The Nightmare Scenario Facing Iraq – and the US

The Nightmare Scenario Facing Iraq – and the US

© Ahmed Saad / Reuters

Just as the Iraqi government announced the beginning of the operations to liberate Mosul, the country’s second largest city, Iraq’s internal political turmoil threatens to reverse what has been achieved against ISIS.

The Iraqi army launched an offensive 12 days ago to capture a group of villages south of Mosul. The battle of Mosul is being led by the Iraqi army’s 15th and 16th divisions; both are newly formed and contain a majority of Shiite soldiers. While Sunni tribes, Kurdish forces and U.S. airstrikes are supporting the effort, the outcome will be determined by the effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces. Results so far have been mixed, with reports of stiff resistance from ISIS.

Equally troubling is the growing political crisis in Baghdad.

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Since last summer, thousands of Iraqis have been demonstrating against government corruption and the lack of public services. Despite the fact that Iraq made about $550 billion in oil sales between 2006 and 2014 under the leadership of the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the country is virtually bankrupt thanks to corruption, mismanagement and the collapse of oil prices. Iraq has no reliable armed forces to protect its people from terror groups and lacks basic services like electricity, clean water and a functioning healthcare system. The government struggles to pay its seven million employees and pensioners.

While the demonstrators who initially organized sit-ins in public squares across the country were mostly liberal or leftist seculars, their movement has been taken over in recent weeks by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr’s militia fought for years against U.S. troops and government forces in Iraq and was involved in the sectarian violence that raged in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Sadr fled to Iran in 2007, returned to Iraq in 2011 and is now fighting against ISIS. Sadr’s ministers have been a major part of every Iraqi government since 2005 and are as corrupt as the others.

Still, Sadr ordered a protest to force the government to implement much needed reforms—including the formation of a new government. There’s no doubt that Sadr wants a seat at that table again. 

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Last Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi presented 16 names of supposed technocrats to the parliament to fill his new cabinet. But many Kurds, Sunnis and even al-Abadi’s own party – controlled by former Prime Minister al-Maliki -- have expressed their doubts about the new government, indicating it is unlikely to be approved. This could lead to the renewal of Sadr’s protest.      

The weak al-Abadi has fired thousands of government officials, from vice presidents to army generals, but the deeply rooted corruption hasn’t been eradicated. Al-Abadi’s predecessor’s men are still in control of much of the country, and the other political parties are all involved in the corruption that is draining Iraq’s resources.

The power of both Sadr and al-Maliki is increasingly evident. Both have strong militias; both have enormous influence on the Iraqi army and police. Sadr has threatened to withdraw his support for al-Abadi if a new cabinet is not approved. If the al-Abadi government falls and Iraq is split between supporters of Sadr and al-Maliki, the country would face one of these three possible scenarios over the next few months:

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The Iranian revolution scenario: If the new technocrat government isn’t approved by the parliament and Sadr orders his men to break into the Green Zone and seize the government -- and if the Iraqi army allows that to take place -- Iraq could go down a path similar to the one that swept Iran during the revolution of 1979: a complete meltdown of the government and absolute control of the country by a radical Shiite cleric.

Several incidents indicate how influential Sadr is inside the ranks of the Iraqi army: The commander of the Iraqi army in Baghdad allowed the demonstrators to approach the Green Zone (and was fired for his decision). The commander of the Iraqi army units which guard the Green Zone was seen on camera kissing the hand of Sadr. (His troops were replaced by the units from the anti-terrorism forces that are Iraq’s only reliable force opposing ISIS.) The ministry of interior issued a strong warning against its staff, threatening them with execution in case they disobey their orders.    

At the same time, the difference between the leader of the Iranian revolution, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khomeini, and Sadr is immense. Al-Khomeini was in his late seventies when he ruled Iran, with long political experience and the highest degree of Shiite Islamic education. Sadr is far less experienced and knowledgeable. Moreover, al-Khomeini was popular enough to make anyone challenging him an act of political suicide. Sadr lacks that undivided support.  

This scenario would mean the end of every U.S. civilian and military presence and influence in Iraq for many years to come. It would be unacceptable to the U.S. after losing nearly 5,000 soldiers and non-military personnel in Iraq and spending nearly $6 trillion.

The massive U.S. embassy – the largest United States embassy in the world – would be closed and the nearly 5,000 servicemen and women in the country would go home. Iraq would be led by a man who is similar to the leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah in his enmity to the U.S., yet with no more experience than the leader of North Korea. ISIS would no doubt take advantage of the turmoil and restore what it has lost over the last year.

The civil war scenario: If Sadr forces his way into the Green Zone and al-Maliki’s men in the army and his militias try to stop Sadr by force, Iraq could experience a civil war similar to that of Yemen today.

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In September 2014, the Houthis, an armed Shiite group backed by Iran, gained control of the Yemeni capital after a sit-in around the city. Collaborating with loyalists of the former dictator of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Salih, the Houthis seized control of the government in early 2015. Full-fledged civil war broke out in March 2015, with Saudi Arabia leading an Arab coalition conducting airstrikes against the Houthis. The conflict is widely seen as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. The war has further destabilized the region, and opened to the door to al-Qaeda, which now controls a quarter of the country.  ISIS is also gaining strength there.

If Iraq’s army and Shiite militias began fighting in Baghdad, the conflict could allow ISIS to not only restore what it has lost, but to march toward the capital once again. 

The unstable status quo scenario: A third scenario would be a continuation of the current impasse -- or even a brief easing of tensions with the formation of an acceptable technocrat government -- that wouldn’t do much to change the state of affairs in Iraq in the long run. This scenario would mean that a large part of Iraq’s security forces would be consumed in monitoring Sadr’s men instead of ISIS, which would give ISIS a chance to breathe and plan its way out of its current defeats. 

For the coming few weeks, the most likely scenario is the unstable status quo one. However, this could change quickly and heightened internal conflict is a real possibility. A religious revolution along the lines of Iran could lead to a full scale Shiite civil war between Sadr and al-Maliki. Overall, none of this is good for anyone other than ISIS.