Iraqi leaders announced a power-sharing agreement late on November 10 that left Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power despite a narrow loss to the Sunni-backed Iraqiya slate of Iyad Allawi in March parliamentary elections. The Shiite prime minister survived the longest political stalemate in world history despite human rights allegations raised by the Internet watchdog group WikiLeaks, an uptick in sectarian violence, and early U.S. support for Allawi, his secular rival.
Allawi, for his part, spent much of his time in Iraq trying to reinvent his image following his tenure as interim prime minister during the early part of the war in 2004. Maliki, meanwhile, tried to address his own errors after he failed to prevent his country from slipping into civil war in late 2006. Emboldened by the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy that quieted the post-invasion insurgency, Maliki sent his forces into southern Iraq in 2008 in a unilateral move that eventually left anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, in tatters. During the run-up to the election in 2009, Maliki and his backers were able to make some political gains by hyping the Baathist past of many of his Sunni-backed rivals. By this time, however, the Sunni population had regained some of its political confidence after the U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq militia brought security to once restive Anbar province, giving rise to a new challenge to the authorities in Baghdad.
Sunni influence over Iraq did not begin and end with Saddam Hussein, however. Historically, the Sunni population was seen by Turkish imperial and colonial overseers as a natural ally in the effort to contain the regional ambitions of Iran. “Sunni rule is the historical norm,” said U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann, who was stationed in Baghdad during the post-invasion civil war. The Sunni precedence, coupled with a notably independent Shiite base, suggests that despite a lengthening Iranian shadow in Iraq, Baghdad will likely remain a counterweight to Persian expansionism.
Washington advocated state building in Iraq from the bottom up with its “surge” counterinsurgency effort starting in late 2008. This coincided roughly with Maliki’s push against ultranationalists in the Shiite south. By backing the former exile groups and Sunni tribes, however, Washington left much of the populist element of the domestic Shiite population to rally around the political momentum of the Sadrists, who like Hezbollah in Lebanon, had nurtured a strong base through its social programs. Sadr by this time was falling under Iranian influence while pursing his clerical studies in the holy city of Qom.
Maliki told The Wall Street Journal in 2007 that he didn’t want to serve another term in office.”I didn’t want to take this position,” the prime minister said. “I only agreed because I thought it would serve the national interest, and I will not accept it again.”
But Iraq in 2010 wasn’t the same as the Iraq in 2007 and Maliki began to exploit U.S. and Iranian interests in his favor to clinch a second term. Several of the Shiite power-players in Iraq, notably the influential Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, didn’t mind teaming up with Maliki’s State of Law coalition to form the new government so long as the Dawa leader didn’t get the premiership. Washington, while officially staying on the sidelines, pushed , at least at the onset, for a coalition that would have given Allawi the top post in Baghdad. Nevertheless, Maliki, to Washington’s dismay, was finally able to get Shiite power brokers in Iran on his side, including his former nemesis Sadr, and secure the nomination.
Daniel Serwer, an Iraq expert formerly at the U.S. Institute of Peace and now lecturer at the John Hopkins School of International affairs, said Sadr’s about face showed Iran was particularly astute at exploiting its geographical advantage in the region. “Sadr appears to be Iran’s chosen instrument,” he said. “This is not good news for Washington, which had been successful during the pre-electoral period in discouraging formation of a single Shiite alliance and would prefer Sadr not be one of the foundation stones of the new government.”
U.S. administration officials have said flat out they would not deal with an Iraqi government that put supporters of the firebrand Sadr in key administrative positions in the new Iraq. The State Department too said it would not deal with Sadrists in a new government, particularly Iranian-influenced ones. Washington consistently maintained its position, however, that the new Iraqi government was made in Baghdad.
“It wasn’t made in Tehran, it wasn’t made in Ankara, it wasn’t made in Riyadh,” said Michael Corbin, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, to reporters after the November deal. “This was an Iraqi solution that was hammered out in Iraq. The Iraqis have chosen to move forward in a way that uses politics to settle their issues rather than violence.”
Iraqi leaders despite the political and national security interests of Tehran and the United States maintained that excessive outside interference wasn’t welcomed in Baghdad. Tehran, having hosted Maliki in October, simply described the former Iranian exile as “one of the suitable choices” to lead the next government. Serwer notes that the best way to survive in a parliamentary system “is to be good at arithmetic” and the support from Sadr and his Iranian hosts gave Maliki the edge he needed to get his second term.
Some political observers see rising Iranian influence in Baghdad as indicative of Washington’s inexperience with state building after the wars are over. Washington after backing Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war began to fear the aspirations of Baghdad and retooled its post-Cold War strategies to manage the broader Middle East. Washington, however, may be good at fighting and winning wars, but superpowers “don’t do windows.” This fumbling attempt at statecraft, according to some, gave the Iranians an opening to expand their power into Iraq and undermine almost eight years of U.S. management in Baghdad
Wayne White, a career intelligence officer who served as the head of the State Department’s Iraq Intelligence Team from 2003 – 2005, said the consequences of another potentially Shiite power in the region “is not yet clear because Iraq’s internal political balance of power remains unsettled.” Also unclear is how independent the Iraqi Shiites will be from Tehran. Serwer adds that while it’s important that Sunnis balance Iranian and Shiite interests in Baghdad, most of the Shiite establishment in Iraq comes from the quietest sect of the religion, which draws a sharp line between politics and religious affairs. “It should not be assumed that Shiites all ally with Iran,” he said. “As Iraqi Shiite leaders are fond of pointing out, religious influence has generally flowed from Iraq to Iran, not the other way around.”
White notes that from the Iranian perspective, Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, not Persians. Many of the Shiites in Iraq, he adds, are “quite wary of the Iranians” because of the Iran-Iraq War and Tehran’s role in funding Shiite militias in Iraq.
Iraq still technically doesn’t have a formal government in place and the religious calendar suggests nothing much will develop before the end of 2010. Ambassador Neumann says that in the short term, “recurring crisis and periodic deadlock” may be the status quo in Baghdad as it tries to develop through what former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described in 2006 as the ” the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
But despite rising Iranian influence in Iraq and renewed U.S. distraction in Afghanistan, the long term forecast for Iraq is anybody’s guess. Political deadlock and drifting alliances, however, are far better than wars and cheaper to manage. U.S. President Barack Obama said on November 12 at the G20 summit in South Korea that there were still political hurdles in Iraq, but relatively speaking, there was an inclusive government in place that preferred backroom deals over violence.
That, says Serwer, is what Washington should focus on most—”ensuring that the democratic regime survives in Iraq, so that not only this government but the next one reflects the results of relatively free and fair elections.”
Daniel Graeber is a writer and political analyst based in Michigan. His work on Iraq and the broader Levant has been featured extensively with United Press International (UPI) as well as foreign media outlets. His academic contributions include an assessment of the U.S. doctrine of containment.
This the third in a trilogy of articles on Iraq that Daniel has contributed to MEPEI. The other two articles are: Sadrists: Unstable opportunists or pragmatic power brokers? and Sadr’s political role in Iraq.
You can follow Daniel Graeber on Twitter at twitter.com/dan_graeber.