Al-Maliki’s bitter harvest
By : Osama Sharif
In retrospect, the Sunni uprising that is gripping northern and eastern Iraq today was bound to take place eventually. Eight years under Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s self-serving policies of political exclusion and marginalization have pushed Iraq’s Sunni’s over the edge.
In the midst of a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq and in neighboring Syria extremist groups had found a foothold. In less than two years a previously unknown militant organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), had replaced Al-Qaeda in the rebellious Anbar governorate — as well as in northeastern Syria — and found backing from disenfranchised Sunni tribes.
But last week’s stunning events, when ISIL and Sunni rebels stormed Mosul and took over without a single shot being fired, have changed the status quo. The mysterious disintegration of the Iraqi Army in the city, leaving arms in the streets and abandoning a key military air base, has shocked Iraq’s allies and foes. Al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term in office, spoke of a conspiracy and called on Parliament to declare a state of emergency. But his plea was rejected.
Soon the Sunni rebels had taken over Tikrit and most of Salahuddin governorate and were moving into Diala, pushing their way slowly toward Baghdad. As grave as the situation is, President Barack Obama said he will not send US troops to Iraq and that he will provide support only if the quarreling forces in the country agree to political solution. President Rouhani of Iran said he will help Iraq and offered to work with Washington on finding a proper solution. Saudi Arabia dismissed Al- Maliki’s sectarian policies and called for the formation of a national unity government.
Both the US and Iran should stay away from meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. It was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its rash and incoherent policies throughout its occupation that brought the country to this sorry state.
In Washington Republicans called on the administration to intervene, but they also admitted that Al-Maliki should go. In fact even after his coalition made substantial gains in the recent parliamentary elections, major Shiite alliances rejected Al-Maliki’s attempt to win a third term in office. Certainly Sunni politicians were against it.
Most observers believe that the core of Iraq’s plight is political and that a security solution will not end the state of chaos and violence that has taken over the country, especially in the aftermath of US withdrawal in 2011. They blame Al-Maliki’s subordination to Iran and the political structure, which encouraged sectarian tension through quota representation. But furthermore, Al-Maliki proved to be a dictator, alienating and persecuting his political foes while holding most powers in his hands. He has failed to build a national Iraqi army and waged a ruthless military campaign against disgruntled Sunnis in Anbar.
He has been accused of corruption and of violating human rights on a wide scale. He has failed to stem the tide of suicide attacks in Baghdad that have cost the lives of thousands.
Al-Maliki has not backed down. He says he is fighting terrorists, even though it now appears that there is a genuine Sunni uprising that has been penetrated by ISIL. Who and what is ISIL exactly, no one really knows. Experts accuse it of being an Iranian invention that is meant to scare the Shiites and bully the Sunnis. In Syria the national opposition says ISIL is colluding with the Assad regime. In any case, the focus on ISIL in the past few months has bolstered Assad’s claim that he is fighting terrorists on behalf of the West. The Americans now say ISIL poses a threat to their national security.
But it is inconceivable for a militia of few thousands to take over at least three governorates in Iraq, including major cities, with no resistance. Supporters of Al-Maliki say the onslaught is being led by former Baathist officers allied with Sunni tribes. Amid the fear of a Sunni march on Najaf and Karbala, which is unlikely, the Shiite leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has issued an edict calling on Iraqis to volunteer and take up arms. Al-Maliki welcomed the call and opened volunteer centers across the country. Arming thousands of young, mostly Shiite, youth is a dangerous development. It is a precursor to a full-fledged sectarian war that could lead to Iraq’s partition into at least three entities.
There is every reason for countries in the region to be concerned. Chaos in Iraq will spill over across the porous borders. No country will be spared from the effects of what will happen there. It is important that Al-Maliki be stopped and that a political solution is sought. A moderate and secular leadership that addresses the core issues of both Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is now needed.
The threat of ISIL will subside if Sunni complaints are addressed and contained. Iran’s influence on that country will have to be checked. Iraqis can still save their country if regional efforts allow them to do so. The alternative will be a catastrophe for the entire region.