The war in Iraq is obviously dominating the headlines, but the country is facing a number of other pressing issues at the same time. The United States and Iran are playing out their rivalry within the nation. There are still on going disputes between the central and Kurdistan regional government. Prime Minister Haider Abadi is trying to push major institutional reforms. To discuss these issues is Dr. Abbas Kadhim. He is a senior foreign policy fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the president of the new Institute of Shia Studies.
1. The fall of Mosul in June 2014 appeared to be a shock to the Iraqi government and society. What was the mood in the country at that time?
The fall of Mosul dismantled the narrative about the new Iraq. It exposed the deep divisions among the various factions of Iraq, the weakness of the Iraqi security system, and the fragility of Iraq’s alliances with regional and western partners. But it also revealed an aspect of Iraqi resilience and some safeguards that were not previously tested. Most important of such safeguards was the institution of the Shia Marja’iyya, represented by Grand Ayatullah Ali Al-Sistani. As many observers were watching what the United States and Iran were going to do about the threat, Sayid Sistani’s fatwa was the most important event that saved Iraq from total collapse. The biggest problem for Iraq in the immediate time after Mosul fell was the collapse of morale, and Sistani’s fatwa restored the morale by mobilizing more and better quality volunteer fighters than those soldiers and police who left their posts and allowed ISIS an easy victory.
2. That was eleven months ago. How are Iraqis feeling today?
Iraq survived the uncertainty of its existence as a nation by stopping the advance of ISIS into areas beyond its natural zone of comfort (the predominantly Sunni provinces of Mosul, Salahuddin, and Anbar), but other problems continue to exist: ethno-sectarian mistrust, lack of good governance, and incapable security institutions. The Shia-led campaign to liberate the cities taken by ISIS was supposed to heal some of the past wounds, but ungrateful attitudes by Sunni politicians turned the situation into another opportunity to voice new grievances. The liberators, who shed their blood in Tikrit were accused of stealing shampoo, toothpaste, and home appliances.
3. Iran is trying to portray itself as the savior of Iraq and defender of the Shiite. That line appears to be gaining popularity within Iraq. What do you think about Iran’s media campaign?
It is no secret that Iran played an important role in helping Iraq stop ISIS. The federal government of Iraq declared that Iran provided shipments of weapons in the early stages of the fight, and Kurdish officials also credited Iran for providing essential help to prevent ISIS from advancing into Kurdish territories. Iran also has several Iraqi fighting organizations that receive financial support and weapons from the Islamic Republic, but the numbers of the fighters in these organizations was not sufficient to meet the challenge in June and July of 2014. It was the fatwa of Grand Ayatullah Sistani that turned the situation in Iraq’s favor. The rising of Iran’s positive image in Iraq is mainly due to Iran’s strong public relations system inside Iraq and the weakness of its competitors in reaching out to the same audience.
4. Tehran appears to have unprecedented influence in Iraq right now. At the same time Iran appears to not want a weak Iraq that will constantly be in chaos next door, but doesn’t want a strong one either that might be a rival again. The Iranians have also had a history of overplaying its hand and mistreating Iraqis. Can you speculate on how Iran’s role in Iraq will play out?
Iran is more of a nationalist than a sectarian Shia country. That is to say, the main objective of Iran has always been to secure Iranian national interests. If this came by helping the Shia, then all the better. But it has never been a situation when Iran went out of its way to help the Shia at the expense of its national interests. This is also the guiding principle of Iran’s policy in Iraq. The objective is to strengthen the Iraqi Shia just enough to prevent the return of a Sunni state that can pose a threat to Iran. But it is not the objective to inject enough strength into the Shia to end Iran’s ability to have an influence inside Iraq to affect the outcome of Iraqi domestic politics. Iran’s best helper in Iraq is the continued disunity among the various Iraqi ethno-sectarian factions. As long as they do not trust one another, the Shia will continue to keep Iran an arm’s length away, as other factions behave toward other regional powers. The solution for the menace of regional influence in Iraq, including that of Iran, is obviously a well-reconciled Iraq.
5. Iran’s main foreign rival in Iraq is the U.S. There have been a lot of complaints by Iraqis about how long Washington took to provide support, and whether it is doing all that it can to assist Baghdad. There are growing rumors spreading throughout the country that the Americans are secretly supporting the Islamic State as well. Can the U.S. reverse this situation, and what does it have to do to be successful?
We should not dignify the rumors about U.S. support to ISIS with any reply. But it is legitimate to say that the U.S. mishandled the response to the crisis in Iraq from the beginning. Linking any military assistance to Iraq in fighting ISIS with political reforms in June and July 2014 was a misguided policy that caused many Iraqis to lose faith in the utility of the alliance between Iraq and the U.S. and allowed other actors, regional and domestic, to take charge, at the expense of U.S. interests in the country. In light of the current debate about possible U.S. dealing directly with factions and regions in Iraq, and not through the Iraqi federal government, it is hard to tell how future U.S.-Iraqi relations are going. The current defense authorization bill in Congress has revived the old suspicions that the U.S. intends to divide Iraq.
6. Things appeared near the breaking point between Baghdad and Irbil during the Maliki administration. Now with the change in premier, the threat posed by the Islamic State, and the budgetary problems the country is facing new opportunities are opening. What do you see in the future for this relationship?
Things will always appear near the breaking point between Baghdad and Arbil. The fact of the matter is that the Kurdish leadership will never let the relations reach a breaking point, because they still have a lot to gain from staying in Iraq. The Kurdish people have earned the right to make their final decision for whether they want to become an independent state or remain as Iraqis. They are denied this right by their leaders who continue to tamper with their emotions and hold politics above principle. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government is as corrupt as the federal Iraqi government and much more authoritarian. The Kurdish leadership has no plan for creating a viable independent state and no political will to work on one. All they are doing is using self determination as a bargaining chip to gain more concessions from Baghdad, while cynically raising the hopes of their people with false promises. This will backfire very soon. Baghdad is just playing along and showing half-hearted cooperation. In short, there are no good guys in this dispute.
7. Premier Abadi is pushing a reform agenda. He has proposed a number of bills such as creating a National Guard and amending the Accountability and Justice process. He’s ordered the Justice, Interior and Defense Ministries to follow the existing rules and use warrants for all arrests, and release those held who were detained without one. How much support does the prime minister have for his agenda, and is it enough to fulfill his program?
We must not reduce Maliki days to the post-June 2014 period. A careful examination of the situation in Iraq reveals that things are worse now under PM Abadi than they were in the Maliki era. There has been a deterioration in the quality of services, security, government accountability, and standards of living. The government in Maliki’s era was corrupt and strong; now, it is corrupt and weak. Many of PM Abadi’s cabinet and military appointments are worse than those of Maliki. It is not clear where the country is heading. The government rules only in Shia provinces, with no accomplishments to speak of, while Sunni provinces are largely ungoverned spaces and Kurdistan is an independent state mostly financed by Basra oil. The international experiment of micro-managing Iraqi politics after the 2014 elections turned into a terrible exercise.
8. Finally, the government forces now appear to have the initiative in the war. How do you think the conflict will progress.
Iraq has reached its limits in pursuing the military option against terrorism. The next move should be a political solution. ISIS is a manifestation of Sunni rejection of Shia rule. The current Iraqi system of government will not allow peace to exist in Iraq. It is beyond explanation that Iraq is the only country where majority rule is rejected and a minority is allowed to highjack the future of the entire nation. If this is the case forward, then time will soon come when division of Iraq becomes inevitable. Minority demands backed by bombs will not lead to political equality, and neither will the threats of separatism.