Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War. Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Eighteen days of protests in Egypt in 2011 electrified the world. But more than twice that many
days of protest in Iraq
have gone almost unnoticed in the United States. Iraqi army troops
killed five Sunni protesters in Fallujah
on Jan. 25, after a month of anti-government
Salahuddin provinces and elsewhere for which thousands turned out. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are re-mobilizing. Iraq teeters on the brink of renewed insurgency and, potentially, civil war.
This crisis matters for America. U.S. vital interests that have been undermined over the past year include preventing Iraq from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda and destabilizing the region by becoming a security vacuum or a dictatorship that inflames sectarian civil war; containing Iranian influence in the region; and ensuring the free flow of oil to the global market.
While tensions have risen over the past two years, the triggers for recent eruptions are clear. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, who is Sunni, arrested for alleged terrorist activities on Dec. 20 — almost exactly one year after he ordered the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi’s security detail. Hashimi fled to Turkey and is unlikely to return soon to Iraq, where he was sentenced to death after Maliki demanded his trial in absentia for murder and financing terrorism.
The threat to Issawi, a moderate technocrat from Anbar, galvanized Iraqi Sunnis, who rightly saw Maliki’s move as sectarian and an assault on government participation by Sunnis not under the prime minister’s thumb. Three days after the arrests, demonstrations broke out in Ramadi, Fallujah and Samarra. Three days after that, a large protest closed the highway from Baghdad to Syria and Jordan. The popular resistance spread to Mosul on Dec. 27.
These protests erupted during a constitutional crisis and as an expanding Arab-Kurd conflict has become increasingly militarized. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was incapacitated by a stroke on Dec. 17 and has been out of the countryfor treatment. Iraq’s constitution specifies a line of succession — but with one vice president in exile and the other a Shiite and obvious Maliki proxy, Iraq has been, in effect, operating without a president. Political processes that require presidential involvement have been paralyzed, including moving forward with long-standing efforts by Sunnis and Kurds to hold a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in Maliki.
Talabani had been the critical link holding Baghdad and Kurdistan together since tensions rose following a 10-day standoff between Iraqi army units and Kurdish pesh merga troops in October, after Maliki sent the army toward the disputed city of Kirkuk. That move followed a series of skirmishes and mobilizations along the “Green Line” separating Kurdistan from Arab Iraq and a series of attacks in the area by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The recent protests underscore the collapse of the inclusive political accommodation reached in 2007, which had been reconfirmed by the formation of a grand Sunni-Shiite-Kurd coalition government after parliamentary elections in 2010. By November 2012, Maliki had evolved to openly discussing his intention to form a “majoritarian government” that would exclude the most important Sunni representatives. In mid-December he participated in creating a Shiite grand alliance as the launching pad for that government. The principal Sunni political leaders, including Issawi, parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifiand Anbari tribal leader Ahmed abu Rishaannounced their intention to form their own coalition. In short, Iraqi politics was re-fragmenting along sectarian and ethnic lines even before the protests began.