America's other war

While most in the US are focused on the war in Afghanistan, recent events should remind Barack Obama that the situation in Iraq remains extremely unstable.

Most news in the United States that touches the realm of foreign affairs these days focuses obsessively on what US President Barack Obama is going to do about Afghanistan, but this week there were a number of reminders that the war in Iraq remains unsettled. Elections that will be a critical test for the Iraqi government were once again thrown into question when the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, vetoed an election law that was cobbled together and passed by the parliament. One major problem with the law, according to al-Hashemi, was that it didn’t provide enough seats in government for refugees who have fled Iraq – many if not most of whom are Sunnis.

The law will now return to the parliament, where members will attempt to hash out yet another compromise. Despite government assurances that elections will take place as scheduled on January 21, it is increasingly likely that the vote will be delayed for several weeks, if not months. The problem is that no political reconciliation is going to be possible in the short term. Elections require an election law; an election law requires a power-sharing deal; and a power-sharing deal requires a belief by all parties that their interests can be served. Yet, the Iraqi parliament is a reflection of the ethnosectarian divisions that characterize the country – and it’s not just a three-way split between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. There are also major disagreements within the three factions. Getting to the current political agreement was an enormous battle, and finding a way to get the parliament to satisfy Sunni demands undoubtedly will involve another long, drawn-out battle.

Not only are the Sunnis uncomfortable with the agreement that has been hammered out, but it has become apparent that the Kurds of northern Iraq are also gathering steam to say that they aren’t getting the representation they want. With Sunnis and Kurds each in the minority, both groups have every incentive to use their considerable political leverage to cry foul on what they consider the tyranny of the majority Shiite coalition. In the meantime, the Iraqi election commission has said it is not making any preparations for the elections because it simply doesn’t know what the timeline will be.

The shaky political situation also impacts the US military withdrawal effort. There have been signs that violence is on the upswing, and this renewed challenge to political stability – in the form of a law forged through arduous negotiation – is not a positive sign.

The US surge in Iraq was not about using force to impose a military reality – it was about breaking the cycle of violence in order to set some foundations upon which political reconciliation might be built. Central to its success was the accommodation reached between US forces in Anbar province and the Sunni tribal leaders – an accommodation that took place even before the surge began. Those Sunnis broke with al Qaeda and other foreign jihadist elements in the hopes of integrating into the country’s formal security forces and the federal political process. But the Shia in Baghdad have continued to drag their feet on a political solution, and there are signs that Sunni support for al Qaeda and the Baath party is resurging – no doubt partly as a result of the political turmoil.

Seeking to downplay concerns about the weakening political environment, the US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said Wednesday that a delay for elections would be no challenge to Obama’s promise to withdraw "most” troops from Iraq by August 31, 2010, since the US military can wait until spring to adjust and readjust as necessary. In making this statement, Odierno effectively told the Iraqi parliament that they have until spring to figure out some sort of political solution.

But it not clear that a political solution will be forthcoming, or when – and in the meantime, the security situation likely will get steadily worse. So far, the Sunni insurgency that prompted the US surge has remained quiet; the Sunnis have waited to see if the political solution would work its magic. As the date for elections draws closer, however, the chance that this faction could revive its violent activities grows.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Obama’s administration has set about putting the Iraq war behind it, while focusing on finding a solution to the war in Afghanistan. The ability to do so was based on the continued stability of Iraq, achieved through the surge. However, the sustainability of the gains from the surge in Iraq – in terms of political consolidation and breaking the cycle of violence – is fragile and questionable. Delays in these critical elections are a reminder that the situation is far from settled.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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