Middle East Roundtable
Edition 30 Volume 6 - July 31, 2008
Iraq: Stabilizing? Normalizing?
• Implications of the security improvement in Iraq - Ghassan Attiyah
The Iraqi arena remains preoccupied with the American-Iranian conflict.
• Iraqi developments are inextricably linked to Turkish security - Ahmet O. Evin
Developments in Iraq bring to mind Humpty Dumpty.
• Iran is part of the solution, not the problem - Reza Molavi and Ariabarzan Mohammadighalehtaki
Iran believes that the presence of Arab embassies in Baghdad will not pose a threat to its interests.
• Amman worried by Iraq's mountain of problems - Rana Sabbagh-Gargour
Jordanian circles feel the American military assessment is exaggerated and self-flattering.
Implications of the security improvement in Iraq
In the past few months, Iraq has witnessed developments that point to a relative improvement in the security situation and a transformation toward greater regional political openness.
The security improvement manifested itself in the Iraqi army operations against al-Sadr militias, especially the Mahdi army and the so-called Special Groups, which reduced their presence in regions that had previously been strongholds, especially in Basra and Sadr City. The government has stressed on more than one occasion that the Sadr wing as a whole is not targeted, and on the ground the military command was the main target. Later, the military campaign moved to Amara close to the Iranian border, which is considered the most important Iranian entry point to Iraq for smuggling.
It was striking that the halt to fighting came after Iranian mediation, which raises the question of Iran's role and the nature of its alliances with Shi'ite forces in Iraq. It is well known that all Islamic Shi'ite parties have relations--to varying degrees--with Iran, especially with the Jerusalem Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards that is headed by General Suleimani, Iran's strongman in Iraq. Iranian mediation was decisive in ending the Shi'ite-Shi'ite fighting as Iran sees itself as standing to lose the most from such fighting. Shi'ite-Shi'ite conflict may force some to choose between the American ally or the Iranian friend and this is something Iran does not want at present.
The initiative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to act against the Mahdi army came about without complete coordination with the Americans. Only when the campaign faced difficulties did American and British troops intervene--especially when more than 1,000 soldiers from the Iraqi forces in Basra had to give up their positions to Sadr's forces. American and British intervention played a decisive role when more than 800 soldiers joined the British base near Basra airport and planes and helicopters were deployed to assist government troops. This effective US and British intervention reflected back on Iran, which felt it was not ready for a full confrontation with the US. The end of the fighting thus came as an Iranian necessity.
The measures that were taken in Basra may not have been well planned, according to American sources, but the results benefited the government in surprising ways, contributing to a change of perception of the government on the Iraqi street. After the chaos of the militias, the military victory was welcomed by the masses, showing the government as a non-sectarian party. This in turn had a positive impact on persuading Sunni parties, who supported the government's actions, to re-engage and has led to talk of the return of Sunni parties to government. Meanwhile, the mistakes of the Sadr wing--which lacks effective control and command--caused revulsion among its popular base in the same way that the behavior of al-Qaeda has repulsed many Sunni forces, making room for them to join al-Sahwa (the awakening) factions.
The fact that the Iraqi government stands before district council elections next October places the government's military measures in a completely different political context. The Sadr wing is considered real competition to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI) headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the Da'wa Party headed by al-Maliki. It is worth noting that the Sadr wing did not participate in past local elections, handing SIIC complete control, and its decision to contest these elections made the Sadr wing a target. Reducing its influence will serve the SIIC.
Indeed, all parties in the Iraqi government approved the strikes against the Sadr wing for their own reasons: the Kurds wants to get rid of any party that rejects the concept of federation while the Sunni party (al-Tawafuq) suffered from the sectarian cleansing policy of Sadrists.
The crackdown on the Sadr wing and the accompanying public criticism of Iran's role were also welcomed by Arab governments, who have been under US pressure to open up to Baghdad as a reward and to show encouragement. The United Arab Emirates' foreign minister visited Iraq, followed by al-Maliki's visit to the UAE and Jordan. It was also announced that the king of Jordan would visit. Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and the UAE announced that they would appoint ambassadors to Baghdad. Finally, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came.
All of this serves to support the Iraqi government, which has suffered isolation from its Arab neighbors. However, there hasn't been a unified strategic Arab change and doubts will remain until additional steps are taken that will clarify the Iraqi government's position vis-a-vis Iran.
Iraqis do not doubt the security improvement but are suspicious about its sustainability. The sectarian split between Shi'ites and Sunnis is still deep and can explode at any moment, and some of the security improvement is due to the sectarian separation through walls and mutual displacement. Meanwhile, the armed resistance continues. Al-Qaeda is regrouping after it avoided clashes with Iraqi and American troops in Mosul and is settled now in Diala and other areas. The al-Sahwa factions still harbor doubts over the ruling Shi'ite parties and might act against them. Kurdish fears are mounting as the Iraqi parliament fails to solve any of their outstanding concerns. The local elections law has not been ratified yet, nor have the major issues of oil and Kirkuk been addressed. UN efforts on these matters have not been successful so far in face of the Kurdish resolve regarding the disputed regions.
Still, the Iraqi arena remains preoccupied with the American-Iranian conflict, which has become something of a chess game (a game invented in Iran) with each party trying to score points off the opponent. Thus the reduction in influence of the Mahdi army was balanced by Iran's success in mobilizing Shi'ite parties against the security agreement with the US.
Iran feels it does not need to rush any decisions on Iraq because it is waiting for the results of the next US presidential elections and will wait to deal with a new president. It is hoping to deal with Barack Obama, who affirmed his commitment to withdraw American troops from Iraq in 16 months and expressed a readiness to hold unconditional negotiations with Iran.
American weariness in Iraq and Afghanistan might help Iran reach an agreement with the US administration whereby Washington's approval of the Iranian role in Iraq is traded for Iranian support for America in Afghanistan.- Published 31/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ghassan Attiyah is the director of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, which he founded in August 2003.
Iraqi developments are inextricably linked to Turkish security
Ahmet O. Evin
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the Turkish parliament's March 1, 2003, vote that disallowed American troops to move through southeastern Turkey and open a second front of attack from the north on Iraq. Washington's frustration and anger over that vote have gradually subsided and the differences over Iraq between Turkey and the US appear to have been bridged. Both Washington and Ankara insist that there is significant and visible improvement in Iraq's security situation. Both governments utilize, as if to convince skeptics, the same mildly optimistic tone in emphasizing their overriding objective to see Iraq stabilized.
Who doesn't? Not a minute should be lost in putting an end to Iraq's painful humanitarian crisis as well as to the prevailing chaos there that continues to pose a serious security threat to the region and beyond. But the task is not easily accomplished and, despite arguments to the contrary, there is room for skepticism regarding the prospects of achieving stability in Iraq. Just as these lines are being written, a suicide bombing took place in Kirkuk that killed 35 people and wounded over 200. Is the violence spreading north, as some fear in the wake of these developments?
Violence on the same scale as witnessed in Baghdad, central provinces or south in Basra is highly unlikely to occur in the north because of topographic (mountains) and demographic (size and concentration of population in urban areas) reasons. Moreover, ethnic and confessional cleavages pose far less of a threat in the north because of solidarity among the Kurds, who represent an overwhelming majority of the population there. Nevertheless, neither the existence of a comparatively less violent province, nor statistics of decreasing casualties in the capital and surrounding provinces, nor the apparent success of the Iraqi security forces' operation last March in Basra can be said to constitute convincing evidence of increasing stability. Sadly, developments in Iraq bring to mind Humpty Dumpty; immensely difficult challenges will have to be met before the country can be put back together again.
Among the internal challenges, the most important one is to reestablish the armed forces as a credible, coherent, professional institution of the state that commands loyalty and respect. Legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament on January 12, 2008, to allow former Baath members to return to government service is a step in the right direction for both reconciliation and strengthening government by bringing back experienced cadres. But it will take time to get back on duty a critical mass of former officials and then to integrate them into the new environment.
The political arena, including particularly the relationship between central and regional administration, is likely to be affected in the foreseeable future by the tensions and polarization across the country. The party-slate system adopted for national elections has resulted, not unexpectedly, in a race to win favor from party leaders, thus deflecting attention from pressing issues of national concern. Ideological polarization (along ethnic or sectarian lines) is a collateral damage of the party-slate choice that puts party loyalty before representation. Although the legislation governing provincial administration, passed last spring, aims to curb the power of national government over local communities, it remains to be seen whether representation at the local level will help to solve problems of particular communities or add strains to the relationship between green zone politicians and local administrators.
Moreover, an overriding emphasis on elections as the sole indicator of democratic development (thus also reflecting a conceptual confusion of democracy with elections, which constitute a necessary procedure for the maintenance of an established democratic system that is characterized by sustainable institutions) has deflected attention from the way in which decisions are made and consensus achieved in tribal societies. It is the culture of tribal consultation, shared by all ethnic and sectarian groups, that is likely to facilitate the acceptance and implementation of political decisions countrywide.
As far as the neighborhood is concerned, Iraq's stability is essentially linked to Turkey's own security interests. Turkey has been actively contributing to Iraq's reconstruction and security by means of investments, trade, technical assistance and training of Iraqi security forces. It was instrumental in establishing recently a Strategic High Level Council, co-chaired by the prime ministers of the two countries, with the objective of enhancing cooperation on concrete projects. Also, increased cooperation with Iraq's Kurdish leadership has followed US-Turkey cooperation in intelligence exchange that has allowed the Turkish armed forces to accurately target PKK hideouts in northern Iraq. During his visit to Turkey last March, President Talabani identified the PKK as a common threat to both Iraq's and Turkey's national security. Ankara has welcomed Iraq's provincial elections and has begun communicating directly with Massoud Barzani as the leader of the local administration. Despite occasional disruptions, Kirkuk oil is now flowing to the Ceyhan terminal at the rate of 800,000 bbd.
All of these positive developments are consistent with Turkey's aim to achieve regional cooperation by means of having "zero problems" with neighbors. But Iraq is more than a mere neighbor: developments there are related inextricably to Turkey's domestic security as well as its transatlantic relations. Also, Turkey's ability to support Iraq is necessarily limited, given the enormous challenges the country faces. Sharpened sectarian divisions, moreover, have resulted in substantially increased Iranian influence among the Shi'ite communities in Iraq. Though both Ankara and the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq may see a window of opportunity for future cooperation, how Iran might shape its policies toward the north remains to be seen. In any case, the Iran factor is likely to pose yet another difficult challenge to achieving stability in Iraq and the region.- Published 31/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org.
Ahmet O. Evin is founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabanci University. He is a professor of political science at Sabanci and is a member of the board of directors of Istanbul Policy Center.
Iran is part of the solution, not the problem
Reza Molavi and Ariabarzan Mohammadighalehtaki
Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971, leaving behind a security vacuum that only the Shah could fill. With America's support, Iran under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became the policeman of the Persian Gulf. But with the advent of the Islamic Revolution, power in the Gulf region was dispersed among the United States, Iraq, Iran and to some degree Saudi Arabia.
More recently, the removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq as the strategic counterweight to Iran has changed this dynamic entirely; the Islamic Republic of Iran has been able to expand its influence in the Middle East, Africa, Transcaucasia and beyond. The United States and the European Union now face the question of how they can mitigate potential threats to their interests if Iran succeeds in consolidating its new position as the leading power in the region.
For Iran, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was "a miracle come true". Not only was Iran's sworn enemy (Saddam Hussein) removed, but the very Shi'ite and Kurdish groups that sided with Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq have become the main players on the Iraqi political scene.
Iran was the first country to recognize the Iraqi Governing Council that was established under the US occupation in 2003. Iran has continued its support to embrace the new Iraqi government of 2006. The al-Dawa party to whom current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs had its headquarters based in Tehran during Saddam's rule of terror. The same is true for the departed Ayatollah Hakim and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), currently known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
The Iraqi Kurds have a long history of proximity to Iran. When the Iraqi government used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988, Jalal Talabani (currently president of Iraq, then head of PUK) sought safety in Iran. In 1991, when a popular uprising liberated almost all of Kurdistan including Kirkuk and the Iraqi army retaliated with an iron fist, Kurds in massive numbers fled to Iran and Turkey, but it was only the government of Iran that kept its borders open against all uncertainties and hazards.
Tehran's regime has no interest in undermining the current government of Iraq. In fact, Iran's constructive role in Iraq has gone beyond the new Iraqi government to include the new Iraqi army as well. SCIRI, for instance, asked its members to enter the new Iraqi army and police force. This was a positive step and Iranians deserve credit for it.
There are three reasons for the recent calm and stability in Iraq, one of them less well-known. The two obvious explanations are the Americans' 2007 surge, which even the Democrats now concede was a success, and the establishment of the Sahwa (awakening) forces. The third, less discussed reason is the fact that Iran did its best to help the Iraqi government in its effort to stabilize the situation in Iraq. It was Iran that advised Muqtada al-Sadr to dissolve the Mahdi army, thereby preventing a major clash between it and the Iraqi armed forces. Later, when the Baghdad operation took place and supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr refused to give up their guns, once again it was Iranian mediation efforts that saved the day and stopped escalation of the conflict in Sadr City.
Normalization in Iraq will clearly take time and patience; currently it is at the beginning phase of a long journey. One positive development that took place recently and further enhanced efforts at normalization and stabilization in Iraq was the visit of high-ranking Arab delegations followed by the promise of reopening Arab embassies in Baghdad. Other visits by dignitaries such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were equally important.
In contradiction to the line take by the Arab media, Iran actually praises the normalization of relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbors. This position does not derive from sheer benevolence; rather, it is anchored in national interests. First, Iran, which until recently was the only Shi'ite country in the world, is "over the moon" to see the predominantly Sunni governments of the Arab states recognizing the Shi'ite government of Iraq. Previously, Iranians did not dare dream of a day when countries such as Egypt and the UAE would be ready to recognize a Shi'ite Iraq.
Second, Iran believes that the presence of Arab embassies in Baghdad will not pose any threat to its interests in the region. The Iranian regime is under the impression that the Arab states are too unpopular with their citizens to be able to challenge its influence. Even when an immense influx of money from rich Arab states was invested in Iraqi Sunni militia groups, Iran argues, they could not turn the tide in their own favor.
In conclusion, Iran is part of the solution in Iraq, not the problem. Iran seeks stabilization in Iraq as a long-term strategy. Naturally, the Iranians have influence in Iraq and, like any other country involved in Iraq, they wish to maintain it.- Published 31/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Reza Molavi is executive director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University, UK. He is also senior research associate at The Centre for Strategic Research, a unit of the Expediency Council of Iran. Ariabarzan Mohammadighalehtaki is a PhD student at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, UK.
Amman worried by Iraq's mountain of problems
King Abdullah of Jordan abruptly postponed a visit to Baghdad in early July without clear explanation. His trip is still on, Jordanian officials say, but they want to keep its timing secret to ensure the personal security of a king whose country, because of its cozy ties with Washington, is an avowed enemy of al-Qaeda. Jordanian intelligence gathering led to the killing of an al-Qaeda leader in Iraq last year.
No Sunni Arab head of state has visited Baghdad since the US toppled Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in 2003, allowing Iran to spread its radical version of political Islam across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, rattling moderate countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Jordan is keen to see Iraq stabilize and does not support any hasty withdrawal of US forces. It is following the efforts of Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is trying to strike a balance between Washington and Tehran while reconciling with aloof Arab neighbors and curbing sectarian tension.
Amman does not trust him or his political intentions. But it says it wants to give him the benefit of the doubt until early 2009. Many officials fear Maliki wants to ensure his political survival beyond elections next year by recalibrating his divisive dependence on Iran while maximizing gains from an unpopular strategic security pact that his country is negotiating with Washington. For this, he needs to make regional diplomatic gains and win over Sunni powerhouses like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Amman was among the first Sunni Arab capitals to appoint a new ambassador to Iraq several weeks ago in a clear sign that it wanted better ties with its eastern neighbor, once a major trade partner and full oil supplier at below-market prices. This flexibility allowed Iraq to renew an agreement to sell oil to Jordan at discount rates and eased Washington's pressure on Iraq's neighbors to support Maliki through renewing diplomatic ties and scrapping debts.
A stable and unified Iraq means a lot to Jordan, which does not want to grapple with the possibility of Iraq exporting Shi'ite extremist groups and al-Qaeda fighters, of the kind who staged Amman's first suicide bombings in November 2005.
Iraq's stability will also curtail the power of Iran and encourage the repatriation of over 550,000 Iraqis who have fled to Jordan since 2003, taking some pressure off the fragile demographic balance, security and strained public services. A serious Iraq reconstruction effort will benefit the Jordanian economy, facing a global energy and food crisis.
Jordanian officials and commentators say the security environment in Iraq continues to improve, thanks in part to a surge of 30,000 additional US troops in 2007 under a controversial strategy approved by US President George W. Bush. Major violence indicators have been reduced by between 40 and 80 percent from pre-surge levels, according to the twelfth quarterly report in June measuring stability and security in Iraq. The extra combat power has largely been withdrawn as Washington looks set to announce further cuts in its 147,000-strong force this year.
Total security incidents have fallen to their lowest levels in four years. Coalition and Iraqi forces' operations against al-Qaeda have degraded its ability to attack and terrorize the population. Maliki's government succeeded in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City against Shi'ite militias, particularly the Mahdi army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-supported Special Groups. The revitalization of sectors of the Iraqi economy and local reconciliation efforts has also helped.
But Iraq still faces a mountain of problems: sectarian rivalries, power struggles within the Sunni and Shi'ite communities, Kurdish-Arab tensions, endemic corruption and organizing provincial elections as early as October. Any of those could rekindle widespread fighting that is not over yet.
The underlying dynamics in Iraqi society that blew up US military hopes for an early exit shortly after the fall of Baghdad might have changed in important ways in recent months, say several Jordanian officials, strategists and commentators. But this does not mean they share the optimistic assessment repeatedly cited by Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq who is seen as the main architect of the surge policy.
These circles feel the American military assessment is exaggerated and self-flattering as it glosses over many realities on the ground. Hence, it should not be openly applauded. True, the systematic sectarian killings have all but ended in the capital. Yet this is largely due to tight security and a strategy of walling off entire areas purged of minorities in 2006. A fatwa issued by Sadr last summer banning sectarian killings has restrained his followers. But the Sadrists are in hibernating mode, waiting for re-activation orders from Iran.
"Al-Qaeda received several painful blows over the past months that have impacted its influence," says one Arab official. But this could only be temporarily. "The terror group has not been dismantled since it was able to regroup its fighters, to continue recruitment of new followers and to enjoy safe supply routes vital for sustaining its operations," he said.
Al-Qaeda's Iraqi fighters were instructed to relocate to safer areas within Iraq, while many of the foreign fighters were told to move to Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and the Maghreb. This could be a major reason for increasing violence in Afghanistan, for a series of suicide attacks that ripped through northern Africa several months ago and for Monday's deadliest suicide attack in Baghdad in months.
But for now, Maliki, Iran and the US have a stake in stabilizing Iraq. More domestic quiet in Iraq will increase prospects of elections that could guarantee the future of Iranian influence under Maliki.
And President Bush does not want more trouble in Iraq to play in favor of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who wants to pull all US troops out of Iraq by 2010 to focus on the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.- Published 31/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rana Sabbagh-Gargour is an independent journalist and former chief editor of the Jordan Times.