Ken Pollack: The Status of Iraq

Pollack is one of the two or three best-informed Iraq analysts, so I recommend this Brookings “web chat“:

On July 11, Kenneth Pollack answered your questions on the current situation in Iraq, in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO senior editor David Mark

(…) 12:32 [Comment From Jennie: ] What do you make of this seeming inability to put together a new government since the elections last March? What would it take for Allawi and Maliki to get together?

12:32 Ken Pollack: This is the $64,000 question. Both Maliki and Allawi KNOW that the best outcome for both of them is a coalition of their two parties. But the problem is that they really don’t like each other, and both want to be the senior partner in the coalition. So far, no one has been able to get around that. I think the Administration is on the right track by trying to farm out some of the powers that the PM has accrued to other official positions—both to make people more comfortable that the next PM won’t emerge as a dictator, and to create additional positions that would be acceptable to the two of them and other important groups who will also want to have a key position of authority. My concern is that what the US, UN and Iraqis have been talking about—some new positions and legislature to give force to their authority—may not fix the situation, and might even make it worse. As PM, Maliki has demonstrated an ability to subvert and work around other such new positions that were created as counterbalances to his office. That suggests that he, or whoever is the next PM, might be able to do so again if that is all we do. In addition, especially with the new parliament, the PM will probably be able to manipulate the CoR fairly easily to get legislation repealed or merely ignored. It is why I’d like to see constitutional changes to shift the role of commander-in-chief and responsibility for the security services to the Presidency. That would create a real balance of power between the Presidency and the PM, and would create two positions that I think either Maliki or Allawi would be willing to take.

(…) 12:36 David Mark: Critics of the 2003 Iraq invasion contend that toppling the Baathist regime allowed Iran to expand its influence. Is there any way of telling how much sway the Iranian government or its agents will have over the Iraqi government once U.S. troops withdraw?

12:40 Ken Pollack: It is a big question mark, but at this point still a question mark (and pardon the pun on your name).

Iraqis mostly dislike Iran–and I mean really, really dislike Iran. If they felt strong enough to stand up to Iran, they absolutely would, and that is what we see from them whenever they are feeling strong. So the problem is when they are feeling weak. If they are scared of violence, and scared that no one else is going to help them deal with the violence, then the Shi’ah tend to fall back on Iran not because they like them, but as the only game in town.

Iran has suffered a number of huge defeats in recent years–the clearing of Basra in 2008, the provincial elections of 2009, the national elections this year–but they are still not out because the political situation is still so weak and fragile, and whoever the losers are among the Shiah go looking to the Iranians to try to recoup their losses.

So if Iraq emerges as a strong, functional country, I think Iranian influence will be present but very limited. The weaker Iraq is the more that Iran will be able to exploit cracks and fissures to make itself influential.

12:41 [Comment From Marshall Lilly: ] President Obama has claimed in recent speeches that he’s fulfilling one of his campaign pledges by ending the combat mission in Iraq by August 2010, even though the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and implemented by the Bush administration is what set this process in motion. Has President Obama’s Iraq policy differed in any major ways from the last two years of the Bush Administration, or has he largely followed the script his predecessor left for him?

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