June 16, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Action and Reaction: Maliki and Sectarian Violence
It’s not simply that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is unable to quell the increasing sectarian violence in his country. It’s that he never intended to. His first act upon the final withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq in late 2011—the first act as a truly sovereign head of state—was to order the arrest of the highest ranking Sunni in the government, Vice President Tariq al-Hashami.
Much has been said about the 2003 de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi military and other government agencies, with the evidence suggesting it significantly added fuel to the insurgency fires. Much less has been written about the de-Sunnification that al-Maliki has enacted since he was elected in May 2006, with the evidence suggesting that it is adding fuel to another insurgency fire. His election was made possible—in part, along with the US surge and other factors—by the near dismantling of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) (then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI) at the hands of the Sunni Awakening (or Sahwah).
Upon taking office, al-Maliki worked to dismantle the Sahwah units as much as he acted against AQI. So strong is his fear of the return of the Ba’athists that he was unable to distinguish between extremists of AQI and the tribesmen who were fighting them at great cost: all he saw were Sunnis with weapons and the certainty of a coup.
Given al-Maliki’s history in the Shi’a Dawa party, dedicating his life to ending Sunni persecution of Shi’a, this is understandable, but it also should have been very apparent that al-Maliki would never be the unifying figure the country needed.
Iraq in the Last Week and 11 Years
Last week’s ISIS victories—however temporary—in Mosul and other cities revealed not only the growing capabilities of the terrorist group but also the growing perception by average Iraqi Sunnis that the al-Maliki regime represents, for them, terror of another sort. It doesn’t bode well for defusing the current situation if Iraqi Sunnis who don’t like ISIS actually like al-Maliki even less.
By crushing any Sunni politician or organization that has meaningful or broad support, al-Maliki has ensured the political field will not be where the next contest is fought. ISIS has been able to ‘hold’ parts of Ramadi and Fallujah (where ISIS has always had a presence) in part because al-Maliki has consistently overreacted against those populations. Shelling a city may damage a terrorist group hidden among the population, but it will certainly kill any chance at reconciliation and political discourse. Prime Minister al-Maliki has been transparent in his actions and intentions, classifying his political opponents and terrorists alike as Ba’athists plotting his demise.
His maneuverings against Sunni politicians and organizations are the only things transparent about al-Maliki’s Iraq. The country is ranked an abysmal 171st out of 177 for corruption, according to Transparency International, and has similarly low rankings in reports measuring press freedoms, human development index, and—ironically given the name of his political party—rule of law. Hundreds of billions of dollars are unaccounted for or have gone to suspect contracts with very little tangible results. Instead of countering the growing discontent with a more open government and programs to help all Iraqis, al-Maliki has made it a crime to criticize the head of government, and has arrested his detractors. Ironically, al-Maliki might view the current crisis, if it stays at current levels, as a needed boost to unify his support among Iraq’s Shi’a, who also struggle against the ubiquitous corruption and decay.
While it is unlikely ISIS will succeed in overthrowing al-Maliki, the trend lines of al-Maliki’s performance make it very likely that more armed campaigns will follow. Iraq doesn’t lack for military equipment and weapons; it lacks a cohesive national army of Shi’a, Sunni—and Kurds—and led by capable officers not removed by al-Maliki. The near-term goals are to reverse ISIS gains and weaken the group enough that it remains off balance and unable to execute the plans that led to the capture of Mosul. This will be the easy part. The more important long-term goals need to address the de-Sunnification trend lines, rampant corruption, and the reality that al-Maliki remains a Prime Minister only for the 60% of Iraq who are Shi’a.
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