Current Situation: Iraq’s Long Recovery From the Civil War
The US troops pulled out of Iraq in December 2011, marking the last stage of transferring full state sovereignty back into the hands of Iraqi authorities. The oil production is booming, and foreign companies are scrambling for lucrative contracts.
However, political divisions, in combination with a weak state and high unemployment, make Iraq one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East. The country remains deeply scarred by the brutal civil war (2006-08) that has poisoned relations between Iraq’s religious communities for generations to come.
The central government in the capital Baghdad is now dominated by the Shiite Arab majority (about 60% of total pop.), and many Sunni Arabs – who formed the backbone of Saddam Hussein’s regime – feel marginalized.
Iraq’s Kurdish minority, on the other hand, enjoys a strong autonomy in the north of the country, with its own government and security forces. The Kurds are at odds with the central government over the division of oil profits and the final status of mixed Arab-Kurdish territories.
There is still no consensus on what the post-Saddam Iraq should look like. Most Kurds advocate a federal state (and many wouldn’t mind seceding from the Arabs altogether if given a chance), joined by some Sunnis who want autonomy from the Shiite-led central government. Many Shiite politicians living in oil-rich provinces could also live without the interference from Baghdad. On the other side of the debate are the nationalists, both Sunni and Shiites, who advocate a unified Iraq with a strong central government.
Al Qaeda-linked Sunni extremists continue with regular attacks against government targets and Shiites. The potential for economic development is huge, but violence remains endemic, and many Iraqis fear the return of civil war and a possible partition of the country.
1. Latest Developments: Sectarian Tension, Fear of Spillover from Syrian Civil War
The violence is spiking again. April 2013 was the deadliest month since 2008, marked with clashes between Sunni anti-government protesters and security forces, and bomb attacks against Shiites and government targets carried out by the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda organization. Protesters in Sunni areas of north-western Iraq have been holding daily rallies since late 2012, accusing the Shiite-led central government of discrimination.
The situation is aggravated by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Iraqi Sunnis are sympathetic to the (largely Sunni) Syrian rebels, while the government backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is also allied to Iran. The government fears that Syrian rebels could link with Sunni militants in Iraq, dragging the country back into civil conflict and possible partition along religious/ethnic lines.
2. Who is in Power in Iraq
- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki: Iraq’s central government is a dysfunctional coalition of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. Maliki, a Shiite, has emerged as the strongest politician in Iraq, a master tactician who enjoys close relations both with the US and Iran.
- Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG): While Kurdish leaders participate in the central state institutions in Baghdad – navigating between Sunnis and Shiites – they do as they please in their autonomous entity in the Kurdish north. The Barzanis and the Talabanis are the two most powerful Kurdish families. Their flourishing trade relationship with Turkey, despite the Kurdish issue in that country, shows that everything is possible in politics.
3. Iraqi Opposition
- Al Sadr Movement: In and out of government, the movement of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is Iraq’s answer to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. This Islamist group appeals to low-income Shiites with a network of charities. Its armed wing has fought against the government forces, rival Shiite groups, and against Sunni militias.
- Sunni tribal leaders: Sunni politicians in Baghdad have lost much of their credibility through association with the Maliki government. But traditional community leaders in Sunni areas have been at the centre of opposition to the Shiite-led government, and have backed the efforts to counter the influence of Al Qaeda extremists.
- Al Qaeda in Iraq: The so-called Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) is a deadly terrorist outfit that specializes in highly-lethal car bombings. ISI’s traditional base are small Sunni towns in the Anbar province, but its unofficial capital is now Mosul, Iraq's third largest city.