The futures of Iraq

Fred Halliday
4 December 2008

What will happen in Iraq between 2008 and 2012? The agreement between the United States and the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on a plan for the withdrawal of United States forces by the end of 2011 is the context for this question to be posed rather than a definitive answer. The prospects remain open.

This article digests the conclusions of a report of the specialist international study group on Iraq of the Centro de Información y Documentación Internacionales en Barcelona (Barcelona Centre for Information and Documentation / CIDOB).

The report followed a meeting of international experts on Iraq on 30 October 2008 at CIDOB. This was convened with the support of the Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo (Spanish Agency for Cooperation and Development / Aecid), the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), and CIDOB itself. The participants included diplomats, academics, journalists and researchers specialising in the region.

The report's coordinator is Eduard Soler of the Mediterranean programme at CIDOB; its secretary is Fadila Hilali of CIDOB; and its rapporteur/chair is Fred Halliday A meeting held in Barcelona under the auspices of the Centro de Información y Documentación Internacionales en Barcelona (Barcelona Centre for Information and Documentation / CIDOB) on 30 October 2008 was tasked with discussing three scenarios for Iraq, over a period of between one and five years, in terms of three broad possible lines of development:

Advertise Here  Discover the history behind this story...Coming as Liberators Kristian Ulrichsen believes that the politicians and planners behind the 2003 invasion ignored the lessons of the first British occupation of Iraq.See also: Iraq: Lessons from Northern IrelandThe US & the Unintended Consequences of War

▪ a return to civil war between Iraqi factions, against a background of a US withdrawal

▪ a settlement imposed, or at least guaranteed, by regional states, in the event of a US departure

▪ the gradual building of political support by different factions in Iraq for the existing government, leading in turn to a consolidation of the Baghdad authorities and a decline in political violence.

The majority opinion among the experts present inclined towards the first option, but with a belief that alternative routes remain worth exploring. The following is a summary of the main topics of discussion.

The political outlook

The short-term political future of Iraq will be closely affected by five already scheduled political events:

▪ the agreement between Washington and Baghdad, which was finalised in the context of the expiry on 1 December 2008 of the United Nations mandate for US and allied troops to be in Iraq

▪ the inauguration of a new United States president in January 2009

▪ the Iraqi provincial elections in January 2009

▪ the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009

▪ the Iraqi parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2009, from which a new president and prime minister will be chosen.

No one expects an immediate or precipitate US withdrawal; and even if problems occur in the implementation of the agreement some means will be found to continue the US troop presence. But the situation of the Nouri al-Maliki government will be placed in doubt by the forthcoming Iraqi elections, provincial and parliamentary: last time, when the system of parties and communal alliances was more simple and secure, it took several months to choose a prime minister. The pervasive fragmentation of political and communal blocs that has taken place since would imply that choosing a new prime minister and a new president will be even more complicated and drawn out. Much will also depend on the outcome of the Iranian presidential elections.

The security outlook

The experts' consensus is that talk of a significant, let alone plausibly enduring, decline in violence in Iraq is misplaced. It is not true to say that Washington's military "surge" strategy has worked. While there has been a decline in violence, killing continues in Baghdad at a level among the highest of any city in the world (with average deaths of thirty or more per day). Moreover, three further factors have contributed to the reduction in violent incidents:

▪ the process of sectarian separation within hitherto mixed (Shi'a/Sunni) parts of the capital has largely been completed

▪ the flight of over 4 million Iraqis to elsewhere in the region and to the west has to some degree reduced social and communal tensions - at the cost of creating a new and enormous problem

▪ the truce by the militias of the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - albeit temporary and conditional - reduced current levels of violence.

There are also ominous trends that portend ill for the future:

▪ the Sunni tribal sahwa ("awakening") groups - armed and supported by the United States - are largely composed of ex-Ba'athists and would be unlikely to accept participation in, or loyalty to, a Shi'a-dominated government

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column includes:

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"Mediterranean mirage: Europe's sunken politics" (29 July 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (15 October 2008)

▪ within the Kurdish areas, there is growing discontent, corruption and instability, in large measure a result of the corruption of the two (themselves internally divided) main Kurdish parties

▪ the process of localising, tribal and communitarian fragmentation in Iraq has greatly increased and made the prospects for any coherent security, or political, restabilisation more remote.

It would be inaccurate to ascribe the divisiveness and retribalisation of Iraqi politics to the 2003 invasion alone. This began in the 1990s in the aftermath of the invasion of and war over Kuwait (1990-91) and with the impact of the sanctions regime. In effect, Iraq is a country that has been at war since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 and this is reflected in the condition of the state and administration, and in the collapse of much public infrastructure.

The Sunni-Shi'a "civil war" of 2006-07, itself a consequence of the 2003 invasion, has been contained. But a major anxiety is that in the absence of a political settlement satisfactory to all parties and linked to a US withdrawal, factions are preparing to resort again to arms - possibly on an even larger scale.

The Washington-Baghdad link

The first priority of United States policy now is to become more realistic about the situation inside Iraq. The considered and bipartisan Iraq Study Group (or Baker-Hamilton) report presented to George W Bush on 7 December 2006 had no evident impact on the administration's policy or thinking. During the election campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain alike gave no public sign that they understood the evolving situation, and in particular the degree to which political and military developments inside Iraq had an autonomous existence - and were not simply a resultant of US policy and shifting priorities.

US policy has for a considerable time suffered from self-delusion - even more so in Washington itself. The over-optimistic coverage of the "surge" has been a further example of this. The forthcoming Barack Obama presidency might shift responsibility away from the defence towards civilian agencies and reconstruction aid, while trying to refocus US strategy in the region towards Afghanistan. This will go little way to resolving current problems.

Iran and Turkey's role

Iraq has six neighbours: Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. All have an interest in Iraq; all are playing a role, covert or overt, inside the country. Their main concern differs in each case:

▪ for Turkey, the main issue is that of the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and the implications of this for the war in Turkish Kurdistan with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK)

▪ for the Arab Sunni states, the main issue is that of the rise of Iranian influence, which is linked in turn to concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions

▪ for Iran, the main issue is the desire to see as rapid as possible an American withdrawal, consonant with stability inside Iraq, and a settlement in Iraq consonant with the recognition and consolidation of Iranian influence across the region as a whole.

There are significant differences of opinion within Turkey and Iran, a fact reflected in changes of policy in recent years. In Turkey, the traditional opposition to an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has given way in some quarters to the belief that a Kurdish regime there would better be able to control - and undermine the appeal of - the PKK. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards' wish to see an immediate American withdrawal clashes with those who prefer an orderly US departure that could be accompanied by the establishment in Baghdad of a stable, and pro-Iranian, regime.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraqi politics:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Reidar Visser , "Iraq's partition fantasy" (19 May 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali, "The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (19 March 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq, Iran and the United States: problems and prospects" (30 July 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Iraq's gift to Afghanistan" (20 November 2008)

Moreover, Iranian policy on Iraq reflects shifts in policy within Tehran itself: the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 was followed by a more militant Iranian role in Iraq; whereas international pressure and growing problems at home have since 2007 led to a more moderate stance. This makes the outcome of the presidential election in June 2009 - in which a reformist candidate (possibly ex-president Mohammad Khatami) might challenge Ahmadinejad - very important for Iraq.

A European dimension

The European Union's presence in Iraq - British forces and some smaller military contingents (such as Poland) apart - has been minimal. Its main activity has been in the field of judicial training and governance reform, but this has been unable to curb the rampant corruption in all parts of the Iraqi state.

There is considerable hope within Iraq that the EU will play a greater role in the future. There has been talk of the EU sending forces to Iraq under the European Security and Defence Policy; of Iraq joining the World Trade Organisation; and of European assistance with the return of Iraqi refugees. None of this is likely to be easy to implement in an EU that has grown to twenty-seven members since the enlargements of 2004 and 2007.

The minimal EU position is support for the government of Iraq. In this, individual countries such as Spain can make contributions on matters such as election-monitoring, federalism, and the democratisation of the armed and intelligence forces - but only if there is political will on the Iraqi side for this to be so. The priority then should not be to channel funds to the central Iraqi state - which is corrupt and extremely dysfunctional - but to local and civil- society groupings.

A particular issue is that of the fate of Iraqi Christians, and whether Europe should give them preferential refugee status. This, like other issues, will probably remain more a matter of each member-state's domestic politics than of any common EU policy. This too reflects the current divisions within Europe as a whole as much as the problems of Iraq itself.

Iraq's international need

Four main conclusions follow:

▪ the need to make sure that the new United States president, and the incoming administration as a whole, are accurately informed as to the situation inside Iraq

▪ the need for increased international and regional attention to the plight of Iraqi refugees, and support for Iraqi society in general

▪ the need for closer diplomatic and security collaboration between the US and its allies

▪ the need to work towards building a regional framework, involving all of Iraq's neighbours, and in particular Iran, in a negotiated and guaranteed end of the war inside Iraq, linked to an American withdrawal.


The following experts contributed to the study-group on Iraq whose work forms the basis of Fred Halliday's article. It is emphasised that neither the resulting report nor this article necessary reflect the opinion of any individual members of the group:


▪ Faleh Abdul-Jabar, head of the Iraq Centre for Strategic Studies,Beirut-Bagdad-Erbil

▪ Meliha Altunisik, professor, Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara

▪ Haizam Amirah Fernández, research fellow, Real Instituto Elcano, Madrid

▪ Ali Ansari, professor, University of St Andrews

▪ Edward Burke, FRIDE, Madrid

▪ Carmen Claudin, deputy director, CIDOB Foundation, Barcelona

▪ Patrick Cockburn, journalist, the Independent

▪ Toby Dodge, lecturer in Queen Mary, University of London

▪ Alan George, senior associate member, St Antony's College, University of Oxford

▪ Fred Halliday, ICREA professor, IBEI, Barcelona

▪ Salam Kawakibi, researcher, Arab Reform Initiative

▪ Kenton Keith, senior vice-president of the Meridian International Center, Washington

▪ Tanja Roy, vice-consul at the German consulate-general in Barcelona

▪ Eduard Soler, coordinator of Mediterranean-Middle East Programme, CIDOB

▪ Udo Steinbach, professor, Hamburg University / FRIDE, Madrid

▪ Alberto Ucelay, deputy director-general for the Near and Middle East, ministry of foreign affairs, Madrid

▪ Pere Vilanova, Universitat de Barcelona / ministry of defence, Spain

▪ Luciano Zaccara, research fellow at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (TEIM)



Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData