The Crisis in Iraq: Root Causes and Future Outlook

Monday, July 21, 2014

Saeid Jafari
Expert on Middle East Issues

When the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his colleagues in the State of Law Coalition were occupying all government posts in an totalitarian manner and at all levels of the government, it was quit predictable that the situation in Iraq will become as critical as it is right now. However, it would be also too simplistic to blame Nouri Al-Maliki for all the problems with which Iraq is currently faced. Perhaps, major factors that have brought Iraq to its current critical state can be summarized as follows.

Nouri Al-Maliki and State of Law Coalition

Since he came to power, the prime minister of Iraq has been following a totalitarian approach and did not believe in consulting other parties or showing respect for the opposition views. As a result of sticking to this attitude by Maliki, the political gaps continued to widen not only between the prime minister and Sunni politicians, but even with Shias as well following the second parliamentary elections in Iraq that were held after the fall of the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein. If it were not for consultations by Tehran, two powerful Shia clerics, Muqtada Al-Sadr and Ammar Al-Hakim would not have conceded to a repeated term for Maliki as prime minister and he would have not been able to become the country’s prime minister for a second time. However, Maliki continued with his totalitarian policies and as time went by, he became even lonelier than before. The policies he adopted in Sunni-dominated areas were even worse. Those affiliated with the Baath party, the relatives of Saddam and even other Sunni groups had developed a strong hatred toward Shias, in general, and Nouri Al-Maliki, in particular, after they were set aside from the power structure. The prime minister of Iraq, however, continued his discriminatory policies in those areas dominated by Sunnis and further enraged them by not allowing them to take part in the political game. As a result, it is very natural for a powder keg to be set off with the first spark.

Saudi Arabia

The theory of Salafism and Wahhabism enjoys a high amount of potential for the promotion of violence and radicalism. This ideology, which is specifically fostered by Saudi Arabia, has found a powerful fan base among Sunni groups in the Middle East region, especially in those parts when Sunni people are disgruntled with their governments. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, regional power equations have taken a positive turn in favor of Iran's national interests. Therefore, it is quite natural for Saudi Arabia to try to turn the table. Acting in a sinusoidal manner, this country has tried all existing options to bring about a major change in the existing conditions in Iraq. Riyadh, as such, has spared no effort from lending its support to violent acts by groups that oppose the central government to making recourse to civil mechanisms and providing spiritual and material support for political groups that oppose Nouri Al-Maliki. Undoubtedly, the government of Saudi Arabia as well as part of the Saudi society has played a crucial role in supplying military equipment to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. In the absence of that support, the ISIS would not have progressed as far as it already has.

The question is what are the viewpoints of Turkey and Iran, which have always followed the developments in Iraq with a lot of sensitivity?


Perhaps the most eccentric policy toward the ongoing developments in Iraq has been taken by its northern neighbor, Turkey. Despite the fact that Ankara has been always greatly concerned about the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity in the region, it is currently supporting the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. In reality, however, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been taking great risks in Iraq. The fact that the next presidential election in Turkey is forthcoming and due to the considerable effect that the votes cast by Turkish Kurds will have in determining the final result of the election, Erdogan has decided to embark on a very dangerous game in Iraq. By trying to pass himself as a major support base for Massoud Barzani [the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region] and Iraqi Kurds, Erdogan is trying to attract as many of Turkish Kurds’ votes as possible. On the other hand, Erdogan believes that by supporting the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, he will be able to sway a great degree of influence on that state in the figure. This will be a newly established country with a lot of crude oil for exports. However, almost all analysts know that this is a very dangerous game in which the possibility of Erdogan losing the game is tantamount to his chances for winning it.


Out of all regional countries, Iran benefitted most from the fall of Saddam. Perhaps, the overthrow of Saddam was more beneficial to Iran than even the United States. Therefore, it is no surprise that Tehran is now very concerned about the ongoing developments in Iraq and is opposed to any form of disruption in stability of Iraq as well as any obstacle that may prevent establishment of a powerful central government in its western neighbor. Iran has good friendly relations with all Shia groups in Iraq. However, the charismatic personality of Maliki and the way he ran the government had caused Iran to prefer Maliki over other Shia groups up to the present time. However, it goes without saying that if the need arises, Iran will be ready to prefer a more moderate person over Maliki in order to guarantee the survival of an integrated Iraq. From the viewpoint of Iran, such ideas as disintegration of Iraq, permanent occupation of part of Iraq by the ISIS as well as the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq are unacceptable ideas.

What will come next?

Following the inauguration of the new Iraqi parliament and appointment of a moderate figure out of Sunni groups as speaker of the new parliament, it seems that Maliki will have to say goodbye to power. Perhaps, this is one of the few chances that Iraq will have to overcome the ongoing crisis for which no short-term solution is perceivable. Kurds will not lose what they have gained so far and any central government coming to power in Iraq will possibly have to accept that the city of Kirkuk will never return under Baghdad’s control. Kurds, on the other hand, are well aware that those parties that are positive to independence of Kurdistan sway less power and influence in the country than those parties that are opposed to this process. In other words, under present circumstances, Turkey and Israel are the main parties supporting independence of Kurds, while two major foreign powers with influence in Iraq; that is, Iran and the United States have already indicated their opposition to any demand that would lead to disintegration of Iraq. Iran and the United States are also in agreement over another issue, which is annihilation of the ISIS. Both countries are wary about further growth of Salafi fundamentalism and a worst-case scenario for both Tehran and Washington is further advances of this terrorist group. Therefore, it seems that all the roads lead to Iran and the United States again, of course, provided that officials in both countries decide to strive toward the same goal and cooperate with each other away from longstanding problems that have marred their relations.

Key Words: Crisis in Iraq, Root Causes, Future Outlook, State of Law Coalition, Nouri Al-Maliki, Muqtada Al-Sadr, Ammar Al-Hakim, Saudi Arabia, Salafism and Wahhabism, Turkey, Iran, New Iraqi Parliament, Salafi Fundamentalism, ISIS, Jafari

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*Photo Credit: The New York Times

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