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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Ten years after the March 19, 2003 U.S. military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, increasingly violent sectarian divisions are undermining the fragile stability left in place after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will collapse. Sunni Arab Muslims, who resent Shiite political domination, are in increasingly open revolt against the government of Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki. The revolt represents an escalation of the Sunni demonstrations that began in December 2012. Iraq’s Kurds are increasingly aligned with the Sunnis, based on their own disputes with Maliki over territorial, political, and economic issues. The Shiite faction of Moqtada Al Sadr has been leaning to the Sunnis and Kurds, and could hold the key to Maliki’s political survival. Adding to the schisms is the physical incapacity of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has served as a key mediator, who suffered a stroke in mid-December 2012 and remains outside Iraq. The rifts have impinged on provincial elections on April 20, 2013, and will likely affect national elections for a new parliament and government in 2014. Maliki is expected to seek to retain his post in that vote.

The violent component of Sunni unrest is spearheaded by the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I). The group, apparently emboldened by the Sunni-led uprising in Syria, is conducting attacks against Shiite neighborhoods and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members with increasing frequency and lethality. The attacks appear intended to reignite all-out sectarian conflict and provoke the fall of the government. As violence escalates, there are concerns whether the 700,000 person ISF can counter it without U.S. troops to provide direct support.

U.S. forces left in December 2011 in line with a November 2008 bilateral U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. Iraq refused to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, seeking to put behind it the period of U.S. political and military control and arguing that the ISF could handle violence on its own. Since the U.S. pullout, many observers and some in Congress have asserted that U.S. influence over Iraq has ebbed significantly—squandering the legacy of U.S. combat deaths and funds spent on the intervention Cornerstone programs of what were to be enduring, close security relations—U.S. training for Iraq’s security forces through an Office of Security Cooperation— Iraq (OSC-I) and a State Department police development program—have languished in part because Iraqi officials perceive the programs as indicators of residual U.S. tutelage. The U.S. civilian presence in Iraq has declined from about 17,000 to about 10,500 and is expected to fall to 5,500 by the end of 2013.

Although recognizing that Iraq wants to rebuild its relations in its immediate neighborhood, the Administration and Congress seek to prevent Iraq from falling under the sway of Iran, with which the Shiite-dominated Maliki government has built close relations. Apparently fearing that a change of regime in Syria will further embolden the Iraqi Sunni opposition, Maliki has joined Iran in supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime. However, the legacy of Iran-Iraq hostilities, and Arab and Persian differences, limit Iranian influence among the Iraqi population. Another limitation on Iranian influence is Iraq’s effort to reestablish its historic role as a major player in the Arab world. Iraq took a large step toward returning to the Arab fold by hosting an Arab League summit on March 27-29, 2012, and has substantially repaired relations with Kuwait, the state that Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied in 1990.

Date of Report: April 26, 2013
Number of Pages: 53
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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