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. This is a lala land article. The biggest mistake was to support the uprising in Syria. Direct pressure should have been put on Assad before the riots to open the regime a bit. Most Syrians are very regretful at what has happened to their country and lives. They went from great life with little freedom to horrible death with even less freedom. How did this help anything. The Saudis were the real culprits in all this and will lose their country sooner rather than later for this.
    We forget that we brought all this mess. Saddam a few weeks before the invasion was willing to pack up and leave with his family, but our war machine was already in motion and could no longer be stopped. WE are the problem not the Mickey Mouse issues Emile Nakhleh brings up. It is horrible direction like this that has gotten us into so much trouble and wasted so much of our treasure.

  2. While I agree with many of the individual points of this article (including all but the last of the points in the “Way Forward”) I have a problem with it. For one, it mentions this as a contributing factor to the state of affairs in Iraq: “Western inaction to remove Assad”. It then mentions this other one: “Washington’s failure to bring about the fall of Assad”. So which one is it, inaction, or failure of actions? How about we start seeing the real problem, the horrendous effects of almost one century of neocolonial Western foreign policy in the Middle East. That includes the way the Middle East was carved away from the Ottoman empire, broken up within arbitrary and unrealistic borders, and given to dictatorial tribes chieftains who collaborated with Western empires, or the promotion of dictators like Saddam when it fit the neocolonial policies and intervening to remove them through war or coups when they stepped out of line, or the huge infusion of arms into this volatile spot? How about we start talking about the fact that not only we are not the world police, but even if we were our record shows us to be highly unqualified for that task. How about we talk about how many (but admittedly not all) of the problems we are seeing there are because of Western interference, not inaction? If we intervene to remove Saddam and fail to impose democracy there, our actions are the problem. So, why would you think we would have done a better job in Syria if we had “acted to remove Assad”, a premise that I don’t agree with because as others on this board have pointed out, we did act to remove him, just not directly, and those actions HAVE contributed to the rise of ISIS. The only action I see fit is promoting democratic values through supporting non-extremist groups with no ties to the Gulf monarchies who have their own neocolonial agenda.

  3. I love this statement by Jack Spade: “Most Syrians are very regretful at what has happened to their country and lives. They went from great life with little freedom to horrible death with even less freedom.” The same can somewhat be said about Iraqis as well. A so-so life for most Iraqis with little freedom under Saddam (not that I ever wanted to see that monster in power) to a horrendous life (and death) with no freedoms for Iraqis who are witnessing their country dissolve right before their eyes in a spiral of death and destruction (“mission accomplished!” “the insurgency is in its last throes!” “freedom is on the march!”, anyone?) For one to get that picture, I ask you to imagine the America that you love so much (assuming you too are American) falling into decades of war and decay, spiraling out of control, going to pieces and being overrun by extremists bent on taking away your freedoms and one day waking up to realize the land of your dreams, these United States, is no more. Imagine that, and then think about how Iraqis today are living that nightmare (and Libyans and Syrians). Brought to you by: neocons and their ideas of a better world through “Creative Destruction”.

    We don’t need more wars. We need more peace. We don’t need more intervention. We need to learn what we have contributed to.

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