Tips, questions, and suggestions
Sign up for emails
Posts by Reidar Visser

Must Iraq be Divided? Scholar Takes on Proposals to Break up the Country
08/20/2007 1:56 PM ET
An expression of national unity or an anomalous outburst? Basra residents celebrate Iraq's Asian Football Cup championship victory on July 29.
Photo by Khaldoon Zubeir/Getty.
An expression of national unity or an anomalous outburst? Basra residents celebrate Iraq's Asian Football Cup championship victory on July 29.

For a long time, the idea of an externally imposed partition of Iraq was the preserve of a few relatively isolated but loud US politicians and pundits, including figures like Joseph Biden, Leslie Gelb and Peter Galbraith. More recently, however, certain academics have added their voice to the partitionist propaganda. These studies warrant close scrutiny, because their academic style and, in some cases, elaborate footnotes, make it very likely that they will achieve status as “serious pieces of research” among those who advocate partition.

It may perhaps be a little unfair to consider Amitai Etzioni’s article “Plan Z: A Community Based Security Plan for Iraq” in isolation from his recent book, Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. The article is by necessity a lot more condensed than the book, and the author does not have the space available to elaborate on his overarching theoretical framework. Nevertheless, it is the article, rather than the book, that focuses exclusively on Iraq. Also, even if the format is a little bit cramped, one still expects stellar arguments and academic brilliance from someone whose biography states that he “was listed as one of the top 100 American intellectuals in Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals”.

With that point of departure, “Plan Z” is something of a disappointment. It promises a “communitarian, sociological approach” (Etzioni is the director of The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at the George Washington University) but ends up as a collage of quotations whose sole common denominator is that they advocate a weakening of Baghdad’s powers. Some do so on the basis of the ethnic argument, which also appears to be closest to Etzioni’s own preference: his thesis is that “the sociological reality” of Iraq means that “the first and foremost loyalty of Iraqis (as well as Afghans, Kosovars and many others) is to their ethno-religious community and not to their nation”. But Etzioni also quotes writers who advocate decentralisation in Iraq on entirely different and non-ethnic platforms, such as David Romano, who has proposed “a regionally based federalist system” on a Canadian pattern. Etzioni’s way of reconciling this tension is to prescribe devolution based on the 18 existing governorates in Iraq, which he then “expects” to combine into larger ethno-religious entities. This would produce what he labels a “High-Devolution State”, a federation-like construction that “does not presume any particular institutional form”, i.e. both the United Kingdom and Canada may be examples of this species.

The assumed primacy of communitarian identities in Iraqi politics is never subjected to scrutiny as such, but rather presented as an axiom at the beginning of Etzioni’s article. Then follows a section called “detailed arguments” which is more of a pot-pourri of quotes from commentators of varying calibres and backgrounds. They include things like Leslie Gelb’s unsubstantiated exclamation that “the United States has worshipped at the altar of a unified yet unnatural Iraqi state”, and Marina Ottaway’s flawed assertion from late 2005 that the Shiites and Kurds had unanimously “accepted” the idea of ethnic federalism and therefore that the best US strategy would be to encourage the Sunnis to follow suit. (In fact, parliamentary voting patterns and the political debate surrounding the law for implementing federalism in October 2006 demonstrated clearly that resistance to ethnic federalism was almost as widespread among Shiites as among Sunnis.)

This is followed in “historical arguments” by even more misleading matter, such as the reference to “Great Britain’s folly of combining into one state three different tribes”, and, above all, the quotation from Ivan Eland that “these three provinces had never been united politically, had no feeling of collective nationality, and contained three different ethnic groups subdivided by tribal loyalties”. Never united politically? In fact, Basra and Baghdad were unified as a single charge in the intervals 1880–1884, 1863–1875, from the 1760s to 1850, from around 1705 to 1720, in the 1670s, as well as in periods before the Ottoman conquest in 1534 – and in many of these periods, Mosul was also included, de jure or de facto. But partitionists have no appetite for these details; they choose instead to highlight the thirty years of administrative differentiation between 1884 and 1914 as decisive proof of the “artificiality” of unitary rule after the First World War. Similarly, the claim that the three vilayets had any particular individual sectarian colouring in the intervals when they did in fact enjoy a measure of autonomy is another recurrent fallacy among those who prefer a “macro” (or perhaps, lazy?) approach to Iraqi history. True, Basra was Shiite-dominated in terms of demography, especially from the nineteenth century onwards, but Baghdad had an even larger Shiite population as well as all the Shiite holy cities, and Mosul was essentially mixed.

Perhaps the most problematic portion of Etzioni’s article is the section that asserts, “Federalism and Regional Autonomy Are Compatible with Iraq’s Constitution”. Of course, federalism is part of the Iraqi constitution. But where Etzioni and many partitionists with him get it wrong is the character of the federalism laid down in the Iraqi constitution of 2005. First and foremost, federalism south of Kurdistan is foreshadowed in the Iraqi charter as an optional arrangement, and, if chosen, its building blocks will be the existing governorates, which can become federal entities in their own right, or may join with other governorates. On the other hand, under the constitution, ethnicities and Etzioni’s “communities” will have no role in demarcating the federal units. If they are so eager to stay true to the Iraqi constitution writers like Etzioni should at least openly admit that there is absolutely no imperative for the comprehensive federalisation of all of Iraq in the document that was adopted back in 2005. (The relevance of a textualist approach to the Iraqi charter can of course be debated given that many Iraqis are now more interested in constitutional reform that would actually strengthen the centre, but several partitionists are at pains to pose as “constitutionalists” and therefore should at least be faithful to the document they refer to.) In fact, many Iraqi politicians, including Shiite parliamentarians, believe that the complicated rules for forming federal regions mean that in the future only one or maximum two small uni-governorate entities (Basra and possibly Najaf) will develop into full-blown federal units on the Kurdistan pattern, with the remaining 13 governorates staying within a unitary state framework. To partitionists, this is a considerable quandary. If they wish to adhere to the Iraqi constitution, then, by all means, they should feel free to do so: just sit back and relax because no external intervention in the demarcation of federal units is needed! But then again in that case their “plan” would not be a plan.

In this regard, Edward P. Joseph and Michael E. O’Hanlon are refreshing in that they explain upfront what they want: to challenge the Iraqi constitution. In contrast to the examples of Etzioni, Biden and Gelb, what these two writers refer to as a “plan” is in fact a plan.

But what a plan! In “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq” Joseph and O’Hanlon plunge into the modalities of bringing about “the organised movement of two to five million Iraqis”, no less, in order to create a decentralised state based on three ethnic communities. There is no question about the number – it has to be three. In fact, the authors are deeply worried that the Iraqi constitution with its protection of Baghdad as a separate entity (constitutionally, the Iraqi capital is not allowed to become part of larger federal regions) may create problems with regard to the consistent implementation of their own ethnic logic; they therefore demand that the capital region be partitioned too – with the Tigris river recommended as the most suitable partition line. The absence of popular support among Iraqis (they themselves acknowledge that “Sunni and Shiite Arabs have traditionally opposed partition, hard or soft”) does not seem to deter them at all; instead they choose to focus on the “comparable” example of Bosnia-Herzegovina, “where one of us worked extensively.”

Brookings analyst Michael O'Hanlon in 2004.
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.
Brookings analyst Michael O'Hanlon in 2004.
On pages 9 to 11, Joseph and O’Hanlon (who in 2006 complained loudly in the US press after having been marginalised in the sessions of the Iraq Study Group) enumerate in greater detail the supporters of their plan. They appear to be, Joseph, O’Hanlon, most Kurds, and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite politician. The authors are too modest: they could have added al-Qaida, which would welcome this kind of federation as a permanent scar on Iraq that would prove to the whole world how “Western crusaders are intent on dividing the Muslims”, as well as Iran, which consulted closely with Hakim before he launched his campaign for a Shiite federal entity in the summer of 2005 and prior to the intensification of it in August 2006 – and which would rival Saudi Arabia as holder of the world’s largest oil reserves if it were able to exercise control over the Basra fields. At any rate, to their credit, the authors readily admit that only a minority among the Shiites of Iraq are in favour of federalism based on ethnicity. In fact, these days, even long-time defenders of the idea of a Shiite federal entity such as the Hakim family seem to speak with different voices on federalism, with Ammar al-Hakim now apparently more enthusiastic than his father Abd al-Aziz and other close associates.

But Joseph and O’Hanlon cannot entirely resist the temptation to construe the Iraqis as closet partitionists. In so doing they also reiterate several common misconceptions about Iraqi politics. First and foremost, this relates to the interpretation of sectarian voting in the parliamentary elections of 2005 as votes “for separation” (p. 1, repeated on p. 8). That is simply disingenuous, because no political parties in those campaigns had any agenda of dividing the Iraqis according to sect and ethnicity. To struggle for primacy within an existing unitary polity and to advocate the territorial devolution of that polity on a separative basis are two very different things. Similarly, Joseph and O’Hanlon elsewhere (p. ix) talk of “an Iraq ruled from Baghdad” as a possible future “symbolic threat to Shiite Arabs” – a colossal denial of the continued centrality of Baghdad to Shiite ambitions, which often simply consist of a desire to maintain the existing state framework but without the sectarian discrimination of the past. And on p. 9, where the two authors refer to the six-month deadline in the 2005 constitution for creating federalisation procedures, they demonstrate their level of detachment from current Iraqi political debate more generally. Why do they not instead focus on the actual procedures for implementing that were adopted in October 2006, which fulfilled the constitutional provision, and which made it superfluous?

What then follows in the section on “Implementing Soft Partition” should have come with some kind of warning to the reader. Here, using cool academic language, the authors review the nuts and bolts of relocating somewhere between 2 and 5 million Iraqis in order to create new ethnic federal entities. Snippets from this part of the report probably speak best for themselves: “we advocate where possible dividing major cities along natural boundaries” (p. 16); “on the actual day of the relocation operation, Iraqi and US-led coalition forces would deploy in sufficient numbers to look for snipers, cover the flanks of the civilian convoys, inspect suspicious vehicles for explosives and conduct similar tasks” (p. 17); and finally, on p. 24, “this control system would place some burdens on Iraq’s internal trade and other aspects of its economy. It would complicate the efforts of individuals to cross from one region to another to visit family and friends. For the most part these burdens would be bearable. For individuals or businesses that need to make frequent crossings across Iraq’s new internal borders, or those willing to pay for the privilege, an EZ pass system might be developed to expedite movements for those with important and regular business to conduct.”

Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise in a report in which the 1947 partition of India is criticised not for the principle of division as such but for its poor technical execution (p. 19). But even those who may choose to accept the authors’ ideas about the “inevitability” of an Iraqi partition will find it hard to be persuaded by some of the subsequent details considering implementation. For example, the Arab League (probably one of the strongest opponents of Iraqi partition in the world) is identified as a possible candidate for a “lead role” in the partition process (p. 16). And on p. 28 Joseph and O’Hanlon present their scenario of how regional players supposedly would join in to support the new decentralised polity: “Sunni-majority states such as Morocco and Jordan and Saudi Arabia providing help for the Sunni Arab region, the United States helping the Kurds”, and, wait for it, “a combined international mission working with the Shiites”. Or could it just possibly happen that a certain neighbour to the east might wish to try to exercise a degree of influence in the Shiistan defined by O’Hanlon and Joseph?

What all these writers overlook is the survival of Iraq as a territorial concept and as a frame of reference for aspirations of national unity. Those analysts who emphasise the continued existence of Iraqi nationalism among the population at large are often criticised because these ideals are not reflected at the elite level anymore. But that is just a testament to the growing gap between politicians and masses in Iraq, perhaps greater now than ever after the recent further narrowing of the Maliki governing coalition to include just two Shiite Islamist parties in addition to the Kurds. (Farcically, the current government negotiations are being reported in the Western press as a “conflict between Shiites and Sunnis”, even though the real political cleavage is between an ever more cliquish group of “moderate” sectarians who are on talking terms with Washington, and opposition Iraqi nationalists – Shiites and Sunnis – who are being ignored by the Americans.) For example, the celebration of Iraq’s recent football victory in the Asia Cup proved the continued strength of Iraqi unity as a widespread ideal among ordinary Iraqis and constitutes a formidable anomaly to those sharing the analytical lenses of O’Hanlon, Joseph and Etzioni.

But in general, this popular dimension is only rarely reflected in media reports from Iraq, which instead tend to focus on propaganda by sectarian political parties that have good communications skills and are able to spin small gatherings of their diehard supporters as “massive demonstrations”. The problem is highlighted by these authors themselves: Joseph and O’Hanlon assert (p. 8) that there is “strong evidence” that “violence is steadily eroding national unity” – with a footnote to a short article by American journalist Sabrina Tavernise! Instead of engaging in this kind of contrived referencing they and other partitionists should take a long look at their own arguments, deal honestly with their most glaring denials of Iraqi facts (ranging from the mameluke government of Baghdad in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to the cross-sectarian support seen in April 2007 for Shadha Hassun, the Iraqi contestant in the Arab “Star Academy”), and then ask whether there is anything left at all. The US invasion of Iraq was based on lies; it would do irreparable damage to the entire Middle East as well as American interests in the region if also the mechanics of withdrawal should be informed by fabricated evidence.

See also related interview in The New York Times.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. His latest book is Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq. Many of his writings on the question of federalism and decentralization in Iraq are available at the website

This article originally appeared at Republished with permission.

DoD Misreads Nationalist Opposition, Iranian Influence, Analyst Says
10/01/2008 5:26 PM ET
The Pentagon's latest quarterly report on Iraq gets key features of the situation wrong, writes Reidar Visser, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a close watcher of southern Iraqi politics, in a blog post on his website, The Pentagon suffers from two "very basic problems" in its analysis, Visser writes: an overly sectarian interpretation of recent political events in Iraq, and a related misreading of the "channels of Iranian influence" in the Iraqi government. Full text is below:

Five Years On: The Pentagon Still Struggling to Make Sense of Iraq

By Reidar Visser (

1 October 2008

The US presidential candidates are not the only ones scrambling to put together a credible interpretation of the situation in Iraq these days. Today, Pentagon released its latest report to the US Congress, entitled “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq”.

There are two very basic problems in the report. The first concerns “the fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq”. On p. viii the report bombastically asserts, “while security has improved dramatically, the fundamental character of the conflict in Iraq remains unchanged – a communal struggle for power and resources”. That is a about as wrong as one can be in describing the political dynamics of the past year. Just to give one very prominent example, the reason Iraqis are going to have provincial elections soon is that a broad opposition alliance of Shiites and Sunnis, Islamists and secularists, challenged the Maliki government to demand early elections and a firm timeline when the provincial powers law was debated last winter. 30 of the MPs behind this move were Sadrists. But this fact of cross-sectarian opposition cooperation does not seem to fit into the Pentagon narrative of "communal conflict" at all. Instead the passage of the legislation on provincial elections is hailed as an achievement of the “government of Iraq” (p. v) – even though the government resisted the elections all the way and repeatedly tried to scupper the process! And instead of recognising the role of the opposition in changing the atmosphere of Iraqi politics, the report repeatedly reverts to a focus on “lingering sectarianism” (p. 1 and p. 6) At least some parts of the US military blogosphere has picked up the growing debate about the cross-sectarian currents in today’s Iraq and it is remarkable that a Pentagon report like this one should go on so insistently with interpretations that perhaps made sense for a limited period in 2006 and early 2007.

The second main problem in the report has to do with the Pentagon’s take on Iranian influences in Iraq. The Department of Defense simply refuses do deal open-mindedly with the possibility of pro-Iranian influences inside the current Iraqi government. Instead the report brusquely asserts, “despite long-standing ties between Iraq and some members of the GoI, Tehran’s influence campaign is beginning to strain that relationship due to the rising perception that Iran poses a significant threat to Iraqi sovereignty.” Maybe it is the overuse of acronyms that prevents Pentagon analysts from detecting the problem here? Surely, when ISOF are conducting COIN with IP support to defeat the JAM and SGs and other undesirables, it all sounds so well organised that it almost comes across as unthinkable that Iranian interests could conceivably be served by these actions. At any rate, not one word is said about the massive Iranian influence in Najaf where the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq dominates, or about the repeated complaints by Shiite tribal leaders in the south that the government of Iraq is too close to Iran, or the continued praise for Iran by members of the Badr brigade, one of Washington’s supposed key allies among the Shiites of Iraq.

It is assumptions like these that drive the report authors to exaggerate again and again the significance of Nuri al-Maliki and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim turning against some of their own Shiite enemies. Repeatedly, Maliki’s operations against Sadrists in Basra and elsewhere are described as the ultimate sign of a national attitude and something that should prompt Sunnis and the Arab world at large to instantly embrace the Maliki government (pp. vi, 8). Symptomatically, the decision by one relatively minor and office-seeking Sunni group to revert to their role in the government before the summer is spinned as “a welcome sign of re-engagement by Sunni Arabs at the national level” on p. 1. But it is the basic assumption that Iranian hands are only controlling and benefitting from the Sadrists and the “special groups” that is problematic. Instead Pentagon analysts should bear in mind what their “ally” Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq said about these matters in the Tehran-based ISCI newspaper Al-Muballigh al-Risali back in 1999 on 15 February, when he furiously criticised Muhammad al-Sadr for daring to start a revolt in Iraq without reference to Iran’s leadership: “We need to treat Khamenei’s leadership in the same fashion as Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr treated Khomeini’s leadership”, i.e. the supremacy of the leader of the Iranian republic should never be challenged. In other words: Historically, the unpredictable Sadrists have always been a problem and not an asset to Iran and ISCI; in 2007 they appeared to finally get better control of the situation as Muqtada was letft with no other option than to flee to Iran at the start of the surge. But instead, the Pentagon refers to “recognition of Coalition and ISF tactical superiority” as the main cause of the weakening of the Sadrists.

When these basic questions are not addressed in a nuanced way, it is very hard to ascribe much significance to the predictable succession of graphs and statistics and acronyms that take up the subsequent pages of the Pentagon report. These things all collapse if the underlying assumptions about the "fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq" and Iran’s channels of influence are wrong.

Dems Assume Endless Sectarian Conflict, Misread Iraqi Nationalism, Analyst Says
10/03/2008 3:05 PM ET
Below is full text of a new blog post by Reidar Visser, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, who calls out Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden over remarks he made in last night's vice presidential debate, in which the senator claimed that Iraqi society had suffered from intense sectarian conflict over the last "700 years." That claim, Visser writes, is related to a larger Democratic strategy for dealing with Iraq policy.

During yesterday’s vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden repeated the basic thrust of Barack Obama’s comments on Iraq one week ago. According to Biden, “John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shiites got along with each other without reading the history of the last 700 years.”

In other words, Barack Obama’s apparent assumption of an endless conflict between Sunnis and Shiites Iraq was more than a slip of the tongue. Instead this seems to constitute a key ingredient in the Democratic narrative on Iraq: the country can be held together only by a strong ruler, otherwise Shiites and Sunnis would be at each other’s throats. Biden’s incarnation of the argument also served to clarify that Democrats quite literally are thinking of hundreds of years when they advance this contention; by his counting, the problems began in the early fourteenth century. That is certainly a slightly odd place to start, since Baghdad at the time was governed by Mongol rulers who themselves were rather difficult to label, sometimes they were pro-Shiite, sometimes pro-Sunni. At any rate, even if the exact number of centuries in this case may be attributable to a Biden idiosyncrasy, the main point is clear. Democrats do not think Shiites and Sunnis have any tradition of coexistence in Iraq.

This assumption overlooks the fact that there were in fact no more than three major episodes of large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq prior to the rise of the Baathists: in 1508, 1623 and 1801; in all cases violence was instigated by foreign invaders from Iran or the Arabian Peninsula. Still, many will dismiss this entire discussion. Why should we care about such historical details when there are bigger issues at stake such as the US economy? The reason these matters are important is that they relate to a more fundamental aspect of Democratic strategy in Iraq which has become clearly evident over the past weeks, despite apparent attempts by Joe Biden to avoid going into too much detail about his notorious “Iraq plans”. Democrats want a “settlement” in Iraq, otherwise they think that US forces will have to be sent back there again. (Biden told reporters a few weeks ago, “Without a political settlement, Tom, we’re going to be back there in another year or two or three or five.”)

A shift to the political sphere instead of the almost exclusive emphasis on the military seen among many Republican strategists, now that seems perfectly plausible. But the danger with regard to Democratic strategy has to do with exactly how they want to perform this shift and what sort of knowledge about Iraq is going to inform it. So far, three tendencies stand out: the Democrats want swiftness, involvement of the neighbours, and a “deal” to end what is seen as “centuries-long” conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis. Also – and this may come to a surprise to those who think of Democrats as less interventionist in the affairs of other nations than neo-Conservatives – Joe Biden’s confidence in America’s superior ability to handle these issues is not inconsiderable. Here are a few more notable quotes from his performance yesterday:

We took Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, being told by everyone, I was told by everyone that this would mean that they had been killing each other for a thousand years, it would never work .”

“When we kicked -- along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, ‘Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't know -- if you don't, Hezbollah will control it (presumably this is an interesting way of referring to the process toward UN Security Council Resolution 1701). "

With regard to Iraq, this kind of arrogant drive towards a “settlement” would threaten to derail potentially positive developments currently going on inside the country, and would play into the hands of the neighbouring countries, especially Iran. It has to be stressed that those positive developments – a cross-sectarian alliance of parties generally seeking to diminish the exaggerated privileges accorded to ethno-sectarian forces in the 2005 constitution – take place despite current US policy, which continues to favour those who put sectarian identity and not Iraqiness first. Nevertheless, backers of the new political current have managed to move from a situation in which they were in the minority in parliament back in October 2006 (when the law for implementing federalism was adopted) to a position of strength in the summer of 2008 (when they created a parliamentary majority to demand exceptional interim arrangements for Kirkuk instead of a mere postponement of elections there and earned the name “the forces of 22 July”).

These forces have consistently been ignored by the Bush administration. It is now clear that the Democrats, too, are unable or unwilling to detect their existence. But the particularly dangerous aspect of Democratic strategy concerns the eagerness for the “settlement” to be quick and easy. Today, perhaps for the first time since 2003, it seems realistic to think that Iraq gradually may be able to fix itself, despite US policies that often work to the advantage of those who want to fish in sectarian waters. If the more nationalist forces continue to make advances in the provincial elections they could get to a position where they could contest the 2009 parliamentary elections as a wide coalition through mobilising on shared issues of constitutional reform with enormous resonance among the general population (among the recurrent slogans are “no cession of Kirkuk to Kurdistan”, “no sectarian federalism”, “no decentralisation of the oil sector” and “no ethno-sectarian quotas in government”). In that perspective, perhaps the best thing the United States could do would be to ensure two rounds of fair and free elections in 2009 and then leave – with a unified Iraq with out without Kurdistan as the most likely result. On the other hand, if we are to have a quick “settlement” based on Biden’s ideas about “700 years of conflict” and other similar guesswork about Iraqi history, then the region could very soon turn into a quagmire far worse than anything seen since 2003. It is in this perspective it is hard for an outsider to share the viewpoints of American intellectuals who talk of a big difference between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin when it comes to credibility on Iraq.

By Reidar Visser (

3 October 2008

Visser: New Admin's Scope of Action Depends on Maliki's Maneuvers; Scenarios
11/07/2008 11:42 AM ET
Obama vs. Maliki? The always-provocative Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs offers comments on his website on possible Iraq strategies for a new Obama administration -- and their potential relationship with the position of Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki, a man who -- Visser argues -- has been unexpectedly strengthened by American strategy over the last two years. Full text below:

The Obama Administration, Iraq, and the Question of Leverage

By Reidar Visser (

7 November 2008

With Barack Obama’s victory in the American presidential elections there are expectations of changes in US policy in Iraq, involving a substantial reduction of force levels. In the so-called Obama–Biden plan for Iraq, this is expressed as follows:

“The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month that would remove them in 16 months... Under the Obama-Biden plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. They will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism...
Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that the U.S. must apply pressure on the Iraqi government to work toward real political accommodation. There is no military solution to Iraq’s political differences, but the Bush Administration’s blank check approach has failed to press Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their future or to substantially spend their oil revenues on their own reconstruction... As our forces redeploy, Obama and Biden will make sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society—in and out of government—to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.”

So, the US forces will withdraw in large numbers, but beyond that, and of interest to those who care for Iraq itself, can Obama realistically hope to achieve anything other than a unilateral withdrawal, such as the ambitious reconciliation aims outlined above? Much of the answer to this question has to do with the issue of leverage. In this regard, the Obama–Biden plan embodies several basic assumptions about the motives of the Iraqi leadership that were set forward more comprehensively in a report by the Center for a New American Security in June this year, authored by Colin Kahl, Michèle Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, and titled Shaping the Iraq Inheritance. Put briefly, the Democratic view is that Nuri al-Maliki has a strong desire to keep US forces a little longer in Iraq so that they can help him strengthen his position (by “rebuilding” the Iraqi army); accordingly the US should be in a position to offer an extended stay (or a “residual force”/more training and advisers) as some kind of bonus to Maliki. This theory is described in the report by Kahl et al. as “conditional engagement”.

What appears to be missing in these assumptions is an appreciation of some of what happened in Iraq in 2007. This is not to suggest that “the surge” was such a wonderful success. So far, no significant political institutional reform has materialised as a result of the decline in violence; without this kind of political reform “the surge” in itself is worthless because it is based on temporary stop-gap measures like an infusion of US troops and the bribing of armed militants. However, Nuri al-Maliki the person has been enormously strengthened by the surge. A year and a half ago, any suggestion that Maliki would be the next strongman of Iraq would be met by ridicule. Today, his emergence as a powerful figure with an increasingly independent position vis-à-vis his political coalition partners is an undeniable fact. The Iraqi army is stronger than at any point since 2003 and is becoming a potential tool of repression that many other authoritarian rulers in the region are envious of. And Maliki has rediscovered an ideological superstructure that is making him increasingly immune against criticism at home: using the language of centralism, Iraqi nationalism and at times anti-federalism, he has become independent enough to challenge even some of his longstanding coalition partners such as the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

When it comes to the leverage of the next US administration in Iraq the question is not so much about the “objective” strength of the Iraqi army but rather about what Nuri al-Maliki perceives to be his room for manoeuvre. In that regard, he seems increasingly tied to a nationalist discourse of Iraqi sovereignty that takes a critical line with regard to foreign interference. Hence, it seems more and more likely that if faced with an Obama offer of “conditional engagement” Maliki's most likely response would be essentially that Iraq is an independent country which is not willing to be bullied into constitutional reforms at the behest of foreigners. He would be thankful to the Americans for their support their support so far in making him a strong ruler, but he would feel strong enough to decline the offer of extended support if this comes with too many strings attached: a SOFA, maybe, but no more than that. He might hope to see his electoral base boosted in local and parliamentary elections, or he could turn to the army and other security forces where he has an increasing number of friends. Failing that, he could always turn to Iran – it may be symptomatic in this regard that the pro-Iranian Daawa/Tanzim al-Iraq is part of Maliki’s new coalition for the local elections even if ISCI apparently plans to run separately.

What are the alternatives to “conditional engagement” in the Democratic camp? What if Maliki feels stronger than US politicians think he is? The Biden scheme of a grand compromise on federalism has few supporters in Iraq south of Kurdistan, although Iran might be interested in the regional aspect of a “Dayton-style” settlement where it might exploit the desire of Obama to mark a contrast to the Bush administration’s tough line. If Obama goes to the opposite extreme in terms of offering Iran a regional role, Iran would emerge stronger than ever and could use its influence with the Maliki government to effectively control oil reserves similar in scale to those of Saudi Arabia. However, other pro-Obama groups have worked out policy suggestions that are far better grounded in Iraqi realities than the schemes of Biden, for example the report Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge by Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch and Peter Juul. But they, too, stake their entire argument on an assumption about the Maliki government’s perception that may turn out to be incorrect. Their thesis is quite the opposite of that of Kahl et al.: only the prospect of an early US withdrawal can focus minds on the Iraqi side and will force them to make compromises – not out of any altruistic motives, but because those in power supposedly will feel they need such compromises in order to survive in their current positions. Again, it seems likely that Maliki, who as early as in 2007 spoke of national reconciliation as something that had already been accomplished, may not see the need for any wide-ranging reform.

There are two other Iraq alternatives that have received only limited attention by Democratic policy-makers. The first one is exceedingly straightforward and would consist of singling out the 2009 parliamentary elections as the key to reform and Iraq’s last chance to repair itself (the new parliament would then appoint a more representative constitutional revision committee than the current one). The United States could focus all its energies on making those elections as inclusive and free and fair as possible, and in doing so would be quite immune against accusations of meddling in Iraqi affairs. The second alternative is more radical, and builds on the idea of an externally induced shock as well as exploiting US leverage where it still exists: Kurdistan. Political scientist Liam Anderson has earlier proposed an internationally guaranteed “autonomy plus” status for Kurdistan along the lines of the Åland Islands in Finland; by building on this idea one might also create a corollary involving Kurdish withdrawal from the constitutional process in the rest of Iraq, where much of the problem has been artificial alliances between the two biggest Kurdish parties and pro-federal Shiite politicians that enjoy only limited backing in the constituencies they purport to represent, and where what is needed is radical recalibration and constitutional reform directed by Iraqis who are more representative and who can offer resistance to the attempt by the Kurds to impose a pro-federal agenda on all of Iraq. Both these approaches come with the advantage that they are much more difficult for Nuri al-Maliki to simply reject and therefore also involve a greater degree of real US leverage.

Also see Visser's recent comments to Der Speigel on the Obama administration's role in Iraq.


Wounded Warrior Project