The current crisis in Iraq says less about the military strength of Al Qaeda-inspired militants than it does about the depth of bitterness that ordinary Sunnis feel toward Iraq’s central government. In the short term, the United States may need to offer intelligence support, advisers, and limited, targeted US airstrikes against militant leaders. But, as always, the only viable long-term solution in Iraq is a political one. The root of the problem in Iraq is not jihadism but the inability of Iraq’s various groups to share power with one another.
It is tragic that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stubbornly resisted nonviolent efforts by moderates among the minority Sunni Muslims to have a voice in his government. That’s why Maliki bears the brunt of responsibility for the situation in Iraq today. Had he treated Sunnis differently, and had his coalition allowed a residual force of US troops to remain in Iraq, the group known as ISIS, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, would not have gained so much ground.
It is not too late for Iraq’s dysfunctional parliament, which is still struggling to come together in the wake of elections in April, to appoint a unity government that includes respected, moderate Sunnis who can help restore ties and trust with the central government in the Sunni heartland. In the unlikely event that this happens, the United States should be ready with a package of more vigorous support to Iraq.
But as long as Maliki continues to act as though the central government belongs to his fellow Shiites alone, support for him must be cautious and limited. It would be foolish to back one side of an Iraqi civil war. We should stand ready to use limited airpower to prevent Baghdad from falling, to help Kurdish forces defend their successful cities in the Kurdish region, and to help Shiite and Kurdish forces keep ISIS out of their areas. Since the group has vowed to slaughter Shiites, a humanitarian disaster would ensue if it were able to take control of the Shiite regions of the south. The United States should also offer assistance to protect the ancient Shiite shrines in Samarra, Najaf, and Karbala, because their destruction would fuel a far wider Sunni-Shiite conflict. But helping Maliki retake Sunni lands by bombing the Sunnis into submission would be extremely unwise and unlikely to succeed.
ISIS could not have achieved its alarming string of military victories without the consent of a large number of mainstream Sunnis who have previously opposed Al Qaeda-inspired groups. Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor who specializes in Iraq, says recent events in Mosul seem less like “an ISIS military takeover and more like an urban revolt against the government.” To be sure, Sunnis have plenty of reasons to revolt. Sunnis, who make up roughly 20 percent of the Iraqi population, had ruled for centuries until the US-led invasion. The American occupation dismissed the overwhelmingly Sunni army and civil service corps. Then Americans instituted elections, which brought the Shiite majority to power.
The Shiites, many of whom had long felt oppressed and excluded, rubbed their victory in the Sunnis’ faces. At first, Sunnis refused to participate in the new political order. They boycotted elections and launched a blistering insurgency against the United States and the new Iraqi government. They made common cause with the foreign Islamist extremists who set up shop in their cities to fight the US invaders and the Shiite “non-believers.”
But in 2007, a majority of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they didn’t want to live under the harsh rule of foreign Islamists, who were taking over the smuggling businesses that Iraqi Sunnis relied on for their livelihoods. The tribal leaders formed an “Awakening Council” that pledged to fight on the side of the United States, which gave Sunnis weapons, jobs, and a voice in their government again. For years, the deal worked. Fighting in their own backyard, the Sunni militiamen of the Awakening Council proved much more effective than the Iraqi army or US troops. If they ever confronted a serious challenge, US airpower backed them up.
Sunnis began to play by democratic rules. They voted in the 2010 election. Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni former army lieutenant, became the vice president. Rafi Hiyad al-Issawi, a Sunni orthopedic surgeon, became minister of finance. But Maliki never warmed to the idea of sharing power with Sunnis. He didn’t trust them, and feared arming them meant arming an enemy of a future war.
Maliki saw Hashimi so rarely that US Ambassador Ryan Crocker reportedly urged the two to meet every week. Maliki grudgingly agreed. The day US troops left in 2011, Maliki issued a warrant for Hashimi’s arrest, forcing him to flee the country. Maliki also arrested, and reportedly tortured, one of Issawi’s bodyguards.
After the US departure, Maliki let agreements with the Awakening Council fall by the wayside. He incorporated about 40,000 Sunni militiamen into the army, but left many more jobless. They felt betrayed. Sunnis set up a protest camp to call for Maliki’s ouster. In December, Maliki sent soldiers to violently close the camp and arrested a prominent Sunni parliamentarian who supported it.
Now, moderate Sunnis are hunted, both by Maliki’s secret police and by ISIS, which wants to kill them for cooperating with Maliki and the Americans. Last year, a suicide bomb killed Sheikh Aifan Sadoun Aifan al-Issawi, one of the first Awakening Council leaders. Another Sunni tribal leader, Sheikh Zaydan al Jabiri, recently announced that his fighters would oppose ISIS if his people got weapons from the West, but that they would be forced to join ISIS without such support. Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Awakening Council, is one of the lone voices in recent days calling on Sunnis to resist ISIS, arguing that as bad as Maliki is, ISIS is worse. Indeed, Risha’s support is what allowed Maliki to recapture the area around Ramadi.
Even with US firepower, Maliki cannot retake and hold the Sunni heartland without the support of the Sunni population. ISIS was able to overrun northern Iraq because many Sunnis decided they preferred ISIS to Maliki. They might change their minds after a few months of harsh leadership. But until they do, Maliki must live with the self-fulfilling prophecy he brought about.