Iraq’s House of Cards: The Primary Mission

Jun 23, 2014

On Friday, a new report by the International Crisis Group, an independent research and policy institute, bluntly warned of both the political and military challenges in Iraq. Under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the report declared, “Parliament has been rendered toothless, independent state agencies shorn of their powers. Ministries, to an unprecedented extent, have become bastions of nepotism and other forms of corruption; the severely politicized judiciary represents anything but the ‘rule of law,’ with even the Supreme Court doing the government’s bidding.”

This week, as the jihadi juggernaut solidifies its control over almost a third of the country in a Sunni proto-state, a token American team of Special Forces will embed in Iraq to assess and advise Iraq’s disintegrating military. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry is conferring with regional leaders about ways to prevent a geostrategic prize from imploding into a failed state. He, too, is expected in Baghdad. [Update, June 23rd: Kerry arrived in Baghdad on Monday.]

The primary American mission is to help rebuild the house of cards that is the Iraqi government—a political challenge almost as daunting as devising a strategy to beat back the alienated Sunni (and other) forces in the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The goal is to prevent Iraq from becoming another Lebanon, where sectarian tensions over a power-sharing formula dragged on in a fifteen-year civil war (despite repeated American diplomatic interventions and attempts to rebuild the national Army).

Iraq’s parliamentary elections, which were held at the end of April, may open the way to getting rid of Maliki and reconfiguring power in a new national-unity government. But the country’s squabbling politicians are obstinate. After the previous elections, in 2010, the parliament broke a world record for the longest time taken to form a new government, bickering for a full nine months until Maliki, whose alliance had come in second in popular votes, and his thirty-four-member cabinet were approved. Maliki prevailed by simply holding out longer than the others; the same intransigence has characterized his style of governance ever since.

In 2010, Baghdad had the luxury of time. Iraq was secured by more than eighty thousand American troops, and a joint mission, with Sunni tribal leaders in the “Sons of Iraq” militia, had decisively beaten back an Al Qaeda insurgency. Now there will only be the advisers—no more than three hundred in all, according to President Obama—and many of the Sons of Iraq, who felt betrayed by the Maliki’s Shiite favoritism, have turned their guns on Baghdad’s rule.

The momentum, both in Iraq and abroad, is increasingly against Maliki remaining in office. Iraqis tell me that even among Shiite politicians and clerics the new political cry is “A.B.M.”—”Anybody but Maliki.” Maliki, for his part, is digging in. He describes himself to Shiite brethren as a defender of the faith and warns that his ouster would be a victory for ISIS. He’s essentially copying Bashar Assad’s strategy for holding on to power in Syria. “Many of us thought Assad would not survive, yet he is still in Damascus,” a former Iraqi official told me. “Many of those early calculations were wrong. The same thing could happen here”—and in ways that could further fracture the country, he said.

Kerry is carrying a crisp message. Obama told CNN on June 20th, “There’s no amount of American firepower that’s going to be able to hold the country together, and I’ve made that very clear to Mr. Maliki and all the other leadership inside Iraq.” The President emphasized that “the terms in which we send any advisers” would be dependent on “a commitment to a unified and inclusive Iraqi government and armed forces”—by which he meant an arrangement that includes Kurds and Sunnis as well as Shiites.

Maliki’s role is not the only leadership issue; the Presidency is also up for grabs. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, suffered a stroke eighteen months ago and has been hospitalized in Germany. Known as Mam Jalal, or Uncle Jalal, he is a keen negotiator, and his credibility and skills have been missed in Baghdad. The question to be sorted out is not just who will replace him but whether the next President will also be a Kurd. The Presidency has been one of the political incentives keeping the Kurds in the coalition. Giving the post to the Sunnis, in the hope of retaining their support, could cost Iraq Kurdistan.

Yet only with a new government can Iraq face its existential problem—how to preserve the country. Iraqis tell me that Baghdad may have to dismantle the current state to save it—that is, massively transfer power to the provinces: everything from security to schools, bureaucracy, and budgets. The result might be a kind of soft partition, with Baghdad in control of foreign policy and the national treasury but little else.

The Kurds, part of the world’s largest stateless minority, have been heading in that direction since 1991, when Saddam Hussein started to punish them by means of isolation and sanctions. The Kurds learned how to survive on their own. The ISIS onslaught has offered a new pretext, as the Kurdistan regional government deployed Peshmerga militia along its border. The Peshmerga also took control of Kirkuk, the oil center long disputed with Iraq’s Arabs, after the national Army (largely Arabs) fled.

The government will have an even harder time bringing minority Sunnis, who ruled Iraq before the American invasion, back on board. One of the first acts under the American occupation, a decade ago, was the outlawing of the ruling Baath Party and the dismantling of the Army. Roughly one-sixth of Iraq’s population, including thousands of teachers, belonged to the Party, and many of them lost their jobs. It may be necessary to re-Baath-ify Iraq, allowing former members of the Party to participate in a new power-sharing formula and the old Army to be part of a reconstituted military.

“I prefer to call it reconciliation,” the former senior Iraqi official told me. “They can’t be prosecuted forever. The way to defeat ISIS is to empower moderate Sunnis. We can all help, but it has to be done by indigenous communities within the Sunni region.”

For the United States, these political challenges are formidable—and perhaps insuperable—but there’s no real alternative. Washington should beware “quick fixes,” the new International Crisis Group report cautions. “The U.S. can achieve little through air strikes, the insertion of special forces or other light-footprint tactics without, in its counter-insurgency jargon, an effective Iraqi army to ‘clear’; an accepted Iraqi police to ‘hold’; and a legitimate Iraqi political leadership to ‘build.’ ”

This article originally appeared in The New Yorker.

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