July 15, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: All the Wrong Moves: Al-Maliki Loses Iraq

• In the face of unprecedented threats, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has fallen back to using the sectarian playbook that might save his position but will certainly doom his country

• Every move al-Maliki has made in the last two weeks has been to strengthen his candidacy for prime minister while weakening the foundation of the office, leaving all sides with less reason to fight for unity

• By flailing against theoretical Sunni and Kurdish threats, al-Maliki has encouraged real popular movements that fit all too well into his paranoia

• The opposition has not abided by the recent political deadlock, meaning the sclerotic government might passively watch its dismemberment by more proactive opponents; although the election today of a Sunni speaker of the parliament provides a ray of hope for formation of some form of unity government

• Neither military equipment nor military advisors can fill the political void that has enabled extremist jihadist growth in what had been a secular society.

For the last five years or so, the status quo in Iraq has been an acceptable ‘unacceptable status quo.’ Even the most optimistic analysis suggests that the combination of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s exclusion of both Sunni and Kurds from the national government, with the growth of the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State (IS), will cripple any hopes of true national growth.

The crippling of real growth might have been hidden under the rubric of stability, with the latter dictating the former, although neither growth nor stability could survive long in the spiral of violence. The recent territorial gains by IS are more an indication of al-Maliki’s weakness as a nominal national leader than as an indicator of extremist support. Even among purely Iraqi sectarian supporters, that is a low standard.

All sides are issuing maps showing what they believe will be the new shape of the country, from the expansive IS caliphate to the partitioned vision of an independent Kurdistan. The maps reflect the inherent weakness of the government, with no one mapping an inclusive regime led by a Shi’a prime minister with broad cross-sectarian support. Throughout al-Maliki’s years in power, anyone who could have drawn such a map has been either marginalized or radicalized. This has left extremists and secessionists as the de facto cartographers of a future Iraq.

Every move that al-Maliki has made in the last month has been the wrong one, if the aim is to decrease tension and increase the chances that Iraq maintains its current tenuous makeup. He has chosen sectarianism over nationalism and all sides will bear the costs. By dismissing the Kurdish foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, last week, al-Maliki injected fresh sectarianism at the worst time, as the parties were gathering in Baghdad to select the new national leadership. This allowed the Kurds to dispense with the pretenses and move aggressively to expand their hold on oil-rich Kirkuk before moving to proclaim increased sovereignty.

The IS has also benefited from al-Maliki’s political choices. The US is hesitant to provide additional military aid to a government that has proven incapable of using the equipment it currently has, and that has repeatedly proven that it has little interest in creating a stable democracy. Al-Maliki is fighting the Iraqi state as much as the Islamic State, with a weakened national army and Shi’a militias. The near and long-term impact of external military aid is uncertain at best.

The current impasse of the Iraqi government will likely be broken with the encouragement of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a hugely influential figure in Iraq and among Shi’a Muslims. He has increasingly signaled his preference that al-Maliki step down so that a less strident sectarian figure can take his place. It is a sign of how divisive al-Maliki has become that the debate is not if al-Maliki is replaced but by whom. However, in looking for some form of optimism—with or without al-Maliki—the Iraqi Parliament elected on Tuesday Sunni bloc member Salim al-Juburi as speaker. It’s one positive step, significance to be determined, of working toward a more inclusive or even unity government.

Assuming al-Maliki’s replacement, the next prime minister will have a daunting task of convincing the Kurds to stay in the country and within the political process, as well as convince the Sunnis that they are part of the country and to join the political process. Eight years of sectarianism have left Iraq more divided than at any time since the removal of Saddam Hussein. Uniting the country will be a supremely difficult task, made more difficult with each day of political impasse. A future prime minister will have to move aggressively to ensure there is a country left to manage.


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