If Nouri al-Maliki stays in office, Iraq faces destructive descent into a long civil war

Iraqi volunteers join forces to fight ISIS alongside the army. EPA/Alaa Al-Shemaree

The fall of several Iraqi cities to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, or Da’ish as it is known in Arabic), was a shocking turn of events – shocking, but not totally unexpected. Whatever Tony Blair says, if we look back at the disastrous US-UK escapade of 2003 and the way it dismantled, destroyed and crippled the Iraqi state, it is clear we should always have expected something like this to happen.

The seeds of division and disintegration were sown as soon as the occupiers began looking at Iraq as simply a collection of people – Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Sunnis and Shiites. Most dangerous of all, this understanding was enshrined in a controversial permanent constitution. The religious-sectarian-conservative parties that were allowed to return to Iraq and to dominate the political scene there all played a big part in accentuating these divisions.

The result was the dominance of sectarian Shiite parties, backed by Iran and the Kurdish parties – alienating the Sunni community, who were regarded as the backbone of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Laying down the law

Instead of winning over the population of the heavily Sunni provinces, and through them Iraq’s wider Sunni community, Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government persistently alienated and discriminated against them. Before long, Sunni areas started to see protests, sit-ins and demonstrations against the policies of al-Maliki and his government.

The prime minister’s response was to increase the presence of security and military forces, which were mainly staffed and headed by Shiite personnel. Thanks to his unwillingness to concede to the three provinces’ demands, instead resorting to the use of force, his struggle against the leaders of these provinces (and indeed most opposition Sunni leaders) reached the point of no return.

Attempts to subdue the population by military and security measures further alienated them from the government. It is therefore no surprise that Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi became the main incubators for extremist Sunni movements.

Things were already getting more and more out of hand before the explosion of extreme Islamic movements in neighbouring Syria. That disaster only added fuel to the fire, as extremists fighting the Assad government began to infiltrate Iraq – especially in al-Anbar and Nineveh, the two Iraqi provinces that border Syria.

Desertion and collaboration

There is a mistaken idea circulating that ISIS’s relatively small forces in western Iraq overran Mosul and reached Tikrit unassisted. But it seems that ISIS was helped by, and cooperated with, members of the prohibited Ba'ath party and the old Iraqi army, which was disbanded after the invasion. This would explain the ease with which they managed to sweep through areas stretching from the borders with Syria to areas only 100km from Baghdad.

The new governor of Mosul, Hashem al-Jamas, is a former high-ranking member of the old Iraqi Army. Despite his new administration’s attempts to win the people over by assuring them of their safety and by preventing looting and disorder, it seems that ISIS has gone back to its policy of enforcing extreme religious measures and street arbitrary executions. This could create a backlash among the people, and could also drive a wedge between ISIS and its erstwhile allies, who prefer not to get involved in the normal life of the population.

Meanwhile, the sudden collapse and retreat or rout of the Iraqi armed forces in the Mosul area uncovered the shaky foundations on which the post-invasion armed forces were built. When Paul Bremer dissolved the old army, he immediately established a new one by amalgamating the different religious and sectarian Shiites militias, calling them the new national guard. This new army had neither military discipline nor military integrity.

That much was on display as Mosul fell. Despite the fact that the army had three to four brigades there, equipped with some advanced weaponry, supported by the air force and headed by top-ranking generals, they were subdued in a matter of hours by a small force of armed men –– apparently helped by the disappearance of senior offices.

Faced with this nightmare, al-Maliki’s options are few. In fact, he has only three, all of which will lead to civil war: he must either turn to the USA, to Iran, or to both.

Help needed

The situation remains deeply complicated and dangerous; the two sides are preparing for their next crucial confrontation, whether it be around Baghdad, in Tikrit or in Mosul. Even as volunteers and militias gather in Baghdad to drive ISIS back, Iraq’s neighbours and foreign partners are scrambling to decide what, if anything, they can do to help.

Barack Obama has clearly declared that his country is not ready to send troops to get involved in this struggle, but even speedily supplying weapons and equipment to the army can hardly make much difference on the ground (other than to see them fall into ISIS’s hands). More comical still is the idea that the US could somehow quickly improve the training of the Iraqi armed forces. If 11 years of intensive training could not produce a real army, it is laughable to imagine that a hastily wrangled crash course could do any better.

Resorting to co-operating with Iran, meanwhile, will complicate the situation even further – not least by playing to the idea in the Sunni community that al-Maliki is waging a sectarian war against it.

Throughout his two previous terms, al-Maliki managed to create various problems but failed to solve any of them. His departure, and the formation of a government of national unity of technocrats that could put an end to corruption and at least restore basic services, could perhaps offer a chance for some stability. It would also help end the many disputes and problems he has created with the Kurdish regional government, the Sunni provinces, and especially with his own Shiite coalition partners.

So far, he has seemed unwilling to get out of the way. He thinks that the votes he won in the disputed April elections and the military power he still commands can get him, and thereby Iraq, out of this dreadful situation. He is wrong. His insistence on remaining in office will only hasten the start of a destructive and prolonged civil conflict – all too reminiscent of the catastrophe still unfolding across his country’s north-eastern border.