Since the US withdrawal in 2011, Iraq has largely faded from the headlines of Western news outlets. But recently, reports of mass protests, that stem in part from problems with Iraq’s security sector, have made their way into focus. There is increasing evidence that Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is consolidating power by exercising control of the army to carry out his political agenda. For example, in Ned Parker’s recent Foreign Affairs article, he recounts the arrest of Vice President Tariq Al Hashimi on flimsy charges of terrorism just days after the departure of the last US troops. Iraqi tanks surrounded his home, and that of other opposition leaders’, in an apparent effort to intimidate Maliki’s political enemies in the Al-Iraqiya alliance. Moreover, the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) ability to maintain security is being tested as a resurgence of Al Qaeda attacks have occurred. Emboldened by the war in Syria, Sunni insurgents are threatening a new sectarian war over alleged exclusion from the political process, and Iraq’s growing closeness with Shia Iran. Many protesters carry similar grievances. An overview of Iraq’s security sector after the US withdrawal sheds light on these security challenges and mounting tensions.
During 2006-2009, Maliki gained popularity through launching an offensive against Al Qaeda insurgents. At the time, tight executive control of the security forces was justified in the name of stability. Iraq’s parliament was too ineffective to pass any laws regulating oversight, and the institutions established were accountable to Maliki alone. Since then — although security has improved somewhat — no legislation has passed that would limit Maliki’s control of the Ministries of Defence (MoD) and the Interior (MoI). He has also begun stacking key leadership positions with officers loyal to him. The resulting politicization can be partly blamed on the US. Instead of condemning his refusal to carry out the power-sharing agreement established at Erbil in 2010, US officials have insisted that Parliament support a Maliki-led “unity-government” — although he failed to win a majority in the 2010 election. With a focus on maintaining stability and in spite of the dubious nature of Maliki’s leadership, the US continued to strengthen the security forces under his control.
Quarterly reports of the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction released since Iraq took responsibility of its security sector have revealed certain functional problems. First, as the security situation in Iraq deteriorates, the Iraq Security Forces Fund earmarked by the US to sustain the ISF has run out, and the ability of the Government of Iraq to sustain the security apparatus the Americans built has come into question (SIGIR, Jul 2012: 55). Ministerial responsibilities also remain unclear, as the planned transition of responsibility for internal defence from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of the Interior has repeatedly been postponed (SIGIR, Oct 2012: 5). This has detracted from the MoD’s ability to focus on external defence and resulted in heavy-handed internal policing by the Iraqi Army. One report outlines findings of human rights abuses carried out by ISF personnel that include arbitrary arrests, limitation of free speech and even cases of extrajudicial killings. The same report also condemns poor prison conditions in jails run by the MoD and MoI (SIGIR, Jul 2012: 78).
Whatever gains have been made in the ISF’s ability to provide security without oversight of the US is threatened by the presence of Al Qaeda, spill over from Syria, and Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies. However, frustration can also be directed towards the opposition’s inability to counter Maliki’s influence. The Al-Iraqiya alliance is fragmented internally and lacks any unified strategy to limit his power. Some members have even contributed to calls for Iraq to be divided into an ethno-sectarian federal system. However, such a controversial proposal could lead to further violence and sectarian strife. The federalism debate should not distract from the importance of uniting the opposition to gain concessions from Maliki’s State of Law coalition — including cooperation in establishing a transparent, accountable and rights-respecting security apparatus. This will become more important as oil profits are directed towards the security sector to help sustain it. This money must be spent improving the security of the Iraqi people, rather than for political purposes.