The Domestic and Regional Repercussions of the US Withdrawal upon Iraq and the Middle East

10 January 2012
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With the US withdrawal from Iraq, the infrastructure, social structure and stability of Iraq have undergone an irrevocable transformation. The US administration, which invaded Iraq with so-called slogans of democracy and freedom, has left the country with ethnic and sectarian conflicts, instability, and chaos.


In fact, the stability and welfare of Iraq are crucially important for global actors which want to make use of abundant underground sources both in the region and the Middle East.

The Obama administration made an official explanation that the Iraqi war came to an end and started to withdraw from Iraq. However, eight years under the US administration has cost much for Iraq. It could even be said that severe life conditions in Iraq as a consequence of that invasion will be passed down to the future generations. What’s more, the US may seem to have saved Iraq from the dictatorship of Saddam, yet instability and acts of violence in today’s Iraq point out that the situation in Iraq is getting worse compared to the conditions during the Saddam Hussein administration. This analysis focuses on the following: what would happen in Iraq and the countries in the region upon the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq, possible developments for Iraq, and the underlying reasons why the political crisis (which erupted in Iraq upon the withdrawal of the US from the country) has come to a deadlock.

Iraq after the U.S. Troop Withdrawal

The US, within the scope of the Greater Middle East Initiative and under the name of the war on terror, invaded both Afghanistan (in 2002) and Iraq (in 2003), initially claiming that Iraq kept weapons of mass destruction. If one compares Iraq during the Saddam administration with the one after the US invasion, they can see a rather interesting scenario. During the administration of Saddam Hussein, at least clearly it was known who the ‘evil culprits’ were, who was the dictator and who were the supporters of  Saddam Hussein. On March of 2003, the US and its alliances, claiming that they were the protectors of democracy, freedom, human rights (and all rights in general), intervened in Iraq and toppled the Saddam regime. The US itself, from time to time, made confessions saying that it acted on the  basis of false information. With the US intervention in Iraq, the Iraqi people were rid of the Saddam regime and welcomed the US troops demolishing the statues of Saddam. However, given the difficulties that Iraqi people faced, it could be said that the US intervention did not meet people’s expectations.

However, it could be said that events and inhumane scandals in Iraq after the US invasion had also been experienced during the Saddam era. However, it should be noted that the same troubles have considerably increased during the time of the so-called ‘protectors of democracy and freedom’ in Iraq. The human rights violations that the Iraqi people underwent during the term of Saddam Hussein are seen in today’s Iraq as well. Even though the US claims that it intervened in the country in order to prevent such violations, the constant human rights abuses in today’s Iraq call to mind the Saddam Hussein period. Under such an atmosphere, it could be stated that Iraqi people do not only live under insecure conditions but are also deprived them of basic needs, such as food supplies. Additionally, Iraq has come to be a market where foreign companies sell their expired goods. In his explanation on June 2006, the Iraqi Minister of Trade Abdel Falah al-Sudani said that the goods and properties imported to Iraq were expired. As a result, many malignant diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other dangerous illnesses) arose among the Iraqis.

Given the current scene in Iraq with the US invasion, it could be said that internal conflicts (that appear as a result of ethnic and sectarian conflicts, namely Shi’ite-Sunni and Arab-Kurd conflicts) are highly possible triggers that could turn into a civil war threat. One of the most important points to be noted here is that political competition seen among the Iraqi political parties with the US invasion is making the country drift into an explosive atmosphere. Especially given the fact that Iraqi political groups have entered into a power struggle, this stands as a huge stumbling block for the development, welfare and stability of the country. Additionally, the US occupation of Iraq has greatly cost the Iraqi people. According to the data released by the Iraqi Ministry of Health, the death toll in Iraq has reached to 223,000  as of 2003. However, some unofficial statistics say that the number of those who’ve lost their lives reaches nearly 1,200,000. As for the number of the Iraqi people who’ve had to migrate from Iraq, it is said to be almost 4,000,000. It is also stated that two million out of these forced emigrants are said to have had to migrate abroad while the rest had to find accommodation within the country. (1) Besides, some statistics say that close to 3,000,000 women were widowed and 5,000,000 children were left orphans. What’s more, Iraq has been ranked as the 7th most administratively and financially corrupt government worldwide.. For instance, Usama al-Nujayfi, the Speaker of Council of Representatives of Iraq, stated on June 11th 20011 that $17,000,000  (which was transferred from oil income to restructure Iraq) were stolen, according to the data given by the American and Iraqi auditors. (2)

If one considers the US strategy towards Iraq with its invasion under the light of these developments, it could be seen that the main aim has been to destroy the infrastructure, political, diplomatic and military power (its army and security forces) of Iraq; thereby rendering Iraq in need of America both within the region and the international society. In the same vein, the US has tried to create such an image to the world public that it has brought so-called “democracy and freedom” to Iraq, including three elections and a referendum conducted over the former constitution of Iraq. However, when today’s Iraq is taken into account, it would not be wrong to say that Iraq’s political economic and social conditions are far below the normal living standards.

The US Withdrawal and the Background of the Political Crisis in Iraq 

On November 17th 2008, a Security Agreement (SOFA: Status of Forces Agreement) was signed between the US and the Republic of Iraq. Within the framework of this agreement, the Obama administration committed the complete withdrawal of its military forces by December 31st 2011. (3) Likewise, on December 15th 2011 ceremony in Baghdad, the US Defense Minister Leon Panetta lowered the American flag, commencing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq as a declaration that the war was over. Immediately after the withdrawal of the American troops, crisis broke out among  Iraq’s political groups. Firstly, 82 members of the Al-Iraqiyya Coalition within parliament, led by Iyad Allawi, suspended their memberships to the parliament and decided not to further participate in the cabinet meetings. (4) Additionally, upon the mandate of the Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Vice President (and Sunni Arab) Tarık al-Hashemi was subject to a travel sanction on the grounds that that he organized confidential assault teams and a warrant was issued for his arrest on terrorism-related charges. Given all these, it could be stated that big plots lie behind the fact that Maliki, immediately after the US left Iraq, accused the Sunni people of being “terrorists,” potentially ripping the country apart politically and socially. Underlying reasons why Maliki has adopted such a stance towards the Sunni politicians could be summarized as follows:

1. At the time when the US withdrawal from Iraq was hotly debated, a scenario where a Kurdish-Arabic conflict might arise was put forward. If such a conflict arose, the relationship between the Iraqi Kurds and the US would be adversely affected. Similarly, the possibility for America to lose the Kurds, their  number one ally in Iraq, would increase. Hence, with the purpose of stopping a plausible Arab-Kurd conflict, the US had to find a new formula. It was because losing the Kurds for America would possibly mean the failure of many calculations in the Middle East. In brief, it would be of utmost use to point out the fact that if an Arab-Kurd conflict erupts in Iraq upon the absence of the US troops from Iraq, it will be a conflict between the Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The power is already at the hands of the Shiite Arabs and (despite the political disputes they have with Kurds over issues such as oil and gas law, funds responsibility, and disputed territories) the possibility of these issues turning into a conflict is comparatively less than the probability of a Sunni-Shiite conflict. From this point of view, the US is more likely to incite a Sunni-Shiite conflict (which has been many times seen in the country) rather than a Kurd-Arab strife in Iraq. That’s why, with the purpose of maintaining its relations with Kurds, the US is trying to ensure that Sunni Arabs (who have been isolated by the Shiite administration of Baghdad) take shelter in the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq and a new Kurd-Sunni Arab bloc has been established. In this sense, the fact that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has labeled the Sunni leaders “terrorists” prepares the ground for the establishment of this bloc.

2. Maliki, upon the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq, is concerned about a possible attempted coup d’état  from Sunni soldiers who are active in the Iraqi army and the probability that the Sunnis will once more seize control of Iraq. It is for this reason that Maliki, before the Sunnis start to rise in power, aims at deactivating their any political, economic and military power. Additionally, Maliki believes in the necessity of solitarily controlling all the fields of Iraq. In recent months, provincial councils of Selahattin, Anbar and Diyal –known as the Sunni-dominated cities of Iraq- have decided to declare their autonomy. This declaration could be seen as one of the consequences of Maliki’s oppression policies on Sunni-dominated provinces.

Given the afore-said reasons, the attitude adopted by Maliki upon the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq has further increased the sectarian disputes. In fact, Maliki has unintentionally behaved as the main actor of the U.S.-planned scenario designated for the country.  Any sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq would once again drift the country into chaos and stalemate. Therefore, due to his policy towards the Sunni leaders, Maliki may be deprived of the support of the vast majority of public who want to see the unity and integrity of Iraq. Besides, increasing acts of violence and the failure of the Iraqi government in maintaining security of the country may leave Maliki in a difficult situation.

Would A Kurd-Sunni Alliance Disintegrate Iraq?

Many scenarios have been written over a possible disintegration of Iraq after the US invasion. Within this scope, the concept of “federalism” has been included in Iraq’s 2005 permanent constitution so that Iraq could be easily divided into three. With this concept, ways of gradually separating Iraq have been searched. The first step for the disintegration of the country was to eliminate the concept of “Arab” in Iraq and to alienate Iraq from the Arab world alike. As of 2003, the “Arab” concept has been replaced by religious separations such as Shiite-Sunni conflicts. In other words, in Iraq and even in the Middle East region, the Arab ethnicity has been destined to dissolution. Therefore, as the only group which has still been regarded as an ethnic party, even after the US invasion, has been the Kurds. It has also been among the purposes to divide (ethnic) Arabs and Turkmen into (religious) Shiite-Sunni categories instead; this strategy has, to a large extent, been  successful. That is to say, Iraq is comprised of the Shiites, Sunnis and the Kurds. Here, the first step of disintegrating Iraq has been to transform the ethnic structure into a sectarian one by dividing the regions into three, and naming them as Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions. What’s more, combined with such separation, policies applied by American forces, which support any sectarian conflict in Iraq, have resulted in 1,200,000 Iraqi deaths, as proved by various related data reports.

From this perspective, it could be said that the first step of disintegrating Iraq is complete. As the second step, the US wants Sunni Arabs to accept and adopt the concept of federalism. Sunnis also say that they will leave Iraq if they stay under pressure for a long time. This shows that the second phase of the plan aiming at the disintegration of Iraq has, to a certain extent, proved successful. The first signal of this phase of the plan came in June of 2011 during the visit paid to Washington by Sunni Arab parliamentary speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi. He said that if the Sunnis are subject to pressure, they would leave the country. (5) Interestingly enough, what the Sunnis had opted for since the invasion of Iraq, was not federalism, but instead, the territorial integrity of the country. However, in recent times the Sunnis seem more willing when it comes to the separation of the country. This indicates that separation threat is getting more and more serious. The withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq has considerably changed political and social values of the country. It has reached to such an extent that the threats for separation is now originating from the groups (such as the Sunnis’ demands for autonomy) which had so far supported Iraq’s integrity. As for the third step, it intends to divide the current Iraq into autonomous regions thereby turning them into small states and later to combine them under three regions namely being the Shiite, Sunni and the Kurdish regions.

Under the light of these developments, the Sunnis have been isolated from Iraq’s political arena as a result of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies of keeping Sunni leaders away from the administration immediately upon the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq. Consequently, the Sunnis may establish an alliance with the Kurds and this, in turn, calls to mind Iraq’s possible separation. Therefore, given the probable new political equation in Iraq, it could be said that a Kurdish-Sunni Arab bloc (that is envisaged to be established within the federative structure supported by Iraqi Kurds) will be against the Shiites in terms of regional support. If such an alliance is established, the most advantageous party will be the Kurdish Regional Government. Kurds can benefit from this new political balance in two ways: firstly, thanks to this alliance, Kurds may strengthen their hand against the Baghdad government in their political crises (as outlined in the  oil and gas law issue in late 2011) and thus make things hard for Maliki. Secondly, the freedom of movement of the Kurdish peshmerga forces in the disputed regions such as Kirkuk, Mosul, Diyala, Hanekin, that cause huge tension between Baghdad and Erbil could increase. Kurds could be said to benefit from the re-escalating Sunni-Shiite tension in Iraq. Besides, if the image of the Kurds as the protectors of Sunni Arab from Shiites is supported by Sunni Arab countries of the region as well, then Arab funds are likely to be transferred to northern Iraq and increased accordingly Here, Iran should also be taken into account. While the Kurdistan Regional Government protects Sunni Arabs, it should be rather cautious in order not to severe its relations with Iran. It should also be noted that Kurds are covertly exerting huge efforts so that they can take an advantage of the tension between Maliki and Tarik al-Hashemi. What’s more, Kurds do not conceal the fact that, both in Baghdad and the region, they want to be a leading player in Iraq’s political arena. Massoud Barzani, right after the Sunni-Shiite tension in Baghdad (the Tarik al-Hashemi and Saleh al-Mutlaq events), made a call for an immediate “national conference” in Erbil. This could be regarded as his move which doesn’t intend to impair his balanced relations with Iran.

The Political Crisis in Iraq and the Turkmen

The new political equation, which has come into being with the US invasion in Iraq, has been planned to include Kurds, Shiites and Sunnites. Therefore, Turkmen have been excluded from power sharing in Baghdad. Among the other reasons, why Turkmen have been excluded from this share of power could be the following: They do not have an seasoned political background, they cannot understand the new political formation of Iraq and are not aided by the US forces  at all. Thus, although the Turkmen have been the third element of Iraq under the roof of Iraq Turkmen Frontier, they have to struggle to survive in the new political formation of Iraq. Additionally, it has been the Turkmen who have been most adversely affected by the developments in Iraq. Especially in the Turkmen regions of Iraq, acts of violence, kidnapping and unidentified attacks towards Turkmen have increased. It has become inevitable for the Turkmen to be negatively influenced by the political crisis and acts of violence in Iraq upon the US withdrawal from the country. Ayad Allawi’s party, the powerful Iraqi National Accord party, along with many other parties, formed the Al Iraqiyya coalition [also known as the Iraq National List], made up of political parties that contested the 2010 parliamentary elections in the country. The Turkmens, led by Ershad Salihi, as part of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, joined the Al Iraqiyya coalition in 2010 as a result of the contested parliamentary results. Later, Turkmen’s membership to the parliament was suspended though. Upon this, the Turkmen withdrew from the government. That is to say, since the Iraq Turkmen Frontier is now included in the Al-Iraqiya list, it is no longer within the political equation that has appeared as a result of the conflicts in Baghdad. When the developments in Iraq are evaluated taking the Turkmen into account how they will be influenced from the current conflict could be summarized as follows:

- Both the facts that the Iraq Turkmen Frontier retains a position within the Al-Iraqiya list and transformation of the political debate between Maliki and Hashemi into Sunni-Shiite conflict may trigger a possibleSunni-Shiite separation among the Turkmen. It is because the Shiite Turkmen,  within the State of Law list under the leadership of Maliki, may be influenced by the mentioned crisis and label the Iraq Turkmen Frontier as Sunni. In this case, the Iraq Turkmen Frontier, which has been striving to prevent any Sunni-Shiite conflict among the Turkmen for nine years, may face a rather difficult situation. When viewed from this aspect, it is of utmost importance for the Iraq Turkmen Frontier to establish a committee. Likewise, it would be beneficial to negotiate with the Turkmen politicians in the “Maliki list” in order to prevent the appearance of such a scene.

- Upon the departure of the US forces, in the event that the re-incited Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq spills over into the Turkmen regions, the Turkmen may also be included in this bilateral dispute, be it willingly or unwillingly. Hence, the Iraq Turkmen Frontier should adopt such a policy that would not lead to a sectarian segregation within the Turkmen. The fact the Iraq Turkmen Frontier has been within the Al-Iraqiya could have been perceived as something rather positive at the beginning. However, beforehand the Iraq Turkmen Frontier should have calculated that this would not be a long term policy and any disagreement between the Al-Iraqiya list and Maliki list would turn into sectarian conflict. In other words, it could have been thought that the fact that political problems between Maliki, Allawi or Hashemi have been regarded as the Sunni-Shiite showdown would negatively affect the Turkmen as well. It should be pointed out that the Turkmen would not enter into a sectarian conflict among themselves yet the groups which are in favor of the Maliki list may move away from the Iraq Turkmen Frontier.

If the Turkmen are considered under the light of these, it is seen that the Iraq Turkmen Frontier, as an exceptional case, may adopt a policy that is independent of its own list. There is no need to cause a dissention among the Turkmen just because of the political dispute between Maliki and Hashemi. Additionally, if the Iraq Turkmen Frontier follows “a mediation” role for the solution of the Maliki-Hashemi crisis, this will be an important step for the Turkmens to have a voice in Iraq’s political arena and will prove that they are an element of balance in Iraq. To put it differently, the Iraq Turkmen Frontier should not adopt a partisan stance towards sectarian and ethnical events in Iraq and should also express its duty of being a mediator by officially explaining this to the parties. It is because the thing of utmost priority for the Turkmen to be saved from this sectarian conflict is the necessity of following a balanced and multi-dimensional policy. It is for this reason that the Iraq Turkmen Frontier should be prepared for any urgency case and be in contact with parties that are in political disagreement.

The US Withdrawal from Iraq and the Repercussions throughout the Region

The Middle East region has by and large undergone a transformation process. Popular movements that have been going on as of the early 2011 in the region first erupted in Tunisia, then spreading to many countries in the area. This has resulted in a shift of certain governments. While the regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia) and global powers (the US, England, France, China and Russia) were dealing with “the popular revolutions” in the Arab states, the political crisis erupting in Iraq upon the withdrawal of the US troops has almost  overshadowed the transformation process coming with the Arab Spring. Debates over who will fill the gap in Iraq upon the US withdrawal from the country have been an agenda item as of 2008. In this respect, it could be easily foreseen that there will be a regional competition to fill the gap that has appeared with the US withdrawal. It is because highly probable that, due to ethnical and religious diversity in Iraq, a regional conflict will arise in any case. From now on, Iraq has been a key point for regional powers’ competition to display political superiority within the Middle East. Thus, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel may try to fill the gap in Iraq, be it directly or indirectly. Israel may not be included in this equation, yet its role as an important hidden actor could be taken into account.

Following the disengagement of the US troops from Iraq, regional competition in Iraq has officially started with the event of the Iraq’s Vice President (Arab) Tarik al-Hashemi. The crisis between Maliki (State of Law list) and Hashemi (Al-Iraqiya List) has turned into a Sunni-Shiite conflict and this has negative impacts upon the countries of the region. In fact, the main aim here is to turn the dispute between Maliki and Hashemi into a regional political intervention and to regionalize the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq under the name of a power struggle over the country. What’s more, among the objectives could be the emergence of Sunni-Shiite conflict from the gap in Iraq and to confront Turkey and Iran in the region. Additionally, among the aims here could be to form a Sunni bloc within the triangle of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s Shiite geo-politics. That’s why, for Turkey to maintain its policy that it has no biased stance towards any groups in Iraq, it would be of utmost importance not be much involved in the Hashemi event and to say that it would be better if Hashemi stays in Iraq instead of taking shelter in Turkey. However, it should be remembered that instant intervention in the events taking place in Iraq and prevention of the Sunni-Shiite conflict would significantly help Turkey to have a say over the competition in Iraq and to follow an active policy. It is because a regional power that has a voice in Iraq could influence the whole Middle East. When Turkey’s recent policy towards the Middle East is taken into account, it is seen that it has further increased its influence in the fields of economy and commerce, yet politically is becoming somewhat distant from the region. Besides, if Turkey (which has severed diplomatic ties with Israel given the crises at  Davos and the Mavi Marmara event) plays an active role in Iraq after the US military pullout, Tel-Aviv may not welcome this new Turkish presence in Iraq. Besides, in the event that the US supports the Iraqi Shiites in order to stop any probable Kurd-Arab conflict in Iraq, this could be interpreted as if the US indirectly collaborated with Iran. That is to say, the US’ new strategy towards Iraq may strengthen Iran’s role in Baghdad. Hence, Turkey, as an important player in the region, should be included in the triangle of the US, Iran, and the Shiites so that it can protect the regional balance in this equation.


Iraq has experienced rather critical times upon the departure of the US troops and its future does not look positive due to the political and sectarian disputes in the country. When all of the afore-mentioned developments are taken into account, it is evident that it has only been the individuals who have paid the price. Security problems and acts of violence, which have appeared as a result of sectarian and ethnical conflicts with the US withdrawal from the country, are increasing day by day. Iraqi people are fed up with the political disputes among the administrators of Baghdad ever since the US-led occupation began. Even though the problem of Iraq is seen as something purely political, it has many other dimensions. Iraq’s most basic problem derives from the insufficiency of basic services such as employment, electricity and water. Socially, Iraq suffers from economic unbalance and injustice. While one part of the society is getting richer, a bigger part of the same society is getting poorer and poorer. Instead of trying to eradicate these problems, Iraqi politicians are in positions of power looking for their own advantages and political benefits.

Additionally, the Tarik al-Hashemi event appearing with the US withdrawal may both increase the sectarian tension and result in the disintegration of the Iraq’s government, which was established only after ten months after the latest elections held in March 2010. Even though the Hashemi issue is reflected as something legal, it has come to be politicized. Thus, the Hashemi issue is critically important for Iraq. Maliki should also consider the possibility that after appearing before the judge Tarik al-Hashemi may be acquitted. This time it would not be ethical for Maliki to hold on with his presidency and this would require his resignation. Moreover, unless Maliki resigns, popular revolts in the Arab states may erupt in Iraq as well. In a nutshell, following the submission of the Hashemi event to the court, either Maliki or Hashemi will have to resign. Otherwise, both of the leaders will go on drifting the country into chaos.

When all of these developments are analyzed on a regional level, it could be seen that there is a political disagreement and competition in the Iraqi administration. Furthermore, while Iraq is coping with such problems, no other country in the region has the chance of following a “wait and see policy.” It is because of the fact that security and stability of Iraq is of utmost importance for the stability of the whole region. Especially Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even other Arab states, instead of being in a power struggle, should cooperate and act in concert with each other so that Iraq can be rescued from the mentioned danger. In the upcoming process, in order not to turn Iraq into a field of regional competition, Turkey and Iran especially should act in concert with each other when it comes to Iraq.









Translated by Hacer Şartepe

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