An Iraqi woman walks past a series of billboards advertising election candidates in Iraq

An Iraqi woman walks past a series of billboards advertising election candidates in Iraq Kadim Kadim/AP

Iraq’s Elections Setting Up ‘Worst Case Scenario’

The winner of Iraq’s election will likely be al-Maliki or al-Qaeda. Either way, here’s why the U.S. loses. By James Kitfield

In hindsight, the image of Iraq that emerged from the hopeful 2010 national elections seems like a mirage.

During those elections the Iraqi army was the glue that held the country together, acting as guardians of a young democracy. The U.S.-trained and backed Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, kept al-Qaeda in Iraq from spoiling the election with violence by capturing hundreds of weapons caches, clearing scores of roadside bombs and defusing more than 20 car bombs in the days leading up to the vote. Baghdad’s relatively weak political institutions responded by delivering a close vote that actually mattered, with the Sunni minority turning out in large numbers for the first time and backing a secular nationalist who actually won the most seats in parliament. At long last, a unified Iraq seemed on the path to democracy.As Iraqis prepare for another national election at the end of this month, an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government appear poised to further consolidate power at the expense of Sunnis and Kurds.

Systematically marginalized and in some cases persecuted by the Maliki government, the Sunni tribal sheikhs behind the “Anbar Awakening” have mostly rejected the Baghdad government, and in some cases have once again found common cause again with the Sunni terrorists of al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, bolstered by the violence and sanctuary next door in Syria, and growing Sunni disaffection, the newly renamed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has come storming back into Anbar, flying the black banner of al-Qaeda over the strategic crossroads city of Fallujah and controlling major areas of the Western province. Al-Qaeda’s familiar strategy of slaughtering Shiite civilians in order to ignite a sectarian civil war explains why 8,000 Iraqis were killed and an estimated 25,000 wounded in attacks last year, making it the deadliest year since the U.S. troop “surge” pulled Iraq back from the abyss in 2008.

Now Iraqi Security Forces, rather than providing the glue that holds Iraq together through the turmoil of another bitterly contested national election and months of government –formation, are in severe decline, experts say, with military equipment failing from lack of adequate maintenance, training facilities largely shuttered and its ability to conduct complex operations crippled by a lack of key U.S. enablers.

“The Iraq Security Forces are well on their way to becoming the largest ‘checkpoint’ army in the Middle East,” said a former senior U.S. officer recently back from Iraq.

Politics Feeding Instability

Somewhat ironically, the resurgence of ISIS in Anbar and its wanton murder of civilians have markedly improved the electoral prospects of Maliki, who many fellow Shiites see as the only strongman in the race willing to crush the terrorists. But to date, Maliki has been content to surround and try to isolate al-Qaeda forces in Fallujah, while attempting to cut side deals with some reluctant Sunni tribes. But his restraint may have limits, especially if Maliki sweeps upcoming national elections.

“What I once considered the worst case scenario now seems increasingly likely, which is that Maliki wins big in the election and views that as a mandate to take a hardline and send the ISF into Anbar to retake Fallujah and Ramadi,” said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and a former Middle East expert at the CIA, who recently returned from Iraq. Even if the Iraqi army was successful, he notes, a big Maliki win -- followed by bloody sectarian fighting in Anbar that begins to look like a return to civil war -- may prompt already restless Kurds in northern Iraq to proclaim their independence. If Iraq starts to break apart under those circumstances, it’s hard to know what power center holds it together. “I return from Iraq much more concerned than when I left,” said Pollack, speaking recently at the Brookings Institution. “I spoke with a lot of people around Maliki, and very few of them were talking about compromise or reconciliation.”

For U.S. policymakers there’s another potential worst-case scenario: Iraqi Security Forces, having been ordered to retake Fallujah, fail miserably. Such a defeat could hand al-Qaeda a major victory and sanctuary from which to pursue its longtime goal of splintering Iraq and Syria along sectarian lines. After Maliki met with President Barack Obama in Washington late last year, the administration quietly began expediting the sale of weapons and munitions to the ISF, including Hellfire missiles, unarmed ScanEagle and Raven reconnaissance drones, and sensor-laden Aerostat surveillance balloons. The CIA also has reportedly been sharing intelligence with the Iraqis about the disposition of ISIS militants in Anbar. Later this year the administration plans to deliver the first batch of F-16 fighters that Iraq has purchased, and the White House has sought congressional approval to lease Iraq Apache helicopter gunships.

U.S. military leaders have not forgotten, however, that reinforced U.S. Marines and Army armor units fought some of the bloodiest battles of the long Iraq War in retaking Fallujah from al-Qaeda militants. The 2004 sieges of Fallujah required the kind of complex air-ground military operations and house-to-house urban fighting that many experts believe is beyond the grasp of Iraqi Security Forces.

“Because U.S. forces left Iraq earlier than anticipated in 2011, we never got Iraqi Security Forces to the point where they were really capable of combined arms operations, which requires commanders to synchronize direct and indirect fires, close air support and intelligence fusion to pinpoint the enemy,” said a former senior U.S. Army officer with extensive experience in Iraq. “While the Iraqi Security Forces are resilient and experienced fighters, all of those tasks are a challenge for them. And unfortunately, kicking al-Qaeda out of Anbar is a combined arms fight.”

Of course, the upcoming elections could prove close, and a chastened al-Maliki could reach out to Sunni tribal leaders with reconciliation offers that separate them from ISIS in a second “Anbar Miracle.” The Kurds could settle for their current level of autonomy and forego dreams of an independent Kurdistan. Iraq Security Forces could easily roll over ISIS extremists in Anbar who look stronger from a distance than up close. But to many experienced observers none of those more hopeful outcomes seem likely.

“A lot now depends on how the election results are perceived,” said Pollack. “But every time we think that the level of violence in Iraq has hit bottom, we discover there’s a new floor.”