by ISW Iraq Team, Jessica Lewis, Kimberly Kagan
Maliki continues to resist Iraq’s transition to a new Premiership, and the security forces under his control remain active to protect pro-Maliki demonstrations in Baghdad. Attacks by ISIS in Baghdad may increase public backlash against the ISF for failing to provide security, and the capital is made vulnerable by these concurrent internal security concerns. While the U.S. increases military presence in Arbil, Iraq's security rests on the peaceful transition of power to a new premier in Baghdad who can command and control the Iraqi Security Forces operating against the pressing threat of ISIS.
Maliki calls for Federal Court Ruling
Nouri al-Maliki continues to speak from the position of Prime Minister, claiming that it will take a federal court ruling for him to leave power. Maliki stated, “I confirm that the government will continue and there will not be a replacement for it without a decision from the federal court,” according to a source quoting his speech on August 13. Calling the appointment of Haider al-Abadi to the Premiership a “constitutional breach,” Maliki also called on citizens of Iraq to reject the breach. Responding to this call, Maliki supporters demonstrated in the Furdus Square on August 13 in support of a third term while Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army blocked main streets leading to the Square. The demonstration concluded, and streets were reopened as of 1330 local time, indicating that these demonstrations are not mass events, but rather controlled and organized on a smaller scale, and only within Baghdad.
This third pro-Maliki demonstration since August 10 comes after the Marjeya called yesterday for the populace not to take to the streets on either side. The security posture within Baghdad therefore continues to shift along political lines as elements of the ISF move to secure demonstrations, most likely under the direction of Maliki’s inner circle. Maliki tried further to consolidate his position by appointing Khalf Abdul-Samad to be leader of his Dawa bloc at the Council of Representatives (CoR) on August 13. This may have been a move by Maliki to co-opt forming resistance within the Dawa party. While Samad had previously stated that the 45 of the 54 members of the bloc support Maliki, other reports indicated that some Dawa members who did not originally support Abadi have expressed interest in supporting him now. Samad is a Maliki loyalist and may be attempting to regain the support of these defecting members. Therefore a Dawa press conference scheduled for today has been delayed to August 14, 2014.
Iraqi citizens also mobilized in Baghdad’s central Karrada neighborhood on August 12. Residents tore down a Federal Police checkpoint after ISIS detonated a VBIED, expressing outrage that the ISF has again failed to provide for security against ISIS in the capital. Yesterday, clashes ensued north of Samarra between volunteers fighting within the ISF against ISIS, fracturing internally along pro-Maliki and anti-Maliki lines. These demonstrations represent internal threats to the ISF that may present within Baghdad and elsewhere. The security of Baghdad therefore remains a chief concern in the days ahead, and some events described below call it into question.
Maliki Support Dwindling
Meanwhile, opposition to Maliki from corners of previous support continued to mount. After Iran, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr organization abandoned Maliki publically on August 12, support for Abadi has continued to rise among Iraqi Shi’a political leaders. The leader of the ISCI bloc the CoR, Baqir Jabur also indicated that more members who did not express initial support for Abadi stated that they wished to add their names to the list in support of Abadi’s nomination as Prime Minister. Additionally, some reports indicate that ministers comprising the Council of Premiership may have boycotted the weekly session called by Maliki yesterday as the incumbent Prime Minister continued to exercise his role. Among them, deputy PM for Energy Affairs and acting Foreign Minister Hussein al-Shahristani likely did not attend the meeting, given that he nominated Abadi for the position as the leader of Mustaqilun within the State of Law Alliance.
Outside of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey voiced support for Abadi. Iraq’s Kurdistan Alliance also indicated their support for Maliki’s replacement. Within Iraq’s security forces, some ISF commanders contacted political formations and expressed their neutral stance and distance from the political issues, according to the leader of the Fadila bloc in the CoR, Ammar Tuma. Nevertheless, Maliki has built an inner core within the security forces that will likely remain loyal to his person, and this core is not likely to shift support to Abadi. The behavior of forces loyal to Maliki therefore remains essential to watch.
The safety of Maliki and his protection from prosecution continue to be discussed in western press as potential mitigation for Maliki’s core concerns. Some suggestions extend to offering Maliki the vice presidency, which would entail immunity and government housing inside the Green Zone. Maliki is unlikely to accept such a position, however, given his demonstrated sense of entitlement to the position and his current authority over the security apparatus. The question is not whether Maliki’s personal safety is assured, but whether Maliki will relinquish control of the state after consolidating his personal power over the state apparatus since 2006.
Abadi’s initial response has been measured, with overtures to Maliki and calls for Iraqi unity. On August 12, Abadi called for the Iraqi people to set aside sectarianism and extremism, forming a “unified vision” for Iraq. Abadi also praised the role of the Marjeya, appealing to the Shi’a population to overcome political divides. Other Iraqi reporting indicates that Abadi praised Maliki’s efforts to counter terrorism, calling Maliki a “brother and comrade.” These cautious initial moves appeared to shift on August 13, when Abadi called for political formations to “agree” on the positions of ministers. Moving forward with government formation while Maliki disputes the transition of Premiership will press the issue to resolution. The outcome remains uncertain while Maliki retains coercive means and influence within the judiciary to reject stepping out of the Premiership.
ISIS's Response and Intra-Shi'a Violence
Meanwhile, ISIS detonated three more VBIEDS in Baghdad on August 13, in the Bayaa Amil, and Baghdad al-Jadida neighborhoods in southern and eastern Baghdad. ISIS will likely continue harassment attacks such as these to stress the ISF and exacerbate public reactions such as those observed in Karrada neighborhood on August 12. ISIS may also take this opportunity to escalate attacks while the attention of the ISF is turned inward and divided. ISIS aims to disrupt public confidence in the ISF and in the government. Shi'a groups may also be escalating. Sound bombs, unattributed to any group, have also detonated multiple times, this time in Sadr City on August 13, injuring two civilians. Previously sound bombs detonated in Karbala in late July. It is possible that Shi'a groups, rather than ISIS, are using these sound bombs. The wide range of possible explanations for the perpetrator call attention to the nexus of intra-Shi’a strife, sectarian strife, and terrorism that is present within Baghdad at this time.
U.S. Response Shifts to Security
After issuing congratulations and support to Haider al-Abadi, the U.S. has increased its response to the security crisis in northern Iraq. On August 12, Secretary Hagel stated that 130 US troops would be deployed to Arbil in order to conduct a deeper assessment of the security situation in the north. U.S. CENTCOM also reported that it conducted another humanitarian aid drop on Mount Sinjar using C-17s, C-130s, and fighter aircraft on August 12. Some reports suggest that the U.S. may consider a rescue mission for the stranded Yazidis on the mountain. It is unclear whether U.S. forces deploying to Arbil will be charged with this mission. Rather, it seems likelier that they will be assessing how to train, equip, and assist Kurdish security forces against ISIS. That mission would likely strengthen Arbil vis a vis Baghdad, which may have long term significance if the political crisis in Iraq protracts and Kurdish leaders propose an independent Kurdish state.
Discussions in Washington have also begun to remark upon the effects of U.S. airstrikes to date. The question has specifically been raised about whether airstrikes will have a meaningful effect to degrade ISIS capability; or alternately to cause ISIS to revert to insurgency tactics in urban centers rather than conventional ground maneuver. The low level of U.S. airstrikes to date have played a primarily defensive role; nevertheless, the presence of U.S. airpower, and potentially that of other countries, may alter the military calculus of ISIS going forward. ISIS is likely to consolidate its military presence within urban centers and in the midst of civilian populations.
The U.S. strategy to counter ISIS cannot be discharged solely in northern Iraq and in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga through humanitarian and advising missions there. Iraq's security rests on the peaceful transition of power to a new premier in Baghdad who can command and control the Iraqi Security Forces. Those security forces must then operate successfully against the pressing threat of ISIS.
Maliki's enduring efforts to remove command and control from the formal chain of command and place it in the Office of the Commander in Chief, personally loyal to him, will make this transition exceptionally difficult in any case. The likelihood that Maliki will continue to resist this transition leaves Iraq strategically vulnerable, while ISIS is poised to strike the capital, and the U.S. and others await political resolution.
In reality, the present political crisis will determine whether Iraq implodes. Even the formation of a unity government to form around Haider al-Abadi may not sufficiently provide for Iraq's recovery. The U.S. is waiting for a political process that will not necessarily unfold smoothly, keep Iraq unified, or to defeat ISIS. These challenges require a successful government transition to begin, but they are just a beginning. The United States must engage the ISF directly while mitigating perceptions of Shi'a sectarian preference through Sunni tribal outreach, and it must engage more fully against ISIS. The United States must also embark on security sector reforms to assist the new premier in gaining control of the Iraqi Security Forces in ways that are consistent with democratic processes and the Iraqi constitution.