Friday, May 13, 2011

Storms and Misery Brewing in Iraq

In the last several weeks, the US has been putting major heat on Iraq prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to decide on whether he will ask the US to keep troops in Baghdad after the 31December 2011 withdrawal deadline established by the Bush administration. A number of US officials have come out in favor, for reasons ranging from training the Iraqi military and maintaining US-supplied weapons systems to ensuring the Iraq doesn't become (as Daniel Pipes, in his typically alarmist manner, put it) a new "province of Iran."  Until quite recently, Maliki has insisted that the Iraqis can fend for themselves and that an extended US stay would not be requested.

But in recent days, under continuing pressure from the US as well as from Iraqi officials who fear a post-withdrawal breakdown, Maliki has been creating some wiggle room.  As the WaPo reports, he's now saying that if the other political blocs can reach a "consensus" favoring a prolonged US stay, then his government may request it.  One of the parties that has been weighing in with a "no" vote for months, however, is the Sadrist Trend led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who is adamantly opposed to such an extension, has threatened to bring his militia back onto the streets to battle the Americans, and who would also withdraw his political support in parliament, which just might topple Maliki's government at an especially dangerous moment.  It's possible that Muqtada is bluffing.  But it's not a bluff that Maliki will be eager to call, given the alternative if it's not a bluff and street battles erupt.

Problem is, though, that the last few weeks have seen a spike in assassinations of government officials and bombings of public buildings.  It's not at all certain that Iraqi security forces will be able to maintain order once their US back-up leaves.  Tensions among Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen around Kirkuk and in the Diyala region north of Baghdad remain high, with thousands of the US combat troops that are still in Iraq committed to patrols there in order to dampen down the situation.  Many officials in that area are predicting that once the US leaves, all hell will break loose.

Add to all of this, now, a new ingredient: hundreds of (mostly Sunni) Arab Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria during the Sunni-Shia civil war between 2006 and 2009 but who are now streaming back to Iraq because of the violence in Syria, where the Asad government (remember, a family-based regime of Shia-related Alawis, whose control is resented by many religious Sunni in Syria) has killed hundreds, rounded up and detained thousands, and has used tanks to bombard urban neighborhoods.
Among returning Iraqi refugees who were interviewed Thursday, Haitham Ibrahim, 44, said his family was fleeing the Syrian city of Homs because they “could not stand the situation anymore.”

“The Syrian revolutionaries, they don’t want us to stay anymore,” Ibrahim said. “They accuse us of being part of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. And the Syrian forces, they have started to arrest some of the Iraqis and accuse them of being part of the demonstrations. We had to leave.”

Saeed Kaml, 49, had a bruised nose he said was broken during a three-day detention by Syrian police. He said he was arrested after he inadvertently got too close to a protest in a province south of Damascus.

“The problem is Yemen, Egypt, Libya, those countries that always accepted Iraqis, now the situation there is no good,” Kaml said. “The rest of the Arab countries have closed their borders in our faces. We couldn’t find any other country but Iraq to return to.”

“You see we are back, and we feel sorry,” he added, turning toward his daughters. “This is a wild, militarized country, and now what? My children have stopped their education, and we have sold all our belongings.

Evidently, many of those refugees hope to return to Syria.  They were driven out by Iraqi Shia, who now dominate the Iraqi government and who, in many instances, have already taken over the homes that the refugees abandoned.  The UN is now stock-piling tents and supplies in the expectation that hundreds, even thousands more refugees may be streaming back into Iraq, the country that was once their home but that now offers little hope to them.

The Iraqi refugees who were dispossessed in the wake of Mr. Bush's 2003 attempt to remake the Middle East - counting those who fled to other countries and those accounted as "internally dislocated" - number, by some counts, as many as 4 million.  They have already imposed a major burden on the infrastructure and social services of countries like Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.  All of those countries are facing the prospect of political disturbances and destabilization that will be chaotic even for their citizens.  The impact on marginalized people like the Iraqi refugees - and the consequent destabilization across the region - could be even more severe.

Remember: dispossessed, impoverished, humiliated, desperate Sunnis are excellent recruiting grounds for extremist groups like "al-Qaeda" - which, in the eyes of some, is already making a comeback in Iraq.

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