Does the US bail out Maliki, who ignored frequent US push for national reconciliation?
The dramatic and rapid advance by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have caught many by surprise but it was a long time in the making.
The seeds of the sectarian mess that has gripped and paralysed Iraq were sown long before a few thousand ISIS militiamen scored mighty gains against an Iraqi force multiples of its size.
An increasingly desperate Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sought US airstrikes as the ISIS militants’ arrived at the doorsteps of Baghdad and now after initially successful counter-attacks the Iraqi forces are struggling to dislodge rebels from the symbolic town of Tikrit.
Does a US who has seen Baghdad pay lip service to their frantic attempts to promote national reconciliation and enticing of the Sunnis into the political fold for the past several years, bail out Maliki?
Even then, are US bailing out the Shiites against the Sunnis, or Iraqis against Islamists?
The US congress apprehension in taking action when policies of Maliki and Baghdad have stoked sectarian fires tells its own story. They hesitated to take military action in Syrian, even with thousands dead, a raging sectarian slaughter and even use of chemical weapons. It seems highly ironic that they jump in to rescue a Baghdad who deemed unnecessary to have even a residual US force upon US withdrawal in Iraq and who brought this mess upon themselves.
Sunni militants were already in effective control of Fallujah, large parts of Ramadi and the Anbar province since the turn of the year and always threatened to expand their campaign.
From the onset of the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. had an obsession of building a democratic, pluralistic, sovereign and inclusive Iraq. Reinforcing the unity of Iraq or indeed that of national reconciliation have been frequent themes that saw the US invest trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.
It is no surprise that US President Barrack Obama, in weighing up ways to counter the swift ISIS and Sunni militant drive towards Baghdad, emphasised the political measures and national reconciliation that must accompany any US support.
Such a line is no different to that of former US President George W. Bush who on condition of the greater surge strategy in 2007-2008, set a number of benchmarks for the Iraqi government. Amongst such benchmarks were a representative national government, a national hydrocarbon law, provincial powers and above all national reconciliation that can entice the disenfranchised Sunni’s into the political fold.
Such US wishes often proved illusionary and were never implemented on the ground.
It is not the first time that key cities such as Mosul and Fallujah and large parts of the volatile Anbar region are in the hands of the Sunni militants. Indeed ISIS may have gained strength from the Syrian war but the birth of ISIS has roots in the original insurgency in Iraq.
Furthermore, the media coverage may be dominated by ISIS, but many other Sunni rebel groups and Baathists have bolstered the current advance. It’s hard to believe that a force of a few thousand rebels can make such rapid progress without local support and sympathy on the ground.
While Bush’s surge strategy was credited with ending the bloody insurgency that crippled Iraq, ironically it was the Sunnis themselves that were at the forefront of driving out al-Qaeda through Sunni Sahwa councils established at the time.
Arming the Sahwa councils were akin to a ticking time bomb and the support of key Sunni tribes was expected to be matched with real concessions from Baghdad, including a bigger slice of the political cake, the inauguration of the Sunni militias into the Iraqi security forces and ultimately an overhaul of the constitution.
A relative lull in sectarianism was not matched by practical steps to entice and appease the Sunnis and centralist tendencies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki slowly drove a larger wedge between the Sunnis and Shiites with a shaky coalition government soon falling apart.
Maliki’s second term in particular saw many key Sunni figures sidelined or exiled from the political fold further antagonising moderate Sunnis
Iraqi forces may be large on paper but are often viewed with great suspicion by the Sunnis and deemed as Shiite dominated with sectarian agendas. It is not for a lack of training or firepower that they wilted away, those Iraqi forces simply didn’t have the stomach for the fight in Sunni heartlands. Any Sunnis within those forces did not want to stand in the way of a new Sunni ascendancy.
Sectarianism breeds loyalty in Iraq and ISIS will face a completely different picture in Baghdad and Shiite strongholds.
Much like the general Sunni sentiment that drove al-Qaeda out of the Sunni neighbourhoods at the height of the insurgency, it is not that all Sunnis welcome ISIS or endorse their tactics or ideology. But for many their despise of the central government and Maliki is greater.
After decades of power, Sunnis were suddenly frozen out in 2003 and affectively played second fiddle to the Shiite majority and this is a fact that most Sunnis still fail to stomach.
The US simply could not comprehend the fierce rivalry and sectarian passion that underpinned the gulf between the factions in Iraq. Sectarian animosity lasting hundreds of years cannot be healed in a matter of years.
US obsession with the unity of Iraq aside, Iraq was a fractured society and a divided state from the first moment it was stitched together artificially.
Iraq had a de-facto partition into three state lets since 2003, with the Kurds enjoying near independence in the north, the Shiites control of the south and with the Sunnis in the west. The only difference was that while the Kurdish partition and Shiite dominated Baghdad and the south had political power and economic clout, the Sunni side didn’t.
ISIS looks to change all that with a more powerful Sunni region that stretches not only in Iraq but well beyond the borders of Syria and with it key oil producing areas.
The US can intervene, Iraqi forces can launch a fierce counter offensive or the Iranian revolutionary guards can add their weight to the battle but like a yo-yo that has already plagued the sectarian divide, the Sunni headache will not go away. The branches can be cut but as we have seen through a number of Sunni insurgencies since 2003, the root firmly remains intact.
If Iraq saw a soft-partition into 3 federal entities as many in Washington and the international community deemed as the only solution at the time of US occupation, and away from the fixation of elusive national unity, there would have been a greater chance of fostering a more moderate Sunni slice.