ERBIL, IRAQ - Almost a decade after the U.S. liberated Iraq, the country is a U.S. friend and ally. But it is still beset by ethnic and sectarian infighting. Iraq's nascent democracy has seesawed back and forth between gridlock and conflict over the past nine years. Every time it repeats this pattern, it starts over at a higher-- and more combustible -- level of tension.
Last week, I visited the Kurdish Region of Iraq to meet with business and political leaders. One thing is clear from my discussions: the country is at risk of combusting again. If tensions are not immediately dampened and all major political blocs given a voice in the country's future, Iraq's increasingly divided and dysfunctional political system risks a relapse to violence.
At the heart of Iraq's political crisis lies a parliament crippled by bickering and corruption. Political blocs and their cabinet ministers routinely boycott parliamentary sessions, opting to publically excorticate one another instead of govern. Parliament has been unable to pass crucial laws, such as the proposed Oil and Gas Law, to govern development of the key to Iraq's economy: the hydrocarbons sector.
Iraq's increasingly powerful Shi'ite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, started accumulating power following the 2010 parliamentary elections. He secured a second term -- after a drawn out eight-month power struggle - by promising to share power with other political blocs, including Iraqiyya (a more secular party that has attracted Sunni support) and the Kurds. That promise quickly disintegrated. Instead, Al-Maliki preferred to assert personal control over the security forces, target senior Sunni officials with arrest, and otherwise eviscerate many of the safeguards enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution. His actions ignited widespread protests in Sunni majority provinces in December 2012 that continue as of writing. Today, many in Iraq's Parliament fear that he is a dictator-in-the-making.
Al-Maliki, in turn, suspects his opponents of wanting to unseat him in favor of a more pliant prime minister who will bend to their self-interested wishes and would be too weak to lead the country. The Iraqiyya party, Al-Maliki's political competitor, has proven to be politically inept. It has allowed its internal rivalries to weaken the party, and now many of its senior leaders are discredited in the eyes of the Sunni street.
And the Sadrists bowed to Iranian pressure and supported al-Maliki's second term before they, too, were outmaneuvered and marginalized. Now, their leader - the violent militia leader and firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr - is actively rebranding himself to be a voice of sectarian harmony and moderation in Iraq in an attempt to build a larger political base. Sadr joined with Iraqiyya and the Kurds to denounce al-Maliki's decision earlier this week to delay provincial elections in Nineveh and Anbar by six months because of security concerns.
Relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government ("KRG") - the largely autonomous part of Northern Iraq -- and the central government have rapidly deteriorated, too. Not only are the Kurds convinced that al-Maliki seeks to oppress them just as previous governments did, but also fear he intends to cripple their economy.
The KRG is dependent on its 17 percent share of the federal budget and is constructing an oil and gas pipeline to Turkey to allow it to export hydrocarbons (without Baghdad's approval). Baghdad and Erbil strongly disagree over who controls hydrocarbons exploration, development, and export under the Iraqi Constitution, as well some of actual territory where the oil and gas is located. The Kurds have angered Baghdad by granting oil concessions to the likes of Exxon Mobil and Chevron without Baghdad's authorization. Today, the KRG continues to assert physical control over parts of the disputed territories.
Iraq's political picture is further complicated by the divergent policies of three key external actors: Iran, the U.S., and Turkey.
Iran has backed al-Maliki but checked his increasingly nationalist rhetoric by also supporting other Shi'ite groups, including the Sadrists. Turkey, meanwhile, has frosty relations with al-Maliki. Turkey desires to empower Iraq's Sunnis (Turkey is a Sunni majority state) and contain Iran (a historical rival). Plus, there is personal animus between Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, and al-Maliki. These motivations, along with Turkey's desire to access the Kurds' energy resources, has led to poor relations with Iraq's central government.
The U.S. is the most passive of all - having jettisoned its formerly very hands-on approach in favor of a wait-and-see policy. During my visit to Iraq, numerous Iraqis -- especially Kurds -- expressed surprise and dismay to me about this U.S. policy. Many locals do not understand why Washington is wringing its hands of Iraq, given the immense cost of the U.S. intervention. An expected visit by Prime Minister Erdogan to Washington in 2013 will give the U.S. and Turkey an opportunity to discuss (and perhaps harmonize) their divergent Iraq policies, including construction of the Kurdish pipeline.
In January 2013, several of Iraq's political blocs united together to pass a term-limit bill that would bar al-Maliki from being reelected in 2014, when his current term expires. And just this month, the parliament approved the federal budget, which maintained the KRG's budget share at 17 percent -- instead of reducing it, as the Prime Minister had threatened. But the Kurds boycotted the vote because the budget bill gives al-Maliki significant leeway to withhold payments at his discretion. Despite these developments, a broader compromise on a new power-sharing agreement continues to evade Iraq's political blocs and tensions remain high.
Iraq's politicians have little time to spare, because Iraq likely faces a rocky path over the next year. President Jalal Talabani -- a broker of high-level political accords that help vent political pressure before it reaches critical levels -- is suffering serious health challenges and may have to step down. His departure will only make Iraq's already messy political scene even more difficult. If he leaves office, it will only further strengthen the Prime Minister.
The best bet for immediate political and economic progress appears to be the Sunni protests and Kurdish pipeline plans. These two developments could give each of these groups greater leverage and force al-Maliki to the negotiating table. So far, Sunni protestors have secured small concessions from al-Maliki, including the release of Sunni detainees and reinstatement of officials sacked through the De'baathification process. And the Kurdish pipeline -- which will allow the KRG to export up to a million barrels a day of crude oil once completed -- will reduce the KRG's dependence on the federal budget and give it economic leverage over the central government.
If the protests are successful and the pipeline is built, less-powerful political actors will be empowered. And, if so, this may force the Prime Minister to engage in serious discussions in crafting a more inclusive political dialogue and commitment to power sharing.
Tensions between Prime Minister al-Maliki, Iraq's Sunnis, and the Kurdish bloc are fast approaching the point of threatening the country's future as a unified, federal republic. Iraq must manage its deep sectarian and ethnic divides through a more inclusive political process that gives all Iraqis a voice in the process - as the Iraqi Constitution requires.