Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Where Iraq May Be Headed

As this analysis from Reuters makes clear, the Shi'a-led government of Nuri al-Maliki is under immense pressure. To the north of Baghdad, the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil is defying his demands that it quit making its own deals with foreign oil companies.  Erbil and Baghdad could also easily come to blows over the oil-rich, Kurd-coveted Kirkuk region, where the two sides' forces are already arrayed against each other.
But it's the recent Sunni protests in Anbar governate - combined with what is likely the death spiral of the Assad regime in Damascus - that may be grabbing most of Baghdad's attention now.   Sunnis in Falluja and Ramadi have been angry with the Maliki regime for years - and for good reason - but the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria is feeding the Sunnis of Anbar the ambrosia of empowerment.

As Reuters notes,

Increasingly, though, for the Shi'ite leadership, Syria's crisis is a key factor in Iraq's own stability.
Should Assad fall it would weaken the sway of Shi'ite Iran, Syria's main regional ally and a key supporter of Shi'ite Islamist parties in Maliki's coalition. Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have backed Assad's foes.
After any Syrian collapse, Iraqi Shi'ite officials see Islamist fighters turning their weapons back on Baghdad. Their worst case scenario is a Sunni population in revolt against Baghdad and becoming a magnet for jihadists.
"Everyone is asking where are we heading, no one knows," said one influential Shi'ite leader. "Our biggest fear is that the regime in Syria collapses, then an Iraqi Sunni region will be announced next day, and fighting will erupt."

It's going to take all the political savvy and statesmanship that Maliki can muster if Iraq is to remain a unitary state.  In decades past, Saddam Hussein was able to apply oil monies as a band-aid to try to keep restive elements of Iraq's population in line.  In the end, though, that wasn't enough when the 1991 war weakened his hold.  Now, the Kurds have their own oil money, as well as a burgeoning partnership with Turkey in developing an oil pipeline to convey oil out of Kurdistan and fuel Erbil's further empowerment - and defiance of Baghdad.  It's difficult to see, down the road, anything short of war that might enable Baghdad to re-establish its sway in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As for the Sunnis of Anbar, Maliki has consistently treated them as threats more than compatriots.  And given Maliki's longtime ties to the Shi'i Islamist Dawa party, it's difficult to imagine a government led by him doing anything to empower Iraq's Sunni minority, which until 2003 dominated  (and under Saddam, brutalized) the majority Shi'a.  That Syria's rebellion is being led by Sunnis - many of whom have kinship/tribal ties with Iraqi Sunnis - obviously worries Baghdad.  That the Syrian rebellion is being spearheaded by Sunni Islamists - especially Jabhat al-Nusra, which has ties to al-Qaeda - may have many Iraqi Shi'a petrified.
And you can bet that all of this is knotting some stomachs in Foggy Bottom as well.

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