Maliki Struggles to Hang On While Iraq Seethes

by Wayne White

Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate could be too much for quite a few of his Sunni Arab Iraqi allies to swallow. Yet, capitalizing on this surprising IS move will be exceedingly difficult as long as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki continues to slow formation of a new government by scrambling for ways to survive. Fortunately, IS most likely cannot seize much in the way of new territory, but the collective Iraqi political will and military heft needed to begin the daunting task of pushing IS back remains elusive.

Excessive IS Hubris

Naming al-Baghdadi “Caliph” of all Muslims by the newly branded IS at the beginning of Ramadan, a stunning act of hubris, probably expands the potential for driving wedges between IS and its Sunni Arab fellow travelers. The militant Sunni Arab Association of Muslim Scholars already has announced that IS “did not consult” with its “allies” or “their leaders,” and an “oath of allegiance” demanded by IS is “not binding on anyone.”  In Mosul, evidently regarded by IS as mostly its own exclusive conquest (not ruled in cooperation with powerful allies), IS reportedly has asked those scattered allies on the scene to turn in their arms, another likely source of resistance and pushback.

Whether Sunni Arabs angry over Maliki’s abuses can be peeled away from IS is not the only matter relevant to the announcement of a Caliphate (doubtless considered blasphemous by many Muslims, Sunni and Shi’a). The IS declaration does nothing to alter military realities on the ground: although Baghdad’s efforts to wrest a few places like Tikrit from IS have been frustrated, IS itself also largely has been stalled.

Military Frustration in Baghdad

With politics weighing heavily on Maliki’s mind, his civilian and military leaders selected mainly for loyalty (not professionalism), and amidst endemic governmental dysfunction, Maliki’s ability to oversee a military rebound is iffy. Worse still, Maliki himself is a politician without any particular feel for military matters (despite retaining the defense ministry portfolio).

So far, his forces fighting in Tikrit and ringing Baghdad appear to be a hodge-podge of army units and Shi’a militiamen (many of the latter who took up arms against Sunni Arabs, U.S. troops and Iraqi authorities in 2004-2008). West of Baghdad, a sizeable contingent of veteran Shi’a volunteers who fought alongside regime forces in the Syrian civil war have been deployed, perhaps the strongest element overall. Without far greater air and heavy-weapons support, these forces are best suited to defense, as opposed to driving back IS fanatics occupying positions that are well dug in.

According to US officials, there are a number of militant Sunni Arab “sleeper cells” in Baghdad awaiting a call to arms. Yet, with the vast majority of the capital now Shi’a, attacks by Sunni Arab combatants would trigger Shi’a violence against the city’s greatly outnumbered Sunni Arab population. One or two Sunni Arab neighborhoods might fall under militant control, and acts of violence could be widespread for a while. However, the bulk of Baghdad would remain in government hands. Sadly, an outbreak of such bloodshed ultimately could result in another wave of sectarian cleansing, replete with atrocities, further reducing Baghdad’s dwindling Sunni Arab population.

Parliamentary Stand-off and Maliki’s Deception

Iraqi leaders cannot exploit opportunities to reach out to Sunni Arab tribes, former military officers, etc. without a new government. And should Maliki lead that new government, its ability to divide its enemies would be crippled.

The Shi’a National Alliance parliamentary bloc (dominated by Maliki’s State of Law coalition) failed to select Maliki or an alternative to Maliki prior to parliament’s July 1 session. Consequently, all Kurdish and Sunni Arab members left after a break in the proceedings (joined by a few Shi’a independents).

In a televised speech the next day, Maliki expressed hope that Iraq’s travails could be overcome through “openness” and “democratic mechanisms” (both of which Maliki has undermined as prime minister). He also lamely offered amnesty to tribes currently siding with IS — a promise of the kind to which he personally turned his back in the wake of the Sunni Arab “Awakening.” In any case, most disaffected Sunni Arabs do not want amnesty: they want comprehensive change in Baghdad’s exclusionary policies toward them.

There is a desire among some in State of Law to dump Maliki. Likewise, a shift away from Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s demands for a swifter decision on a new and inclusive government is unlikely (although Sistani may use tomorrow’s Friday prayers to clarify his position). Hopefully, despite Maliki’s machinations, he will soon be history.

US Military Reaction: Mission Creep

As some observers predicted, the Obama Administration’s initial deployment has been followed by more “boots on the ground.” Clearly alarmed by Iraqi governmental gridlock, several hundred more American troops have been sent to Baghdad to bolster the defense of the US Embassy in various ways.

The fumbling performance of the Iraqi military as it struggles to rebound also probably spurred this decision. There are, of course, risks. The more American troops inserted into an Iraq in crisis (particularly in varied locations, such as the placement of some US troops at Baghdad International Airport) increases their vulnerability. The likelihood of casualties somewhere down the road is rising ominously with each successive deployment.

Waiting for That Other Shoe to Drop

The military situation could fall into a pattern of heavy skirmishing roughly along the present front lines while the Baghdad political mill grinds on. Without greater incentives to defect, most Sunni Arab tribes, ex-officers, Ba’this, and others fed up with Baghdad are not likely to abandon IS — at least for now. Thus, the composition of Iraq’s next government will define the road ahead, making this year’s post-election jousting far more important than any in the past.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a State Department translator, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, June 23, 2014. Credit: State Department photo/ Public Domain

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.



  1. Just to drill down a bit on the issue of the caliphate. The Western press is treating the declaration of a caliphate as a significant event. IS has paid lip-service to the process of the early Islamic community it says it wants to recreate by announcing that a “shura” met to elect Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but, in fact no such meeting (a gathering of the leaders of the Islamic community) was held. The condition that a caliph be a descendent of the Prophet was not even addressed. Thus, the IS declaration should have no legitimacy among Sunni Muslim scholars worldwide. Even al-Qa’ida does not accept their legitimacy. Shi’i Muslims do not accept the legitimacy of the concept of the caliphate (after the first four caliphs) anyway. Thus it may be that IS has alienated itself from most Muslims and hastened the break with their Sunni allies from the tribes.

  2. One has to question what al-Baghdadi was smoking in his water pipe? I wonder how the neocons who started this mess will revise it into their favor. Perhaps theyu can send Cheney over to be assistant or some such.

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