By Monica Duffy Toft
President Obama and his Secretary of Defense have declared the war in Iraq to be “over.” An end to the war is a good thing no doubt, but beyond that, what should we expect and why? Among the many important questions is how to address the real tensions that remain in Iraq and their potential to lead to dictatorship and civil war.
To start with there are deep and fundamental tensions of ethnicity and nationalism, especially the divide between Kurd and Arab, which is the most likely to escalate into self-destructive violence. This is for two reasons. First, Iraq’s current leader can use this issue to consolidate his power and eliminate political opposition. Second, Turkey and Iran share a common interest with Iraq in preventing the Kurds from having their own state. Iraq’s current government could therefore gain in trade and security concessions by acting to repress Kurdish national aspirations. Both factors militate against an ideal—from the US perspective—Iraqi policy of allowing the Kurds greater political and economic autonomy within an Iraqi federal structure. In addition, having experienced genuine de facto independence during the US and allied occupation of Iraq, the Kurds themselves are unlikely to accept abridged independence. Unless Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is uncharacteristically charismatic and restrained, in other words, civil war in the North is highly likely.
Beyond ethnic tension there is an even greater threat: fundamental sectarian bitterness and resentment. Most obviously, I speak of Shi’a resentment of Sunni minority oppression and exclusion under Saddam Hussein’s rule. Less obvious and more recent is Sunni resentment of their minority status (and its implications within a country whose government is now legitimized by the principle of majority rule) in a state surrounded on three sides by Arab and Sunni-dominated states. Again, the strong US and allied preference is for the now Shi’a dominated government to avoid the strong temptation for payback against the Sunni minority. But all preferences have become hopes now that US forces have formally left Iraq.
A final problem is, as Secretary of State Clinton opined regarding South Sudan, the resource curse. One might say the awful tradition in the region is for leaders (who are not truly public servants, but rather servants first of tribe and clan and sect) to enrich themselves at the expense of good government and a healthy economy. Thus not only must the al-Maliki government resist the temptation to use its US-trained security forces to assault the Kurds (which would likely fail as dramatically as Boris Yeltsin’s now infamous assault on Chechnya in 1994). Al-Maliki also must avoid discriminating against Iraq’s Sunnis in employment, education, and offices, while at the same time administering Iraq’s oil wealth so as to extend Iraq’s education, healthcare, security, and economic infrastructure rather than enrich himself and his domestic political allies.
Sadly, however, the very qualities of al-Maliki that made him an ideal leader for Iraq under occupation (his gift for surviving) increase the likelihood that moving forward, Iraq will be torn by years of violence and corruption.