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Dispatch: Sunni-Shiite Competition in Post-American Iraq

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Video Transcript: 

Analyst Kamran Bokhari discuses the emerging regional competition for influence in Iraq that is expected to intensify as American troops withdraw.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Iraq's prime minister on Nov. 9 came out with some tough words on attempts by several provinces in the country to establish autonomous zones in the country. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that every single piece of Iraq's territory should be governed by its central government. Al-Maliki's statements have implications for the domestic balance of power at a time when U.S. forces are about to withdraw from the country, but more importantly it speaks volumes about the regional tug-of-war, particularly that between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Now that it is clear that the United States will be withdrawing its forces completely from the country, save a few hundred troops that would be engaged in security for diplomatic and international entities in Baghdad, Iraq's minority Sunni community is feeling threatened and is trying to make the best use of the options that it has available. And one of the options is to establish an autonomous zone within its areas, at least one if not more, as a means of trying to counter the overbearing power of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, which on its end is trying to make use of the American withdrawal to consolidate its hold over the new Iraqi republic.

The move on the part of Iraq's disenfranchised Sunni community has the Shia majority worried because from the point of view of the Shia their hold over power is a very nascent development, and with American forces leaving it is creating a new dynamic in which that balance of power needs time to settle, and they are worried about any attempts by the Sunnis to disrupt the attempt of the Shiites to consolidate their influence in the post-Baathist republic.

So what we have here is a revival of a Sunni-Shia tug-of-war at a time when American forces are not going to be around to prevent a direct clash. It is not inevitable that there will be a direct violent clash. Much will depend upon how both sects and their principal stakeholders are able to negotiate with one another.

But far more important than the role of the Iraqi factions is the role of their external patrons. In the case of the Sunnis it is Saudi Arabia, and in the case of the Shiites it is Iran. Both countries are looking at the American withdrawal from Iraq from very different perspectives. From the point of view of the Iranians, this is the moment that they have been waiting for — i.e. the withdrawal of American forces — which creates a vacuum that Tehran can use to consolidate its influence in Iraq. On the other hand, the Saudis have been dreading this moment and they see this as a threat to their national security. The Iranian attempt to consolidate its influence has to be countered from the Saudi point of view.

How do you do that? Well there are not that many good options because Iran does have the upper hand, so what Riyadh is hoping is that the Sunnis can make use of this constitutional provision to create autonomous regions as a means of securing their influence in this post-Baathist Iraq.

And one of the more interesting angles to the Iranian-Saudi struggle in post-American Iraq is the implications for Syria. From the point of view of Iran and its Iraqi allies, they do not want to see anyone using Iraqi territory, particularly that of the Sunni areas that border Syria, for action against the Syrian regime that is facing an uprising on the home front. Conversely, the Saudis and their allies would like to do just that.

So the question is how far are the Iranians and the Saudis willing to push their respective Iraqi proxies?