All eyes on Maliki as the US is pulled back to Iraq

Opinion: Until the invasion of 2003, violence between Sunnis and Shias was not a common feature of public life

‘The US, having only recently withdrawn, is being pulled back into Iraq as President Obama’s decision to send 300 military “advisers” to the country testifies.’ Above, Obama   speaking about Iraq in  the White House this week. Photograph:  Win McNamee/Getty Images

‘The US, having only recently withdrawn, is being pulled back into Iraq as President Obama’s decision to send 300 military “advisers” to the country testifies.’ Above, Obama speaking about Iraq in the White House this week. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 00:01

The events of the past week in northern Iraq present a picture of a series of sweeping successes for the forces of radical, jihadist Islamism, as embodied in the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis). However, this is a simplistic reading of a far more complex set of events, the origins of which are in the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, the policies subsequently pursued by Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad, and spillover from the civil war in Syria.

Isis, with a core membership estimated to be in the thousands, has not overcome the vastly numerically superior forces of the Iraqi military unaided. The loss of control of the towns of Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar, and the advance of the insurgents to within 60km of the capital, is in large part a reflection of a widespread sense of marginalisation and disenfranchisement on the part of the broader Sunni community in Iraq. What has resulted represents, in many respects, as much a popular mobilisation against the government of Nouri al-Maliki as it does the victory of “jihadism”.

In northern Iraq, tribal members, Baathists, and former “resistance” fighters who opposed the US/British invasion of 2003 have come together with Isis in an incoherent alliance opposed to the Shia- dominated government in Baghdad. Central to all of this is the figure of Maliki, the dominant figure in post-invasion Iraqi politics. Here, as in other ways, despite Tony Blair’s recent and incomprehensible claims to the contrary, the legacy of the 2003 invasion in crucial.

Maliki came to prominence after the invasion and enjoyed the support both of the US and Iran. The secretary general of the Islamic Dawa party, Maliki spent 24 years in exile (18 in Iran) while Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein. However, he has proved to be a deeply unpopular figure. Indeed, in the midst of the current crisis it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he has been struggling to secure sufficient support to extend his term in office, following the inconclusive results of the national election held at the end of April.

Patronage

As prime minister, Maliki has failed to pursue genuinely inclusive policies with regard to Iraq’s substantial Sunni minority, preferring to deal with Sunni leaders in terms of patronage – rewarding those who are loyal to him and punishing those who are not. Prominent Sunni political leaders have been excluded from political participation under the terms of the justice and accountability law that replaced de-Baathification laws introduced under US occupation. The marginalisation of Sunni political leadership was perhaps most clearly expressed when an arrest warrant, on charges of terrorism, was issued for Tariq al-Hashemi, then Sunni vice-president of Iraq, in December 2011, the day after the last US troops were withdrawn.

Sunni grievances emerged in late 2012 when a series of widespread peaceful protests were staged around the country. A four-month stalemate ensued in which the government declined to engage in dialogue. It was brought to an end by a bloody crackdown on the protesters that prompted a violent response and transformed peaceful protest into civil conflict.

Nonetheless, while resentment of Maliki’s government has made the advances of Isis possible, this is not to say the jihadists enjoy the active support of most Sunni Iraqis. Its popularity is severely circumscribed, not least due to the brutality associated with the group. Indeed, in the past, the Sunni community has turned on similar jihadist groups, most notably during the “surge” of 2006, when Sunni militias allied with US troops to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor organisation to Isis, which inaugurated the entry of jihadism into Iraqi life, a phenomenon unknown prior to 2003.

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