Iraq on the Brink

by Emile Nakhleh

Much blame could go around regarding the current chaos in Iraq and the recent territorial gains of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Four contributing factors stand out:

  1. The 2003 decision by the Bush administration to dissolve the Iraqi army and “debaathify” the country (ban the Baath Party and remove all senior Baathists from the government and security forces).
  2. The refusal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish an inclusive governing process.
  3. The US military’s poor knowledge of the Iraqi military’s state of readiness since the US departure.
  4. Inaction by US and Western powers in the past two years to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Senior US diplomat Paul Bremer’s decision in 2003 to dissolve the Iraqi army and to debaathify the country, with the approval of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, was disastrous. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and thousands of officers, many of whom were Sunni Muslims, found themselves on the streets without a job and with a debilitating loss of influence and status. Their anger fueled the first insurgency.

Most Iraqis were expected to hold Baath party membership under Saddam Hussein if they desired a position in the government and in the private sector, including education, health services, and corporations. Bremer’s decision to lay off these people because of their party affiliation produced millions of unemployed Iraqis — angry, alienated, desperate, and willing to carry arms against the new Shia-dominated power structure and the US occupation.

According to media reports and published memoirs, Vice President Cheney and his top advisers, including David Addington and Scooter Libby, believed on the eve of the invasion that Iraqis would view the US military as liberators, not occupiers. 

They failed to realize at the time that Iraqis’ dislike for Saddam did not automatically translate into love of foreign occupation. Debaathification and dissolving the army created a “perfect storm,” which explains what’s happening in Iraq today.

Prime Minister Maliki has pursued a narrow-minded partisan policy, which excludes anyone — Sunni and Shia — who does not belong to his Dawa Party. Visitors to his office would be hard-pressed to find any senior employee without party affiliation.

Contrary to American advice, Maliki refused to keep thousands of Sunni tribesmen, who were involved in the “Awakening,” on the government payroll. Here again, thousands of these tribesmen who received regular incomes from the American military became unemployed.

Not surprisingly, they became the backbone of the second insurgency against the Maliki government.

Maliki misjudged his countrymen thinking that they would tolerate a regime based on divisiveness, sectarianism, systemic corruption, and a budding dictatorship. He promoted sectarianism even among the senior military officer corps and promoted party allegiance over competence and experience.

He thought mistakenly that for geopolitical reasons, both the United States and Iran would continue to support him despite his poor policies. This support is now tepid at best; even mainstream Shia political leaders are calling for his removal.

Maliki has clearly reached a dead end and should be replaced. Following the US departure, he failed to lead Iraq into a more inclusive and stable country. Key regional and international actors no longer believed his accusations that his critics were “terrorists.”

ISIS’ territorial advances, as were dramatically depicted on television screens around the world, highlight the disintegration of some divisions within the Iraqi army. It’s an embarrassment not only for the Iraqi army, but also more significantly for the US military, which trained these units.

Depicting ISIS’ sudden success as another case of “intelligence failure” is tempting. In reality, the US military had inadequate knowledge of the loyalties, commitment, professionalism, and sectarianism of the Iraqi military. Abandoning their uniforms and weapons and refusing to fight for their country meant Iraqi officers did not believe in what they were fighting for or their mission. Billions of dollars spent by the US on training these units went to naught.

Washington’s failure to bring about the fall of Assad early on has also emboldened Sunni militants to fight in Syria. “Jihadists” from across the globe, including from Western countries, descended on Syria for the same cause. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and other Gulf countries have funded these groups.

Bashar al-Assad’s self-fulfilling prophecy that terrorism is the main enemy in Syria has come home to roost, not only in Syria, but also in Iraq.

The way forward

  1. The United States, in cooperation with Iran, the Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Sunni tribal leaders, and mainstream Shia and Sunni politicians, should work to create a new government that is ethnically and religiously inclusive. Someone other than Maliki should be the leader.
  2. The Iraqi government should establish transparent and accountable procedures in politics, the economy, and the judiciary, and institute territorial and economic compromises and power sharing in ethnically mixed cities in the north. Sending 300 US military advisers to Iraq is at best a Band-Aid approach; at worst, it could become another “mission creep.”
  3. The Obama administration should urge the Saudis, Qataris, and other Gulf countries to stop funding ISIS and other militant Sunni groups. These countries have also promoted sectarianism in Syria and Iraq.
  4. Western countries, under American leadership, should revisit their ineffectual policies toward the Assad regime. Recent developments have shown the longer he stays in power, the more emboldened militants and terrorists become.

A failed state in Syria and a dismembered Iraq could push the entire Middle East toward sectarian wars and instability, which could in turn unsettle oil markets and rattle the global economy. Before the 2003 invasion, ?former? ??Secretary ?of State? ?Colin ?Powell warned President George W. Bush of the Pottery Barn rule. The United States ?pushed Iraq into this mess; it’s time Washington owns what it broke.

Photo: Demonstrators carry al-Qaeda flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq on June 16, 2014. 

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. “Inaction by US and Western powers in the past two years to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad”.

    Inaction??? Hundreds of declarations, Friends of Syria meetings, weapons from Croatia and Libya sent to rebels, sanctions …There were a lot of actions by the Western powers in their obsession to remove Bashar al Assad but not only they failed to reach their goal but they triggered a much bigger danger for the area: Al Qaeda

    They failed because the Western powers totally underestimated the power and the unity of the Syrian army and its people well as they were totally mislead by their own arrogance and by Qatar and Turkey who convinced them that the out-of- touch Moslem Brotherhood corrupted exiled leaders will be able to gather an obvious deficient Syrian popular support.
    After 3 years, the Western powers got the message, then went into a wait state on calling for the removal of Bashar al Assad. They are now concerned about the consequences of their actions and their allies’ ( Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) who have recklessly funded and allowed Islamists to take position in North Syria and now invade Iraq.

    The only solution left to the Western powers is to swallow their pride and negotiate with Syria’s government for a truce. This will probably never happen until there is a change of regime in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and a change of the leaders in the USA , UK and France.
    Count 2 or 3 years…..

  2. More of the same. The 3 Amigos, forever in the history books. Talk about breaking the “what ever one calls it”, yet denying ownership. Ignorance is no excuse. Throw more money at the problem[s]. When will they ever learn? More revisionism please.

    I take issue with using al-Assad as a reason for the present situation in Iraq, because of the many players that are involved in the continual mess throughout the whole area. As far as changes in strategy is concerned, until the mindset of the west replaces the warmongering neocon attitude that makes up its foreign policy, nothing will change.

    As for the corruption, like Cancer, Aids, a few other Deadly Disease’s, until that has been eliminated, from every political player involved, change for the betterment of all, can only remain an illusion.

  3. I totally agree with Virgile. There is much evidence available that ISIS was funded, armed, trained and supplied by the US, NATO and Saudi special forces to overthrow Assad, and that some this training took place in Jordan, so this organization was our creation, and is yet another example of the war crimes for which we and our allies have been responsible in the region. Right now ISIS may seem to be an organization we oppose, but it is still advancing the interests of the oil companies and the geopolitical interests of the US, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

  4. The GW Bush administration assured Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that the Iraqi army would be kept intact to preserve public order. Dissolving the army was act of extreme stupidity and duplicity.

  5. Failure to remove Al-Assad?
    Couldn’t it be that Assad was right: the terrorists were (and are) the problem?
    Besides, if Assad fell, the terrorists would have taken over. They would have been much more powerful than they even are now.
    I find your analysis lacking.

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