The big test facing Iraq
As the first elections loom since the US left four years ago, Iraq struggles to avoid splitting apart amid escalating violence and political paralysis.
Photo by Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Image; Photo Illustration by John Kehe/Staff
shatt al-Arab, Iraq
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, looks out the cockpit window of a military helicopter at the thin blue waterway below – the site of one of the fiercest battles in modern history. The Russian-made chopper, part of Iraq's tiny Air Force, winds its way along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, on the border with Iran, which has shaped the two countries' tumultuous past.
At low tide, the carcasses of destroyed oil tankers are half sunk into the ocher mud. They are rusting relics from a devastating eight-year war three decades ago that began over access to the shallow ribbon of water – Iraq's only lane to the deep-sea waters of the Gulf.
"When you see it on the ground, you see how sensitive these issues are ... and how stupid decisions destroyed this country," says Mr. Zebari, a onetime Kurdish guerrilla who fought Saddam Hussein's regime from the mountains and has been foreign minister throughout the life of postwar Iraq. "Since its establishment, Iraq has struggled with this issue. It's been a victim of geography and history."
Now Iraq is once again confronting a tumultuous moment bound up in geography and history. Eleven years after the United States toppled the despotic Hussein, concern has shifted from whether the once-hegemonic Arab nation poses a threat to the region to something far different: whether the internal divisions that beset the country could lead to its eventual breakup.
Across the country, new fractures are appearing in the social and political landscape, widening rifts that have existed in Iraq's diverse sectarian communities for decades. In Nineveh in the north, the governor wants semiautonomous status for the province with links to the Kurds. The Kurds themselves, who broke away from central government control in 1991, have established ties with Iran and former enemy Turkey.
In Anbar Province in the west, protests by Sunnis over marginalization and mistreatment flared into violence as what started as a peaceful protest movement became radicalized. In Fallujah, the scene of the worst American fighting, war seethes once again, while some Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad remain essentially sealed off on some days, with Iraqi security forces restricting access in and out.
Though most Iraqis hope the country will hold together, others worry that the centrifugal forces of escalating violence and religious strife will lead to the balkanization of the nation.
"The forces of disintegration ... are much more powerful than the forces of unity," says Saad Eskander, a political scientist and director of Iraq's national archives in Baghdad, a vast repository of documents detailing the tyrannies of the Hussein era.
A breakup of Iraq would hold major ramifications for the Middle East and beyond. It would recalibrate the balance of power between the region's powerful Sunni Gulf states, still hostile to Iraq's Shiite-led government, and set in motion a wider struggle for control of Iraq's weaker components and its huge oil fields.
More than that, it could serve as a trigger for a wider redrawing of borders across a region already undergoing volatile change. Tribal and ethnic rivalries unleashed by the Arab Spring are pulling at awkward and often artificial boundaries drawn by colonial powers a century ago – from Syria to Libya to Yemen. A dismantled Iraq would also be a huge embarrassment to the US, which lost 4,500 soldiers and spent as much as $2 trillion trying to replace the dictatorship with a united, democratic country.
Despite the dire signs, Iraq is not yet becoming a Yugoslavia. A major test of its sense of nationhood will come April 30, when Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls in national elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insists the voting will take place despite the resignation – later rescinded – of the entire electoral commission in protest of political interference. A delay in voting has already been announced in Anbar Province, where most of the population of Fallujah has fled because of fighting.
"We conducted elections for provincial councils when violence was worse," says Ali al-Musawi, press adviser to Mr. Maliki. Indeed, in the view of the Iraqi government, things are actually looking up. He says that when the Sunni demonstrations started, none of the protest leaders would speak with the prime minister. Now, he says, channels have been opened directly to tribal sheikhs, clerics, and former protest leaders.
Despite the current security challenges in Iraq and around the region, he believes that the country "is further from falling apart than at any time before." Maliki and his advisers see the battle in Fallujah, the provincial capital of Ramadi, and the nearby city of Garma as an existential struggle, fueled by Sunni-controlled countries in the region that have never accepted a Shiite-led government in their midst.
"Now we have a big challenge, but after it, Iraq will become better," says Mr. Musawi. "If we vanquish those terrorists in the other regions – in Fallujah and Garma – I tell you confidently that this sectarian crisis will be the last one."
• • •
It was a small but surprising gesture. At a conference at The American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish-controlled north, speakers were wrestling with the question of the future of the rapidly changing region. Then Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, strode to the podium.
It wasn't what he said as much as how he said it – his initial remarks were in Kurdish. Not long ago, it was a crime in Turkey for Kurdish citizens to speak their native language. Here was a Turk speaking Kurdish to Kurds. The crowd erupted in applause.
The vignette is a reminder of the growing ties between Kurdistan and Turkey, once fierce antagonists, as well as the Kurdish region's growing prosperity. In the 1990s, Kurdistan was in ruins, both from an embargo imposed on the region by Baghdad after the Kurds broke away from central rule as well as from trade sanctions levied on Iraq by the United Nations.
But today, new skyscrapers are being built. Energy resources are being developed. Investment money is pouring in from China and beyond. In a divided Iraq, the Kurds, despite their own internal divisions, have become important power brokers. The daily flights from Baghdad to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and its second city, Sulaymaniyah, are often packed with Iraqi politicians.
One of them in town on this day is Hajim al-Hassani, a prominent Sunni politician and a former speaker of the Iraqi parliament. He's attending the conference but also reaching out to other leaders, trying to fashion a coalition to take on Maliki. His political group, New Future, is focusing on providing better services and job creation through the development of a market economy.
"I think we are getting closer and closer to a coalition with the Kurds but also with some other Sunni and Shiite groups," says Mr. Hassani.
Similar efforts are under way across Iraq. As the election nears, political alliances are shifting and new blocs are forming. Despite all the activism, Maliki seems unlikely to be unseated. For a leader with so many political enemies, he has proved surprisingly resilient.
Over the past four years, the prime minister has presided over a fragile coalition government cobbled together with other Shiite political blocs and Kurdish parties after his party failed to win enough votes to govern alone. Critics say that since 2010 Maliki has circumvented the Constitution to seize the power he failed to get through the ballot box, creating separate security and intelligence services and other institutions that answer directly to him.
A surprise move by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to withdraw from the political process is expected to benefit Maliki. It allows him to go after large numbers of votes from poor, dispossessed Shiites hoping for more jobs and better services.
Maliki might be aided, too, by political disarray among the Kurds. The absence of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who has been undergoing medical treatment, has led to a leadership struggle for his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the three main Kurdish parties. Almost six months after provincial elections, the main Kurdish parties have not been able to agree on their own regional government.
"I don't think the Kurds will lead Iraq to separation," says Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish president Massoud Barzani, who believes that Sunni and Shiite rivalry is more likely to fracture the country.
Maliki may, in fact, end up being reelected with the help of the very parties that say they don't trust him.
"They will always compromise," says Mr. Eskander, the political scientist, of the Kurdish parties. "After almost 19 years, they learned the game of compromise. There was a civil war in the early part of the '90s. They drew a lesson: Everyone loses when they fight with each other.... They have one cause they agree on – to stop dictatorship in Baghdad. What is the alternative – to be under the control of Turkey or Iran? They have only Baghdad."
Maliki benefits from the support of outside powers as well. "I don't expect there will be basic change in this election," says Hassani. "Maliki will stay – supported by the Americans and the Iranians. Internally, he has power over the armed forces."
• • •
They appear all across Baghdad: billboards put up by the government showing images of soldiers and special forces – along with ordinary citizens – working together in a fight against DAIISH, the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). And whose visage beams down from some of them? The prime minister's.
It's an attempt by the Maliki government to portray the country as being in a heroic struggle against the forces of evil, particularly in Fallujah, the city that was the scene of the fiercest US fighting during the war. But many politicians accuse Maliki of using the armed forces to pursue political goals, and many Sunnis see his actions as an effort to punish a city that has opposed his government.
"What he is doing is very dangerous," says one official, a Shiite, who requested anonymity in referring to military action in Anbar. "You will destroy their cities, their villages. You will remove their dignity. They will not forgive you – these are tribal people."
Western diplomats and Iraqi officials say in December, when ISIS fighters took control of Fallujah after Iraqi forces moved in to demolish protest camps and arrest a Sunni political leader, Maliki was on the verge of ordering a devastating attack on the city before he was talked out of it by American officials.
Even without the attack, there is little doubt that Fallujah, just 40 miles from the center of Baghdad, is engulfed in full-scale conflict once again. The Iraqi Army, led by special forces units, has taken back control of most of Ramadi, but fighting for Fallujah sits at a dangerous stalemate.
Security and political officials say Iraqi forces have been unable to make lasting headway against tribal fighters in a temporary alliance with Al Qaeda and the ISIS.
"I can say there's progress working with the tribes, but frankly tribes are not monolithic," says one Western diplomat. "They are in some cases internally divided. Also their loyalties can shift day to day. They are looking for a clear winner."
Iraqi officials say more than 80 percent of Fallujah's residents have fled. While thousands of middle-class families have taken refuge in the much calmer Kurdish region, many poorer residents have squeezed into the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. Most seem to be waiting to see which side wins before choosing loyalties, though some have already decided.
"I hope the Army is defeated," says a laborer named Salah who was recently held for more than a week by Iraqi security forces. "It is only a matter of time before the revolutionaries are successful. This is a Persian war, and we are Sunni.... The only solution is to create a separate province in Iraq for our honor and dignity."
For Americans who played a role in creating the new Iraq, this was not the country they expected to see.
"I was hoping clearly that Iraq would be in a better place than it is," says Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007. "There was some progress towards decreased violence, progress towards unity in government, but since the departure of US military forces and what is happening in Syria, I think this has had a deleterious effect on what is happening in Iraq."
In the Middle East, where centuries of grievances are never far from the surface, the ripples of the history of the Shiite-Sunni split still resonate. Maliki in March publicly accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding the insurgency in Anbar Province.
With Syria in civil war, Iraq's western border has once again become a conduit for Al Qaeda-linked fighters. They see a fresh opportunity to restart a civil war spreading between Iraq and Syria and beyond.
Iraqi officials, though, say that while there are similarities with 2004, when Al Qaeda took control of major cities and even neighborhoods in the capital, the country is now more stable. Safa Rasul al-Sheikh, Iraq's deputy national security adviser, says that during the civil war Iraqis often turned to Shiite militias or Al Qaeda fighters because of a security vacuum. Today, better-trained Iraqi security forces can provide more protection.
"In 2004, most of the population was supporting to some extent the insurgents," he says. "This is not the situation now."
• • •
At the Hawar gallery in a former upscale neighborhood of Baghdad, artist Qassim Sabti looks around at walls full of unsold art – colorful abstracts from young painters, studies in Iraqi landscapes from established artists, refined ceramics with Arabic calligraphy. His cafe in the garden next to the gallery acts as a sort of salon for artists, poets, and writers.
Mr. Sabti kept his gallery open through the lean years of Iraqi sanctions in the 1990s and even through the violence of the war in 2003 and the sectarian fighting that followed. But in a country that has always supported artists, it's getting harder to make a living. More than 200 Iraqi artists have emigrated in the past few years.
"Many of the artists who left the country – it wasn't because of the violence, I swear. It's because they didn't have money," says Sabti, who is the head of the Iraqi artists' union. He cites instances of corruption from ministries all the way to arts students trying to bribe their way to exhibits. "Society has decayed," he says.
The surge in violence hasn't made day-to-day life any easier, though. Three years after the country had settled into a relative calm, car bombings, suicide bombings, and violent deaths have again become a part of life in central Iraq. In recent months, the number of casualties from bombings in Iraq have rivaled casualty figures from Syria, leading to fears that Iraqi security forces have lost control.
On the road north to Kirkuk, scorch marks on buildings and shell holes in the dome of a mosque tell the tale of recent fighting in the town of Suleiman Beg. Iraqi security forces who had been locked in fierce fighting with a group believed to be led by a former associate of Hussein have once again retaken control of the town – evacuating the residents and occupying many of the buildings. A sand berm rings the outskirts of the town as a defensive measure.
In Baghdad, soldiers stand watch along the Tigris River and the entrances to the Green Zone, the area cordoned-off to protect foreign personnel during the war. Eleven years after the fall of Hussein, Iraqi leaders and US and other diplomats have retreated to almost the same kind of physical isolation that the ex-president once experienced. The Green Zone remains a walled-off concrete city within a city where Iraqis tend to venture only to pursue their dreams of leaving the country.
Among the middle class, much of conversation centers on who has managed to emigrate and the best way to do it. While thousands await placement as refugees in the US under a special visa program, tens of thousands of others simply make their way to Turkey to apply for refugee status.
"Iraq is gone. There is nothing left here," says a hotel worker who once worked for an American company and has applied to immigrate to the US. At Baghdad Airport, an older woman unsure of how to board a plane says she is going to Britain to live with her daughter.
Iraq's Christian community has been hit particularly hard. Canon Andrew White, who has served the Anglican community at St. George's Church in Baghdad since before the war, says more than 1,000 of his parishioners have been killed in the past five years. Two years ago, Christians were being specifically targeted. Now, says Mr. White, "they're killing everybody."
In the space of a decade, corruption has become endemic, from bribes demanded for routine government paperwork to kickbacks on multibillion-dollar arms deals. Students even routinely buy university degrees.
In Basra, in the south, trash chokes the canals of the once-elegant city. The teeming neighborhoods neglected by Hussein in punishment for the Shiite uprising after his defeat in Kuwait are as poor as they've ever been.
"I want Western countries to know that this is the capital of Iraqi oil, but we have nothing – no electricity, not even clean water," says Qasim Qasid, a hotel reservations manager. (With typical Iraqi hospitality, he insists on driving a guest himself to the market to buy a phone charger.)
In Basra's main commercial section, Jazair, new shops have opened up around potholed streets with no sidewalks. At the nearby Port of Umm Qasr, a Turkish ship that arrived on a temporary contract three years ago still generates the electricity for the national grid that Iraq's outdated power stations can't provide.
Amid all the hardship, Iraqis have proved remarkably resilient. On a recent day in Baghdad, students expecting to graduate from college later in the spring pulled up to a social club in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour to celebrate. Young women dressed in slinky evening gowns and high heels went in to listen to a live band. Some of the students' cars were festooned with flowers and giant graduation caps.
Mansour has been undergoing a revival – a gleaming new mall welcomes shoppers to three floors of imported goods plus a multiscreen cinema. A Lebanese restaurant recently opened on one of the main streets and is doing a brisk business. Although Iraq is still undertaking multibillion-dollar repairs to its electrical grid, Baghdad residents for the past few weeks have enjoyed almost 24-hour electricity.
In February, Iraq's oil production surged to its highest level in 30 years, though little of the wealth trickles down or translates in public services. Rises in government salaries have improved living standards for many Iraqis, but they have also widened the gap between rich and poor. In the upscale neighborhood of Jadriya, a sign for the "Barbie clinic" on a bright pink metal-clad building advertises laser hair removal and liposuction.
"There is an urban elite that is doing quite well, but because of the internal displacement that is continuing to occur in the country, many people have lost everything," says Marie-Hélène Bricknell, the World Bank's special representative to Iraq. "You have a growing number of people that are not seeing any improvement in the quality of life – in fact, there is a deterioration."
Many of those who remain in Iraq remember a country where all Iraqis once coexisted. They hope the country doesn't break apart. They just want it to return to some sense of normalcy.
In Baghdad, at the headquarters of Iraq's state-run television, Nermeen al-Mufti, an Iraqi journalist who covered the Iran-Iraq War, is working on the first government-funded Turkmen-language TV network. The network will feature programming aimed at retaining the culture of Iraq's third biggest ethnic community.
"We have no choice. We have to stay together," says Ms. Mufti. "This is a multicultural country. Our civilization was built on these differences. You can feel it is not only an Arab culture, but it has a Turkmen flavor, Kurdish flavor, Yezidi flavor, Christian flavor, even the music – in one song you can have all these flavors. This is us."