Violence in Iraq? It’s the politics, stupid!
July 30th, 2012
05:03 PM ET

Violence in Iraq? It’s the politics, stupid!

By Joost Hiltermann, Special to CNN

Joost Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. The views expressed are the writer's own.

With all eyes trained on Syria’s unfolding civil war, the only headline-grabbing news to emerge from the former battleground, Iraq, concerned a fresh wave of violence. Last week, well over a hundred Iraqis were killed and several hundred injured in a series of attacks throughout the country that were claimed by Iraq’s al Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had warned of what was to come the day before, announcing a “Breaking the Walls” campaign. On Thursday, Islamic State militants battled with security forces for the first time in years, succeeding even in bringing down a helicopter. It looks as if, having been driven out of most of the areas they controlled and dealt a body blow during the U.S. surge in 2007-08,  al Qaeda is rebounding and launching its own military surge now that U.S. troops have gone.

Car bombs explode in central Baghdad

It’s easy to be distracted by an uptick in violence in Iraq and ignore the larger political crisis in which al Qaeda, however diminished in its capabilities, can operate with apparent impunity. Despite last week’s events, violence has been at a steady level since 2008 – too high for sure to those caught up in the spasms that occur, but sufficiently low to nonetheless convey a general sense of stability – a vast improvement over the days of sectarian fighting some years ago. Spectacular attacks have punctuated a pattern of declining violent incidents, causing mass casualties even as overall casualty levels have gone down. Shia militias, which mainly targeted the U.S. presence, put their guns back under their beds after the military component of that presence came to an end late last year.

Violent actors such as al Qaeda are likely to be around for some time, but without a political crisis, they could be contained. Iraqi security forces are still in the early stages of their development (after the Bush administration disposed of the former regime’s army wholesale), and still exhibit clear vulnerabilities, especially in intelligence gathering and coordination that could prevent violent attacks, as well as in their explosives-detection capacity at checkpoints. (Security officers employ a piece of equipment that Western experts and journalists have referred to as a “divining rod” or “magic wand” for its inability to detect anything.) Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will be Iraq, nor its security forces. Yet by and large, these forces have been able to prevent a serious resurgence of violence.

What matters in Iraq today isn’t so much its sporadic violence, however spectacular in nature, as the total absence of basic consensus over how the country should be run, as deepening discord could trigger a new round of civil war.

Iraq's deadliest day of 2012

The latest crisis began when judicial authorities issued an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi last December. He and other Sunni leaders had fallen out with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, accusing him of amassing power and cutting them out. Things deteriorated sharply from then on, and by April, Maliki’s erstwhile governing partners were openly calling for his removal via a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Many meetings later, these same leaders have signally failed in their objective, with Maliki firmly in place and his opponents lacking a strategy to call him to account, much less get rid of him by democratic means. They haven’t given up, though, and so the standoff continues, with no prospect of its being resolved any time soon.

Maliki may have won this round – he survived – but all Iraqis lost, as political stalemate is further hampering governance. General elections should take place only two years from now, but with Baghdad all wound up in a knot, campaigning effectively has started, sucking up all the air. Parliament, in which Maliki’s enemies are well represented, does very little; its legislative record is disappointing, and it now faces the daunting task of swiftly passing pivotal laws, including for provincial and parliamentary elections, as well as the regulation of political parties, if the next elections are to have any chance of occurring on time and succeeding.

To stick with the Rome metaphor, it’s as if instead of rebuilding Iraq, politicians are fiddling as the embers of conflict are being relit. They are expert tacticians, masters at the art of political survival, but bereft of a vision for the country, unable to lay out a strategy that could parlay today’s relative calm into economic progress and a fair share in Iraq’s immense oil wealth for everyone.

In this unhappy state of affairs, the Syrian crisis threatens to exacerbate political tensions in Iraq and give them a renewed sectarian cast. As the minority-based Assad regime goes down, Syria’s Sunnis are certain to rise, re-empowering Iraq’s Sunnis, who have felt marginalized since 2003. Shiite perceptions of a looming Sunni alliance of Gulf states, Turkey, and a new Syria arrayed against the remaining Shia-run bastion of Iran and Iraq – with the intent of bringing down Maliki to deal a further blow to Iran’s influence in the region – are increasing sectarian polarization in Iraq. This is the perfect breeding ground for groups such as al Qaeda, which may find it easier to recruit in Sunni quarters, finding deep frustration and grievance, but also new Syria-inspired hope that the tide is again turning in their favor.

If Iraqis are to avoid another civil war, once again led by al Qaeda but this time catalyzed by events in Syria, they should put their own house in order posthaste. Only by restoring basic consensus about how to run the country and by putting in place a workable power-sharing arrangement as they intended two years ago will they be able to contain and eventually stamp out violent actors and begin moving toward more effective governance.

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Topics: Iraq • Terrorism

soundoff (113 Responses)
  1. Gene

    Tongue in cheek, but:
    Looks like the example set by both Democrats & Republicans are being emulated in Iraq????
    We wanted Democracy like we have it...Now we have it.
    Maybe they learned this from us? Except war, that has gone on forever over there, is part of the mode of operation.
    Or, maybe we learned it from them?

    August 1, 2012 at 6:44 am | Reply
  2. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    What republicans don't seem to realize is that alot more than 100,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of their illegitimate invasion and occupation of Iraq. That was approximately the amount of Iraqi casualties in the first few months of the war and by the end of 2004, thousands more Iraqi civilians died when our military mistakenly attacked civilian localities over fear that insurgents might be hiding out in those areas. I recalled two incidents where pregnant women who were amongst truck loads of their families and relatives fleeing the city to escape the violence were ambushed by our troops and brutally murdered at various check points in Baghdad because of fear that insurgents were in those vehicles. And sadly, these atrocities continued way up until the surge which eventually locked down the city. Then there was the situation where tribal warfare took over the country, leading to more unrest and death of civilians. And every month of each year up untill our withdrawal in 2010, tribal warefare continued to ravish that country and it continues today. And let's face it, GWB and the GOP are responsible for the tribal warfare and the deaths that continue to ensue because they invaded and destabilized a country in time of peace to ignite a war. Then if you were to do the math of Iraqi civilians who have died in market place bombings and from the invasion itself, GWB and the GOP have murdered a million Iraqis. let's face it, GWB and the GOP are on the same page with Adolph Hitler and should be tried for war crimes.

    August 1, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
    • muslim traitor

      How could anyone know how many were killed? If Muslims did not lie much and so often we might believe a bit more of what you say.

      August 1, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
    • Trevor

      What you "hear" second hand...THOUSANDS of U.S. military servicemen and women that would step to your face and call you a LIAR...make that duty 15 years, presently typing on the other side world from you...from the "safety" of you own home, spewing CRAP...

      August 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  3. erickson

    they can say what ever they can say. when they die they will see the pwoer of alah and go to hell while us being in heaven

    August 1, 2012 at 8:23 am | Reply
  4. Spencer

    It might seem very basic but a lot of the violence is to lack of access to women. A Iraqi man can marry 4 women so three of those women can not get married to other men. So the average Iraqi man has no woman who is single to marry. If they were married and had kids they would be less violent. As they saying goes make love not war. Or to reverse this If no make love then make war instead.

    August 1, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply
  5. Sal

    There was no Qaeda in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Only after g. bush's decision to invade Iraq made it possible for the terror group to establish itself in the country! Yes, it was bush's fault! 

    August 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  6. Voiceinthedesert/Troubledgoodangel

    This is the result of blind visionaries having been put in charge of Iraq for years. I mean not just al-Maliki, but Amb. Crocker, and Gen Petraeus and the U.S. Governments in all these years! They never succeeded in forcing Iraq to shape up or to split. They did not give strict deadlines to accomplish this! As a result, they created more problems than solved! From the outset, I had advocated splitting Iraq in three! This was an essential geopolitical must! The U.S. listened to Turkey, and got a "turkey advice"! Why? Because that's the advice the Turks always give! They always say, "no Kurdistan"! They are wrong, and they mislead the world!

    August 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  7. rbt111

    Once again it all comes down to religion. People killing each other over their religious beliefs.

    A world without religion could be so much more of a peaceful place.

    August 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  8. ytuque

    It's the politics stupid should be replaced with it's the religion stupid. The Sunnis and Shias have been at it since the year 680 AD. 1,332 years of bloodshed can't be blamed on the anything other than religion since often the warring groups are of the same ethnicity. culture and sometimes political views.

    August 1, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  9. XiaoJack

    So it was not violence but the corrupt of politics ? actually it happens in other country too ~ May be other countries' government know to to cover it nicely without expose even a little to the public ~ I felt the pitiful of Iraq citizens, perhaps getting a Kechara Protection Chakras may protecting them from tragedy ~

    August 2, 2012 at 3:51 am | Reply
  10. Andrey Gorbatskiy

    Whoa! The spam here is from hand. How can you retain up with many of these comments?

    August 19, 2012 at 7:20 am | Reply
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