The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.
Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:
Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.
Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.
The sectarian narrative is simple to grasp, and many do. Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.), John Nagl, and Emma Sky, all of whom served admirably in Iraq, blame Maliki for pursuing sectarian vendettas. While Sky is right to say that the prime minister has worked to remove and marginalize rivals, she continues:
The trumped up warrant against the former finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni, in December 2012 sparked widespread year-long protests by Sunnis aggrieved at their marginalization. A raid last April by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on a protest camp in Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis. Last month, in response to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and horrific attacks against Shia civilians, Maliki ordered the ISF to raid an al Qaeda training camp in the deserts of western Anbar province. But when 24 Iraqi soldiers, including the commander of the Seventh Army Division, died in the raid, Maliki then ordered ISF into the city of Ramadi to arrest a Sunni member of parliament, Ahmed Alwani, and to close down the protest camps, which he accused of being occupied by al Qaeda.
While this creates a damning narrative, what she omits is also important: How trumped-up were the charges against Issawi when he himself has paid blood money to make settlement with the families of victims in whose murders he was complicit? Likewise, while the raid on Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis, Iraqi forces first went in with water cannons until they were fired upon with heavy weapons by the protestors. Only then did the raid turn violent. Hawija has for years been a hotbed of radicalism widely sympathetic to al-Qaeda and hostile to any Shi’ite or Kurd who might step foot in the town. It is true that the Iraqi government might have exaggerated the numbers of al-Qaeda present in the protest camps of Ramadi, but what is certain—at least according to YouTube videos of Friday sermons and rallies and Facebook declarations—is that al-Qaeda was present. That raises the question about how much al-Qaeda presence Maliki should tolerate and, just as important, how much al-Qaeda presence Sunni residents of Anbar should tolerate before being forced to react or expecting an Iraqi government reactions. To transpose that question to the United States, how much al-Qaeda presence should the United States tolerate in its midst before taking action?
Mansoor’s narrative is also one-sided:
Prime Minister Maliki, emboldened by the improvements in security, turned on his political enemies with a mailed fist. His first target was Tarik al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president of Iraq and longtime political adversary. Hashemi escaped the country, but Maliki had the courts try him in absentia and sentence him to death. The prime minister didn’t stop there. Faced with non-violent Sunni resistance to his increasingly authoritarian leadership style, Maliki sent Iraqi security forces into protest camps last April and again a week ago.
The question Mansoor does not address is whether Hashemi was guilty of terrorism and, indeed, it seems overwhelmingly that he was. A follow-on question would then be whether Hashemi’s sectarian preference should be a mitigating factor. The answer to that is clearly no. More complicated would be the question whether Maliki or others should decline to pursue those engaging in terrorism if they know the result of that pursuit might be violence. That is tricky, but to fail to pursue terrorists out of fear of violence would, in effect, be succumbing to blackmail. Again, it is useful to transpose the question to the United States: Should American police refuse to pursue cases against extremist militias for fear that prosecuting them might encourage revenge? Again, the answer to that question is no.
The Baghdad government should take steps to ameliorate the grievances of al-Anbar, so long as those grievances are not the democratic system itself: Too many al-Anbar residents and their politicians—including those who participate in the Awakening Councils—seem unable to reconcile themselves to the fact that Sunnis are a minority in Iraq and that no amount of encouragement to their community from sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia will return Iraq to its pre-2003 order.
It seems, unfortunately, that too many Americans have bit into the sectarian narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Because Americans—especially those whose background is in CENTCOM, which has its own distinct culture and biases based on its operations and interactions with the militaries and governments of sectarian Sunni emirates, kingdoms, and republics—now wear sectarian blinders, many refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the situation in which Sunni victims complain to a Shi’ite government about abuses by Sunni politicians, as was the case with both Hashemi and Issawi. Likewise, that Sunnis displaced from Anbar choose to take refuge in predominantly Shi’ite Karbala rather than neighboring (and largely Sunni) Ninewah governorate or Jordan says a lot about the complexity of Iraq today.
Sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism do exist in Iraq, but it is dangerous for Americans to base analysis on a narrative that may have been truer during their service many years ago, when the situation has evolved significantly since. When Americans are more sectarian in their judgments than many Iraqis, they risk reigniting sectarianism rather than ameliorating it. The United States should not accept blindly the narrative whispered by Saudi, Jordanian, and Turkish diplomats and generals. More dangerous is the implication of such sectarianism in the Western narrative: to suggest that al-Qaeda has legitimate grievances in Iraq, as Politico’s introduction appears to have done, risks setting policy down a slippery slope that will nullify the war on terror not only in Iraq but far beyond.