Whatever one thinks about the decision in 2003 to finish the war Saddam Hussein started by annexing Kuwait, serious people should be able to agree that the way the country was abandoned by the United States—first politically after 2009 and then militarily—was deeply irresponsible, not least because of the motives of this decision. “I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011,” Barack Obama said just five weeks into his Presidency, the reiteration of a campaign promise, the fulfilment of which would later be an applause-line at the 2012 convention (“I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did.”) The decision did immense harm to American interests, the stability of the region, and the human rights of Iraqis. Obama has recently stopped saying that he “ended” the Iraq war; he now says: “We have removed our troops from Iraq.” The reason for this is plain: that war has not ended; about 800 people were killed just last month. President Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq has also allowed further violence to be exported to Syria—the Iran-influenced government in Baghdad has opened Iraqi airspace up as a re-supply line to the barbarous dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
In assigning blame for this, however, one must not fall into the trap some “anti-war” forces do of denying the Iraqis, and their neighbours, agency. The overwhelming majority of the civilians killed since 2003 in Iraq have been killed by Iraqis in sectarian clashes and by foreign holy warriors who were already in the country working with the fallen regime and who then arrived in greater numbers—more focussed on killing the Shi’a, than the Americans, it should be remembered. By the time of the American pullout, however, the Sunni insurgency had largely been pacified; the provocations for civil war were now coming from the other direction.
It was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who tried to witch-hunt the Sunni Arabs out of the government the very moment American forces departed. Maliki then escalated this campaign and began consolidating an autocracy. A Sunni Arab protest movement erupted at this marginalisation and the dire economic circumstances, which were especially bad for them for sectarian reasons. Maliki’s response to this largely-peaceful movement was not pretty, and pushed the Sunni Arabs into considering extra-constitutional means.
As far back as 1993, Kanan Makiya pointed out that the Shi’ites, as the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, had the historic mission for the stewardship of the country: they could not afford pettiness and sectarianism. The Shi’ites’ principle task was to reassure the Sunnis, who would face existential fears after the fall of the Sunni-based dictatorship. At this the Shi’a political class of the New Iraq has spectacularly failed: fuelled by self-pity and possessed now of real power, the Shi’a leaders went for score-settling and asserting their identity in a sectarian way that guaranteed the alienation of the Sunni Arabs—and indeed the Kurds.
It won’t do to point out that the Sunnis started this or that the Shi’a were long-repressed. Both things are true. In repressing the 1991 uprising, the Saddam Hussein regime resorted to the crudest sectarianism—”No more Shi’as after today” was painted on the side of the tanks the Saddamists used to butcher and rape their way through Karbala. But it is also true that some Shi’ites at that time accepted the challenge and responded in kind: their unruliness and, most importantly, the Islamic rhetoric of leading elements in some areas that were clearly supported by Iran, as well as the savagery of some of the anti-regime reprisals from these factions, frightened the Sunnis at the centre of the regime and had them fight on; the Shi’ites bungled the uprising, as well as being betrayed by the West who had called on them to revolt and then left them to face Saddam alone. One of the most just aspects of the regime-change policy was that it finally gave the Shi’a majority in Iraq primacy in a country where previously they had been ruled, apartheid-style, by a violent minority. And it is also true that the Shi’ites showed extraordinary forbearance in the face of extreme and repeated provocation after the fall of Saddam; the influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali as-Sistani is a large part of this. But there was a breaking point, and then the Shi’ites did respond—most of the worst of it orchestrated by Iran—clearing the Sunnis out of a large part of Baghdad. Perhaps this was inevitable but it was regrettable. By virtue of their demographic weight, the Shi’ites had a security the Sunnis did not; it was the apocalyptic fears of the Sunnis about what would happen to them under Shi’a rule that rallied them to Saddam Hussein in 1991 to resist the Shaaban Intifada and such fears were no small part in kindling the post-2003 insurgency.
The Shi’a political class are primarily to blame for Iraq’s failed transition, and Maliki has redoubled this blame with his crude military campaign in Anbar. There really are Salafi-jihadists in that area but it is his sectarianism and authoritarianism that has again given them the space in which to operate among the Sunnis. It did not have to be this way. In the run-up to the 2010 Election, Maliki had positioned himself as a nationalist, not a Shi’a. He gave government jobs to the 50,000 “Sons of Iraq,” the Sahwa (Awakening) Sunni Arab tribal militia that formed to fight al-Qaeda, and had dispatched the troops to crush Muqtada as-Sadr’s forces in Basra. De-Ba’athification might be synonymous in many minds with anti-Sunni persecution, and some Shi’a leaders certainly did abuse it, but it is difficult to see a way forward without it. The alternative is Serbia and Russia, where the old apparatus remained intact and can at a minimum disrupt the new order and at a maximum seize back power. That can never happen now in Iraq: the Tikriti despotism is gone forever. Maliki chose to soften the policy and took back in 20,000 Saddam-era soldiers. Some of Maliki’s other tactics were questionable but his appeal among the Sunni Anbar tribes was real: a significant section viewed Iyad Allawi’s largely-Sunni list as pampered, city-dwelling, and corrupt, with no idea what it was like to go through a test of fire with the takfiris. The high-water mark of this cross-sectarianism was probably the 2009 Provincial Elections, where ideas seemed to matter more than sect (and where the rejection of the Islamic parties was near-universal), but even by 2010 this was dimming. Now it has shattered.
Maliki remains highly suspicious of the Iranian theocracy—as he is suspicious of everyone else—even as his government more and more becomes an instrument of Iranian State power. Maliki dislikes the Iranian regime, especially its powerful foreign intelligence leader Qassem Suleimani, who is now in Syria leading the sectarian militia that is all that remains of the Assad State. When Maliki went into exile it was initially in Iran but he quit that country for Syria, where he spent seventeen years. The connections he made there—and above all his sectarianism, his fear of a Sunni-led rebellion—were the reason he backed Bashar al-Assad. But Maliki does not like Bashar either: among other things he has not forgiven him for setting Salafi bandits on the New Iraq, who murdered innumerable Shi’ites. (This continued until a very late stage.) The reconciliation between Maliki and Assad came after the Obama administration had made its determination to abandon Iraq. It would finesse that decision: refusing the advice of his senior military to leave 16,000 troops in Iraq, Obama offered Maliki 5,000, a force that could barely defend itself, let alone assist in counter-terrorism, and leaving the Iraqi political class complicit with what renegades like Muqtada as-Sadr would no-doubt continue to refer to as an “occupation,” despite that phase of the intervention ending in June 2004. It was an offer that was meant to be refused, and it duly was.
The Obama administration has shown over Syria that it accepts the Iranian propaganda line that Sunni jihadism is the real enemy. It will hear nothing of Bashar al-Assad’s presence being jet-fuel for Sunni militancy: it will attack the symptom not the cause. On this reading, a jihadist regime—with the full apparatus of State power—that is the lead State-sponsor of terror in the world, that has flooded thousands of Shi’ite jihadists into Syria, and which aspires to nuclear weaponry is a second-order threat to the Sunni holy warrior networks. This would be grossly mistaken in any case but since clerical Iran also works with the Salafi-jihadists, including al-Qaeda, it is something closer to catastrophic. And the mistake is being repeated in Iraq. In January, Congress quite rightly sought to block the shipping of sophisticated weapons to the Iraqi government, and the Obama administration was furious. Congress was all-but accused of abetting al-Qaeda.
But everything that has happened since has vindicated this view. Maliki is now sending Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) into Anbar. AAH is the most lethal of the Iranian “Special Groups” inside Iraq and is evolving into an Iraqi Hizballah: it is committed to the Veleyat e-Faqih, believing Ali Khamenei to be its Supreme Leader—”the shadow of god on earth,” as he has rather megalomaniacally taken to calling himself of late. With a vast network of social services, violent intimidation, and entry into the political process, AAH is securing itself considerable power. After AAH’s performance in the volatile, confessionally-mixed Diyala Province in April, where its goons “stormed the houses … pulled out the young men and summarily executed them,” significantly inflaming an already tense situation, sending this Khomeini’ist killer brigade into Sunni Anbar guaranteed the one thing that sectarianism can guarantee: counter-sectarianism and the further radicalism of all sides. Both sides feed off each other and the moderate centre-ground gets eclipsed—this is always the way in sectarian civil wars.
This years’ Election was probably the last chance to put the brakes on this descent. Had the population turned out and uniformly rejected the radicals and the sectarians, or if the leaders had chosen to present themselves on nationalist grounds that stressed inclusivity, a new compact could have been reached. But that was never likely and it was not what happened. Let it be said, in a week when we have witnessed two disgustingly-rigged plebiscites in Syria and Egypt, and Algeria previously, that “[o]nly in Iraq’s parliamentary ballot [was] real power at stake, and [was] the outcome unknown in advance,” as one critic of the Iraq invasion put it. But let it also be recognised: “If you … imagine a good outcome … this is exactly the opposite of that.” The sectarians carried the day. Maliki might well be able to form a majoritarian Shi’a government and in this atmosphere of hysteria, with ISIS on the loose in Anbar, internal Shi’a critics of Maliki have been marginalised, and an already-dangerously-centralised regime is unlikely to get more decentralised.
Maliki is now trapped by his own conduct. Even legitimate counter-terrorism operations are seen as anti-Sunni persecution because of his past actions, as a vindication of those who rail against the “Safavid” plan to subjugate the Sunnis, and it is where there are these sectarian fault-lines that al-Qaeda and its bastard children are at their strongest (see also Nigeria and Syria). Some analysts have suggested an “outreach program” from the government, including reform of laws open to abuse and military conduct. Hope springs eternal. This would be the best outcome but as this same analyst makes clear, ISIS has run away with the insurgency in Anbar Province, making dealing very difficult: Anbaris now either see ISIS as the only hope against an existential threat from Baghdad or are too terrorised to say otherwise.
Last Tuesday, ISIS murdered Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha, the nephew of Ahmed Abu Risha, who led the Sunni anti-Qaeda revolt in Iraq that in combination with the “surge” stabilised Iraq. The pool of possible Sunni recipients of government outreach is getting dangerously shallow. It is also doubtful if any Sunnis would trust Maliki any longer after being so badly betrayed—after he unmasked his batteries and proved his bitterest critics correct; he is a sectarian thug and would-be tyrant who was held in check only by the American army.
The chances of this resolving without further violence are nil. Ending the Syrian war, which would mean bringing down Bashar al-Assad, would take some of the intensity out of this, but that will not be U.S. policy anytime soon. With the furies from Syria spilling over, the hardening of sectarian lines, and the ascendancy of the most radical forces, expect the good options to collapse in short order and the mayhem and violence to expand rapidly.
Update: I missed this while putting this post together: ISIS overran the provincial government building in Mosul yesterday and the Governor, trapped inside the building, was reduced to pleading with the local population to help repel the attack. This will only get worse.