Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is an Anglo-Iraqi political analyst who has published widely on Iraqi politics and other contemporary Middle East issues. He is interviewed by PJ Media Middle East Editor Barry Rubin.
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Barry Rubin: Nine years after a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, has that country achieved stability and democracy? How many American soldiers are still in Iraq and what are they doing?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: Iraq has achieved a degree of stability in that the sectarian civil war that centered on Baghdad in the 2006-2008 period ended decisively in favor of the Shi’a factions. In light of the U.S. withdrawal of troops in December 2011 (with only a couple of hundred or so Marines serving to guard the large U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad), Shi’a militant groups have decided to lay down arms and join the political process, having lost all reason for continuing to fight.
The Sunni Arab population generally accepts that it must adapt to the fact that the Shi’a lead the political process in the country. The Sunni insurgency that remains — consisting of Islamist and Ba’athist militants — is ideological in nature, and will continue to carry out attacks. There is a serious terrorist threat in the country but the prospect of another sectarian civil war is very remote, even though the media constantly raise this point whenever there is an upsurge in attacks, which, if analyzed, can be shown to be part of cyclical trends (e.g., an upsurge in casualties can always be expected around the time of the Shi’a festival of Arba’een).
So, a degree of stability has been achieved, but there is a long way to go before the country can really be called a democracy: absence of rule of law, widespread corruption, increasing autocracy on the part of the prime minister, and suppression of protests by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government all point to an absence of real electoral democracy.
Barry Rubin: What is the status of U.S.-Iraq relations and does the United States have any real influence in what goes on in the country?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: The status of U.S.-Iraq relations at present fits in with the general decline of American influence in the country over the years. The fact is, Washington does not really have any say in the workings of Iraqi politics. For example, the Americans had no role in devising the current unconstitutional compromise that allowed Maliki to have a second term in office, even though his bloc did not win the largest number of seats in the 2010 elections. Allawi’s al-Iraqiya bloc did, and according to the constitution, it should have been Allawi who had the right to form a government. Similarly, amid the current talk of a no-confidence vote against Maliki, Vice-President Joe Biden was reportedly supposed to come to Baghdad. He has not done so.
I would say that the U.S. approach toward Iraq does not help counter Iranian influence. It has often been noted that after the 2003 invasion, sectarianism became institutionalized with the award of positions in the interim government determined on a rigid sectarian basis. I do not think that the United States has quite moved on from such thinking. An approach that stresses Iraqi national unity and does not view everything through the sectarian paradigm of Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds might help to revive U.S. influence and counter Iran.
Barry Rubin: Explain the quarrel between President Maliki and Vice-President Hashemi. Is this an example of wider, continuing Sunni-Shia conflict?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: The quarrel between Maliki and Hashemi has often been portrayed as a sectarian Shi’a-Sunni issue but in fact the arrest warrant came in the context of a political attack on al-Iraqiya, whose leading members were in December expressing growing frustration with the premier’s authoritarian tendencies. For example, Saleh Mutlaq, the deputy prime minister, accused Maliki of being the worst dictator in the country’s history (an obvious exaggeration).
In turn, al-Iraqiya’s frustration came in the context of a crackdown on alleged Ba’athists, and this crackdown was rooted in an internal power struggle in Maliki’s State of Law bloc between the premier himself and the Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb, a well-known rival of Maliki. Al-Adeeb initiated the contest with Maliki to prove himself more anti-Ba’athist by having 140 members of Tikrit University in Salaheddin Governorate dismissed from their positions. What is also of note is that this internal rivalry between Adeeb and Maliki behind the crisis was missed in most news reports.
Barry Rubin: Does the Kurdish-ruled region in the north function as virtually an independent country?
The Kurdish region clearly enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy but I would not call it de facto independence. It has its own parliament and ruling coalition led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This has effectively been the status-quo since the region gained autonomy in 1991. What should not be taken as indicative of the autonomy is the recent affair regarding Exxon Mobil, which signed a deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for exploration and production of oil and natural gas.
The central government in Baghdad, which considers all the KRG’s agreements with oil and gas firms illegal, did ban Exxon Mobil from the fourth round of bidding. But in practice, Exxon Mobil is being allowed to participate because Baghdad still needs companies like Exxon Mobil to boost output from the major oilfields in the south. Recall that only last year did production levels return to pre-2003 figures.
Coming back to autonomy, I think a limit is to be demonstrated in the discussions the KRG has had with Turkey on building a pipeline route that the KRG can use to export oil to the international market. The evidence, in my view, suggests that the proposal is unlikely to come to fruition. The pipeline would allow the KRG to break free from the fact that 95% of its budget is provided by the central government, but it would embolden Kurdish aspirations for independence not only in Iraq but also Turkey. Would Ankara be able to tolerate that? I don’t think so. Of course, Turkey can talk about the prospect of a pipeline, but it just seems to be a way of annoying Maliki, who has been repeatedly accused by the Turkish government of pursuing a Shi’i sectarian agenda, and trying to persuade him to reach a truce with Hashemi. Indeed, it should be noted that Turkey is also providing a safe haven for Hashemi.