Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge

Five Enduring Tensions and Ten Key Challenges

Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch, and Peter Juul outline five enduring tensions and ten key challenges in Iraq.

Increased security gained in Iraq over the last two years has been purchased through a number of choices that have worked against achieving meaningful political reconciliation. (AP)
Increased security gained in Iraq over the last two years has been purchased through a number of choices that have worked against achieving meaningful political reconciliation. (AP)

Read the full report (pdf)

Victory in Iraq Declared, Not Achieved, by Brian Katulis

The 2007-2008 surge of U.S. troops achieved important gains in reducing violence in Iraq. But it has not delivered on its central objective: achieving a sustainable power consolidation among Iraq’s different political forces. The surge has frozen into place the accelerated fragmentation that Iraq underwent in 2006 and 2007 and has created disincentives to bridge central divisions between Iraqi factions.

The common refrain that the surge has produced military success that has not been matched by political progress fundamentally misrepresents the nature of Iraq’s political evolution. The increased security achieved over the last two years has been purchased through a number of choices that have worked against achieving meaningful political reconciliation. The reductions in violence in 2007 and 2008 have, in fact, made true political accommodation in Iraq more elusive, contrary to the central theory of the surge.

Rather than advancing Iraq’s political transition and facilitating power-sharing deals among Iraq’s factions, the surge has produced an oil revenue-fueled, Shia-dominated national government with close ties to Iran. This national government shows few signs of seeking to compromise and share meaningful power with other frustrated political factions. The surge has set up a political house of cards. But this does not mean that the U.S. military must stay longer to avoid its collapse. Quite the contrary: Without a U.S. military drawdown, Iraq will not be able to achieve the true internal consolidation of power necessary to advance U.S. security interests in the Middle East.

Now that the last surge brigades are gone, Iraq’s government is demanding a strict timeline for the departure of U.S. troops, and U.S. policy in Iraq is moving toward an inevitable transition, it is time to take stock of Iraq’s internal politics

Iraq’s internal politics today are a complicated mosaic of competing interests and contradictory trends. Five enduring, unresolved tensions lie beneath the surface, each capturing a part but none the entirety of the political dynamics of post-surge Iraq.

1. Centralizers vs. de-centralizers. Some Iraqi factions want to see more power placed in the hands of the national government, while others continue to push for more power to be vested in local and provincial governments.

2. State power holders vs. popular challengers. Certain factions have disproportionately benefited from the national government’s spoils, such as Dawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Kurdish factions who are part of national government. Some factions that have not benefited from the national government’s increased oil wealth and military power have stronger support in key areas of Iraq such as the Sons of Iraq in central and western Iraq and the Sadrists in central and southern Iraq.

3. Sunni vs. Shia. Sectarian conflicts are much reduced since high levels of violence in 2006, but the Sunni-Shia sectarian strain endures.

4. Arab vs. Kurds. The Arab-Kurd division is coming to a head in the unresolved crisis over the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories.

5. Religious factions vs. secular factions. Latent tensions remain between Iraqis who are concerned by the religious nature of Iraqi politics versus those who see politics as one facet of advancing enduring religious principles of either Sunni or Shia Islam. Religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis have suffered from persecution at the hands of other groups in Iraq since 2003.

The five persistent fault lines are present in the three major alliances and political groups that continue to evolve in Iraq: the fragmenting Shia-Kurdish coalition that has ruled Iraq, the transformations in Sunni politics, and the still fledgling efforts of nationalist and secular groups.

Iraq will need to overcome numerous hurdles in its political transition before the end of 2009, including two elections and a long list of unresolved power-sharing questions. Not all of the 10 key challenges outlined in this report are of equal magnitude—failure to resolve some would likely lead to major, systemic crisis, while failure on others would simply be suboptimal. Yet all are interconnected, and none have been resolved by the security improvements of the last 18 months or will be meaningfully addressed simply by postponing U.S. troop withdrawals. Ten key challenges ahead for Iraq’s political transition include:

1. The U.S.-Iraq security agreement
2. Provincial powers and elections
3. Refugees and internally displaced persons
4. Disbanding and integrating militias and other armed groups
5. Constitutional review
6. Kirkuk and other disputed territories and Article 140
7. De-Baathification reform implementation
8. Amnesty implementation
9. Oil and revenue sharing laws
10. State capacity, governance, and anti-corruption

These are all issues that Iraq’s leaders must address on their own terms, and at their own pace. The United States cannot impose a military solution to the power-sharing disputes among Iraq’s leaders, and expending significant resources in an effort to do so is unwise while other pressing national security challenges loom in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. True progress in Iraq requires the United States to acknowledge the increasing moves by Iraqis to assert sovereignty and control over their own affairs.

Most analyses tend to assume that the United States is the principal driver of events in Iraq. From this perspective, Iraqi political progress will only be achieved under constant U.S. pressure, which would make withdrawing troops and reducing U.S. power on the ground a self-defeating proposition. But this perspective is dangerously backward, since the primary drivers of Iraqi politics are Iraqis, and a stable political order must rest on the alignment of their interests and not the exercise of U.S. willpower or tinkering

The U.S. military presence in Iraq is not politically neutral. It creates a distinct set of incentives for political actors that directly work against the reconciliation that U.S. diplomats try to promote. U.S. military dominance and support absolves the major political actors from having to make the tough decisions necessary to achieve a power-sharing equilibrium.

In the months ahead in Iraq, the United States will have to distinguish between those outcomes that are truly catastrophic and those that are simply suboptimal given the limits on U.S. leverage over Iraqi actors—leverage that declines each day as the Iraqi government becomes financially self-sufficient and more assertive. Iraq’s leaders over the next year will increasingly demand greater control over their own affairs. The United States needs to rebalance its overall national security approach by stepping outside of the trenches of intra-Iraqi disputes over power and putting the focus back on its core national security interests.

Read the full report (pdf)

Victory in Iraq Declared, Not Achieved, by Brian Katulis

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst