Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”
It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.
Let’s look at the case of Issawi’s guards: First of all, before the Iraqi government’s actions, there were 22 cases leveled against Issawi’s guards by Sunni Arabs. Perhaps Maliki waited as long as he did because he understood that he would face sectarian blowback. When the judiciary, 10 Sunni judges, reportedly signed off on the warrants against Issawi’s guards, Maliki had no authority to quash the judiciary’s orders. That said, Maliki yesterday released an official response to the protestors, offering to compromise where to do so would not violate the constitution.
Now, I do not agree with many of Maliki’s policies, but it is wrong to tar Iraqi Shi’ites with being Iranian dupes. Distrust between Arab Shi’ites and Iranian Shi’ites is centuries deep. Every Iraqi politician—Kurdish, Arab, or otherwise—will have some contact with Iran. Many would have preferred balance between the United States and Iran, but the U.S. withdrawal undercut Baghdad’s ability to resist many of Iran’s more overbearing demands. Liberal Iraqi intellectual Mustafa al-Kadhimy’s article today in Al-Monitor is very much worth reading on the topic.
Undercutting Maliki—or any other leader who happens to be Shi’ite—won’t resolve the issue; it will only sow the seeds of chaos and create a self-fulfilling prophecy: As ordinary Iraqi Shi’ites see not only sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the United States work to undercut a Shi’ite prime minister and embrace Sunni officials who, like former Vice President Tariq Hashemi or Issawi’s bodyguards, were likely complicit in terror, they may feel they have no choice but to accept Iran’s embrace. Iranian propaganda often depicts the Islamic Republic as the defender of Shi’ism worldwide, even though many if not most ordinary Shi’ites want little to do with the Iranian government’s interpretation of Shi’ism, Mahdism, and the interplay of religious and political leadership.
The surge was an important military strategy and it achieved important military aims. It was not a political strategy, however: It traded short-term stabilization for long-term instability. Iraq is now paying the price. The major problem with the surge was to convince some reticent Sunni politicians that they need not cooperate within a new order in which, by sheer dint of numbers, they would no longer dominate Iraq. Perhaps Maliki might have done more to integrate Sunnis empowered by the Americans, albeit often they were in extra-constitutional bodies. The sooner some Iraqi Sunni politicians recognize that there will not be some grand “do-over” that redraws Iraq’s political developments over the last decade from scratch, the quicker peace will come to Iraq. To turn a blind eye to Sunni violence and then bash Maliki for moving against it is counterproductive, even more so at a time when Syrian Sunni extremists threaten to export terrorism once again into Iraq.
If the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Sunni activists feel that Maliki is unfairly targeting the Sunni community, they should demonstrate that the judiciary is ignoring their cases, the executive is ignoring the judiciary, or that Shi’ite politicians (e.g. Muqtada al-Sadr’s gang) are getting a free pass. If Iraqis do not like Maliki, they should find an alternative candidate and pressure for transparent, free and fair elections. What they should not do is simply bash an Iraqi government which appears a lot less sectarian in its functioning than the sometimes cartoonish images of it projected by its adversaries would suggest.