Brendan Smialowski / AP Photo

Why Maliki’s ouster is no magic bullet for Iraq

Analysis: A change of prime minister doesn’t in itself alter Iraq’s political or security equation

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has reluctantly bowed to reality and given up his attempts to secure a third term — powerfully affirming the principle of a peaceful transfer of authority. But hopes that his ouster will, in itself, bring rapid improvement in Iraq’s political and security situation are overly optimistic.

Much of the recent media conversation about the rapid territorial gains of the Islamic State (IS) focused on Maliki, as if he had been the key obstacle to the achievement of a new Iraqi national consensus that could turn the tide against the extremists. Maliki’s sectarian, authoritarian and paranoid tendencies as well as his growing incompetence have certainly exacerbated the country’s chronic political and security maladies and rendered him a toxic figure among Iraq’s domestic and foreign stakeholders. And the impending transfer of power from one Shia prime minister of the Da’wa party to another, Haider el-Abadi, avoids the potential for a major disruption among Iraq’s democratic institutions.

But redistributing authority in Baghdad is unlikely to have a significant impact on either the motivations or the capabilities of the IS. Despite the now hackneyed truism that there is no military solution to Iraq’s current crisis, it is equally clear that a significant military campaign will be necessary for Iraq to reverse the gains of the IS.  

The IS and other key Sunni insurgent factions, such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi, did not emerge as an expression of Sunni alienation from Maliki’s style of governance; they or their precursors were formed during the U.S. occupation, to fight the Shia-led political order that was the inevitable consequence of Iraqi democracy. Theirs is a rejection not just of Maliki but also of Iraq’s demographic reality. And they have no interest in reconciling with a representative democratic government in Baghdad.

Still, a more inclusive political climate could win buy-ins from other groups antagonized by Maliki’s sectarian dismissal and aggravation of legitimate Sunni grievances but willing to participate in national politics. The alienation of these groups has eroded the capacity of the Iraqi state to respond to the growing security crisis, although it should be noted that these groups have consistently been represented in the central government, undermining the idea that an inclusive government will dramatically change the equation. However, greater participation and responsiveness are prerequisites for building military support for the national government among armed Sunni tribes and laying the basis for a longer-term process of political reconciliation.

Even then, any decision by armed Sunni tribal groups to confront the IS will depend on military realities. The current balance of forces on the ground renders foolhardy — and therefore highly unlikely — any attempt by Sunni tribes to mount a broad counterinsurgency against the IS right now.

Tribal elders’ caution would be reinforced by a glance across Iraq’s nominal border with Syria to see how easily and brutally the IS suppressed the nascent uprising of the Sh’etat tribe of Deir el-Zour province.

The initial Arab Awakening, or Sahwa, that began in Sunni-dominated Anbar province in 2006 before spreading to mixed areas of the country such as Nineweh, Kirkuk, Diyala and Baghdad, also holds important lessons. The spread of the Sahwa phenomenon, in which Sunni fighters made common cause with the U.S. against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, reflected a growing realization by significant segments of the Sunni insurgency that they were on the verge of catastrophic defeat in the country’s sectarian civil war. Cooperation with the occupying army they had been fighting had become the only viable pathway to securing future political relevance. The Sahwa experience suggests that the IS would first have to be militarily degraded before Sunni tribal groupings and militias once again become a significant national factor.

Sunni tribal leaders are judging Baghdad less by who holds which position than by the tactics of Iraqi security forces and allied armed groups.

Just how the IS insurgency and proto-state is to be militarily degraded represents a central conundrum. Airstrikes can do damage, but the IS can be driven from territory only by ground forces — and no outside powers appear willing to introduce troops into Iraq.

It was, in fact, Maliki’s ham-fisted and sectarian efforts to fight that war himself after the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in 2011 that accelerated the alienation of Sunni Iraqis from the government in Baghdad. Starved of U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools, Iraq reverted to brutalization of Sunni citizens and clogged the country’s overburdened criminal justice system with thousands of young Sunni males. This reversion was compounded further by Maliki’s high-profile and sectarian targeting of Sunni political enemies through the politicization of the courts.

Taha Mohammed al-Hamdoon, speaking on behalf of other Sunni tribal figures, told Reuters that joining a national unity government was contingent on, among other things, a halt to military operations in Anbar, saying, “It is not possible for any negotiations to be held under barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombing … Let the bombing stop and withdraw and curtail the militias until there is a solution for the wise men in these areas.”

Sunni tribal leaders are judging Baghdad less by who holds which position than by the tactics of Iraqi security forces and allied armed groups at a time when command and control has been eroded and Shia militias are playing a prominent role in fighting the IS. Greater reliance on Shia militias will also have political reverberations, in light of the hard-line sectarian views of many of these groups. Any new government will have the added burden of curbing the poisonous politics of its erstwhile militia allies. It should not be forgotten that Maliki’s previous attempts to construct cross-sectarian political alliances or propose governmental concessions to address Sunni concerns were thwarted by his Shia Islamist political rivals, the very same groups that championed his ouster.

This cycle of terrorist attacks, insurgency and repression coincided with the growing sectarian paranoia of Maliki. That paranoia, of course, was rooted in the relentless slaughter of Shia civilians by the precursors of the IS. It was exacerbated by the posture of some Sunni political leaders who seemed to view violence as a potential check on Shia ascendance while still participating in national politics. The trajectory of the Sunni protest movement that began in December 2012 manifested many of these tensions, with segments of the movement controlled by insurgent groups. 

Even if political reform coincides with military progress against the IS, genuine reconciliation becomes possible only when the security situation has improved to the point that Iraq no longer faces existential threats. It is at that point that a political solution becomes critical, however, that the key political divides in Iraqi society remain largely unchanged. For security gains to be sustainable, they will have to be embedded in a political arrangement deemed more equitable by Iraq’s minorities. But that part remains hypothetical unless the IS threat is militarily suppressed, providing Iraqis with the space to once again address their political differences without violence.

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