A War No Longer on Autopilot: What if Iraq Unravels?

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Ali Yussef / AFP / Getty

Iraqi police officers arrest a local man during their patrol in the Hurran Valley near the town of Haditha

The signature shift in President Barack Obama's handling of the wars he inherited from the Bush Administration has been to reverse their order of priority. The campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has eclipsed the stabilization of Iraq in Washington's focus, which is hardly surprising given the trend lines in the two wars. While Afghanistan and Pakistan have been sharply deteriorating, the assumption has been that Iraq is on course to a more or less acceptable outcome.

However, in recent weeks, insurgents in Iraq have begun to challenge their relegation in the order of U.S. strategic priorities by unleashing a wave of violence reminiscent of darker times. Some 365 people were killed in political violence during April — most in bombings directed at Shi'ite communities — making it the most violent month in a year. Although there's no sign yet that these provocations will rekindle the sectarian civil war, they underscore the fragility of the security gains that have accompanied the troop surge that began in 2007, and potentially cast a shadow over the agreed timetable for U.S. withdrawal that envisages taking U.S. soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities this summer. A spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday emphatically ruled out any extension of the redeployment and withdrawal deadlines set out in last December's Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. (See pictures of post-surge life in Baghdad.)

The renewed violence has accompanied the unraveling of a vital component of the success of the surge strategy: the Sunni Awakening movement, also known by the U.S. military as the Sons of Iraq. That movement brought some 100,000 local Sunni men in towns and neighborhoods across Iraq onto the U.S. payroll, which backed them in a campaign to drive al-Qaeda out of many of Iraq's Sunni locales. Many of these Awakening fighters had previously been Sunni insurgents fighting the U.S. — and many of them had been part of the support base of Saddam Hussein's regime — but they were happy to make common cause against a mutual foe. But many of the Awakening leaders remained suspicious of the Shi'ite-dominated government of al-Maliki, and the feeling was mutual, and then some.

The limits of the Awakening strategy have become clear since last month, when the U.S. transferred responsibility for paying the fighters' salaries to the Iraqi government, which had agreed to integrate some of them into the Iraqi security forces and help integrate the rest into the Iraqi economy. But payments to the Sunni militiamen have dried up, and only 5,000 have been incorporated into the security forces. If bringing the Sunni insurgents onto the U.S. payroll undid some of the damage done by the Bush Administration's 2003 decision to summarily disband Saddam's army, reversing that decision appears to run some of the same risks. Numerous reports out of Iraq suggest that growing numbers of Awakening fighters have abandoned their posts, and that at least some have returned to the insurgent fold.

Tensions have been exacerbated by the al-Maliki government's sending troops to arrest some key Awakening leaders. U.S. forces had to intervene to assist their Iraqi counterparts when the arrest of Baghdad Awakening leader Adil al-Mashhadani — accused by the government of attempting to revive the Baath Party — sparked a protracted firefight. At the same time, Washington's efforts to promote reconciliation between the new government and the Sunni community, in which Saddam's Baath Party enjoyed significant loyalty, have produced little by way of concrete results. Instead, al-Maliki appears to be strengthening his own regime and acting to weaken and disorganize an Awakening movement he appears to regard as a potential threat.

As was the case under Saddam, the majority of Iraqis who have jobs are employed by the state, and the ability to dispense the power of patronage has helped al-Maliki secure the loyalty of key elements of the security forces and intelligence services — the critical foundation of any Arab strongman regime. Even if he were tempted to follow the U.S. strategy of buying off the Sunni insurgency, however (and right now he appears more inclined to demonstrate to them that they have been defeated), al-Maliki has a problem. Oil accounts for more than 80% of Iraq's revenues, and the fact that the global oil price has fallen by some two-thirds over the past year has punched a gaping hole in the country's budget. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh noted in London on Friday that Iraq had just last month been forced to trim its national budget from about $80 billlion to about $60 billion, and even $20 billion of that lower figure was deficit spending. Iraq's economic pie is shrinking, and the sectarian and even intra-Shi'ite political competition over how it is sliced is likely to intensify sharply, at the expense of Iraq's overall security. The Arab-Kurdish tension over Kirkuk and its oil wealth adds another dimension to the same problem.

The Obama Administration may have hoped that the Bush Administration's surge left Iraq on autopilot toward an acceptable outcome, but the power struggle underlying Iraq's sectarian political violence remains unresolved. Even as the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan expands, Washington may yet find its plans to shift resources there from Iraq tested by some nasty developments in Bush's war.