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‘The US, having only recently withdrawn, is being pulled back into Iraq as President Obama’s decision to send 300 military “advisers” to the country testifies.’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‘The US, having only recently withdrawn, is being pulled back into Iraq as President Obama’s decision to send 300 military “advisers” to the country testifies.’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


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.


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.

It is instructive that by 2013 these militias were virtually nonexistent because of the refusal of the Maliki government to integrate them into the national Iraqi army. It is important also to bear in mind that the significance of so-called sectarian division in Iraq is often overstated by outsiders.

Until the invasion of 2003, under Saddam Hussein but also under previous regimes stretching back to the creation of the country after the first World War, violence between Sunnis and Shias was not a common feature of public life.

The question that is now being asked is what is to be done to halt the advance of Isis and its allies. There is some concern that the groups might move on Baghdad but this seems somewhat far-fetched. Thus far there has been little resistance to the progress of the insurgents, but Baghdad is different. Although exact figures are difficult to pin down, there is strong evidence that, since 2003, Baghdad has been transformed from a city the population of which was mixed – Sunni and Shiite – to a segregated and Shia-dominated capital. How a relatively small group of Sunni radicals would control Baghdad is difficult to envisage and it may be that Isis will choose to try to consolidate its positions north of the capital rather than taking on an unwinnable challenge.

Even if Baghdad is not directly threatened, the prospect of Isis controlling large swathes of northern Iraq is deeply worrying for its neighbours, in Iran and Turkey in particular, as well as the US.

Strategic interests

One possibility lies in some form of co-operation between the US and Iran in view of their shared perception of Isis as a threat. However, the opposition to this that has already surfaced in the US clearly expresses the extent to which the longer- term strategic interests of both countries are inherently opposed. But the US, having only recently withdrawn, is being pulled back into Iraq as President Barack Obama’s decision to send 300 military “advisers” to the country testifies.

Nonetheless, there is considerable reluctance on the part of the Obama administration to offer support to Maliki without some concessions to Sunni Iraqis.

US academic Marc Lynch recently posed the question of how the US can help Maliki when Maliki is the problem. In any case, whether the US retains the level of influence over Maliki that would be required to compel a change in direction on his part is to be doubted.

It is unsurprising then that many see a change in government in Baghdad as a prerequisite for any long-term resolution of this crisis. In the meantime, for Iraq, as for neighbouring Syria, states and borders that were artificially created by Europeans in the aftermath of the first World War are finally unraveling and it appears unlikely that the process can be reversed in the short term.

Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East Politics in University College Dublin. See also World View podcast

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