With or without Maliki, Iraq will tear itself apart

August 13, 2014


The word out of Washington is Nouri al-Maliki must go. A new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will unify Iraq with American help.

We’ve seen this movie before — an attempt at a quick fix of Iraq’s problems. Like every other quick fix tried, this one will fail, too. The United States is ignoring the inevitable: Iraq will eventually dissolve into separate nation-states. Efforts are needed to manage that process, not to hope it will go away.

Some history. Following the regime change of 2003 and the elimination of Saddam Hussein, the United States failed to create any civil structure to fill the vacuum. Religious, ethnic, tribal and geographic tensions in Iraq were unleashed (I’ll label it all Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd as shorthand, though the reality is much more complex.) A U.S.-patched-together “government” (the Governing Council, of which Abadi was a part) accomplished little more than marking the first failed quick fix in the Iraq story.

Desperate to install a “legitimate” government, the United States helped slip Maliki — who they knew little about — into power via the Sunni-boycotted elections of 2006. Maliki did little to encourage the Sunnis to become part of the central power structure, and the insurgency kicked into hyperdrive. Maliki refused to embrace the surge’s signature Anbar Awakening, another quick fix designed to “create the political space” needed to unify a nation perhaps only George W. Bush still believed existed.

Despite Maliki throwing the last serious U.S. reconciliation plan under the bus, America stood by and watched the Iranians broker a deal after the 2010 elections that gave Maliki another four years as prime minister. American eyes were on the exit, and Maliki was the devil we knew — a quick fix to declare enough democracy in Iraq so we could get out.

Maliki’s first action post-U.S. occupation — the very day after the last American combat troops withdrew — was to try and arrest his Sunni vice president, who instead escaped to Turkey. In the spring of this year, Maliki unleashed his army in Anbar to openly kill Sunnis. Labeling the indigenous Sunni movement “terrorist,” the United States offered carte blanche for the slaughter. It was hoped this would be a quick fix to the problem of Sunni nationalism. The Sunnis instead grew more committed to their struggle and began to hold territory. Enter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, everyone continued to pretend, as they had since 2003, that the Kurds had not already created their own de facto nation-state.

Now, the newest quick fix is for Abadi to form a government that looks unified enough to satisfy the White House.

Abadi starts with little good will on his side. He is a member of Maliki’s Shi’ite party and thus tied to all the problems of the past. He will need to make many deals of convenience with the Iranians, Kurds and Shi’ite militias that will tie his hands, even if he is well intentioned (no promises there) toward the Sunnis. The most likely outcome is that nearly everyone in Iraq with a beef will label him an “American stooge” and any Sunnis working with him as “traitors.”

All that makes it very unlikely that Abadi can implement bold changes that might convince the Sunnis to lay down their arms — such as real integration of the Shi’ite-dominated judiciary, as well as the military and police forces. Abadi will, however, talk the talk to get more American money. The Kurds will also find it necessary to play nice to ensure American protection and weapons, but they are no more committed to a singular Iraqi state now than they were before.

Whatever government exists in Baghdad will also not change the fact that the struggle is now a multinational muscle tussle well outside its control. Iran is an obvious player, but elements of the rump Syrian government and Turkey exercise considerable power in border areas. The Saudis and Kuwaitis have interests in keeping the Shi’ites in check and will likely continue to fund the Sunnis. The newly empowered Islamic State, holding territory and gaining outside support as heroes fighting the American crusaders, could care less who is in charge in Baghdad and will remain in the fight.

There is no quick fix for Iraq. There isn’t really a medium-term fix. The United States has been bombing Iraq on and off since 1991, and more bombing is unlikely to be any more useful in “creating the political space” for reconciliation than the surge that preceded it.

The inevitable outcome is the dissolution of Iraq into several nation-states. Nature finds a way, as they say, and the longer the United States tries to keep the mess it created in Iraq artificially together, the longer it delays what needs to be done: accept the dissolution and work to manage it to the least-violent conclusion. How to do that is a messy, complicated thing, but step one is not hoping that replacing the prime minister of Iraq will be a quick fix that will work where all others failed.

PHOTO: Iraqis carry portraits of incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as they gather in support of him in Baghdad August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I’ve posted two comments and neither has shown up.

Is this a pretend Post Your Comment?

Maybe Reuters isn’t the place for me.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

I wonder what percentage of Iraqi’s wish Saddam was still running the place with an iron fist?

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Attacking Iraq in 2003 was an ill-conceived plan. Turkey would not allow the coalition to stage any of their attacks from their borders warning that if Saddam Hussein was eliminated, Iraq would inevitably fragment into factions of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

That has come to pass. There will be no stability in Iraq until those divisions are fully accomplished.

The State Dept. surely knows that replacing Maliki isn’t going to work, too little, too late… but they wish to be seen as trying to do something constructive.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

“Truth is bitter” Reuters could not find my comment palatable to publish! Naturally.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Think of the strife that would have been avoided if the U.S. had just partitioned Iraq into coherent countries in the first place.

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

This is a shallow analysis that looks at the political entities as fixed elements, unaffected by the situation around them. In fact, there is considerable pressure on all factions to get along. That pressure comes from sponsors of all three major groups in Iraq.

Posted by branchltd | Report as abusive

This whole mess started when the League of Nations, predecessor to the United Nations, created Iraq out of a portion of the former Ottoman Empire. That meddling then is still ‘paying dividends’ today.

Posted by kevin2oh | Report as abusive