Iraq: Maliki & Co.’s Path of Folly

by Wayne White

The Biblical quotation, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” could not be more relevant to what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s near unremitting hostility toward Iraq’s powerful Sunni Arab minority has generated: a rising drumfire of mostly Sunni Arab bombings aimed at Maliki’s Shi’a base as well as his regime. Yet, in the face of the awful toll such bloodshed has taken in past years, Iraq’s Shi’a policymakers have remained unmoved. So, for the most part, Maliki and Co. may well continue this dangerously divisive policy, making further unrest in Iraq likely. Yet, responding with some grand offer of sectarian reconciliation might find few takers at this point.

When the US agreed to allow Sunni Arab tribesmen and former insurgents to join with American forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) back in late 2006 (the so-called “Sunni Arab Awakening”), Maliki opposed the arrangement bitterly. Indeed, through late 2007, Maliki not only spurned this major initiative, he even at times attempted to attack Sunni Arab combatants working with US forces employing elements of the Iraqi Army especially trusted by him.

Initially, Sunni Arabs involved in the “Awakening” did not want to work with the Iraqi government either, only the Americans (regarding Maliki and his Shi’a allies as hostile, pro-Iranian and untrustworthy). Eventually, however, the vast bulk of the Awakening cadres agreed to serve in the Iraqi security forces in an attempt to bury the hatchet with Baghdad. Most of Iraq’s equally war-weary Sunni Arab tribal leaders came to feel likewise. This represented a strategic opportunity to initiate a process of meaningful Sunni Arab re-integration, though gradual and on terms set by Washington and the Maliki government.

The US duly extracted assurances from Maliki by 2008 (albeit with difficulty) allowing a large number of Sunni Arab fighters to obtain mostly low-level, often localized positions in the security forces. Yet, as US forces left the scene, Maliki not only backed away from the full thrust of these commitments, but began to target Awakening leaders and even some of the rank and file for extrajudicial arrest and assassination.

Thousands of former insurgent cadres remained on the government payroll for years — some even today — but lots of others left or were hounded out of their jobs (caught between the very real threat of arrest — or worse — from government authorities and bloody revenge attacks from AQI). Meanwhile, many Sunni Arab parliamentary candidates became victims of the Shi’a-controlled and highly politicized “de-Ba’thification” commission (which excluded them from running for or ever holding government office).

Quite a few of the small number of Sunni Arab officials to secure senior government rank were then accused of abetting terrorism. Ultimately, the most prominent of them all, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, was accused in December 2011 of running an anti-Shi’a hit squad. Hashimi fled first to Iraqi Kurdistan (even Iraq’s Kurds refused to turn him over to Maliki) and then to Ankara. In this way, from 2008 through 2013 (and counting), Maliki and his Shi’a allies not only threw away an opportunity to reduce violence dramatically. They also gave AQI a new lease on life as an unknown number of disaffected Sunni Arabs apparently turned a blind eye to AQI’s activities or even gave it sanctuary once again.

For months now, Sunni Arabs also have taken to the streets, holding demonstrations throughout areas where they predominate to protest their mistreatment at the hands of the Iraqi government. Feeding seething sectarian resentment was a heavy-handed attack by government security forces late last month on a Sunni Arab protest camp in a public square near the disputed northern city of Kirkuk in which 26 died.

Making matters still worse has been the mainly Sunni Arab uprising just across the border in Syria against the minority Alawite-led Assad regime. Perhaps the only Arab government not siding with the rebels is Iraq’s (aligned instead with the Syrian regime’s only regional ally: Iran). Even more provocative has been the stream of Syrian-bound Iranian resupply flights passing over Iraq with Maliki’s permission. In response to US protests against these over-flights, Maliki has had a few flights land for inspection (doubtless a clever ruse I observed before while serving in the Intelligence Community: the country conducting military over-flights secretly informs the government needing to inspect a few for the sake of appearances which flights contain no military contraband and thus would pass inspection).

Since the Syrian rebel al-Nusra front declared its affiliation with both al-Qaeda and AQI, Maliki promised to crack down on al-Nusra’s roots in Iraq’s Sunni Arab northwest. With Sunni Arab Iraqis now so profoundly suspicious of the government in Baghdad, others sympathizing with al-Nusra, AQI or both, and still others assisting them, any major operations inside Iraq aimed at al-Nusra almost certainly would either encounter resistance or waves of even heavier AQI retaliatory bombings against government and Shi’a targets.

In fact, with fellow Sunni Arabs defiant in neighboring Syria (and many tribes and families sharing close cross-border ties), more trouble for Maliki from within Iraq’s Sunni Arab community was inevitable for a leader who has supplied them with a host of grievances since 2008. Now Maliki finds himself in a serious bind: even if the Assad regime succeeds in rebounding substantially, its control over the vast expanse of eastern Syria would remain iffy (providing Iraq’s more restive Sunni Arabs a ready sanctuary and a possible source of munitions and recruits — many of them now combat veterans of the Syrian civil war).

If, however, Maliki tries to mend his ways and promises better treatment, a fair share of the government rebuilding cash, and a lot more political representation, the offer’s credibility could be nil. Such a gesture now could look more like a temporary sop tossed out under pressure than a genuine commitment to end the longstanding policies feeding the animosity between Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Maliki’s increasingly autocratic, pro-Iranian, Shi’a-led government.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.


One Comment

  1. Maliki’s only protection against the US turning on him is a strong Al Qaeda presence in Iraq, which he can claim to be fighting.

    Given the irrational American obsession with Iran, and undue Israeli influence on US foreign policy (along with Israel’s perhaps less irrational but even more obsessive hatred of Iran), it seems almost nailed on that there will be an Israeli/US attack on Iran at some point in the next few years. Certainly Maliki, with his Dawa background undoubtedly must suspect this. At which point, if the Sunni opposition to Maliki looks as acceptable to the US as the Kurds do, the likelihood must be that the US would turn on the Iraqi shia without a second thought.

    If the sunni resistance Iraq is dominated by Al Qaeda, the US will find it a lot harder to do that. Indeed, the best hope must be that the Syrian government is still in play, and the US/Israeli attack on Iran is deterred by unfavourable regional circumstances – which would probably need to include Al Qaeda domination of the Syrian and Iraqi sunni fighters.

    So while it’s easy to second guess Maliki’s policy in the way White does here, it probably makes sense from Maliki’s perspective. The path of compromise often looks like the only answer from a distance, but it isn’t necessarily the best on the ground.

Comments are closed.