Iraq’s Still Unreconciled Political Conflicts

CAP’s Brian Katulis offers his take on what the past weekend’s crack in the edifice of sectarian relations in Iraq:

The stated goal of the surge, according to the Bush administration, was to reduce violence in order to help Iraq’s political factions bridge their divides over power, but that has simply not occurred in a meaningful way. Iraq remains plagued by enduring political divisions, as I argued last September in a paper on Iraq’s political transition after the surge.

A key tactic used in the Iraq surge could essentially be likened to what was done in the run-up to the current financial and banking crisis in the United States — steps were taken to make things look better than they actually were, while real problems lurked beneath unaddressed. A day of reckoning must at some point occur, because the structural imbalances of power in Iraq will naturally address themselves, as sure as the force of gravity that keeps us all sitting in our chairs. The inexorable force in Iraq is demographics. Iraq is a Shia-majority country now governed by Shia factions, with nominal participation by Sunni forces. This represents a fundamental shift from the balance of power during decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule, which ended nearly six years ago. Ever since his regime’s ouster in 2003, the fundamental story has been one in which Iraqis adjust themselves to the new reality of Shia rule in Iraq.

This weekend’s incident was the first crack in a shaky foundation constructed by the 2007 surge of U.S. troops — a foundation that largely glossed over long-standing political rivalries. And frankly this tension between the central government and these independent militia groups is less dangerous than the growing tensions between Arab and Kurdish factions in northern Iraq.

As if often the case in Iraq, one can read this two ways. The potential deterioration in the situation could be used as a pretext to backslide on the Obama administration’s commitment to abide by the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement and leave Iraq. Alternatively, you could see the continuing unstable nature of the Iraqi polity as a reason that we shouldn’t be endlessly optimistic about the idea that tens of thousands of U.S. troops can stay in Iraq safely. Personally, I’m inclined toward the second reading. But the point is about larger strategic vision — some see it as in American interests to maintain a large military force in Iraq come what may; others, the people who are right about this, see that idea as contrary to our interests. Either way, it’s useful to recall that despite “surge” triumphalism, the bulk of the underlying issues in Iraq remain unresolved.