Voice

Iraq and the Gulf on the rocks

 While it hasn't received much attention, Iraq's relations with two key Arab Gulf states have jumped the tracks over the last week.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has publicly declared that he has given up on trying to reconcile with the Saudis.  Meanwhile, Iraq and the Kuwaitis are in an increasingly nasty spat over the question of compensation claims dating back to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  It's gotten to the point that a majority of the members of the Iraqi Parliament are demanding that Kuwait pay compensation to Iraq for allowing U.S. troops to invade Iraq in 1991!    This is a time for American diplomacy to kick into high gear and try to prevent this from getting out of hand, since U.S. plans to withdraw from Iraq depend at least in part on establishing a sustainable regional security architecture. 

 First, the Saudis.  Tension between the Saudis and the Iraqi government is nothing new, of course.  The Saudis view the Iraqi government as Shia, sectarian, Iranian pawns (Maliki, the line goes, is guilty of "driving while Shia"), and few of their promises to improve relations -- opening an Embassy, forgiving debt, establishing cordial diplomatic ties -- have been fulfilled.  At the ill-fated Doha Summit, King Abdullah reportedly refused to even greet Maliki.  Many Iraqis, meanwhile, view the Saudis as "Wahhabis", supportive of the insurgency and fundamentally hostile to the new Iraq.  Late last week, Maliki publicly declared that "there will be no other initiatives on our part as long as there is no sign from Saudi Arabia that it wants to have good ties."  The Saudi media has had some angry responses,  but not much has happened beyond public recriminations.  

 Second, the Kuwaitis. The Iraqi government declared last week that it wanted to close the books on Saddam-era issues with Kuwait. This came as Kuwait has strongly resisted Iraqi efforts to be released from its Chapter Seven status with the United Nations, which imposes financial compensation and reparations for Saddam's invasion.  That opposition, combined with Kuwait's continuing -- and frankly absurd -- refusal to forgive Saddam-era debt, has driven relations to the boiling point.  Iraqis are actually demanding that Kuwait pay compensation for facilitating the 1991 U.S.  "invasion" of Iraq (one can only imagine where that precedent might lead when they start thinking about 2003).  And members of the Kuwaiti Parliament are demanding that their ambassador be withdrawn from Baghdad.

 The U.S. really needs to step in and try to dampen down these Iraqi-Gulf Arab pyrotechnics before they get out of hand.  Integrating Iraq into the Arab neighborhood is an important strategic objective, and these public recriminations could set back efforts there by years.  Two leading Saudi journalists -- the editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat and the director of al-Arabiya TV -- both wrote nearly identical articles today asking what the Arabs were ready to do to help the Obama administration of which they were asking so much. While they focus more on the Palestinian question (and they should help on that too) I'd say that shifting their approach to Iraq -- Kuwait forgiving debt and getting out of the way on the Chapter Seven status, Saudi Arabia establishing normal diplomatic relations -- would be a great place to start. 

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.