicians to capture ministries, and the state itself. Anyone in charge can dole out funds to potential supporters. Secondly, Gunter notes how Iraq needs to create 250,000 new jobs simply to keep its unemployment rate going above 30%, and that is a momentous challenge. On the plus side, Iraq’s World Bank ranking for Doing Business has risen, even as more corruption is reported. Do you see any hope for greater economic diversification away from oil? For more on economics in Iraq, see @Akiko_Yoshioka, @ZaabSethna.

JW: The short term answer is no. Iraq’s politicians are extremely limited in outlook, and care about their own political careers rather than the country’s interests. That means increasing their hold over resources through the ministries they run, and that leads to more centralization and more dishing out of oil revenues. Iraq has come up with several good plans for development that include diversification, privatization, greater support for the business sector, etc., but there has been no follow through. In fact, in many instances government offices are trying to increase their control over the economy by creating monopolies using the state-owned enterprises they run in fields such as in trade, transportation, etc. I don’t think you’ll see any change or lessoning of oil dependence in Iraq until this generation of politicians pass.


Our editor, David Miles, wanted me to zoom out for a regional perspective. There seems to be a chance next year that the current Iran-West nuclear deal will hold, and that Congress will not be able to introduce new sanctions. If they do, Obama might veto them. Let’s imagine there’s a deal: How do you think this might affect Iraq, economically and politically?

JW: The big issue is if Iran is allowed to export oil again. If it is that could possibly lower international prices, which have remained stable around $100 per barrel. The development of new oil sources such as fracking, etc. is already putting pressure upon OPEC, and there’s been talk amongst some members to cut production to maintain prices. Iran has also accused Iraq of taking its petroleum customers while it has been sanctioned, and would like to gain back its market share. Any drop in the value of oil directly cuts into the Iraqi budget, which gets 90% of its funding from petroleum exports.

Politically, any deal with the West would not really affect relations between Baghdad and Tehran. I think the latter’s main concern right now is maintaining Assad in Syria. Iran is using its allies in Iraq to further that goal, and that is not dependent upon anything the U.S. or the West does.

For more general Iraq coverage, follow these journalists, analysts and organizations: @tarangoNYT @Nussaibah @DouglasOllivant @hadeelalsayegh @LizSly @Dejaily @Abufellah @IraqShamel @ZackeryHeern @UNiraq @enablingpeace @iraqoilreport @berendvh @EaNasir @ adamschreck @skwicken @wgdunlop @ammar_afp @FadelAlKifaee @Seerwan @niqash

For more analysis on the Iraq picture go to Joel Wing’s Musings on Iraq blog

Image courtesy of Abode of Chaos

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About Robert Tollast

Robert Tollast is a freelance consultant focused on security and political risk analysis in Iraq. He is a blogger at Iraq Business News.

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