The rapid advance of radical Islamist militants across sections of northern and western Iraq has shaken the embattled government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to its core.
As the country maneuvers to stave off the jihadist surge, the integrity of the Iraqi nation-state hangs in the balance.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have deepened their hold over Iraq’s Anbar province and western border crossings, while groups of volunteers are enlisting to defend their communities, following a decree issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest religious authority.
Iraqi Army units have fled their posts in besieged regions through the country to help reinforce and fortify the capital, Baghdad, and other areas under threat. As Shiite militias respond to Ayatollah Sistani’s call to arms, ISIS militants are attempting to consolidate control over Sunni regions by capitalizing on popular disenchantment with Maliki’s government.
Sectarian bloodletting on a wide scale now seems inevitable, as the United States deploys 300 military advisers and prepares to carry out airstrikes against ISIS positions. The official position in Washington is that Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, which began overtly sectarian policies following the US withdrawal in 2011, has alienated the Sunnis and created conditions for their rebellion.
On a recent trip to Iraq, US Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that the Obama administration wants Maliki out, in favor of a more representative leader capable of bridging sectarian differences and uniting the country. Washington, however, is also prepared to take military action against ISIS before any new government is formed.
Maliki’s Shiite populism
There is indeed some basis for the criticism leveled against Maliki, who is widely accused of stoking“Shiite chauvinism” and alienating Sunnis by discriminating against them politically and economically. Sunnis have taken part in several mass demonstrations over the past year, and were accused of being Baathists and members of Al-Qaeda as the government met the protests with force, killing dozens and making mass arrests.
Sunni tribesman called for jihad against Maliki in response to the government’s crackdown on protests in the town of Hawija last year, although the peaceful nature of the Sunni protest movement is debatable. Demonstrators in Hawija were armed and set fire to two military vehicles, while others made attempts to capture government checkpoints in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
Maliki is also accused of ruling unilaterally and escalating tensions against Kurdish and Sunni communities through his pursuit of Shiite populist policies. Others in the Shiite camp, such as the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have openly criticized Maliki and pushed for laws to limit his authority. It should also be remembered that Maliki’s sectarian policies have been implemented against a backdrop of near-daily suicide bombings, mostly targeting Shiites, in the southern regions of Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the precursor to ISIS, has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings throughout the country in recent years, further inciting sectarian animosity. Sunnis are largely uncomfortable with the notion of Shiite governance, as evidenced by large sections of the community not taking part in Iraq’s first parliamentary elections. Many Sunni groups have instead resorted to insurgency.
Sunnis also view a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad as being beneficial to Iran, which they view as a hostile regime. Maliki’s blanketing characterization of Sunni protests, as a revolt by Al-Qaeda-style elements may not have been fair, but it was generally believable for many Shiites and Kurds given the prevalence and traumatizing impact of regular sectarian bombings.
The growth of ISIS
Even with Maliki’s flaws considered, it would be unreasonable to shoulder all the blame for the current situation on his government’s sectarian leanings. The Obama administration has characterized Maliki as the problem precisely to absolve its responsibility for creating conditions for ISIS to thrive and expand, and also to downplay the destabilizing effects of the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.
The rise of ISIS is often described in US media as the unfortunate result of the Obama administration’s reluctance to support rebels in the Syrian civil war fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. Proponents of regime change in Damascus argue that radical groups like ISIS have emerged due to insufficient support for moderate rebel groups.
This argument is entirely discredited by the substantial support given to rebel groups by the CIA,sanctioned by the Obama administration, which has supplied rebels with weapons, training, communications equipment, cash assets, and diplomatic backing. The United States has been heavily involved in coordinating rebel advances in Syria since the start of the war in 2011.
ISIS has emerged as the most efficient, disciplined, and well-funded jihadist group in history, and it cannot have arrived at this position without enormous funding and support from external forces. Washington’s direct involvement in aiding ISIS is difficult to ascertain, but the Obama administration cannot pretend to be unaware that Saudi Arabia — its closest ally in the region — has been financing ISIS and affiliated groups throughout the duration of the war.
As the principal state-sponsor of radical jihadist groups operating in Syria and the puritanical Wahhabi ideology, Saudi Arabia is the party most responsible for the rise of ISIS. The Obama administration has largely turned a blind eye to the Kingdom’s operations in Syria because radical fighters have proved to be the most effective on the battlefield. US allies such as Qatar and Turkey have also played a significant role in aiding the rebels, and by extension, ISIS.
Furthermore, the Obama administration has contributed multi-million dollar budgets to supplying Syrian rebels with weapons, which have logically found their way into the hands of the most proficient fighters, who are self-evidently in the ISIS camp. Other voices in the US political establishment claim that Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, under an agreement made during the Bush administration, has contributed to the current crisis.
Despite how these arguments are weaved into the official narrative in the American media, Washington’s interventions, rather than its reluctance to intervene, have exacerbated the crises in Syria and Iraq. The violence and disorder plaguing Iraq cannot be divorced from the Iraq War and the legacy of Washington’s flawed attempts at nation building by the notorious neoconservatives following the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Paul Bremer, in his position as Governor of Iraq, entirely dismantled Iraq’s central government, state institutions, and armed forces with the stroke of a pen. Colonial divide and rule policies were put in place under the Bush administration that saw the rise of Shiites into positions of power to offset the Sunnis and the Baathists.
The failed attempt at nation building fueled sectarian divisions by favoring certain tribal groups and religious sects that were seen to be more advantageous and amenable to US interests, which inalterably and artificially restructured Iraqi society based on the dictates of neoconservative analysts and think-tanks.
Al-Qaeda and groups like it never existed in Iraq before the US occupation. Despite the deep sectarian rifts unfolding today, modern Iraq was known as a relatively secular state up until the 1970s. Divisions were still political rather than sectarian under Saddam Hussein, although his attempts to consolidate power by banning all political entities led to the politicization of places of worship, giving rise to political activism with more religious dimensions.
The sectarian explosion that has taken place since cannot be attributable to the previous regime. Figures such as Tony Blair and John Kerry have attempted to distance themselves from the anarchy of present day Iraq, but such unabashed dishonesty is to be expected from these men, who would prefer to blame Maliki for the disorder, primarily because he has moved too closely to Iran and has ceased to behave a like the leader of a US client regime.
The Obama administration isn’t wrong in calling for an inclusive leadership in Baghdad, but it is using the advance of ISIS — which it undeniably contributed to by varying degrees of separation — as a means for ushering in a friendlier government. Maliki was never the preference of Washington; he prioritized relations with Damascus and Tehran and rejected American demands that any US military forces stationed in Iraq be shielded from prosecution or lawsuits.
Iraq finds itself tangled in a complicated web of terrorism, interventionism, and sectarian violence. The immediate priority is pushing back against ISIS, which is seeking to create an Islamic state encompassing both Syria and Iraq into a borderless caliphate. Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has voiced his disapproval of US intervention, and likely suspects that Washington is aiming to shuffle the leadership in Baghdad to the detriment of Tehran.
As US airstrikes are soon expected, Baghdad will continue to look towards Iran for assistance, which will probably provide the kind of training and support that allowed the Syrian army to consolidate and make gains against ISIS across large swathes of Syria. An inclusive and coordinated multi-sectarian force would be critical in thwarting the advance of ISIS; whether such a path is even possible at this stage remains to be seen.
Reprinted with permission