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IDSA COMMENT

Power vacuum and impending regional race in Iraq

September 09, 2010

The announcement by President Barack Obama that the “American combat role in Iraq has ended” has led to deliberations in the West Asian capitals regarding the future of Iraq and rethinking their role in the unfolding regional political and strategic environment. President Obama announced that Operation Iraqi Freedom is over and Operation New Dawn has begun to ‘advise and assist’ the US mission. The USA has cut down the number of its troops to 50,000 and is planning to pull out all its troops by the end of 2011. Apart from that, the continuing violence and the absence of a strong central government in Baghdad have certainly created a political vacuum in the region. This leaves room for intervention by the regional powers keen to spread their sphere of influence and increase their national influence. Among the regional powers Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria are at the forefront of playing a proactive role in Iraqi affairs.

Iran has an advantage over others in the internal affairs of Iraq and Iran is also the biggest beneficiary of the US withdrawal from Iraq. It must be mentioned here that Iran’s relationship with Iraq improved only after the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent execution of Saddam Hussain and installation of a Shiite-led government in Baghdad. More importantly, while the American and Iraqi security forces were fighting their own battles, Iran got both time and opportunity to deal with the various Shiite factions of Iraq and quietly influence them. At the same time Iran was not comfortable with the presence of the USA in its neighbourhood and perceived it as a physical threat. With the withdrawal of the USA from Iraq at a time when Shiites are the major political players in the country, Iran certainly enjoys an advantage over others in Iraq’s internal affairs. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed the pullout of US forces from Iraq and said that “if the US President wants to do something useful, he should pledge not to interfere in Iraq, take his forces out of Iraq and recognise Iraq’s independence and punish criminals.” Iran feels that Iraq should be governed by the Iraqis without any intervention by the Americans. Enjoying huge influence among the Shias in Iraq, Iran would be more than content with the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq.

Saudi Arabia finds itself disconcerted at the growing influence of Iran in Iraq where Iran has a strong influence over the Shiite political parties, their leadership as well as the general Shia population. The installation of a Shiite-led government in Baghdad led to Saudi apprehension that a traditional Sunni bastion has been lost in its neighbourhood and the Sunnis are now deprived of power by the Shias in the country. More than that, it was also felt that Iraq has slowly started falling into the Iranian sphere of influence. Gulf Arab states are also worried that too much interference of Iran in Iraq could incite their own Shia populations and that prolonged sectarian violence in Iraq could spill over to their territory. It was reported that during the early years of the American invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabia funded the Sunnis in Iraq in their fight against the Shiite-led government. Though Saudi Arabia was not very comfortable with the Saddam Hussain regime, its discomfort grew even stronger with the new Shiite-led regime in Baghdad. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has not been able to build up good ties with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. As the US prepares to leave the country, Saudi Arabia would look to increase its influence in Iraq to change the regional balance of power in its favour.

Turkey is highly concerned about the Kurdish insurgents in its territory and in neighbouring Iraq. Turkey is keeping a close watch on the Kurdish political and military activities on the Iraqi side as any attempt for the independence of Iraq's Kurdish region would trigger similar demands among the Turkish Kurds. Apart from that any major change in Iraqi policy towards the Kurdish region in this crucial period of transition would have its impact on Turkey. Thus Turkey would like to see a politically stable Iraq with all factions - Shias, Sunnis as well as the Kurds accommodated in the government thereby avoiding any conflict and neutralizing the Kurdish issue. For this reason, Turkey supported Allawi against Nouri al Maliki in the elections held in March 2010. For Turkey, a strong and stable central government in Iraq can be a reliable partner to act against the Kurds.

Iraq’s relations with Syria have witnessed many ups and downs in the recent past. Iraq has alleged that Syria is supporting the Baathists and the al Qaeda terrorists against the US and Iraqi forces. Apart from that Syria is also alleged to have hosted several Iraqi Baath leaders and al Qaeda terrorists inside its territory and allowed them to cross the border whenever necessary. As Iraq was not known earlier for being an al Qaeda hub, it slowly became clear that Syria is behind pushing the al Qaeda operatives to Iraq with other material support.

The departure of the American forces and the inability on the part of the political leaders to form a government in Iraq certainly leaves a political vacuum in Baghdad which the regional powers would be tempted to fill. At present a lot depends upon the way Iraqi political elites visualize to take the country into the future. Of utmost importance for Iraq would be the formation of the government with the political leaders shedding their ethnic and sectarian interests. The more the internal political divisions remain; the more space would it create for the external forces for intervention in the internal as well as foreign affairs of the country. President Obama feels that it was “time to turn the page” in Iraq and that the Iraqi people must take the primary responsibility for their security and future. Similarly, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki announced that, "Iraq today is sovereign and independent." But a question mark remains over the ability of the Iraqi leadership to forge political alliances, control violence in the streets and keep the economy under control. External powers would come with their own agenda to maximize their national interests but real rehabilitation and development of Iraq should come from the Iraqis themselves.