By Ahmed Ali
Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, is scheduled to visitWashington this week. The visit will include a meeting for the joint U.S.-Iraqi Higher Coordination Committee, which was established as a result of the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA). Additional agenda items will likely include U.S.-Iraqi relations, the escalating violence in Iraq, and the Syrian civil war. Due to recent spectacular attacks including a sustained wave of car bombs, it is very likely that the Iraqi government will request further security assistance to counter the rising violence.
The timing of the visit offers the Administration ample opportunity to make its position clear and public on a number of issues to include:
Iraq’s Political Crisis: Political conditions in Iraq have deteriorated since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011. This is partly due to the disharmonious nature of Iraqi politics, but it is also the product of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s conduct and consolidation of power. In December 2011, the Iraqi judiciary issued an arrest warrant for the former Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, an Iraqi Sunni, who as a result fled the country and is now based in Turkey. In December 2012, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) arrested the bodyguards of now-resigned finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, who is also an Iraqi Sunni. These arrests triggered anti-Maliki protests by the Iraqi Sunnis in six provinces. In April of this year, ISF units conducted a raid against a protest site in Hawija, Kirkuk, which resulted in the death of over 50 people (again, mostly Iraqi Sunni). Also in April of this year, anti-Maliki political party offices in Baghdad were raidedby security forces. These events manifest a trend of harassment of political rivals and that is worrying for Iraq.
Moreover, they have damaged the prospects of national reconciliation in the country. National reconciliation has not taken place in Iraq since the civil war ended in 2008. The current trajectory will recreate the conditions for a possible return to sectarian violence and radicalization of the Iraqi Sunnis. The administration should privately and publicly express to Minister Zebari that Prime Minister Maliki has to positively engage moderate Iraqi Sunnis in order to curb the deteriorating political conditions and growing discontent of the Iraqi Sunni public.
Security Cooperation: Iraq is facing a security crisis. The systemic violence is the result of Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) resurgence and a stumbling security strategy. On the eve of Minister Zebari’s visit, the U.S. State Department has indicated that there will be discussions on how to counter the rising security threat. The discussions will likely include robust intelligence-sharing with the Iraqi government and further counter-terrorism assistance. The Iraqi government does need help in these fields. However, it will be incumbent on the Administration to make clear and publicly state that any security assistance to Iraq should not be used to target political opponents of Prime Minister Maliki.
Iraqi Shi‘a militia activities: Iraqi Shi‘a militias have remobilizedin Iraq. This includes groups that are close to Prime Minister Maliki such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and groups affiliated with Sadrist trend leader Moqtada al-Sadr. AAH’s leader Qais al-Khazalie has been public about his group’s willingness to carry arms if the state is unable to provide security, and AAH has stated that some politicians will be “pursued regardless of whether they are in fortified areas, secured hotels, or armored vehicles.” This statement demonstrates the level of impunity AAH enjoys. While Prime Minister Maliki has been vigorous in attempting to contain the threat of Sunni insurgent groups like AQI and the Jayesh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), he has not been as firm with Iraqi Shi‘a militias, especially AAH. The mobilization of any militias is a serious threat to Iraqi security, and the Administration should therefore make it clear that it is important for Prime Minister Maliki to be as serious in countering the threat of Iraqi Shi‘a militias as he is with attempting to contain the threat of AQI and JRTN.
National Elections: Iraq recently concluded its third provincial elections since 2005. The elections were successfully carried out, an encouraging sign for the country. However, Iraq is heading towards crucial national elections next year. The results of the provincial elections caused Prime Minister Maliki to lose about 30 % of the seats his group held in the incumbent councils. This will likely drive him to pursue any means to ensure that the results of the national elections will not be as damaging. Those means may include pressuring the judiciary to issue Maliki-favoring decisions or utilizing the ISF to intimidate political opponents. It is imperative for the Administration to urge its Iraqi counterpart to ensure that the upcoming elections have to be free and fair and without extrajudicial action.
This visit will represent an opportunity for the administration to send a message to the Iraqi public that the United Stated is not taking sides in internal Iraqi affairs. It is a chance to change the current perception that the Administration is supportive of Prime Minister Maliki despite his internal behavior and consolidation of power. The tone should be that of solidarity with the Iraqi people as they undergo daily and escalating violence. Moving forward, U.S. policy will have to be based on a sustained and holistic approach in order to succeed. Otherwise, U.S. leverage with the Iraqi government will neither be lasting nor beneficial to the Iraqi political system and U.S. national security interests.
Ahmed Aliis an Iraq Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.