Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Realistic Policy Options in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 25 August 2011 17:52

A strategic policy council, more Arab Spring, or maybe the fall of the Iranian regime? The two articles linked below offer the opinion that the most realistic way forward in Iraq is for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of the Shiite Islamist State of Law alliance to grant the defence ministry to secular Iraqiyya in exchange for Iraqiyya giving up its claim to the national council for high policies – which is likely to prove dissastisfactory even under the rosiest of scenarios. One element in such a move would be agreement betweeen Iraqiyya, State of Law and the Kurds on instructors in Iraq, as argued in “Of Instructors and Interests in Iraq”. Another factor would be a move by those three parties to the deliberately exclude the most pro-Iranian Shiite parties from the Iraqi government and also revert to the pre-2003 oppositional formula of a bi-national federation between Arabs and Kurds – as proposed in “Power Grabs and Politics Are Stalling Progress in Iraq”.  Discussion/comments section for both articles is open below.

19 Responses to “Realistic Policy Options in Iraq”

  1. But Reidar, the defense ministry belongs to Iraqiya in the first place, there is nothing to grant except implement the agreement.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, the “Arbil agreement”, if it even exists, incorporates many things that will never be implemented. This is a suggestion for taking some steps that would change the dynamic radically.

  3. John Measor said

    Dear Reidar,

    An excellent piece in MERIP – with all thats going on I can understand why Iraq is not receiving the media coverage it is due, thus I applaud your efforts to keep it within the discussion in such an important venue as MERIP.

    I do have some comments however …

    “Maliki’s long-term ambition seems to be the creation of a ruling party that is dominated by Shi‘i Islamists but speaks an Iraqi nationalist language and can win elections with a modicum of extra support in Sunni-majority areas.”

    I think you are being kind re the ‘party’ aspect here as Maliki does seem driven by a vision of Iraq that always seems to end up with himself as Prime Minister; but, largely this seems accurate. At what point will Iraqi politicians be ‘brought to book’ by their electorate regarding their seemingly selfish use of Iraqi nationalism? That day cannot come too soon IMO. Iraq desperately needs some true patriots, or for its patriots to act as such on a wider range of their policy implementations.

    “But this scenario would not seem to require that Maliki seek a lasting “special relationship” with the United States and he does not seem to want one.”

    Agreed; is this not true for all political factions within the Iraqi constellation (as well as the general population)? The true goal of any leadership contender will be to walk the tightrope between Iraqi sovereignty and too much Iranian, Saudi, American, or perhaps even Turkish influence within the process. Not impossible, but VERY difficult. This will be made so not so much by the efforts of those “offshore balancers” (or as Santana identified them – ‘wolves’), but rather by the ‘spoiler’ dynamic baked into the post-2003 cake – the KRG. Overt efforts to accommodate the KRG leadership (and even more problematically the Kurdish populations’ of the northern governorates) are required to develop the trust manifest within a ‘new’ (or perhaps ‘first’) national compact between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.

    It would seem to my mind that a prerequisite for such a development is the removal of U.S. forces from the equation. At some point the ‘leap of faith’ needs to be taken and putting it off will only encourage an enlarged spoiler role, allow for interceding events to complicate matters further, and most importantly to support the development of U.S. power becoming entrenched within the fabric of Iraqi political life even further than it already has.

    If not now – when?

    I am well aware of the American political elites calculations of the benefits to accrue from a long-term relationship – however I fail to see how it would be in Iraq’s interest in any way.

    “As for ‘Iraqiyya, its primary aim appears to be to avoid compromise with Maliki at any cost.”

    I believe we agree that this is largely personality-driven (is it not?).

    Rationally, and as time passes and trust is either developed between two mature political factions – or not as violence increases (always a possibility) – the personality-driven leaderships should give way to broader political projects that seemingly form the ‘middle’ core of Iraqi nationalism – for *if* they are to come together both Iranian and Saudi foreign influences as well as centrifugal forces are both combatted with a strong majority favouring centripetal development of the ‘new’ Iraqi state. This needs parties or representative groupings of some kind – Iraqi history is not that of the al-Zaim as is common in Lebanon. The Gulf broadly has a more sophisticated usage of the phenomenon that sees legitimacy as rising from below rather than being dependent upon the charismatic individual as in the institutional sectarianism found in the Levant. I do remain steadfast in my hopes that Iraqi culture has not been altered to such an extent through the bloodshed of the wars under Anglo-American occupation to have altered this historic sociology.

    Finally, while I agree that US policy has seemingly obviated stated US-desires, I must admit that I’m not terribly concerned about what America wants (aside from the analytics). My concern would be with what entrenches Iraqi sovereignty and what makes Iraqis lives better – and to that end a stronger state that can begin to embrace representative democratic opinion and desires seems to be a starting point – not a dream that Iraqis should hold off from.

    I am well aware that you are intimately mindful of all these factors … I just find myself wanting to revisit first principles as I engage your MERIP piece. Otherwise we begin to overly focus on Kremlinology IMO. Whether it be exile / opposition meetings during the sanctions decade, post-2003 meetings across Iraq, or panel after panel at conference after conference I am still looking for the figure/personage/party/faction that can unite Iraqis behind what I feel they all* already agree upon – being Iraqi.

    *This of course no longer includes much of the Kurdish population residing in the KRG. My own interviews and discussions this summer in Dohuk, Erbil, and Suli confirmed for me that the only people more nationalist than the KDP/PUK party cadres are the youth of Kurdistan and especially its civil society.

  4. Reidar Visser said

    John, thanks for the feedback, what I find interesting about the US instructors is that it seems to be an issue that unites the Kurds, Iraqiyya and Maliki (but not the rest of the Shiites). That’s why I find it helpful that it remains on the agenda because without it I think there might be even more polarisation. Of course, for this to work, it would require that the USG stops doing other things that contradict rapprochement precisely among these three parties, such as continuing to talk to ISCI, beef up Kurdish separatist ambitions (even though they are probably trying to do the opposite: they just don’t understand how the Kurds make use of American actions to fit their own agenda), or generally refer to the Arbil agreement as some kind of panacea. It isn’t.

  5. This may seem off topic but it has a lot to do with Realistic Policy Options in Iraq.

    Saad Al Muttalaby is a speaker for Maliki, he released a statement today saying that all corrupt officials will be punished and the corrupt people want to keep their position in order to “prevent (Maliki) from nomination in future elections”:
    “للاسف هناك بعض المفسدين يتلقون دعماً من كتلهم وقوائمهم الحزبية للبقاء في مناصبهم بهدف تشويه صورة الحكومة وقطع الطريق امام رئيس الوزراء ومنعه من الترشيح للانتخابات المقبلة”
    What happened to two term premiership?

  6. Reidar Visser said

    Well, in fairness Faisal, the two-term limit was self-imposed by Maliki; it’s only the presidency that has a constitutional limitation on the number of terms one can serve.

    More generally, with reference to the headline of the post, I find it critically important that Iraqiyya does not bury its head in a) elegies about Maliki’s unchanging “character”; and b) dreams of non-existing white knights in the international community coming to the rescue (be they the UN, the US, the EU or Russia).

  7. Reidar,
    In my Arabic blog I suggested the best way to extend the stay of US troops is to share the responsibility with willing partners under a UN mandate and UN flag. I think UN involvement could come as an economical and procedural necessity to the US. Your interpretation to run a census and elections as white knights coming to the rescue is simplistic, people and countries behave mainly in response to their own needs, not to the distress of the needy. The whole world needs stability in the ME, how can you achieve stability without census and elections? And how can you dismiss a minuscule investment of temporary UN bureaucrats as a possible cornerstone to stability?
    I saw many road signs in Southern US states denigrating the UN and calling for the US to pull out its support, obviously there is a sentiment in the US which plays against the employment of the UN as an international mediator and I sense the US motivation is Vanity; the world’s only super power should not need the UN and can go it alone. And I think the US policy makers are fighting a war of vanity which will cost more in the long run, far from protecting their national interests. When you count your pennies you will see that it is easier to overcome vanity than to destabilize the region for nothing.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, I’m afraid you’re proving my point about Iraqiyya supporters falling into reverie that has no chance of becoming reality. The UN will NEVER do anything radical in Iraq along the lines you suggest, I promise. And for the Obama administration to somehow call for new elections, that would mean reversing two years of spin-doctoring to the effect that everything is going well in Iraq. I just don’t see that materialising in a context when the US public is tired of simply hearing the word “Iraq”.

    I don’t mean to be negative, it’s just that I find it sad that all your wisdom on these matters is being channelled into what I think seems like a blind alley with the census/elections idea!

  9. Reidar,
    I don’t speak for Iraqiya and I am not suggesting the UN will have its own willpower outside its membership, I am suggesting that the US will find itself in a position to chose between partnering or going it alone at a time when the later is too costly or impossible.
    The Middle East is a volatile place, specially nowadays, I don’t think you should be so sure as to write never in capitals.

  10. bks said

    Sorry to drift off-topic, and I know and it’s probably too late in life for me to master transliteration of Iraqi names, but is it true that al-Sadr’s first name is “Radical”?

    “Radical Shiite Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr” (Washington Post)
    “Radical Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr” (AP)
    “Radical Cleric al-Sadr “(Fox News)
    “Radical Iraqi Shi’ite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr” (Voice of America)
    “Radical Anti-US Shiite Cleric” (AFP)
    “Radical Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr” (Irish Times)
    “Radical Cleric Moqtada Sadr” (BBC)

    All of these from today’s news in which Mr. Radical demands that Maliki provide water and electricity.


  11. Reidar Visser said

    Good one, Bks. As far as the question of realism and Sadr is concerned, I guess the recurrent question is whether he can be safely shut out of the process or not. I think he can be as long as it’s part of a wider move towards a political-majority government that also leaves out ISCI and Fadila. It became clear to me during 2009 and 2010 that the Sadrists remain very much a muhasasa-oriented party: They were among the first to object to the political-majority concept, and they are now supporting the strategic council. I think that suggests there is Iranian support for these things – in addition to backing from the US, the Kurds and Iraqiyya! Only Maliki is against….

  12. Mohammed said


    I agree that an efficient governing majority may clear the gridlock and allow the country to rebuilt and this benefits the Iraqi people as you propose. However, if I was a cold, calculating politician, perhaps the best thing for Iraqiya is to simply prevent progress from going forward. From a political point of view, if al-Maliki was successful in doubling Iraq’s electricity and oil exports and reducing violence, doesn’t that ensure SOL domination in the next set of elections?

    Observor has frequently cited Allawi’s long, personal relationships with various Iraqi actors on the political stage. I am somewhat suspicious of whether it really comes down to personal or is it really “just business” (to borrow a line from the Godfather movie).

    What worries Iraqiya more: a) strengthening of Dawah and al-Maliki or b)Iranian influence? It would seem to me that if they were worried about Iran, then Allawi wouldnt be that friendly with al-Hakim and company. However, if what really worries Allawi is the power of Dawah/al-Maliki, then shutting out ISCI from this process may increase Maliki’s power and over the next 2-3 years erode ISCI appeal in the south. The political strength that Allawi and Iraqiya really have is that they represent a unified sunni voting block that gave them respectable numbers in the last election compared to the split shia vote in the south. Imagine if Dawah/Maliki came to the political table when they controlled the shia south electorate and ISCI out of the picture, and perhaps even Sadr trend weakened (giving SOL roughly 50% of the total Iraqi electorate). I imagine with such a scenario, Iran would not have as much influence with SOL, but perhaps Iraqiya finds that scenario worse than today’s status quo. If you evaluate Iraqiya based on their actions and words, it seems that they are more interested in keeping the shia vote split and government weakend (and my guess is that this is a calculated power move instead of “old-time family relationships”).

    I am not saying that such a scenario is certain (ISCI being in the opposition may allow them the freedom to attract disgruntled shia voters in the next election by claiming ISCI was not part of the government and hence, should not be blamed for its failures).

    Thoughts Santana?


  13. Reidar Visser said

    I’ll leave it to Santana and others to convey points of view from Iraqiyya, but just one piece of factual information that may be useful to this discussion: A couple of days ago, an ISCI politician, I think Abd al-Hussein Abtan, reiterated the view that ISCI would not participate in toppling the Maliki govt. It is important that Iraqiyya understands those limits so that they can make a fair assessment of the value or otherwise of continued conversation with Hakim and his friends.

  14. John Measor said

    That is an important point Reidar,

    Whether ISCI or any of the other “Shi’i” parties – all would not want to see an end to what they consider both ‘natural’ as well as the most important gain of the last decade – a Shi’a-based government managing the Iraqi state.

    This is no longer a priority for the Kurdish factions – who have dampened their fears of revanchist Sunnis in favor of fears of Shi’a dictatorship, Iranian hegemony, and increasing desires of ‘good governance’ from both Baghdad and Erbil.

    What remains unclear is whether Allawi or Maliki – or the unknown – will begin shifting to an Iraqi nationalist position in more than simply rhetoric. Whoever it is will require both on-the-ground organization in the geographical space where they currently don’t exist (Allawi in the south / Maliki in the center-north) as well as a more motivated political programme by which to attract wider-based cross-sectarian support. To my mind it is the only path forward, it is the only path favoured by a plurality of Iraqis, and it remains the only path by which the modern Iraqi state achieved ‘success’ in the past.

  15. Kermanshahi said

    If you are waiting for the Iranian regime to fall anywhere in the near future than that is a very bad policy, ’cause you are going to be very mistaken. If the last few months have shown us anything it’s how difficult it is even to topple a weak regime, like for instance Saleh’s sons are still hanging on in Sana’a after 8 months of heavy fighting and Khadafi would have regained control of Libya my March 20 if American troops had minded their own business for once, and infact thusfar not a single regime has been toppled, only Mubarak and Ben Ali were told to step down by their own regimes because these regimes, which are still in power began to see their figureheads as to much of a liability. Than we have the fact that Iranian protests this year have been smaller and with less casualties than even Morcco, Oman or Algeria, leave alone Iraq. Than comes the fact that the Iranian regime is the strongest, most powerfull regime in the whole Muslim World, they have been most succesfull and stabilising protests and insurgencies, they have the largest and most powerfull army and security forces + a large base of religious supporters which at around 35% of the country are capable of dealing with any internal troubles caused by the rest of the population. It will take decades before the Islamic Regime in Iran is finished, as we know it.

    That being said, the fall of al-Assad could badly weaken Iranian power in the region. But on the other hand, Syria has never played such big role in Iranian influence of Iraq. Rather they have plaed a role in Iranian influence in Palestine and Lebanon, which if lost, will cause the Iranian regime to concentrate it’s efforts on Iraq.

    As for al-Maliki shifting from Shi’a Islamist back to Arab Nationalist once again, I don’t think it’s likely. The way it’s been going his rhethoric has been increasingly pro-Iranian throughout the year. We know he’s prepared to abaondong any ideology for more power, but at the moment it seems he’s moving the other way, ideologicaly, since he seems to believe that atleast for the time being, that he has more (power) to gain out of becoming more friendly with Iran, than less friendly.

  16. observer said

    Reidar is still wishing for Maliki and Allawi to “unite”. Most of those posting from outside Iraq want Allawi to stay away from hakim and sader because they are influenced by Iran (despite evidence of Maliki’s own Iranian tilt). Some want to blame Iraqya for the failure of Maliki to deliver (good one Muhammad, and may i also add Abdulkhaliq Hussien). Maliki’s tilt to Iran is ignored by the US but is interpreted by Kerminshahi as a sign that Mliki is playing to his strength. The death of ISCI is declared – prematurely (if you ask me). etc.

    I suppose the only thing that we can agree on is that Iraq is going to hell in a hand basket – no?

    Just one more addition to confuse you all. I know now (and you have to trust me on this) that Allawi is not interested in leading the strategic council !!!.

    You guys seem to be unable to accept the chauvinistic tendencies of Da3wa and Maliki, so I will leave it be until the evidence becomes overwhelming, but it may be too late by then!!

    Meanwhile, let us pray that democracy is not killed in Iraq and Wilaiet Al Faqeeh becomes a reality.

  17. Reidar Visser said

    Observer, you know my preferences on this. But how about this one from Ahmad al-Jibburi of Iraqiyya two days ago, saying that many in Iraqiyya wants an alliance with Maliki to exclude the others:

    اعلن النائب عن القائمة العراقية احمد الجبوري عن سعي اغلب اعضاء القائمة العراقية الى تشكيل حكومة اغلبية سياسية مع دولة القانون .

    وقال :” ان عددا كبيرا من اعضاء القائمة العراقية يسعون الى تشيكل حكومة اغلبية سياسية تضم ائتلافهم مع دولة القانون وذلك بسبب فشل حكومة الشراكة الوطنية في تحقيق اهدافها “.

  18. observer said

    It proves that Allawi is not a dictator and his stance is not the stance of all. He is one voice amongst many. He may loose the debate inside Iraqya and they vote to take a different route. After all, I have seen stranger things take place in Iraq without anybody raising a brow, let alone voice their opinion. But I will say that the leadership of Iraqya collectively is aligned in their stance on Da3wa. Jibburi is free to join hassan alawi and the other white “knights” of Iraqya – no?

  19. Kermanshahi said

    Observer, this is typical Maliki move, at the moment Iran can help him. If he feels being anti-Iranian will benefit his position of power more, in 2 years, he’ll go right back to hating them. He is political chameleon, he changes his colours whenever needed and that’s how he maintains power.

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