Jun 27, 2006 | 22:00 GMT

12 mins read

Iraq's Next Issue

By George Friedman Two weeks ago, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and the Iraqi Cabinet was formed. Last week, the U.S. Congress debated whether to set a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq or to require that forces begin withdrawing, even without a timetable. Both resolutions were defeated — the first overwhelmingly, the second with a substantial majority. Then, over this past weekend, the White House began to leak top-secret discussions involving Gen. George Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq. The secret was that the United States had decided not to replace two brigades that are returning to the United States in September and to substantially cut U.S. combat power in Iraq by the end of 2007, although the fate of U.S. support troops in Iraq was left open. The key difference between political factions (the Democrats were not united on either resolution) in the United States is no longer whether U.S. forces will leave Iraq. The issue is whether there will be a public, inflexible timetable for that withdrawal, or whether the timing and magnitude of the withdrawal will remain a secret, subject to changing political and military realities. This is obviously not a trivial distinction. The second option leaves the Bush administration free to execute policy as it will, while leaving other players in and around Iraq uncertain as to what the United States will do. Nevertheless, it indicates that there is now consensus that it is time to draw down U.S. combat power in Iraq — and that is not trivial either. We now have the question of the circumstances under which the United States would accelerate or slow the withdrawal of forces. Casey mentioned several, but the most important consideration would be whether the Sunni insurgency spreads beyond the six Sunni provinces. Given the fact that the Sunni insurgency has not spread beyond these provinces for three years, it seems odd that Casey would have mentioned this as a key variable. Why would the Sunni insurrection spread now, when Sunni-Shiite tensions are as great as they are? The Shia are hardly going to simply join forces with the Sunnis. Casey obviously knows the factors off which he would key withdrawals, and he is quite reasonably focused on the Shiite areas — though not because he is concerned about the Sunni insurrection catching on in Shiite country. Let us review what has happened, from STRATFOR's point of view. First, last December, the Sunni leadership decided to participate in the electoral process. The leadership did not abandon or undercut the insurgency, but rather used it as a tool for improving its political leverage. This process continued until a coalition Cabinet was formed, with all positions filled save the most important: the ministries of interior, national security and defense. The final formation of the Cabinet — and the appointment of a Sunni as defense minister — was delayed, pending a Sunni demonstration of good faith. There could be no meaningful Iraqi government if the Sunni politicians could not or would not shut down the insurgency. But, 40 minutes after al-Zarqawi's death was announced, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also announced the final formation of a Cabinet, with a Sunni defense minister. The political deal was made. This disrupted but did not, by itself, shut down al Qaeda's operations, nor did violence by nonjihadist factions cease. What did happen was that the Sunnis demonstrated their willingness and ability to provide intelligence that destroyed the man the Shia hated and feared the most. It was a down-payment by the Sunnis. That meant it was the Shia's turn to reciprocate. Specifically, the Sunnis — and the Americans — expected the Shia at that point to start bringing their various armed militias under control, particularly those that had been striking at Sunnis in retaliation for al-Zarqawi's attacks. The question shifted from one of Sunni intentions to one of Shiite intentions. This turn of events also precipitated a crisis in the Shiite community. Fighting among Shia, which had been simmering since the formation of the partial Cabinet (before al-Zarqawi's death), now broke out in the open. From Basra to Baghdad, Shiite factions clashed over a number of issues involving a range of groups. Behind the disparate clashes there were two questions. First, would the Shia actually accept a strong central government, controlled by a coalition that included Sunnis and Kurds? Second, if this actually was happening, what would be the power structure within the Shiite community? If there was going to be a government, then the final arrangements within the Shiite community were urgent. The bus was leaving, and everyone was scrambling for the best seats. The Shiite Factions Though there are many disagreements and fault lines within the Shiite community, the primary Shiite power struggle is between two factions. The dominant faction consists of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its ally, Hizb al-Dawah. The other faction is al-Fadhila, which is the fourth-largest party within the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance coalition, but the dominant party in the Basra region. The Basra region is critical to the Shia — it is where the oil is. Embedded in all of the political arguments is a fundamental question: Who in Iraq will control the southern oil fields and, therefore, the royalties from those fields and the investments that are sure to pour in if some degree of stability is reached? If the Baghdad government gets the money, then the Shia as a community would benefit only to the extent that Baghdad redirects money toward them. That would mean that Sunnis would get a cut; it also would mean that politicians in Baghdad, not at the regional level, would control oil revenues and investment. If the oil were controlled by a regional Shiite government, as SCIRI leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim has suggested, then the mainstream Shiite leaders grouped around SCIRI would control the oil. And under either of these scenarios, the local Basra politicians, grouped around al-Fadhila, would get little or nothing. So long as the prospect of an Iraqi government remained an abstract theory, there was no urgency to settle these questions. But as the Cabinet started to become a reality, the tension rose. When al-Zarqawi was killed and the Cabinet was fully formed, the question of who controlled the southern oil fields became absolutely urgent. Al-Fadhila was not fighting to control the fields, but for guarantees that it would be permitted a seat at the table. It needed to make clear that, without those guarantees, it was prepared to resist. Therefore, Shia fought Shia in Basra. This struggle provided an opening for another Shiite faction. Muqtada al-Sadr, whose name will be recalled from previous battles with the Shiite mainstream in An Najaf and other cities, saw events in Basra as an opportunity to reassert his claims. Al-Sadr wants to position himself as the true leader of the Shiite community; thus, SCIRI's militia (known as the Badr Brigades) and al-Sadr's forces (the Mehdi Army) clashed in Baghdad. In point of fact, the emerging coalition government represents a threat to al-Sadr's long-term survival. If it locks into place, he will lose his room for maneuver, his claim to power and probably, in the long run, his life. If the Shiite leadership delivers what it must in return for al-Zarqawi's head, it must integrate — and dissolve — all militias. Al-Sadr knows this means the Badr Brigades would be integrated into the Iraqi army as distinct units, while the Mehdi Army could be dispersed and even disarmed. Therefore, he views the kind of settlement being contemplated as a threat to his fundamental interests. He had no choice but to roll the dice and — given events in Basra — he hoped, and apparently still hopes, that he can at least negotiate a deal to keep the Mehdi Army intact. Tehran's Perspective This brings us to the Iranians. They have deep influence among the Shia in Iraq — but not enough to control their behavior. They do have enough to block any deal that Tehran does not want to see come about. The influence of the Iranians does not lie primarily with what we might call the dissident forces. The Iranians actually are more influential with SCIRI and mainstream Iraqi Shia who have been at the forefront of the political process. Clearly, whatever Iran's rhetoric has been, the leadership in Tehran has not been averse to allowing the process to get this far. There is a core point of friction between the Iraqi Shia and Iran: oil. There is no question but that the Iranians are thoughtfully contemplating the Basra oil fields. They are valuable as they stand, but will be even more valuable once fully developed. They would make an attractive addition to Iran's holdings. To achieve this, Iran does not have to annex the fields. Rather, Iranian business leaders, all of whom have close ties to Iran's political and religious leaders, would simply have to be in a dominant position to manage that development. While Iran constantly bluffs about an oil cutoff that would wreck Iran's economy, it is far more interested in the future of the Basra oil fields. When viewed from this angle, we can understand why the Iranians have not blocked the political developments in Baghdad. A strong government in Baghdad, dominated by SCIRI, would be the most likely to give primary consideration to Iranian interests in operating the Basra fields. Second, a strong government in Baghdad, dominated by Shia, is in the interests of Iranian national security, since it would guarantee Iran's western frontiers. Iran cannot achieve this second goal if Iraq fragments, nor does Tehran want to deal with local interests in Basra. Shortly after al-Zarqawi was killed, SCIRI's al-Hakim was in Tehran, talking things over. Though there might be adjustments in the degree of regional autonomy — read, regionally held oil revenues — over time, there is no indication that al-Hakim or the Iranians have rejected the basic architecture laid out by the government. From the standpoint of the Basra leadership and al-Sadr, they needed to act — and quickly — if they were not to be completely squeezed out of the play. The death of al-Zarqawi signaled that the political process was going to move forward, and that they should either act now or forever hold their peace. Therefore, they acted. At the very least — and most — they hope to guarantee their financial and political futures by posing a challenge sufficiently grave as to undermine Sunni-Shiite understandings. In short, they are holding the political arrangements hostage. The tendency among Iraqi Shia is to make menacing moves and loud noises while conducting quiet and effective negotiations, particularly when dealing with each other. What appears to be catastrophic breakdown in the Shiite community essentially is positioning in a complex bargaining process. But the fact is that SCIRI holds most of the cards, including the largest Iranian one. Unless SCIRI breaks with the political process, it will hold. And at some point, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani will step forward and dictate the terms to which all of the participants have already agreed. Back to the Future This, then, was what Casey was talking about. Unless there is insurgency — read as a Shiite rising against Shia — in the south, the United States will implement its withdrawal. It is our bet that the Shia will, in due course, reach a political conclusion, sufficient to bring the militias currently operating against the Sunnis to a cease-fire. Following this, the Sunnis will extend their own stand-down, and so on, in a very sloppy and murderous process. At the end of May, we wrote that either we would see a break point by July 4, or that the situation would be unmanageable. We believe al-Zarqawi's death was that break point, and that his death posed a problem to the Shia that they had not fully expected to face. We are in the midst of that crisis. It is our view that the crisis is serious, but that — given the alignment of forces — the mainstream Shiite parties will impose their will. We also believe that the Iranians are more disposed to this outcome than any other, for reasons of both national security and economics. It therefore makes sense that Casey leaked the drawdown of two brigades by September, and hinted against deeper cuts if the situation warrants. Neither the jihadists nor the dissident Shia are in a position to block the political process, although each will do its utmost to make it appear that the process has fallen apart. Their goal will be to create an impression of collapse, despite their inability to bring about actual collapse. The Iranians remain the wild card. They are, as always, keeping their options open. They have a fundamental disagreement with the United States over the long term: They do not want a residual American strike force remaining in Iraq. This is something the Americans have always planned for and want. The Iranians are betting that the Americans will tire and go home; the Americans are betting that the Iranians will not notice when the drawdown ends. This is not a trivial issue for either. At the same time, it is our guess (but not certainty) that neither side cares enough about the issue, or doubts its ability to deal with it in due course, to wreck the political process in Baghdad. The Americans do not want to occupy a chaotic Iraq, and Iran does not want chaos on its western frontier. At this point, we feel we are on the course laid out in "Break Point."

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