Turmoil reveals Iraqi reliance on US
By Abeer Mohammed and Neil Arun
BAGHDAD and IRBIL - Iraq's extended dependence on American influence was laid
bare last week by massive bombings and by a breakthrough in a political battle
over planned elections.
Both events cast doubt on the ambition - voiced by governments in Baghdad and
Washington - for Iraq to manage its own affairs in order for America to
withdraw its troops.
They also uncovered cracks in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's re-election
campaign, which has cast him as a strongman leader capable of securing and
On December 8, five car bombs detonated near government offices in Baghdad,
killing more than 120 people and injured some
500. The previous day, the Iraqi parliament concluded months of convoluted
debate with an eleventh-hour deal paving the way for elections to be held in
The United States welcomed the election breakthrough, reportedly brokered by
its officials. It condemned the bombings that followed the deal - the latest in
a series of spectacular attacks that have gutted ministries and government
offices in the capital.
Among Iraqis, the blasts prompted renewed condemnation of the officials who
took control of the city after the US military formally withdrew from its
streets this summer.
Though Washington is intent on extracting the bulk of its troops from Iraq by
mid-2010, Iraqi analysts and politicians interviewed by the Institute for War
and Peace Reporting said US forces were still needed to plug gaps left by
corruption and disloyalty among the country's military and police.
They also said the US was required as a mediator on Iraq's fractious political
scene, as demonstrated during the long deadlock over the election law.
"The American role is necessary now in Iraq, not only to maintain security but
to maintain political stability," said Hameed Fadhel, a political science
professor at Baghdad University. "The Iraqi people no longer trust their
He added that ridding the security forces of insurgent collaborators was "a
difficult, long-term task" that would require political consensus. "Maliki
cannot carry out that mission alone," he said.
Abdullah Jafar, a retired professor of political sciences, said the debate over
the election law had helped cast the Americans as mediators, "People read in
the news that the American president or envoy had urged Iraqi politicians to
approve the election law, to get out of the bottleneck."
Meanwhile, he said, "Iraqi politicians have shown people they cannot run this
Iraq's first nationwide parliamentary elections since 2005 were originally
scheduled for January 2010. But strenuous objections, first by the Kurds and
then by Sunni Arabs, held up passage of a bill approving the vote.
Disagreement initially focused on the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of
Kirkuk, claimed by Kurds, Arabs and the Turkomans, a people of Turkish descent.
Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders also fought hard for a greater share of new
seats in the expanded parliament, with the Sunni Arab leader Tareq al-Hashemi
using his vice-presidential veto to block the election bill.
The law was finally passed late on December 6 and the election is now expected
to be held in early March. Several sources confirmed to IWPR that the Americans
had played a critical role in the negotiations.
"The political process would be in a stalemate and the election law would still
be blocked without American advice," said Tariq Harb, a member of Maliki's
State of Law alliance.
He insisted, however, that the Americans had not imposed any terms. "The
Americans advised Iraqi politicians - but their advice is not binding," he
Andy Laine, a press officer at the US State Department, told IWPR, "Credit for
the passage of the revised election law goes to the Iraqis ... The United
States offered advice and encouragement but it was the Iraqis that made the
Claims of American involvement in Iraqi politics are likely to prove especially
contentious as elections approach.
The Kurdistan Islamic Union, KIU, a small Islamist party, accused the Kurdish
region's dominant parties, whom it intends to challenge in the election, of
sidelining it and bowing to American demands in the talks.
"I wonder why US pressure didn't work on Vice President [Tariq al-]Hashemi when
he vetoed the law, but unfortunately it has worked on the Kurds," Mohammed
Ahmed, a top KIU official, told IWPR. "I think the Kurds are vulnerable to US
Sadi Pira, a politburo member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, one of
the two dominant Kurdish parties, rejected the claim, saying the Americans had
been closely involved in the negotiations but had not applied any pressure.
"I heard from some Iraqi officials that this was an act of interference in an
internal issue. It was not; it was advice," he said.
Asked whether the US still had a military role to play in Iraq, Pira said the
latest bombings in Baghdad, along with unrest in Mosul and Kirkuk, "proves that
the Iraqi forces are not able to control the cities or the borders. If the US
position is to extend the [stay] of the remaining coalition forces, it is not
bad for Iraq."
Maliki under pressure
Several Iraqis interviewed by IWPR also seemed to support continued American
engagement. The recent bombings and the bickering over the election law
appeared to confirm to them that an already weakened Iraq would fare worse if
the Americans withdrew.
"A timely US pullout will give neighboring countries a free rein to interfere,
because Iraq itself lacks military capabilities," said Ali Mahdi, a businessman
in Tikrit, a Sunni Arab town once regarded as a base for the insurgency.
Adel Abdul-Karim, an unemployed man in the largely Shi'ite city of Basra, said
he believed rising violence in the run-up to the elections would delay the
American withdrawal, "I expect more problems and I can't rule out the return of
Nonetheless, the US presence remains deeply divisive. Many politicians across
the sectarian spectrum can still count on intense anti-American sentiment in
Nasser al-Rubaie, a legislator allied to the anti-American Shi'ite cleric,
Muqtada al-Sadr, said the US was best excluded from the spheres of politics and
"The American forces are the reason behind the bombs," he said. "It is not true
that security will get worse if they pull back. We have tried their presence;
we have not tested their absence, so we cannot judge it."
As it shifts focus to the fight in Afghanistan, the US has given no indication
that it will extend its stay in Iraq beyond the end of 2011, the date when all
combat forces are expected to leave the country. Doing so would prove unpopular
at home, as well among the many Iraqis suspicious of US motives in the region.
So far, there has been no formal call for US forces to take a more active role
in policing Baghdad.
Maliki accused Iraq's Arab neighbors of abetting the latest attacks. Past
bombings have been linked to al-Qaeda and to members of Saddam Hussein's
outlawed Ba'ath party, now living in exile in Syria.
The prime minister also dismissed the most senior commander in charge of
security in the capital, mindful perhaps that many in the public had accused
the security forces of complicity or negligence over the explosions.
Maliki cautioned his opponents against seeking political advantage from the
attacks. His image as a powerful leader, burnished after quashing Shi'ite
militias and overseeing a huge fall in violence, has been threatened by the
Some say the postponement of the election - from January to March - gives the
bombers a bigger window to operate.
"The delay will encourage terrorists to commit attacks, so the Iraqi people
will blame Maliki for bad security," said Harb of the State of Law alliance.
"The election was delayed with a view to showing that Maliki's government has
failed," he said.
Hashemi, the vice president whose veto helped delay the election law, said the
authorities' casting of blame was misleading, as they were mainly at fault for
the lapse in security.
IWPR local editor Abeer Mohammed and Iraq editor Neil Arun produced
this report from Baghdad and Irbil. Iraq editor Charles McDermid and local
editor Hemin Lihony contributed to this report from Sulaymaniyah.