CRS – Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

by Sabrina I. Pacifici on December 24, 2013

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights, Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs. December 17, 2013

“Two years after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, sectarian divisions and the Sunni-led uprising in neighboring Syria have fueled a revival of radical Islamist Sunni Muslim insurgent groups that are attempting to undermine Iraq’s stability. Iraq’s Sunni Arab Muslims increasingly resent the Shiite political domination and perceived discrimination by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Iraq’s Kurds are embroiled in separate political disputes with the Baghdad government over territorial, political, and economic issues. The rifts delayed some provincial elections during April-June 2013 and could affect the timing and viability of national elections for a new parliament and government set for April 30, 2014. Maliki is widely expected to seek to retain his post after that vote. The violent component of Sunni unrest is spearheaded by the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq, now also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group is conducting attacks against Shiite neighborhoods, Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members, and Sunni supporters  of Maliki with increasing frequency and lethality. It also reportedly is increasingly in control of  territory in remote areas of overwhelmingly Sunni-inhabited provinces. To date, the 800,000-person ISF has countered the escalating violence without outside assistance. However, the  violence has killed nearly 8,000 Iraqis in 2013—more than double the figure for all of 2012. And there are a growing number of reports that some Shiite militias have reactivated to retaliate for  violence against Shiites. U.S. forces left in December 2011 in line with a November 2008 bilateral U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. Iraq refused to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, seeking to put behind it the  period of U.S. political and military control, and U.S. influence over Iraq has apparently ebbed since. Program components of what were to be enduring, close security relation—extensive U.S.  training for Iraq’s security forces through an Office of Security Cooperation—Iraq (OSC-I) and a State Department police development program—languished during 2011-2013. However, Iraq continued to press to acquire sophisticated U.S. equipment such as F-16 combat aircraft, air defense equipment, and attack helicopters. During his visit to Washington, D.C. on October 29-November 1, 2013, Maliki pressed for accelerated U.S. arms sales as part of an expansion of U.S.-Iraq security cooperation to help Iraq deal with the growing violence. U.S. officials say they agree that AQ-I/ISIS is a threat to Iraqi and regional security and have expressed inclination to increase cooperation with the Maliki government against the group—although withou enabling Maliki to use the cooperation against non-violent opponents. The Administration and Congress seek to continue to cultivate Iraq as an ally in part to prevent Iraq from falling under the sway of Iran, with which the Maliki government has built close relations. Fearing that a change of regime in Syria will further embolden the Iraqi Sunni opposition, Maliki has not joined U.S. and other Arab state calls for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to leave office and Iraq has not consistently sought to prevent Iranian overflights of arms deliveries to Syria. Still, the legacy of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Arab and Persian differences, Iraq’s efforts to reestablish its place in the Arab world, and Maliki’s need to work with senior Iraqi Sunnis limit Iranian influence over the Baghdad government. Iraq took a large step toward returning to the Arab fold by hosting an Arab League summit on March 27-29, 2012, and has substantially repaired relations with Kuwait, the state that Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990. In June 2013, the relationship with Kuwait helped Iraq emerge from most Saddam-era restrictions imposed under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.”

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