Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Mafraq Cemetery: Commemoration of Iraqi Military History and its Implications

The entrance to the Iraqi Army's Martyrs Cemetery in Mafraq

Guest contributor, Brian Humphreys, a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, and Boren Fellow, is conducting research in Jordan on the reconstitution of the post-2003 Iraqi army.

Mafraq, a small city in the north of Jordan, has gained a certain notoriety recently among Jordanians and foreign NGO activists as the site of a major refugee camp, which houses thousands of Syrians displaced by the civil war unfolding just to the north.   The war is close enough that some residents of the area can occasionally feel the concussions from the Asad regime’s airstrikes impacting rebel positions on the other side of the border. 

To reach Mafraq from Amman, motorists drive northeast along a four lane highway through Zarqa, which seems to have grown into the outer suburbs of the Jordanian capital to the point where it is difficult to distinguish the boundary between the two cities.  The more distant boundary of Zarqa is still relatively well defined, with the characteristic concrete and cinderblock neighborhoods of the heavily Palestinian, blue collar city abruptly ceasing as the highway leads out into the Jordanian desert.

There is little to mark the stretch of desert between Zarqa and Mafraq except ramshackle shops selling soda and candy bars with unfamiliar names, clusters of austere military barracks, and large blue freeway signs in English and Arabic marking the interchanges for Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.  The otherwise unremarkable signs are a reminder that the austere landscape is in fact a major geo-strategic crossroads.  Wars, refugees, and armies have written the history of the modern Middle East on the march to or from nearby Damascus and Jerusalem.  More distant powers have also sent their armies across this bleak expanse in attempts to affect the outcomes of wars and causes.  A small military cemetery located in the side streets of Mafraq is a reminder of an obscure (to Western audiences), yet illustrative chapter of this history that continues to resonate in the present in important ways.

I visited this cemetery in early February, accompanied by two former Iraqi generals who had been teacher and mentor together in the old Iraqi Army, and were both veterans of the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Iraqi forces passed through Mafraq twice in the twentieth century, once during the 1948 war for Palestine (as it is known here), and again in 1967, when the 3rd Armored Division of the Iraqi Army crossed the desert to confront the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six-Day War, and remained in the north of Jordan for several years afterwards.  When the Iraqis left, they left behind a modest military cemetery in Mafraq containing the graves of Iraqi soldiers from the 1967 war and its precursor in 1948.

In the intervening years, the cemetery assumed greater prominence in official Iraqi mythology as a symbol of national martyrdom on behalf of the Arab cause, particularly as Iraq became involved in a massive war of attrition hundreds of miles to the east against Iran, which dwarfed the Arab-Israeli wars in scale and human sacrifice.  As the Iraqi regime fought for its very existence, it converted the cemetery into a more elaborate monument that might underline Iraqi claims to leadership of the shared Pan-Arab cause, and the connection between sacrifices in Mafraq and the Persian Gulf.

Today, visits to the cemetery must be approved by the Iraqi military attaché in Amman in advance, as the cemetery is still administered by the government of Iraq. Entering Mafraq, we asked where the Iraqi martyrs’ cemetery was and were pointed along residential side-streets by a succession of passers-by to a small plot of land enclosed by an eight foot high wall of quarried limestone.  A careful inscription above the arched entryway read: Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Iraqi Army. 

The cemetery custodian’s son, Ahmad, a local fourth grader, came across the street from his family’s home with the key to the gate and opened it for us, revealing a view of an obelisk with a Qur'anic inscription at the base and, at the top, a small replica of the distinctive Martyrs’ Monument in Baghdad built by Saddam Husayn’s order during the first years of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. 

The cemetery was mostly free of the ubiquitous litter that blights most urban spaces in Jordan, including the residential sprawl outside the cemetery walls.  The small cemetery contained perhaps fifty well-kept graves amid rows of olive trees and benches. Ahmad appeared a short time later with a tray of tea and sugar, the universal currency of hospitality in the Middle East, while we discussed the military and cultural history that had produced the cemetery at Mafraq.

Amid the modest soldiers’ graves there were two much more recent and elaborate graves belonging to prominent Iraqi exiles who died long after the destruction of the Ba’thist regime in 2003.  (One a prominent general in the old army, and the other 'Abd al-Rahman 'Arif, briefly president of Iraq in the turbulent era leading up to the Ba’thist coup of 1967 that paved the way for Saddam Husayn’s ascent to absolute power in Iraq.)  The graves were an indication that, far from being a forgotten relic of Saddam’s claims to Pan-Arab leadership, the cemetery has acquired a second life in the post-Saddam era as an enclave for an Iraqi nationalism that has largely been excluded from the public sphere inside Iraq. 

In recent years, official commemorations have been held at the cemetery on January 6th, which marks the founding of the Iraqi Army in 1921.  These have been attended by Iraqi embassy officials in Amman and retired officers, and received media coverage. This year, the embassy also held an invitation-only gala celebration in Amman to mark the date, which was attended by many former officers as well as military attaches from other nations.  This suggests that Iraqi nationalism and its military foundations, which predate Ba’thist rule by decades, remain a significant part of Iraqi public discourse.  This holds true both within Iraqi government represented by its diplomats abroad, and the former officers who attended the events in Amman and Mafraq.

My hosts at the Mafraq cemetery, who attended the embassy event, said that the Iraqi ambassador delivered relatively uncontroversial remarks about the unity of Iraq and the historical role of the army in preserving this unity.  Such comments affirming national unity and the heroism of the national army are, in fact, a nearly obligatory part of public discourse among Iraqis, even among warring factions bitterly contesting operational and cultural control of the army. 

However, even in ceremonial contexts, cracks in the facade of unity are often visible.  It is no small irony that many of the retired Iraqi officers in attendance were exiles and would likely not be able to attend similar events inside Iraq. This fact hints at the significant ambiguities that characterize the boundaries between shared belonging and division, which persist in the post-2003 era.

A more subtle marker of these ambiguities was the absence of medals on the dress uniforms of the serving Iraqi officers present at the Amman embassy event, something the retired Iraqi officers noted.  Such medals typically signify participation in a military campaign, individual merit, or the personal sacrifice of those wounded in combat. 

American advisers made several desultory attempts to institute a new awards system or, on occasion, to confer U.S. decorations on Iraqis after 2003, but such efforts typically lacked legitimacy in Iraqi eyes and never gained institutional traction.  The Iraqis themselves remain divided on the meaning and interpretation of the battles of the post-2003 period to the extent that no significant complex of commemorative practices and visual symbols relating to them has appeared within the Iraqi civil-military sphere to date. 

Such ambiguity also prevails when Iraqis are confronted with the symbolic universe of the pre-2003 period.  Iraqi regulations state that awards and decorations of the previous army may be worn by military personnel who served in it.  The only exception is the bravery medal issued during the Iran-Iraq war.  This is a seemingly odd omission when one considers the relatively broad-based and intense patriotism that characterized this era of war in Iraq.

However, it nonetheless accurately reflects the political sensibilities and geo-strategic alignments of the current Iraqi government, which is perceived by many as favoring close ties with Iran.  In terms of the actual social practice of the contemporary Iraqi army, the Iraqi military attaché in Jordan himself informed me that decorations from the pre-2003 era are never worn because they identify the wearer as a Ba’thist sympathizer, even when such medals denote service in relatively uncontroversial campaigns. 

This discourse of ambiguity, selective recall, and exclusion applies to other relics of the pre-2003 military-symbolic complex of Iraq, which survive and are in continuing use, such as the Martyrs’ Monument and other major monumental complexes built during the Iran-Iraq war.  The Mafraq cemetery is merely one small but intriguing example of this phenomenon. 

The wars of 1948 and 1967 commemorated in Mafraq are part of an Iraqi nationalist narrative that is broadly accepted in Iraq, but has particular resonance among the class of former elites now largely excluded from participation in domestic Iraqi politics and society.  At the same time, Iraqi commitment to the Pan-Arab cause of neighboring, predominantly Sunni states, has traditionally elicited misgivings from many Iraqi Kurds, religious Shi'a Arabs, and others wary of Arab Sunni political dominance within Iraq who now occupy the highest positions of power in the state.  

Interpreted in this context, the Mafraq cemetery allows the current government a space where the rituals of Iraqi unity may be performed according to its preferred script with a constituency that, even in exile, has the capacity to influence events in Iraq. Conversely, for exiled elites, the cemetery may serve as a focal point for commemoration and valorization of a nationalist narrative integral to their identity -- and thus political cohesiveness.  As such, Mafraq is one of the many symbolically meaningful sites where Iraqis are attempting to frame and institutionalize views of the past through use of symbols and performance of commemorative rituals, which will serve to influence how they identify themselves and conceptualize their place within the broader national community.

Oftentimes, we are encouraged to view Iraqi nationalism as either insignificant window-dressing of an artificial state, or else to accept its claims of unbreakable unity at face value.  Places like Mafraq suggest that we would instead do well to consider how different groups of Iraqis attempt to define the meaning of Iraqi unity and the rules of belonging in a given context.  A glimpse of these processes in action at Mafraq suggests that symbolism and ceremony represent in fact consequential acts of power.  They show us which narratives of national identity and belonging are being institutionalized within the Iraqi civil-military sphere today.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ankara's Shift towards Iraqi Kurdistan

KRG president Barzani and Turkish PM Erdogan

 Guest contributor, Caitlin Scuderi, a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, and a former Boren Fellow, has conducted extensive research in Turkey.

Given Turkey’s problems with its own Kurdish population, Ankara’s shifting sentiments toward Iraqi Kurdistan might seem perplexing. After all, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been systematically stepping up its terrorist activities in Turkey over the past 20 months. Between June 2011 and November 2012, at least 870 people were killed as a result of PKK violence.[1]

Despite this uptick in violence, Ankara has moved to establish an ever stronger relationship with the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), while simultaneously stoking the fire in its relationship with the central government in Baghdad.   What has prompted Ankara to develop a closer relationship with Arbil?

There are several factors that have precipitated the change in Turkey’s policy towards the KRG.  First, there is the ongoing conflict between Turkey and Iraq. Since the two states took different stances over Syria when it erupted into civil conflict, the tension between them has been mounting.

These tensions were intensified when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on terrorism charges.[2] Hashimi sought refuge in Turkey, and when Ankara refused to extradite him,[3] the relationship sunk to a new low. As Ankara continues to align itself with Arbil, Baghdad has accused Turkey of unwarranted meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and has insisted that Turkey is refusing to extradite Hashimi with the intention of provoking sectarian tensions.[4]

On top of the mounting conflict with Iraq, Turkey has pursued closer relations with the KRG because it is an ally with Ankara against the PKK. In response to Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition, Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad effectively nodded to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, allowing them to operate in the region without constraints by the regime. In addition to Syria, intelligence reports indicate that Iran has been providing aid to the PKK in the form of shelter and logistical support.[5]

The KRG, on the other hand, has long been a supporter of Ankara in its quest against PKK terrorist activity. By banning pro-PKK political parties, arresting PKK politicians, and closely monitoring PKK activity in the region, the KRG has aligned itself with Ankara as it moves forward in its anti-terror strategy.[6]

Perhaps the most important factor driving the closer ties between Arbil and Ankara has been Turkey’s energy strategy. Currently, Turkey obtains the overwhelming majority of its energy from Russia and Iran.[7]

Although historically Turkey has maintained good trade relations with both countries, a number of factors have pushed Turkey to attempt to diversify its energy suppliers. First, the latest wave of sanctions on Iran has increased the costs for energy importers. Second, Turkey’s economy has been growing at an increasingly rapid rate in recent years and its energy demand is subsequently increasing as well.  Finally, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and Turkey’s support of the opposition, combined with the state’s reliance on Russia and Iran for energy, leaves it in a potentially constrained diplomatic position.

Because of these reasons, the idea of closer ties with the energy-rich KRG is appealing to Ankara. Iraq’s three Kurdish majority governorates (provinces) sit atop significant and largely untapped oil and gas reserves. In May 2012, Ankara and the KRG agreed to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from the Kurdistan region of Iraq to Turkey, bypassing areas controlled by Baghdad.

In response, Baghdad threatened to veto the project. KRG officials successfully held their ground.  They pointed to the fact that Baghdad has failed to fulfill its obligations as stipulated in the current revenue sharing agreement. The Iraqi central government is required to share 17 percent of all oil revenue with the KRG and to pay the costs of energy exploration projects in the region. Neither of these conditions, according to the KRG, had been met by Baghdad.[8]

As Turkey and the KRG move closer to each other diplomatically, it shouldn’t be assumed that the relationship will proceed without obstacles. First, considerable distrust still exists between Ankara and Arbil.  From Ankara’s perspective, PKK camps still exist in the KRG’s territory.

Conversely, Arbil knows that if it moves to quickly or too closely in developing ties to  Ankara, it could provoke hostile action from Iran. The two actors also seem to have different ideas when it comes to the future of Turkey-PKK relations. While the KRG has made it clear that it wants Ankara to launch a dialogue with the PKK, it is questionable whether this is a real possibility as Turkey approaches its first-ever direct presidential election scheduled for 2014.[9] In an effort to fortify his base of support, it is likely that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will feel compelled to enhance his nationalist credentials, which will likely entail a staunch anti-PKK posture.

Politics aside, there are clear economic incentives for Ankara and Arbil to pursue a closer relationship. For the KRG, exporting oil and natural gas through Turkey rather than through Baghdad ensures much broader access to the global economy. Turkey is much more politically stable and has many more trade relationships to which the KRG could gain access compared to those available to Baghdad.

Ankara has much to gain economically as well. By importing oil and natural gas from the KRG directly into Turkey, the state has a huge opportunity for further development projects that will be economically lucrative.

Whether the relationship between Ankara and Arbil will continue to move forward without incident remains unclear. What is certain, however, is that the relationship will continue to be affected by “neighborhood effects,” specifically those including Syria, Iran, and of course, Iraq.  In order to move forward in concert, both Turkey and the KRG must remain cognizant of the relationships with their neighbors and pursue avenues that allow for the deepening of their dyadic relationship without sacrificing ties with other states in the region.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Quetta’s Enduring Savagery: Ethnic Cleansing or Sectarian Violence?

Hazaras in Quetta protesting by refusing to bury their dead

Guest contributor, Farah Jan, a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of Political Science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, has written extensively on Pakistani politics and is currently conducting research on Chinese-Pakistani relations.

Since the start of 2013, more than 300 people have been killed in different attacks in Quetta – the provincial capital of Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province.  The targets of these attacks have been Pakistan’s Shiite Hazara minority.

The 2013 cycle of violence was set in motion by the January 10th twin suicide blasts that left 117 dead with over 200 injured.   The detonation of an improvised explosive device on February 16th,  led to 84 dead and more than 200 injured.  Besides these major bomb blasts, the Hazaras have been targeted almost on a daily basis, leaving  their neighborhoods and mosques vulnerable to ongoing violent attacks.

After the January 10th attack, the embattled Hazara community was forced to protest in the most unorthodox manner when they refused to bury the victims of the January 10 massacre. Members of the Shia community staged a three-day sit-in on the very street where the attack took place and demanded the imposition of military rule for their protection and sacking of the democratically elected but ineffectual provincial government. The protest ended with a mass burial of the victims after the imposition of the Baluchistan's governor`s orders.

Following the February attacks, once again, in subzero conditions, the Hazaras have refused to bury their dead and staged a protest on the streets with 84 dead bodies.  The President of the Baluchistan Shia Conference, Syed Dawood Agha,  stated that this time “until our demands are met, we will continue our protest.”

The Hazara are demanding that the army conduct an operation against the terrorists that carry out such acts. The continued attacks on the Hazaras raise two issues- either the government of Pakistan and its armed forces are incompetent, or they are complicit with these organizations that are mercilessly killing an ethnic group based on its religious identity.

Quetta is home to an estimated 2.5 million people, of which 600,000 are Hazaras, who emigrated from Afghanistan to Quetta about 120 years ago in order to avoid harsh repression by the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman.  About a century or shall I say five generations later, the same fate has followed the Hazaras in Pakistan, where they sought refuge from persecution on the basis of their distinct Mongolian features and Shia identity. 

An elderly man protesting with the body of his grandson who died in the February 16th attacks
The similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries are uncanny.   We can trace the attacks on the Hazaras back to the 19th Century, when Afghanistan's ruler declared a jihad against the Hazara Shias for the same reasons, their distinct features and Shia identity. Analogously, in today’s Pakistan, the Taliban backed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)has spearheaded this anti-Shia crusade, as a counter movement to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

The question that needs to be asked is how should we characterize the situation in Quetta? Is it sectarian violence or ethnic cleansing? To call it sectarian violence would be an injustice to those who were savagely killed, to those who are forced to leave their homes, and of course to those who have endlessly suffered because of their distinguishing features and religious identity.

The reason the anti-Hazara violence should not be called sectarian is that that would indicate symmetrical levels of confrontation between two or more ideological groups.  In Quetta, the Hazaras (Shia minority) are targeted by the LeJ(a Sunni group) and the victims are either too weak or unable to confront the opposing group. Thus violence unleashed in this situation is asymmetrical and seeks to carry out a systematic elimination of Hazara men, women and children.

The plight of Hazaras reminds us of the Serbian led Croatian ethnic cleansing.  The UN resolution GA 47/121 refers to ethnic cleansing as a form of genocide; it is characterized as genocide when a group of people intends to “destroy, in whole or in part” another group of people by force. The purpose of ethnic cleansing is to remove the targeted ethnic community by hostile measures.  The LeJ’s sole tactic is killing (accompanied by large scale bloodshed) and the forced expulsion of the Hazara community from Quetta.

Ethnic cleansing is a crime under international law – it is a crime against humanity under the statutes of International Criminal Court (ICC). In the case of Pakistan, we see a cold-hearted and detached response by the federal government. Who then should be held accountable for these ruthless killings?

Should the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi– which brazenly takes full responsibility of each bomb blast targeting the Hazaras and all Shia, be held responsible. Or should the blame rest with the state, which is ruled by the Pakistan Peoples Party government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who despite multiple requests by the Hazara community for protection has failed to ensure their security.  Or should we hold the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, who by oath is responsible for the protection of ALL Pakistani citizens and has failed to defend them from the enemy within, and from external enemies as well?

The silent ethnic cleansing that the Hazaras have endured over a span of many years needs to stop. The Hazaras are as much Pakistanis as the Punjabis; Pashtuns, Baluchs or Sindhis. Those responsible for the security of Pakistan and its citizens cannot continue to ignore these daily atrocities.  Someone needs to be held responsible and punished.  Fir its part, the international community cannot remain a silent spectator to these massive human rights violations – in the end the price paid by the Hazaras and indeed Pakistan is too heavy to pay!

Friday, February 15, 2013

The crisis in Iraq: Gaming the political behavior of Nuri al-Maliki

Iraq is experiencing one of the most serious political crises since the overthrow of Saddam Husayn’s regime in 2003.   Since the national parliamentary elections in March, 2010, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has made a series of decisions that, from an outsider’s perspective, seem self-defeating.  What motivates Maliki, and what does his behavior tell us about Iraq’s future political stability?  Is there still a possibility for a  transition to democracy

Because political decision-making in (Arab) Iraq is centered in his hands, does it make sense to apply a game-theoretic approach when trying to understand Maliki's behavior?   If so, what can such an approach tell us?

In gaming Maliki’s behavior, we need to take personality variables and structural constraints into account.  Much has been made of Maliki’s purported paranoid personality and the assertion that he sees a conspiracy under every rock and behind every tree.  This is a far too simplistic analysis.  Maliki may indeed be plagued by a paranoid political style, but his actions are directed at consolidating his power and marginalizing those whom he sees as a threat to that power.  In this sense, his political behavior is highly rational and goal oriented.

Structural constraints include "historical learning," namely Maliki's political socialization. The Iraqi prime minister, like other Iraqi leaders, realizes that only those who have projected an aura of power have been successful in maintaining political power and ruling Iraq since it became an independent state in 1921.  His personal history involved becoming a member of the Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya) in the late 1960s.  When the party faced severe repression during the late 1970s, Maliki fled Iraq when he learned that he was about to be executed along with other Da'wa Party members by Saddam Husayn's Ba'thist regime.

The lesson Maliki learned from his political experiences under the Ba'th was to never trust anyone, except his closest colleagues in the Da'wa Party, and that any sign of weakness becomes an invitation to challenge existing political authority.  Maliki seems less driven by ego and narcissism than by a well defined sense of the political "rules of the game" which, for him, reflect a Hobbesian world, and are ignored at one's (extreme) peril.  For Maliki, Iraqi politics is the quintessential "zero-sum" game.

What are the power centers that Maliki must take into account when making political decisions? Which factors form the structural constraints on his behavior?  Which power centers does he view as most threatening? 

Maliki’s main concern is the rural Sunni Arabs of the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle.  Many of the tribal elements in this region benefited extensively from their ties with the ousted Ba’thist regime and are resentful that their privileged access to the state no longer exists.  Their resentment was reinforced when Maliki refused to keep his promise of providing positions in the armed forces, police and government bureaucracy for members of the “Awakening” movement (Sahwat al-‘Iraq), formed in 2006, after it defeated, along with US forces, al-Qa'ida in al-Anbar Province (Governorate) and in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle.

Maliki’s fear of this group is evident from the arrest and harassment of Sahwa leaders but especially his highly provocative arrest of 10 members of Sunni Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s security detail on December 18, 2012.  For Sunni Arabs, these arrests were totally unwarranted and indicative of Maliki’s increasingly sectarian policies.  The attack on Issawi, a highly respected Sunni politician known for his moderate political views, deeply shocked the Sunni community. Indeed, Maliki’s decision has led to highly destructive consequences, resulting in huge demonstrations in the Sunni Arab community against his government (see al-Hayat, Jan, 31, Feb. 3,4,12, 2013).  

Maliki views the Sunni Arabs as a “fifth column” for Sunni elements throughout the Arab world who are frightened by the idea of a Shiite political elite controlling Iraq.  Of particular concern is the funding of radical elements such as al-Qa’ida, and its umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, by Saudi Arabia and these organizations' supporters throughout the Arab Gulf states.  Maliki is currently involved in a systematic campaign not only to eliminate his Sunni political rivals but to remove all Sunnis associated with the former Ba’thist regime from Iraq’s security forces.

The fear of a Sunni fifth column which, in Maliki's mind, is controlled by former Ba’thists, helps explain why he has tied his fortunes so closely to Iran, where he lived between 1982 and 1990.  Support from Iran helps him offset Saudi Arabia and hostile elements in the Arab Gulf, as well as providing a balance to US influence in Iraq.  Maliki can be assured of Iran's intelligence and military support.  Thus the Islamic Republic has become one of the key pillars of support for his regime.

In terms of Maliki’s strategy, these “pull” factors must also be seen in terms of “push” factors.   Beyond the benefits close ties with Iran provide, any Iraqi ruler needs to pay obeisance to Iranian interests and influence in Iraq.  As its most powerful neighbor, Iran exerts significant political, economic and cultural influence in Iraq.
Many of Iraq’s Shiite politicians spent considerable time in Iran during the period of Ba’thist rule, especially after 1975 when suppression of the Islamic Call Party began in earnest.  The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI) was actually under the leadership of Revolutionary Guards for 2 years after its founding in Iran in 1982.

A second power center is the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which is under the control of the 2 dominant Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.  From one perspective, the Kurds and Shi’a would seem to be natural allies against the Sunni Arabs.  Both fear the larger Sunni Arab community both in and beyond Iraq.  Certainly Iraq’s Kurds experienced horrors under the Ba’th through the gassing of the town of Halabja and the horrific Anfal campaign which destroyed much of the Kurdish agricultural sector and led to many Kurdish deaths.

Why then did Maliki decide to open another “front” against the Kurds?  First, Maliki feels he needs to demonstrate that he is leader of Iraq and not just an Arab state in the south.  Second, while Maliki despised Saddam Husayn, he feels the need to follow what he sees as the only model that Iraqis respect, that of a qabaday – or “tough guy.”  As a former expatriate whose family experienced severe repression, Maliki understands that strength engenders respect.

Maliki is worried that, should the Kurds become too powerful through exploiting their oil resources, they may able to assert their power in the contested city of Kirkuk and other parts of the so-called “disputed areas”  south of the "Green Line" that separates Iraq's 3 Kurdish majority governorates from Arab populated areas. Because the Kurds have become increasingly close to Turkey due to the latter’s extensive investment in the KRG, Maliki also fears that he will potentially face a powerful alliance in the north that unites Turkey and the Kurds.

Maliki’s calculations regarding the KRG also involve Iran which does not want to see a powerful independent Kurdish state along its border.  Thus Maliki strengthens his ties with Iran through taking a tough line towards the KRG.  Just as the Kurdish leadership has sought to create tensions with the Arab south to distract its populace from focusing on the corruption, nepotism and  authoritarianism that characterizes the KRG, so Maliki can unite his base by mobilizing support not just against the Sunni Arabs, but against the Kurds as well.

Another threat to Maliki's power is the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri).  The Sadrists, who prior to 2008 based their strength in the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), until it was defeated by the Iraqi army with US support, hold 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament and constantly criticize Maliki for the lack of services his government provides to the poor and needy, and the  massive corruption that pervades government ministries.  

The Sadrists demonstrate the fallacy of viewing Iraq's political dynamics simply in sectarian terms.  The Sadrists represent a powerful threat to Maliki within the Shiite community and support the Iraqi parliament taking a vote of no confidence to force him to resign.  The Sadrists strongly support imposing term limits on political offices in the executive branch of government as well.  This would mean that Maliki would not be able to run again for prime minister in the 2014 national elections.

At this point, game theory begins to fall short in explaining Maliki's behavior.  Why, for example, has Maliki not chosen to play a "cooperative" rather than a "zero-sum" game?  Why not seek to form a grand coalition with the dominant secular party, al-Iraqiya, which garnered many Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular Shiite votes, and won 91 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections to Maliki's State of Law Coalition's 89?  Why not strike a deal with the Kurdish leadership on oil extraction and oil sales and invite the Kurdish list to join the government as well?

The problem with game theory is that it is very weak in explaining the impact of institutions, on the one hand, while often treating powerful political actors as agents who are free to make whatever decisions they deem best for their interests, on the other.  Maliki's position of power in decision-making is indeed the obverse of the weakness of Iraq's political institutions.  For example, even though the Iraqi parliament recently passed a law to limit the prime minister, vice presidents and speaker of the parliament to 2 terms, the Iraqi Supreme Court, which is under Maliki's control, will undoubtedly declare the law unconstitutional.

One might argue, therefore, that this fact only underscores the importance of a game-theoretic approach because Maliki does not have to bow to any meaningful institutional constraints.  However, while Iraq's political institutions are weak, other institutions - informal in nature - have become ever stronger since 2003.  These institutions can be subsumed under one concept - corruption.  The NGO Transparency International ranks Iraq 175 of 180 in its list of the world's most corrupt nations.

If Maliki were to choose to play a cooperative game and "divide the spoils" with al-Iraqiya, the Kurdish List and the Sadrists, he would threaten the extensive system of corruption that is becoming more institutionalized in Iraq's political system by the day.  Government ministries are divided up according to a calculus based on the votes that parties in Maliki's State of Law Coalition won in 2010.  Ministries, especially those which can provide extensive patronage, such as the ministries of defense, health, transportation and electricity, are highly prized and  less concerned with providing services than creating patronage networks and embezzling public funds.

Game theory tells us little about how Maliki's behavior is constrained by Iraq's being caught in the vise of a "Cold War" between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  It also cannot explain how the dynamics of how his decisions are structured by the need to sustain the extensive network of corruption that provides much of the political cement that holds together his government and consequently provides the basis of his political power.

Further, game theory - with its implicit bias towards elite behavior - has little to say conceptually or theoretically about "politics from below."  The massive demonstrations that Maliki has faced over the past month, including opposition from the most powerful Shiite political movement, the Sadrists, comprises a serious threat to his power and authority.  Already, Maliki has been forced to address one of the demands that has enraged the Sunni community, namely the imprisonment of women without charge, often simply because their husbands or male family members were seen as Maliki opponents.  Most of these women have now been released.

Game theory likewise has little to say about Iraq's political economy and its impact on Maliki's political decision-making.  Maliki may feel that his access to large amounts of revenues from the sale of oil (and to a much lesser degree natural gas) gives him the freedom to ignore the demands posed by the large scale demonstrations and parliamentary maneuvers that call for his resignation  as prime minister.  

But is Iraq truly a "rentier state"?  Can Maliki and his political elite ignore the demands of its citizenry?  Can it ignore the increasing instability that plagues Iraq?  If sectarian violence spreads due to his policies, pipelines could be destroyed and foreign oil companies might withdraw from Iraq.  Technical assistance and support needed to  modernize Iraq's aged oil industry might evaporate in an environment of increasing violence and political decay.

At the end of the day, leadership counts for much in Iraqi politics.  Making decisions that bring Iraqis together, rather than forcing marginalized sectors of the populace, such as the Sunni Arabs, to choose to demonstrate against the government, or even turn to violence, requires statesmanship, not the parochial calculus of a short-sighted "political boss."  Can Maliki exchange his cynical sectarianism for a more civic form of rule?  The answer is that such change is highly doubtful.  Thus Iraq's political crisis only seems destined to worsen.