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Iraqi Coup Rumors, and Reality

A reader raised the issue of a possible coup in Iraq to replace the current government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in feedback to Iraq's New Political Alignment. Because this issue has become something of a hot topic, and because it does not directly relate to that analysis, I have chosen to respond here.

To the extent that political shows and TV commentators are seriously discussing a coup - by others or the U.S. - to replace the current Iraqi government, I would lower my estimate of the value of listening to these shows. I first read talk of a coup in the Arab media - usually alleged by SCIRI against the Baathists - back in July. Since SCIRI is hardcore on debaathification, I took this talk for the posturing that it was. In order to believe that there will be a coup, one must imagine some group or coalition with the power to make it happen. While many Sunnis have the desire, they are both weak and internally divided. Moreover, the intense hostility which the major Shi'a factions have for the Sunnis cannot be underestimated. They would partition Iraq before agreeing to give up a government in which they are the dominant force.

This article in the Washington Post ("Beyond the Coup Rumors, Options for Iraq") provides some background on the coup rumors. I don't think any of the ideas discussed therein should be taken seriously, but this is what is in the air. Sunni governments in the region certainly would favor a Sunni-led "national salvation government," but both the Shi'a and the Kurds would sooner partition the country than accept that. It should be noted that the party of Salih al-Mutlak, who was pushing the idea, has a mere 4 percent of the seats in Iraq's parliament. The country is already under martial law and so that is not new, and the idea of a five-man ruling junta representing the factions and led by Ayad Allawi would appeal to no one but the Sunnis. The article says Iraqi intelligence officials have discussed this idea, but Iraq's intelligence has been funded and controlled since 2004 by the U.S., and as no announcement of transfer of authority has been made, it is not an independent power center.

Yet anything that is this much talked about has to be considered seriously, and so after thinking about the issue, I think the best way to analyze it is to ask what are the armed factions in the country which might pull off a coup, and what are the possibilities. Aside from the U.S. and coalition forces, these are the potential actors in any possible coup:

1) Defense: The Iraqi Security Force (ISF) is run out of the Ministry of Defense. Abd al-Qadir al-'Abaydi, a Sunni, is the Defense Minister, but the ISF is dominated by Shi'a. The main policy difference between Abaydi and Maliki has been that Abaydi has been more forceful in going after the Shi'a militias, which is understandable. But with a Shi'a-dominated army, even if there were some basis for doubting the defense minister's loyalty to the government, it is hard to see how it would happen.

2) Interior: The Ministry of the Interior is headed by Jawad al-Bolani, an independent Shi'a. Bolani has taken criticism from fellow Shi'a for bringing more Sunnis into the interior ministry, and he recently reached an agreement with Sunni tribes in the Anbar to help equip them as long as they are fighting al-Qaeda. Bolani has a separate national police force under his authority, but it is funded by the U.S. Recently Bolani had to suspend part of the national police because of corruption and militia infiltration. In other words, Bolani has no independent source of power; he maintains his position by courting Sunnis, and depends on the U.S. for funding.

3) Shi'a Militias: The idea that the Shi'a militias might carry out a coup is completely implausible. SCIRI's Badr Corps and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army are the strongest, but neither is likely strong enough to take on the ISF, much less the U.S. military, and since the Iraqi Defense Ministry is headed by a Sunni, the ISF would resist. In fact, the ISF (along with coalition forces) has been fighting the Mahdi Army sporadically, and it has been getting the better of those fights. Moreover, SCIRI and the Sadriya are fierce opponents, and their militias have fought each other and would fight again rather than join forces with the Sunnis.

4) Iraqi Sunni Insurgents: Sunni Iraqis are not only weak, they are divided into three factions; those who have laid down their arms and joined the political process, those who continue to fight against U.S. and Iraqi forces, but which do not support al-Qaeda, and those who have joined themselves to the foreign jihadists. They do not have the ability to take over the government.

5) Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni jihadists: No possibility at all here. They are strongest in the Anbar Province, where they have succeeded in preventing the government from establishing itself, but they have also turned most of the tribes against them, and so mere survival is the issue for them. They hope to outlast the government, and if their suicide bombers are not stopped, they might. But they will not be taking over Baghdad.

6) Kurdish militias (the Pershmerga): The Kurds have real power only in their region, and they do have the ability to break away if they wish, although their land-locked Kurdistan would be completely dependent upon Arab Iraqis to export oil or engage in any other kind of commerce. A Kurdish role in a coup, which would deprive them of what influence they now have in Baghdad (they hold the presidency and the foreign ministry), is difficult to imagine.

Discontent with the current Iraqi government is indeed strong, but the only realistic alternative in case of its failure would be the partition of Iraq. I do not believe that the U.S. should threaten to withdraw troops in case of a coup attempt, as that would encourage it in some quarters, but the idea itself is implausible. While I have argued against those who say that the partition of Iraq is inevitable, I do think that partition is a possibility, much more so than a coup. Given that the current government has only been in power for five months, I consider discussion of its collapse to be premature. If America's founders had faced this much impatience, the United States would have been stillborn.


Listed below are links that reference Iraqi Coup Rumors, and Reality:

» The Politics of Weakness in Iraq from The Captain's Journal
ThreatsWatch has an interesting and carefully-reasoned commentary entitled “Iraq Coup Rumors, and Reality.”  Kirk Sowell’s analysis is more informative than is my “How Long Can a Hapless Maliki Hang On?“  After examining... [Read More]