By Kenneth M. Pollack

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gestures as he talks to local government officials and tribal leaders during a meeting in Basra

We were all wondering how long it was going to take after the withdrawal of American troops for Iraq to face its first major political crisis. But I seriously doubt that anyone would have dared to predict that it would begin even before the very last U.S. soldiers had crossed the borders with Kuwait. Nevertheless, here we are. While the American media was running endless stories about the “end of the Iraq war,” the Iraqis were busy gearing up for the next round.

Make no mistake about it: the current crisis, manufactured by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for reasons that only he knows for sure, is of seminal importance for Iraq. Right now, it seems far more likely to end badly rather than well. And if it ends badly, it could easily usher in renewed civil war, a highly unstable dictatorship, or even a Somali-like failed state. Not only would this be a humiliation for the Obama administration—which justified the withdrawal of American troops by insisting that Iraq was well on the way to democratizing and did not need an ongoing U.S. peacekeeping presence—it would be a major threat to American vital interests in the Persian Gulf region.

What Happened?

Asking about the origins of this crisis is like asking about the origins of the Arab-Israeli dispute: it all depends on your perspective. Without getting into the painful history of problems that cropped up after Iraq’s 2010 national elections, it seems reasonable to date this one to the October-November time frame when various Sunni leaders and communities began to openly agitate for local autonomy by pursuing the “federal region” status outlined in Iraq’s constitution and meant to provide the Kurds with the autonomy they demanded. Fearful of Maliki’s arbitrary and at times unconstitutional rule, his mass purges of Sunni military officers and civilian officials, and the endless gridlock of politics in Baghdad, the majority-Sunni provinces of al-Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Ninewah and Diyala all began to discuss the idea of applying for regional status to distance themselves from Baghdad and the Maliki government. (And to make matters worse, their clamor appears to have helped convince unhappy Shi’ah in oil-rich al-Basrah province to begin to demand the same.) Read more…

As published on www.brookings.edu on December 24, 2011.


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