February 2013 was a particularly bloody month in Iraq, with more than 200 killed and 500 wounded in terrorist attacks. When it comes to Iraq, the United States military has a sectarian problem: In the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the Pentagon often is more sectarian than Iraqis, and deeply biased against the Shi’ites. The reasons for this are multifold:
- The Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
- The 1983 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut.
- Subsequent Hezbollah hostage-taking in Lebanon
- CENTCOM deals almost exclusively with Sunni generals and Sunni royal families who don’t hesitate to badmouth Shi’ites at every possible opportunity.
Iranian malfeasance is real, but the Shi’ites are not all fifth columnists for Iran. Most Iraqis—including the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’ites—place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity. The whole reason Iran must sponsor militias in Iraq is to impose through force of arms what is not in Iraqi hearts and minds.
While it is easy to blame Maliki for precipitating sectarian crises by issuing an arrest warrant first for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and then several bodyguards employed by Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, the sectarian story breaks down when other details emerge: Few doubt Hashemi’s guilt, and several of the judges and the plaintiffs in the Issawi case were Sunni Arabs from al-Anbar. The Iraqi government has also taken on Shi’ite terrorists, like the Hezbollah-affiliated Jaysh al-Mukhtar.
The crisis is now coming to a head, with Issawi’s Friday resignation and calls for a general strike on Tuesday. To blame Maliki for the Iraqi government’s actions against Hashemi and Issawi, however, is dangerous. While it may be frustrating that Maliki simply does not meet the demands of some Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, it would set a horrendous precedent to accept a dynamic in which prominent Sunni politicians say “accept our agenda or face terrorism”: That’s not politics, it’s blackmail.
Nor are the Sunni protestors necessarily motivated by justice or a desire for a more perfect democracy. Youtube footage of Friday prayers in al-Anbar a week ago shows Sunni preachers threatening violence against not only the Iraqi government, but also against European and American interests. Nor are they shy about announcing ties to al-Qaeda.
The surge was a successful military strategy, but it was politically short-sighted. The base problem in Iraq remains that many Sunni Arabs refuse to accept that they are the minority in the country and will never have the same power that they did under the Baathists. There is simply no solution to the Iraqi situation that would put the Shi’ites back in the bottle. To try to disenfranchise the Shi’ites validates Iranian propaganda, which says that only the Islamic Republic defends the Shi’ites’ human rights.
The way forward is not to counsel Maliki and the Iraqi government to submit to blackmail or appease an al-Qaeda-affiliated fringe, but rather to:
- Make clear to al-Anbar residents that there will be no concessions under fire.
- Target terrorists and those inciting violence regardless of their sect.
- Remove grievances by fighting sectarian discrimination in the ministries which leave Sunnis and other minorities feeling dispossessed and unable to make a living.
- Counter Iranian influence by targeting Iranian-backed militias.
- Establish guarantees and checks-and-balances to ensure transparent elections not only in al-Anbar and Baghdad but also in Erbil, and other cities susceptible to the dominance of local militias.
A strong, independent Iraq—capable of both empowering Shi’ites and standing up to Tehran—is not only in America’s interest, but it would also be a poison pill for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Criticizing the victims of terrorism should never be American policy, no matter what Saudi generals, Turkish ministers, or the American officers to whom they whisper may counsel.