March 19th marks the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iraq has largely fallen off the United States foreign policy agenda since U.S. troops left the country at the end of 2011. Meanwhile, Washington has embraced a passive “one-Iraq” policy that derives its name from its emphasis on the importance of keeping Iraq unified – as a single country – and managing its ethno-sectarian fault lines through its Constitution.
U.S. policymakers resigned themselves to watching from the sidelines as Prime Minister al-Maliki consolidated power, silenced his rivals, and undermined Iraq’s nascent democracy. After sacrificing 4,500 American lives and an estimated $800 billion in Iraq, it is disappointing that U.S. policy is driven by the belief that the country will continue muddling through—and that muddling through is good enough.
The time has come for the Obama Administration to recalibrate its approach. The U.S. must actively help its friend and ally navigate a consuming governance crisis. It must focus on rolling back the Prime Minister’s monopolization of power in Baghdad, which is rapidly pulling the country apart. As it stands today, al-Maliki is using his government’s leverage over the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to back the Kurds into a corner. This will only lead to one outcome: conflict and the fragmentation of Iraq.
Instead of deploying its limited political capital to criticize the burgeoning KRG-Turkey energy partnership, the U.S. should instead support it and actively promote a strong, economically confident Kurdistan. Backing the KRG’s quest to export oil and gas to Turkey will enable it to stand up to al-Maliki, diminish his leverage, and thereby force him to negotiate a resolution to Iraq’s political crisis. Turkey has already embraced the need for an economically-strong KRG that can check al-Maliki. The U.S. would be wise to join its NATO ally in supporting the Kurds’ opportunity for prosperity.
The days when the U.S. could drive outcomes in Iraq are long gone, but the U.S. retains enough influence that, if deployed wisely, can help give power sharing among Iraq’s key political blocs a fighting chance. As partners, Turkey and the U.S. can implement a reinvigorated—and balanced—“one-Iraq” policy 2.0 that strengthens the country, instead of unintentionally promoting is fragmentation.
At the root of Iraq’s political crisis lies its increasingly powerful Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. After securing a second term in the 2010 parliamentary elections, al-Maliki began to monopolize power and erode safeguards enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution (that balances power among branches of government and the central government and provinces). He abrogated the power sharing agreements with opposition political blocs that secured his second term, targeted opposition politicians with arrest, assumed personal control over Iraq’s security apparatus, and brought the independent Central Bank and Media Commission within the Premier’s office. These actions, coupled with his aggressive use of anti-terrorism laws and De-Baathification (the process to screen and remove senior officials complicit in the worst abuses of the Saddam Hussein regime from government) to sack sitting officials, disqualify candidates from running for office, and imprison large numbers of Sunnis without charge, prompted widespread protests in Sunni-majority provinces that – as of writing — continue.
The Kurds have become convinced that al-Maliki is a dictator-in-the-making who seeks to oppress them, just as previous governments did. They fear that Baghdad will cripple the KRG by cutting it off from the federal budget and possibly even deploy the Iraqi Army against the KRG. The 2013 Iraqi federal budget was approved by Parliament on March 7, 2013 and did not reduce the KRG’s share (17%). But it did give al-Maliki power to attempt to withhold payments to the KRG, prompting the KRG to recall its Parliamentary delegation for consultations in protest.