Amidst the ongoing tumultuous events in the Middle East, Iraq has recently attracted little coverage within the international news media and, save for some macabre event like a mass casualty suicide bomber attack or the capture and murder of foreign hostages, rarely features on our television screens.
Yet, a recent surge in terrorist attacks manifestly suggests that taking Iraq off the radar may turn out to be a reckless and complacent endeavor. The bomb in Baghdad’s Sadr City at the end of June which killed more than 70 people exemplifies the threat. Therefore, a number of key areas must therefore be re-visited and assessed to determine where Iraq’s future lies.
The so far intermittent, but increasingly frequent attacks, should serve to provide a stark warning that leaving Iraq’s still nascent security and democratic institutions to fend for themselves in the drawdown of foreign troops could prove to have unexpected consequences. A surge in attacks could prolong the presence of foreign troops, preserving a status quo of violence and uncertainty, with serious ramifications for foreign powers with vested stakes in the country, and in an increasingly volatile region as well.
But the drawdown of British and American troops suggests Iraqis are capable of governing independently. Despite the aforementioned security threats, Iraqi security forces have proved their merits on previous occasions and, critically, have the respect of the population. Operation Charge of Knights in 2008 rid resource-rich Basra of Shia militias operating under the direction of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, while elections went ahead in January without disruption and, more importantly, under the supervision of the Iraqi army, rather than American forces. Moreover, civilian casualties are down in Iraq by more than 70 percent in comparison with previous years.
Improving security becomes futile, however, in the absence of political reconciliation between Iraq’s myriad of ethnic and sectarian groups.
Of pressing concern are relations between the Kurds in the north and the federal government in Baghdad. Both continue to stand eyeball to eyeball over unresolved matters that have left the country in a state of paralysis. Iraq has yet to pass the hydrocarbons law as a result of disputes between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad over who has the right to control and manage the country’s array of resources. As a result, huge reserves of gas and oil — Iraq has a 119 billion-barrel oil reserve, making it the third largest in the world — remain unexploited and deprived of the foreign investment needed to repair and upgrade a decaying oil infrastructure.
In addition, observers are concerned about a looming power struggle. For example, along with the Kurds, the Sunni political parties are becoming increasingly wary of a more powerful Shia-dominated Baghdad government, which they fear will serve to their disadvantage should American troops leave the country completely. Prime Minister Maliki recently added to such worries when he suggested that political consensus should be sacrificed for majority rule.
While disputes have for the best part been restricted to political exchanges, uncertainty and tension are being markedly transformed into violent confrontation. The disputed territories of Mosul and Diyala, for example, still exist as terrorist hot-spots, where the last remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi insurgencies, both Sunni and Shia, remain concentrated. Continued turmoil in these provinces is already forcing American commanders to reconsider the forthcoming troop pullout from Iraq’s cities, towns and villages by June 30 to their bases, and the complete withdrawal of troops from the country by December 31, 2011.
In Kirkuk, the oil rich disputed territory, Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which determines the status of the province — that is, whether it should be administered by the KRG or Baghdad — is yet to be implemented. The United Nations recently submitted a yet-to-be-made-public proposal to Baghdad and the KRG which outlined suggestions for remedying the problem. But continued intransigence is costing Iraqi lives, as portrayed by a recent attack which killed 73 civilians in Kirkuk.
Economic realities may, however, inject some hope. Iraq suffers from a budget deficit, and low oil prices have required the Iraqi government to slash its budget three times this year already — Iraq also depends on oil revenues to fund 90 percent of its reconstruction. Partly in response to this, the Baghdad government recently allowed Kurdish oil exports from fields administered by the KRG, suggesting that pragmatism can dictate policy more than ideology, and help pave the way toward reconciliation.
Where does Iraq stand? And where next for this country of painful paradoxes? The unavoidable reality is that the three pillars of a stable and prosperous Iraq are security, political reconciliation and the economy; still yet to be appreciated, however, is that these cannot operate independently of each other and unless equally respected and addressed, the US will find its presence prolonged and Iraq will head back to its previous state of bloody and costly degeneration.
Ranj Alaaldin is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics focusing on post-invasion Iraq