Unity govt in Iraq is the only way out
By : Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
I write this week from Washington, where debate is heating up about Iraq in light of the advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during the week.
The two main political parties are blaming each other for “losing” Iraq, first to Iran and now to terrorist organizations. Democrats blame former President Bush, a Republican, for invading Iraq in the first place, while Republicans blame President Obama, a Democrat, for withdrawing too soon without concluding an agreement for some American troops to remain in Iraq.
On June 13, Sen. John McCain, a Republican and one of the main critics of Obama on Iraq, called on the president to fire his entire national security team. He added, “Could all of this have been avoided? The answer is absolutely yes.”
Doug Feith, another Republican and former undersecretary of defense under President Bush said, “This is the education of Barack Obama, but it’s coming at a very high cost to the Syrian people to the Iraqi people, and to the American national interest. The president didn’t take seriously the warnings of what would happen if we withdrew and he liked the political benefits of being able to say that we’re completely out.”
Also on Friday, President Obama made it clear that the last thing he wanted was to get bogged down in Iraq again. He indicated that some sort of US military response might be possible, but ruled out sending US troops. He also made any military action conditional on the Iraqi government’s taking steps to unify the country, saying that the US did not want to be drawn back into a situation in which “while we are there we are keeping a lid on things,” but “as soon as we are not there, people act in ways that are not conducive to the long-term interests of the country.”
While there are differences of opinion on who in America was responsible for losing Iraq, there is one thing that Washington seems to agree. Officials and pundits alike put the responsibility for the chaos engulfing the country primarily on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff summarized the consensus in his Friday column thus: “The debacle in Iraq isn’t President Obama’s fault. It’s not the Republicans’ fault. Both bear some responsibility, but, overwhelmingly, it’s the fault of the Iraqi prime minister.”
Many in Washington now recognize that US policy in Syria has contributed, inadvertently, to ISIL successes in Syria and subsequently in Iraq. Its failure to adequately support moderate Syrian opposition allowed extremist groups to thrive.
Young fighters abandoned the ill equipped and weakened moderate groups to join the better-financed, armed and motivated extremists. ISIL in particular expanded its sphere of dominance in Syria to include northern and eastern footholds along the Iraqi border.
Having solidified its position in Syria, it was able to reinforce its presence in Iraq itself, feeding on the popular dissatisfaction there. While ISIL already had significant presence in Fallujah and Anbar province, its recent strikes in northern Iraq were launched from Syrian bases.
All agree that the success of a small militia in routing a better-equipped Iraqi army in northern and western regions indicates a larger political problem. Al-Maliki’s exclusionary policies in political life and in the army had so alienated the population and the troops and weakening their loyalty to Baghdad that they did not put up much of a fight when ISIL militias stormed their towns.
Thomas Friedman, another New York Times columnist, wrote on Saturday (June 14) that Al-Maliki, “From Day 1, has used his office to install Shiites in key security posts, drive out Sunni politicians and generals and direct money to Shiite communities.” He added, “Besides being prime minister, he made himself acting minister of defense, minister of interior and national security adviser, and his cronies also control the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry.”
Friedman could have said more about Al-Maliki’s heavy-handed treatment of his opponents and reliance on brute force in crushing popular dissent. There must be a direct link between the massacre his security forces committed against peaceful protesters in Huwaija last year and the ease with which this town surrendered to ISIL and its allies a few days ago.
Reflecting the sentiment of many Americans, Friedman said, “Al-Maliki had a choice — to rule in a sectarian way or in an inclusive way — and he chose sectarianism. We owe him nothing.”
Americans are especially shocked that the Iraqi Army that they trained and equipped, partly at taxpayers’ expense, with the purpose of helping unify Iraqis and defeat terrorists, has been transformed by Al-Maliki into a sectarian militia, feared and mistrusted by many communities in Iraq. Having lost trust of the local communities, it has failed in fighting extremist groups, as we saw in Fallujah, Anbar, and to stop advances by Kurdish forces in the north, which have taken advantage of the chaos to extend their control beyond Kurdistan borders.
The Obama administration has been slow to recognize the sectarian nature of Al-Maliki’s rule. I pointed out last year (Al-Maliki under fire for stoking sectarian rift, Arab News, Nov. 3, 2013) how it ignored warnings from the region and from key US lawmakers, about Al-Maliki’s divisive policies. However, the latest developments in Iraq appear to convince the administration of his role in stoking the fires of civil war.
Fortunately, the US still has a lot of influence in Baghdad. It could use it to persuade
Al-Maliki to save Iraq by abandoning his designs on a third term as prime minister, and then convince Iraqi politicians to form a national unity government to bring Iraq back from the abyss in which Al-Maliki, ISIL and the other extremists have plunged Iraq.