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Iraq Needs a New Compact

Iraqi Kurdistan Coup

BAGHDAD, IRAQ—Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s mercurial powerbroker, announced his retirement from politics as political gridlock in Iraq continues. Soon after the announcement, Sadr’s supporters stormed Baghdad’s Republican Palace. The Iraqi government now uses the palace, which once housed the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, for diplomatic meetings and receptions. The prime minister maintains his working offices elsewhere.

The Forces Tearing Apart Iraq

Iraqis across the political spectrum saw this crisis coming, and even as most Iraqis dread it, some political leaders believe a political crisis works to their advantage. The White House and U.S. State Department are naïve if they see Muqtada al-Sadr as a hedge against Iran simply because of his enmity toward pro-Iran power brokers such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Badr Corps leader Hadi Ameri. Sadr’s beef with Iran is not ideological, but rather a matter of power. Sadr does not oppose Iran’s system of velayat-e faqih; he simply wants to be the wali al-faqih (guardian of the jurist), Iraq’s own supreme leader. His so-called resignation from politics mirrors Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s positioning immediately prior to the Islamic Revolution, when he repeatedly insisted he had no interest in personal power and wanted to remain outside the system.

Rumors swirl that Ammar al-Hakim, a member of the opposing Coordination Framework, has told followers that he could tolerate 2,000 – 3,000 casualties in any coming conflict. If true, this is highly irresponsible and an invitation to a Lebanon-style civil war in Iraq. Regardless, while Iraqi political factions quietly coordinate demonstrations across Baghdad to avoid violence, all it takes is a single dispute over a parking space, or an errant rock hitting a child, to set off a chain of events that could spin out of control.

Sadr and Hakim are not the only figures whose actions reflect poorly on themselves. Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party assumes that he and the Kurdistan region his sons oversee will benefit from chaos in Baghdad. He is wrong. Kurds will never be safe unless Baghdad is democratic and secure. Maliki, meanwhile, believes that he can win a war of attrition and wear down his competitors to maximize his own power. Surrounded by sycophants, he has no clue how Iraq’s religious leaders – let alone the Iraqi public – see him: as a corrupt, egotistical has-been.

As these players jockey for power, the Parliament’s failure to nominate and ratify a new government has paralyzed Iraq’s economy. The government legally can neither pass a new budget nor escape spending restrictions set when oil hovered around $45 per barrel. Iran-backed militias have thrived amid these circumstances. In practice, interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has done little to stop their expansion, and he may even have provided them cover in exchange for quiet. 

Corruption, meanwhile, spins out of control. The stink of impropriety surrounds not only figures like Maliki, but also U.S. allies. For much of the past year, oil has hovered near record-high prices. Temperatures have regularly exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit this summer, and yet Iraqis still lack reliable electricity. Anger is palpable. Almost half of Iraq’s public was born after the 2003 war. They accept no excuses from the political class about what preceded them.

What Will Work and What Will Not

New elections are not the answer. Factional allocations may change along the margins, but they will not change the dynamics of a system that has now failed. If there is any consensus now in Iraq, it is that Iraq needs a new constitution.

Nor is strongman rule the answer. Saddam nostalgia may be strong in some quarters, both in Baghdad and in Washington, but Iraq under Saddam was never strong, and Iraqi Kurdistan was in a perpetual state of civil war through much of the period. In the years prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam’s forces may have controlled the south during the day, but they did not control the countryside or alleyways at night. 

There is a silver lining in that most Iraqi leaders – Sadr being the exception – understand they cannot dominate. Hadi Ameri and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s Qais Khazali recognize they can never impose their Shiite religious conservatism upon Kurds or Al Anbar’s Sunni population. Nearly two decades of democracy have rewired society’s expectations. 

A New Order is Needed

So what are Iraqis discussing?

There is no consensus on a solution to the political crisis, but the idea of a presidential system is becoming popular. This would mean an empowered president, likely Shiite because of Iraq’s demographics, who would control the government. Because fear of dictatorship persists, Iraqis discuss greater decentralization of power. Here, the French or Canadian systems may provide models. One easier reform would be direct election of governors, with powers devolved away from the national level to the local provinces. Ahmad Chalabi, so often maligned – sometimes fairly, sometimes less so – once proposed creating an Alaska model for Iraqi oil revenue, with proceeds deposited into individual accounts for every Iraqi citizen. This idea is experiencing a revival among financial experts, both as a system to counter looting of the treasury and as a way to enable the state to reduce the size of government, whose salaries now cost $60 billion annually, without creating further civil unrest. 

One elephant in the room is the persistent dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. The sense in Baghdad is that the Kurds can no longer have their cake and embezzle it too: If they want to be part of the system, they can have a share of Baghdad’s oil, but if they do not, then they should gain greater autonomy but lose the subsidies Baghdad provides. Frankly, Barzani’s dreams aside, the Kurds cannot afford to maintain their standard of life alone. They face a choice: They can be Dubai, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

A rehashed order would also likely require some sort of federal arrangement for predominantly Sunni regions and other areas. The fact that Ramadi and Fallujah have undergone a renaissance and now feel more like Erbil than Baghdad underscores this reality. A renewed order would not be a misguided and simplistic division of Iraq on ethno-sectarian grounds – that was never possible and would be a recipe for civil war – but such regions should expect privileges and responsibilities on par with the Kurdish region. Yezidis and Christians might also demand some sort of reconfigured administration for local autonomy.

What Should the U.S. Do?

None of this will be easy, but it may be necessary, and the mood is right in Iraq for change. Across several administrations, the U.S. Embassy, the broader State Department, the CIA, and the National Security Council have never been good at playing Iraqi politics. Those Washington overtly support either lose (Fuad Hussein), fail to deliver (Kadhimi), or betray (Maliki). The White House and State Department might best help Iraq now both by pushing a series of reforms and by asserting whole-of-government leverage on the Barzanis to end their malign influence.

Kadhimi’s greatest political legacy may also be rapprochement with many Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. While outsiders should not overtly interfere, these states can help constrain actors such as Sadr. Washington must also recognize that constraining Tehran will require more than empty words and diplomatic entreaties. Sometimes, diplomacy is about playing hardball, rather than deferring to Special Envoy Robert Malley’s worst instincts.

The United States is no longer an occupying power and should not act as one. To do so would be an affront to Iraqis. Further, the current crisis should humble those Americans who sought credit for helping draft Iraq’s Constitution.

Constitutional revisions, or a package of reforms and amendments, might be difficult to achieve. While a lack of consensus, as well as interference from Iran, Turkey, and even Russia, might undermine a full constitutional convention, the United States can do much to cajole Iraqis. Authentic influencers like Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf will not coordinate with the United States, and may not chime in on the specifics of politics, they do consistently favor representative, functional, and fair governance. Given Sistani’s age, there is no time to waste. 

There is no magic formula for Iraq. Even amid today’s crisis, Iraqi factions debate and argue rather than shoot and assassinate. Still, the status quo has run its course, and Iraqis need to reset their system. After a decade of the United States largely ignoring Iraq, or putting it on the diplomatic backburner, it is time to re-engage in a serious way and recognize that the United States has both moral and strategic reasons to prevent Iraq’s failure. 

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).