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Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R) and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet at the Prime Minister's Office in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

How to Play a Weak Hand in Iraq

Abram N. Shulsky , Eric B. Brown & Hillel Fradkin

Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki knows what he wants: a third term in office for himself and U.S. military help in defeating ISIS (now the Islamic State). Political reconciliation between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis, and between Arabs and Kurds, can wait. In the words of one of his colleagues in the State of Law Coalition: “Things on the ground are much more important. Solving them will help solve the political problem for us.” But, of course, the current crisis has its origins in the sectarianism that the Maliki government exhibited well before “things on the ground” got as bad as they are now.

Maliki had one bright shining moment as a national leader—his impetuous but (thanks to U.S. support) ultimately successful campaign to redeem Basra from Sadrist chaos in the spring of 2008 and his bucking Iranian pressure by agreeing, later that year, to a Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. Since then, however, it has been downhill toward sectarianism—and its inevitable result, overreliance on Iranian support to stay in power. Maliki may not yet be as dependent on Iran, and on Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but he is moving in that direction.

The Obama administration recognizes this situation, to some extent. It wants to use its military aid as leverage to force Maliki to govern in a less sectarian manner. It has even suggested that this process would be facilitated by replacing Maliki with some other Shiite leader who could deal with the Sunnis and Kurds unimpeded by memories of the last five years.

Unfortunately, this posture, while well intentioned, reflects a serious underestimation of the difficulties of the situation and of the damage that has been done to the dream of a united, democratic, and federal Iraq. Given the collapse of U.S. influence, the type of military aid Obama might conceivably provide is simply insufficient to effect the political changes he wants. (In any case, the actual leverage could come only from the threat to withdraw that military support, a threat that would be implausible and almost impossible to implement in the middle of the fight.)

Even when the United States had a large number of troops in Iraq, it found it challenging to dampen sectarianism and was often unable to do so. The United States could insist, for example, that the defense minister be a Sunni—but it could not prevent Maliki from bypassing the Ministry of Defense and asserting operational control of the Iraqi Army directly (through such innovations as the Office of the Commander in Chief and the provincial Operation Commands).

Similarly, the United States was unable to support adequately the members of the Awakening movement among Sunnis in Anbar Province and elsewhere, which was so important for the success of the surge. The Sons of Iraq—the Sunnis who rallied to the anti-al-Qaeda banner—were supposed to be integrated into the Iraqi security forces or otherwise employed. As long as the United States had a big presence in Iraq, it could ensure that they at least received monthly salaries. But as the U.S. presence was drawn down, it proved impossible to force the Iraqi government to take a generous approach toward them.

The United States was involved in reaching the 2010 agreements by virtue of which Maliki was elected to a second term as prime minister. As U.S. influence waned, however, the power-sharing mechanisms called for in the agreement were never put into place. Instead, Maliki concentrated even more power in his own hands, helped out by a friendly court that, for example, gave him direct control of the Central Bank and the High Electoral Commission and gave the government a monopoly on the introduction of bills in the Iraqi parliament.

Thus, the struggle against sectarianism and for an Iraq strong enough to withstand Iranian meddling has to be conducted in a new way. Iraq can’t go back to the old model of prolonged wrangling which produces a paper power-sharing agreement that the prime minister is then able to ignore. And, under current circumstances, the United States certainly can’t be content with an agreement of the sort it was unable to enforce even when its military presence in Iraq was orders of magnitude greater.

The United States needs leverage, but it won’t come from bargaining with a central government that will insist on our help in defeating its enemies first. Rather, the leverage will come if the United States is able to change facts on the ground, so as to ensure that the various segments of Iraqi society have the ability to withstand Baghdad’s centralizing tendencies. The United States can militarily support the central government’s resistance to further advances by ISIS, but it shouldn’t allow Maliki to constrain its contacts with other segments of Iraqi society.

This means several things. The United States shouldn’t automatically side with Baghdad in its disputes with Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Despite much U.S. prodding, Iraq has never been able to pass a hydrocarbons law outlining the specific powers of the KRG with respect to oil and gas resources in its area. The current U.S. policy of trying to block the KRG’s sales of oil via the Turkish pipeline no longer makes sense: If it wants leverage to force Baghdad to pay more attention to the concerns of the non-Shiite population of Iraq, maintaining a discreet silence on the oil sales issues will speak volumes.

The United States needn’t support Kurdish independence from Iraq, and the KRG is unlikely to expect such explicit support, at least any time soon. But the United States must be much more supple and sophisticated in allowing current tendencies to play themselves out, if it wants to recreate the Iraqi political system on a sustainable basis.

The United States should also be trying to revive the connections with Sunni tribal and other leaders that it had during the days of the Awakening. The armed forces of the Islamic State are in fact a coalition, including old Baathists and various tribal groups, many of which do not share ISIS’s religious extremism. The possibility of conflict within the coalition is real, and there have already been some manifestations of it. The United States will need to find allies among these Sunni groups and stand ready to help them when and if they decide they have had enough of religious extremism. It won’t be able to do that if it tells them the only alternative to the religious extremism of the Islamic State is a sectarian government in Baghdad dependent on Iran.

In short, our ability to influence events in Iraq has diminished severely over the past years. Therefore, the first step is to build up our influence with and support for those groups that are amenable to it. The United States can then try to help these groups rebuild the Iraqi government on a new basis that will resist the centralizing tendencies we have seen. This would not necessarily require a change in the Iraqi constitution—the current document, for example, would allow the Sunni provinces to form a regional government similar to the KRG and thereby gain a great deal of autonomy—but it would require a new mindset in Baghdad political circles.

Perhaps a political genius will arise on the Iraqi scene who will be able to balance all the political forces of the country, play them off against each other, and reunite them on a democratic, federal basis. Unfortunately, no such leader—who would have to have the political skills of a de Gaulle at least—has appeared on the horizon. So, in the more likely event that Iraq will have to muddle through with something like its current system, direct ties to the various communities of Iraq will give the United States some hope of influencing its course in a less sectarian, or at any rate less centralized, direction.

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