A Fresh Start for War Weary Iraq

Global Centre Stage

With Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now in charge, the key question is whether this is a major milestone in the search for peace and stability in Iraq, and whether other states can aid this process. It is a formidably difficult question to answer, writes Professor Paul Rogers, given the huge complexities of the multiple problems being faced by the government in Baghdad

The new Iraqi government now being formed by Haider al-Abadi replaces the previous attempt by Nouri al-Maliki following the inconclusive general election result last April. Most commentators were deeply critical of Maliki’s previous administration for failing to reach out to the Sunni minority in Iraq and ensure an inclusive government. Indeed, this is credited with turning many of the Sunni clans in northern Iraq away from Baghdad and towards the Islamic State (IS). Without that support, it is highly unlikely that IS would have made its remarkable progress across Iraq in August.

With Abadi now in charge, the key question is whether this is a major milestone in the search for peace and stability in Iraq, and whether other states can aid this process. It is a formidably difficult question to answer given the huge complexities of the multiple problems being faced by the government in Baghdad, but there is also a consensus that if Maliki had not been replaced, the prospects for the country and the region would have been very much worse.

A Formidable Undertaking

By the end of September, there had been well over 200 attacks by US warplanes on IS units in Iraq, with the French contributing a small force by the end of the month. The war then extended into the IS heartland around the city of Raqqa, with the first night of airstrikes, on September 22-23, using as much ordnance as all the seven weeks of strikes in Iraq. This time, the US was joined by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, although the vast majority of actions were undertaken using US strike aircraft and sea-launched cruise missiles.

Senior US military commanders are now admitting that a long war is in prospect, stretching over years rather than months, and that a core element of this war will be re-modelling the Iraqi Army so that it can defeat IS and evict its foreign fighters. Given the abject failure of the Army to prevent the rapid advances of the IS paramilitaries in August, this will be a formidable undertaking.

Positive Elements

What, then, are the prospects for Iraq and will the Abadi administration be able to deliver the changed leadership that is so desperately needed? In spite of all the problems, there are three elements that are relatively positive. One is usually forgotten and this is that Iraq is potentially a singularly wealthy country. It has around nine percent of proved world oil reserves, much of it of high quality and easily extracted. Its oil industry needs serious investment and the location of oil fields in areas of high tension is a major problem, but Iraq does have serious long term economic potential if the current major problems can be overcome.

The second element is the attitude of the Rouhani administration in Iran. While markedly pro-Shi’a and also still supportive of the Assad regime in Syria, it also recognises all too well that a rampant and expanding Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is singularly bad news for Tehran. Rouhani will exercise extreme caution over the US decision to go into a full-scale war with IS and will express serious opposition in public, but within Iraq, the new Abadi administration can be assured of support from Tehran on the economic front and also in aiding internal defences against Islamic State paramilitaries.

The main difficulty is that there will be considerable tensions between Iran and the US as the latter builds up its forces in Iraq. The recent news that the Pentagon is about to move an Army Division Headquarters to Iraq is a clear indication of the view in Washington that the US presence in that country is going to grow substantially. There are close to 2,000 US troops already in the country, not including substantial number of Special Forces, but there are likely to be some thousands more by the end of the year.

The final positive element is that Abadi is forming a government with the clear intention of forming an inclusive administration which genuinely seeks to reach out to those substantial elements of the Sunni minority that are thoroughly marginalised, bitterly opposed to what they see as Shi’a dominance and often offering strong support to IS paramilitaries.

What is commonly forgotten in this regard is that IS has only been able to make its rapid advances across northern Iraq because of support from Ba’athist remnants from the Saddam Hussein era and from many Sunni clan groups. The former cannot readily be accommodated by Abadi, but the latter most certainly can. Without their support, the IS simply does not have the strength to hold on to the territory it currently holds, still less make further progress into Baghdad and central Iraq.

Possibilities and Problems

If we come to the specific issue of Abadi’s chance of evolving an inclusive regime, what are the problems and possibilities? As to problems, we have to add to the existing Sunni antagonism to government in Baghdad, the vexed issue of rampant corruption and maladministration that is endemic to Iraq, a problem made far worse by the Maliki government of recent years. This has had a particularly serious impact on the Army, where incompetent but loyal generals have replaced far more effective leaders. If Abadi is able to even begin the process of reversing this trend, the effect could be considerable and quite rapid.

War Ravaged Society Seeks Peace

As to specific possibilities, in addition to the varied support likely to come from neighbouring countries including Iran and Saudi Arabia - normally very strange bedfellows a key element is the sheer war weariness that is such a major feature of Iraqi society. This is a country that has been at war or in a state of deep insecurity for more than 30 years. It started with the bitter eight-year war with Iran from 1980, was followed swiftly by Desert Storm in 1990-91 and the consequent sanctions running right through to 2003. Then came regime termination followed by the rapid descent into occupation, resistance and internal inter-confessional conflict. Even after the Western withdrawal in 2011, internal violence continued, escalating rapidly to a point where the total internal death toll since 2003 now stands at 195,000. In addition to this, there has been massive displacement of people, both internally and to neighbouring countries.

Put all these together and we see a society in which a genuine move to greater peace and stability could have impacts far greater than most external analysts appreciate. This may be Abadi’s greatest asset – start the process of peacebuilding and support can grow rapidly.

There remains, though, the question of timescales. A feature of radical Islamist groups is that they may initially bring a rigid and imposed order out of chaos, and thereby have short-term support (witness the Taliban in mid-1990s Afghanistan), but then lose popularity as the brutality of their subsequent order becomes apparent. Unless it moderates its stance substantially, Islamic State will almost certainly find this in the supposed Caliphate it is establishing in Iraq and Syria. In other words, it may achieve short-term success, but in the longer term, its days are numbered.

Is Abadi Really in Control?

This will not happen quickly and herein lies the core problem for Abadi. Does he seek to engineer an inclusive government in Baghdad while avoiding participation in a frontal multinational assault on IS, or does he go along with the clear US intention to go for the heart of the group immediately? He may actually have little say in this, which means that the future prospects for Iraq, at least in the short term, lie more in Washington and among its Western allies than in Baghdad.

Thirteen years ago, the Bush administration responded to the 9/11 atrocities with immediate regime termination in Kabul. It seemed to work well and Bush used his January 2002 State of the Union Address to enlarge the war to encompass an ‘axis of evil’, starting with Iraq. That, too, went well, with the Saddam Hussein regime gone in three weeks flat and Bush able to deliver his Mission Accomplished speech shortly afterwards.

In practice, though, Afghanistan morphed into a long and bitter war which continues, and the eight-year war in Iraq is now entering a new and singularly violent phase. There is every prospect that Islamic State positively welcomes the US-led attacks and looks forward to a long and bloody war, presenting itself as the vanguard in the defence of Islam in the face of a ‘far enemy’ that has already attacked Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Even if that far enemy is supported by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain, these are merely the ‘near enemy’ in the region, the unacceptable leaderships locked into an undying embrace with the West.

In short, the real problem that Abadi has to contend with is that he is simply not in control of the wider regional conflict and however much he seeks inclusive governance in Iraq, the course of the conflict with the Islamic State will be decided elsewhere. For now, it is Obama calling the shots a previously progressive president now entertaining a far more forceful approach. In the short-term that may deliver results, but may well prove as futile as Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Abadi may work hard to help repair the damage of the last war, but his influence over the future of the country is, at least for now, regrettably limited.

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Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers is professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. He is a consultant to Oxford Research Group, an independent UK think tank, writes on international security issues for www.opendemocracy.net/ and is a frequent broadcaster. The most recent of his 26 books is the third edition of Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press 2010).

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