BAGHDAD, Iraq —July has been the second month this year in which violent deaths in Iraq have risen to above or close to the grim 1,000 mark. Yet, practically no measures have been taken by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to alter the fundamentals driving this violence — even higher casualty totals could lie ahead. Despite potential opportunities to alter this deadly equation, Iraq appears trapped in a vicious and possibly prolonged cycle of serious violence.
Much of this bloodletting could have been avoided had Maliki joined with the US in the deal the American military made with the vast majority of Sunni Arab insurgents between Fall 2006 through 2008. That arrangement (in response to Sunni Arab tribal and insurgent overtures known collectively as the “Sunni Arab Awakening”) was a defining moment in greatly reducing US and Iraqi casualties. It not only took the bulk of a formidable insurgency off the battlefield, it also enlisted it in a robust attempt to take down a good bit of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the source of most all bombings against the Iraqi Shi’a community and targets associated with the Shi’a-dominated Baghdad government to this day. Yet, since the departure of US forces and Maliki’s reluctant cooperation with — plus the continued marginalization, harassment and even killings of — former insurgents and their supporters, AQI has been on the rebound.
The latest demonstration of the power of both AQI and its new allied Syrian affiliate the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was the carefully orchestrated, massive late July bombing of and prisoner break-out from Abu Ghraib prison. Hundreds of AQI cadres and many deeply embittered Sunni Arabs of various affiliations escaped to swell the ranks of Maliki’s armed enemies.
The Maliki government cannot mount an effective anti-insurgent effort aimed at Sunni Arab strongholds in Western Iraq because it lacks the means to crush its Sunni Arab tormentors. Even US forces found confronting the same challenge a difficult slog prior to their deal with the “Awakening.” But Maliki’s Iraqi military is far weaker; woefully short of tanks, heavy artillery and combat aircraft. Also, corruption within the army and security services is rampant, reducing their effectiveness and enabling insurgents to access vital information.
Making matters worse, Maliki recently has appointed a Shi’a hardliner to lead a renewed effort to rid the military, security services and government of personnel with pre-2003 links to the Ba’th Party. Tens of thousands of Sunni Arab army officers could be subject to expulsion, either making them more vulnerable targets for AQI & Co. or embittered enough to join with AQI and other hardline Sunni Arab armed elements conducting anti-Shi’a and anti-regime operations. And former government employees and officers that join with anti-government elements would carry with them a wealth of valuable training and insider information.
This is classic Maliki. At nearly every turn responding with greater mistrust and animosity toward Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, the current government feeds the very violence it seeks to eradicate.
Meanwhile, ironically, despite their exclusion from the political mainstream and Maliki’s shunning of much of the Sunni Arab community, a majority of Sunni Arabs inside Iraq may still wish to put an end to the confrontation and violence. In provincial elections held in late June in predominantly Sunni Arab al-Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, the largest grouping favoring regional autonomy, the Mutahhidun bloc, lost a considerable number of seats to relative moderates advocating dialogue with Maliki.
This suggests that despite the rise in violence and widespread anti-central government demonstrations, the percentage of Iraqi Sunni Arabs actively or passively supporting AQI and related resistance groups, despite the rise in bombings, remains relatively limited. Yet, the only signal from Maliki in the face of this sign of hope has been his initiation of another purge of Sunni Arabs from the government and the military.
It is difficult to fathom all aspects of Maliki’s motivations in pursuing such a damaging course. Some Shi’a within the general population have shown support for reconciliation with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in order to reduce violence, but there is no reason to believe they speak for a majority. Many others are too angry (quite a few with relatives or friends who have been bombing victims) to contemplate a more conciliatory course. We must bear in mind that in addition to the horrific death tolls there have been even higher numbers of Shi’a wounded thrust upon an inadequate medical system as well as their extended families along with considerable private property damage.
Moreover, most Shi’a leaders around Maliki appear supportive of exclusionary policies. And of considerable importance has been Iranian opposition to concessions to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs (with the latter remaining generally hostile toward Iranian influence in Iraq). Maliki doubtless feels the need to retain the support of both his senior Iraqi Shi’a associates and Tehran in order to survive as prime minister.
For Washington, such dependency on the part of Maliki has translated into an inability to steer Iraqi policy toward a wiser course. Many observers have written about the steady loss of American influence over Iraqi governance since 2008 in terms of reduced US regional clout. Yet, for Iraqis, ignoring US advice has meant their leaders have moved in a direction that has undermined Iraqi stability and the safety of much of the country’s population from within.
Furthermore, ignoring US warnings not to aid the Assad regime in Syria (while helping Iran do just the opposite), has placed the Iraqi government in the crosshairs of still more trouble. If Assad prevails, much of eastern Syria would be flush with many hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of vengeful and battle-hardened Sunni Arab extremists (many of them Iraqis) driven there by defeats farther west, and a lot of them likely to move into Iraq. If, on the other hand, the rebels unseat Assad & Co., a hostile Sunni Arab regime in Damascus most likely would assist Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs in an effort to keep Maliki and his Shi’a majority on the defensive.