Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nouri al-Maliki

Don’t Appease Terror in Iraq

In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

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In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

Third, to respond to Sunni Islamist or Baathist terror by demanding the central government grant more concessions to Sunni Islamists or Baathists simply legitimizes terror. When terrorists struck the United States, only fools counseled changing American behavior to appease those terrorists. Likewise, when extremist Iranian-sponsored Shi‘ite militias targeted American soldiers in Iraq, the response should not have been offering incentives to Iran. When Sunnis are disillusioned, they should vote and, indeed, they did. If they are so disappointed with Maliki, they can rally other Iraqi political communities against a third term for Maliki, something that was already occurring before the ISIS attack began.

And, fourth, we’ve been down this road before. Remember the Fallujah Brigade? During the initial uprising in Fallujah a decade ago, the Bush administration and U.S. military responded by blessing the creation of the so-called Fallujah Brigade. Big mistake. Empowering the insurgents and justifying their uprising only worsened violence: Car bombings increased six-fold.

Before the surge, Gen. David Petraeus engaged in a similar strategy of appeasing and co-opting local Islamists and Baathists in Mosul, appointing them to key positions in the police and border security. In November 2004, after Petraeus went home and the money with which the 101st Airborne subsidized them dried up, the Islamists and Baathists with whom Petraeus had partnered handed the keys to the city to the insurgents. Too many journalists, cultivated by Petraeus, blamed the 25th Infantry which succeeded the 101stThat was both unfair and inaccurate.

America’s memory is notoriously short-term, but simply empowering those who consistently fail at the ballot box and refuse to accept both the legitimacy of the elected government and the fact that they cannot once again dominate 70 percent of the country who happen to be Shi’ite would be to make the same mistake three times.

A new government will benefit Iraq, but sometimes the key to making peace possible is to defeat terror and its supporters, not to reward it or to blame the victim.

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Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq

Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

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Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

This is not an outcome remotely in American interests. As Doran and I argued, the increasing Iranian prominence will only drive Sunnis, who constitute the region’s vast majority, into greater militancy. Do you honestly think Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE will stand by and watch Iran and its stalking horses take control of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? Not a chance. They will amp up their aid to ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups and you will see the murderous Syrian civil war spill over into Iraq.

While some may take satisfaction from Sunni and Shiite extremists clashing, the problem is that they could both win–i.e., both sides could gain control of significant territory which will then become terrorist states. That is what has already happened in Syria and it is now likely to happen in Iraq as well. While the Iranians would prefer obviously that ISIS not control any territory in Iraq or Syria, they may well be willing to live with some ISIS control if the payoff for them is that their proxies consolidate control over what remains of those two states.

Put bluntly, the U.S. interest is in creating democratic, stable, and pro-Western regimes; the Iranian interest is in creating fundamentalist, terrorist-supporting, Shiite-extremist regimes. There is no overlap of interest except when we make the mistake of backing Iranian-aligned leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki. We made that mistake in 2010 when both the U.S. and Iran worked, after the last Iraqi election, to help Maliki win a second term as prime minister. Please, let’s not make that mistake again. The Iranians are pushing for a third term for Maliki. Let’s push for ABM–Anybody but Maliki. Iraq will not survive four more years of Shiite sectarian leadership.

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Now Is Not the Time to Let Up on Iran

In addition to pledges to assist the Iraqi government in fighting Sunni militants it is also now being reported the Iranians have made overtures to Washington about cooperating on preventing the further disintegration of the Iraqi state. But no one should for a moment imagine that the Iranians are doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. For one thing, it makes sense for Iran to bolster Iraq’s Shia-backed leader Nouri al-Maliki. But more than that, ever since the fall of Saddam the Iranians have been seeking ways to martial Iraq’s Shia majority in such a way that would be advantageous to the interests of Tehran.

In a sense, events in Iraq have mirrored those in Syria, and to some degree Lebanon. It has been argued that this is really all part of a proxy war being fought out between the Gulf states and Iran, with financial assistance flowing to Sunni groups from the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, while the Iranians back the Shia and Alawite factions in these places. Yet, Iran’s offer of cooperation in with the U.S. in Iraq is concerning when viewed in light of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

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In addition to pledges to assist the Iraqi government in fighting Sunni militants it is also now being reported the Iranians have made overtures to Washington about cooperating on preventing the further disintegration of the Iraqi state. But no one should for a moment imagine that the Iranians are doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. For one thing, it makes sense for Iran to bolster Iraq’s Shia-backed leader Nouri al-Maliki. But more than that, ever since the fall of Saddam the Iranians have been seeking ways to martial Iraq’s Shia majority in such a way that would be advantageous to the interests of Tehran.

In a sense, events in Iraq have mirrored those in Syria, and to some degree Lebanon. It has been argued that this is really all part of a proxy war being fought out between the Gulf states and Iran, with financial assistance flowing to Sunni groups from the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, while the Iranians back the Shia and Alawite factions in these places. Yet, Iran’s offer of cooperation in with the U.S. in Iraq is concerning when viewed in light of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

There is every reason to be skeptical about the progress of these talks. The conferences between Iran and the P5+1 countries come and go, diplomats file in and out of elegant hotels, enjoying a few days Vienna or Geneva. But it’s not at all clear that the parties are any closer to a satisfactory deal than when they started. And now it appears that the Iranians are attempting a divide-and-conquer strategy. Of the six nations negotiating with Iran, the Iranians have struck up separate dialogue tracks with four: America, France, Germany, and Russia. No doubt the hope on the part of the Iranians is that one of these will begin to soften in its line, thus undermining the stance taken by the others and making it impossible for the P5+1 group to maintain a united front in the negotiations.

It is hard to imagine that the parties will have put together a workable agreement by the July 20 deadline. Secretary of State John Kerry is fond of repeating his mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but given what little has been achieved so far it seems that by July 20 we will have either a bad deal or no deal, both of which are thoroughly bad options.

It’s not surprising, then, that diplomats have been warning that they may “regretfully” have to extend their stay on the negotiation circuit for another six months. Clearly this is precisely what the Iranians have been playing for. Keeping the negotiation process going allows them to keep the sanctions concessions they’ve already gained, the opportunity of winning more along the way, protection from the threat of a military strike, and all the time they can quietly tip-toe closer toward nuclear breakout beneath the cover of negotiations. In the meantime Iran is seeking to rebuild some of its standing on the world stage, which may well strengthen its hand in winning further concessions. It simply has to play for time, wait for something to happen–a major conflagration in Iraq perhaps, more conflict in Ukraine or the Baltics–and then it can slip over the threshold when the time is right.

Speaking in Rome recently, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Aragachi told listeners that negotiations are now in a very “critical stage.” He went on, “There are still gaps. We need wisdom and creativity to bridge the gaps …. a deal is within reach.” What does all of that amount to? The message is clear: stick with negotiations, it’s going to take a lot more time, but you’ll get what you want in the end, we promise. But if the promise of a carrot wasn’t enough, the Iranians are also threatening a stick. Aragachi warned that abandoning the talks without an agreement would be “disastrous for all” and said that in that event the Iranians would resume enriching uranium at 20 percent–just a quick and easy step away from weapons-grade levels.

Yet it’s strange that Iran should expect the West to be more afraid of its enrichment program than it should be of Western sanctions or air strikes. Under a different administration perhaps such Iranian threats would sound as ludicrous as they ought to. But with Obama having taken both the military and sanctions options off the table, the West’s last pitiful line of defense against Iranian tyrants is to keep them talking.

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The Conditional Support Obama Should Offer Iraq

As a conspiratorial Shiite who spent long years of exile in Iran, Nouri al-Maliki has long been suspicious of the United States and overconfident about the capabilities of his own security forces. He had to be brought around to support the U.S. troop surge in 2007 because even then, even as the state was collapsing around him, he had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi military to handle matters on his own. Four years later, in 2011, he drove such a hard bargain over renewing the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that President Obama walked away and left Iraq bereft of all U.S. troops. Maliki didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, at least not in public.

So you know that things have come to a pretty dire pass when he is actually requesting American airpower be employed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That request was first made, apparently, last month and no doubt will be even more urgently renewed now that ISIS fighters have taken Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji and are on the march, like the wildling army in Game of Thrones, toward the seat of power in Baghdad.

The request was, naturally, rebuffed by the Obama administration–an example of the president doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The real reason, one suspects, why Obama won’t order airstrikes is that he is determined not to let facts interfere with his cherished narrative that the “tide of war is receding” and that the U.S. is “rebalancing” away from the Middle East. That’s a political posture, not a serious strategy. But even strategic considerations argue against employing U.S. airpower to help the Maliki regime as presently constituted.

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As a conspiratorial Shiite who spent long years of exile in Iran, Nouri al-Maliki has long been suspicious of the United States and overconfident about the capabilities of his own security forces. He had to be brought around to support the U.S. troop surge in 2007 because even then, even as the state was collapsing around him, he had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi military to handle matters on his own. Four years later, in 2011, he drove such a hard bargain over renewing the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that President Obama walked away and left Iraq bereft of all U.S. troops. Maliki didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, at least not in public.

So you know that things have come to a pretty dire pass when he is actually requesting American airpower be employed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That request was first made, apparently, last month and no doubt will be even more urgently renewed now that ISIS fighters have taken Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji and are on the march, like the wildling army in Game of Thrones, toward the seat of power in Baghdad.

The request was, naturally, rebuffed by the Obama administration–an example of the president doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The real reason, one suspects, why Obama won’t order airstrikes is that he is determined not to let facts interfere with his cherished narrative that the “tide of war is receding” and that the U.S. is “rebalancing” away from the Middle East. That’s a political posture, not a serious strategy. But even strategic considerations argue against employing U.S. airpower to help the Maliki regime as presently constituted.

Maliki himself is largely to blame for the resurgence of ISIS because he has so alienated Sunnis that many have been driven to support the terrorists as their defenders. Maliki has also undermined the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces by politicizing them. Under those circumstances, American airstrikes would do nothing to change the conditions which have given rise to ISIS and would instead foster a narrative that the U.S. is supporting Shiite sectarianism in the civil war raging across the Middle East. Same goes for rushing Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters, and Hellfire missiles to Iraq so they can be employed by Iraq’s own military. Such advanced assets can be invaluable as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy but they cannot substitute for the lack of such a strategy.

Obama should tell Maliki (and he should get on the telephone to deliver the message personally) that greater U.S. military aid will only be forthcoming if Maliki makes dramatic moves to mollify the Sunnis, depoliticize the Iraqi security forces, and limit his own almost-unlimited authority. Better still, the U.S. would be even more willing to support Iraq if Maliki were to step down as prime minister–admittedly a condition that would be hard to get Maliki to agree to but one that the U.S. could press with other political factions which are already suspicious of the prime minister.

Absent substantial political reform in Iraq, greater U.S. military aid at this juncture would be counterproductive. But the very dire nature of the situation today makes it at least marginally more likely that the government may actually make political reforms needed to ensure the state’s survival. If that were to happen, the U.S. should offer to provide not just airpower but intelligence analysts, military advisers, Special Operations Forces, and other assets to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to strike back effectively against ISIS.

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Maliki Must Go

Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

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Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

For example, he argues for “a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and prime ministership,” “a new national-unity government, including a leading Kurd as defense minister and a leading Sunni from one of the opposition parties as interior minister,” and “a constitutional amendment that redefines Iraq’s executive authority, with security and foreign affairs under the president, and the economy and domestic politics under the prime minister.”

These are good ideas but unlikely to be realized, as Pollack himself acknowledges, given the current state of Iraqi politics and given the weakness of American influence in Iraq today. Instead of lobbying for such extensive changes the U.S. might be better off lobbying for a new prime minister. Maliki’s political party came out on top in the April parliamentary elections but it lacks the votes to form a government on its own. It needs the support of other parties, especially other Shiite parties and the Kurds. The U.S. should exert whatever influence it still has to prevent that from happening.

Maliki has presided over the disintegration of Iraq. He doesn’t deserve a third term. The country desperately needs a new leader. Until a change of leadership happens, there is little point in sending more U.S. aid which, if Mosul is anything to go by, is likely to wind up arming the insurgents.

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Maliki’s Power Play

What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

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What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

Part of the problem here is the Syrian civil war, which has spilled over the border into western Iraq. But the largest part of the problem is Maliki’s conspiratorial, dictatorial worldview that treats as enemies those he should have been trying to win over.

The course he is embarked on is terrible for Iraq but it seems that it is good for his political prospects. In the recently completed elections his State of Law party emerged as the top vote-getter, winning 92 seats in parliament. That puts Maliki in a strong position to cobble together a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office for a third term, thereby allowing him to further increase his already worrisome accumulation of power.

Why did Maliki win the election in spite of the terrible impact of his policies? He is in the position of arsonist turned firefighter: Having stoked sectarian passions and alarmed Shiites, he is now posturing as a strongman who can save the Shiites from further violence. This perception does not accord with the facts–Maliki is the problem, not the solution–but it is not the first or last time that voters have fallen for a politician who abets the very insecurity he is purporting to solve. Vladimir Putin is a beneficiary of the same trend, although he has increasingly disposed with the trappings of democracy which Iraq still has–but for how long?

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International Crisis Group’s Recipe for an Iraq Bloodbath

There’s a conceit out there prevalent among both past and present diplomats and conflict resolution activists that if only all parties sat down and engaged in dialogue, seemingly inextricable crises would evaporate. It really is kindergarten philosophy which, when applied to the real world, can and will backfire.

Hence it is with the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Iraq. The ICG has some very good people but, because it embraces a sometimes simplistic notion of dialogue, most of its reports are predictable. Separatists beheading Christians in Southeastasiastan? It’s imperative that the two sides sit down and talk. Civil war breaks out in Formersovietakazia? Dialogue. Tribal violence erupts in Centralafricaland? Negotiations. Al-Qaeda rears its ugly head in Iraq? More talks. And if there already is a precedent of talks failing, and failing miserably? No matter. That must be the exception rather than the rule, no matter if reality shows exceptions to trump the rule each and every time.

On April 28, the International Crisis Group released “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain” which seeks to put the crisis in al-Anbar in the following context:

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There’s a conceit out there prevalent among both past and present diplomats and conflict resolution activists that if only all parties sat down and engaged in dialogue, seemingly inextricable crises would evaporate. It really is kindergarten philosophy which, when applied to the real world, can and will backfire.

Hence it is with the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Iraq. The ICG has some very good people but, because it embraces a sometimes simplistic notion of dialogue, most of its reports are predictable. Separatists beheading Christians in Southeastasiastan? It’s imperative that the two sides sit down and talk. Civil war breaks out in Formersovietakazia? Dialogue. Tribal violence erupts in Centralafricaland? Negotiations. Al-Qaeda rears its ugly head in Iraq? More talks. And if there already is a precedent of talks failing, and failing miserably? No matter. That must be the exception rather than the rule, no matter if reality shows exceptions to trump the rule each and every time.

On April 28, the International Crisis Group released “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain” which seeks to put the crisis in al-Anbar in the following context:

When in December 2013 Iraq’s central authorities cleared a year-long sit-in in the city that was demanding better treatment from Baghdad, Falluja’s residents took to the streets. ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) took advantage of the ensuing chaos, moved forces into the city and asserted it had seized control. The claim was greatly exaggerated: while it raised its black flag above some administration buildings in the city centre, locals blocked most of their forays and forced them to retreat to the outskirts.

But Baghdad had a casus belli: it besieged the city, ignored local attempts to mediate an ISIL withdrawal and threatened to attack. Falluja residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army – seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular – ran even deeper. The city’s rebels struck a Faustian bargain, forming an alliance of convenience with ISIL. The jihadis’ military might kept the army at bay, but their presence justified the government’s claim that the entire city was under jihadi control. A self-reinforcing cycle has taken root: jihadi activity encourages government truculence that in turn requires greater jihadi protection.

This is a pretty problematic recasting of a narrative of what happened. While I fault Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for letting electoral calculations color the timing of military action against al-Qaeda in al-Anbar (and while I find reason to criticize Maliki for other aspects of his administration as well), it is inane to suggest that the protest camps did not include al-Qaeda elements. Indeed, there is quite a lot of video evidence to suggest they did. The ICG, for its part, confuses chronology when they declare, “The crisis has rescued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chances in the parliamentary elections, which, until ISIL entered the picture, appeared grim.” As the Syrian conflict has metathesized, ISIL had been a growing threat in Iraq, responsible for dozens of attacks that killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. And while Maliki’s third term was and is far from certain, the idea that his chances were ever “grim” is simply wrong. Elections should determine destiny. Alas, rather than simply let elections determine al-Anbar’s fate, the ICG appears to castigate the many Sunnis from local parties who have joined in coalition against the terrorists in al-Anbar. Encouraging cross-sectarian (and cross-ethnic) political groupings is something the ICG should encourage. Shame on them and anyone else who does not do so.

The ICG continues—as per its apparent organizational template—to recommend that the central government begin negotiations with Fallujah’s military council. This seems to be the repeat of the disastrous experience with the so-called Fallujah brigades at the beginning of the insurgency in 2004. Hence, once again, the religion of dialogue trumps empirical evidence that talking to the wrong people can make matters much, much worse.

Twisting reality to encourage dialogue permeates the report. The Baath Party was an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist party that imposed a brutal dictatorship responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of people. Here’s how the ICG describes it, though: “An ostensibly secular party that monopolized political representation under Saddam Hussein.” It describes the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) as “nationalists” and suggests they want merely to establish “a new political system without sectarian and ethnic quotas.” First of all, they are not simply nationalists. Both have embraced the most brutal terror tactics and pronounced their desire to target “unbelievers,” which suggests that religion trumps nationalism in their worldview. As for eliminating sectarian quotas, that’s merely the slogan both groups have sold to gullible Westerners to explain their vision to purge Iraq of all sectarian diversity altogether.It’s akin to apologists for Attila the Hun to describe his refusal to take prisoners and engage in wholesale massacres as evidence that he is truly committed to reducing prison overpopulation.

The ICG is no better when it comes to individuals. It describes Harith al-Dhari, who is on Interpol’s wanted list and is also sanctioned by the UN for al-Qaeda activity, merely as “a cleric with an affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood.” It describes Izzat al-Duri, Saddam Hussein’s former deputy and the most wanted man still on the run, as merely “an ex-senior official under Saddam and reputed Sufi.”

There’s a time and a place for dialogue, but that dialogue should never extend to those who reject constitutionalism, disregard the rule of law or, absent a broad-based revolution such as that which heralded the collapse of the Eastern bloc or Brotherhood rule in Syria, seek to achieve through violence what they are unable to achieve via the ballot box. Nor in the face of terrorism—a military challenge that rejects every aspect of the established order—is it wise to recommend that the United States cut off assistance to the Iraqi government. Terrorists respond to weakness not with compromise, but with redoubling their efforts.

Just as when the American Friends Service Committee–the official NGO of the Quakers–embraced the Khmer Rouge, good intentions are not an excuse when the result is the empowerment of hateful groups which do not recognize the value of human life for those who do not share their beliefs. The ICG has wrapped itself in an ideological cocoon from which it has crafted a reality that does not match what is on the ground. The result of following ICG recommendations would be a bloodbath. Talking to terrorists doesn’t bring peace; it simply legitimizes and empowers terrorists. Most Iraqis recognize this. Let us hope that John Kerry’s State Department does as well.

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Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

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I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

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No, Iraq’s Al-Anbar Protests Were Not Peaceful

The Iraqi army is preparing to launch an assault on Fallujah, a town in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate which has seen disproportionate suffering over the past decade. The issue is not simply sectarian: While a narrative of Shi’ite Baghdad persecuting Sunni al-Anbar might fit well with some journalists and diplomats, the situation in al-Anbar is more complex. Take resources: Iraq has vast oil wealth concentrated in its north where Kurds dominate, and the south, where Shi’ites hold sway. Anbar is not devoid of resources, however: It has—or had—vast subterranean water reserves which could have supported an agricultural boom. But Saudi enterprises came in, literally grew hay for animal feed which depleted the water table, trucked it back to Saudi Arabia, and claimed it was produced there to qualify for government subsidies as the Kingdom tries to bolster its own agricultural sector.

From the days predating the surge to the present, Anbar has also had to deal with the influx of Islamists and al-Qaeda adherents who run roughshod over local tribal culture. It is here that the Sunni vs. Shi’ite narrative breaks down because, whatever the faults of the government in Baghdad—and there are many—one of the biggest conflicts within al-Anbar has always been between Sunnis.

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The Iraqi army is preparing to launch an assault on Fallujah, a town in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate which has seen disproportionate suffering over the past decade. The issue is not simply sectarian: While a narrative of Shi’ite Baghdad persecuting Sunni al-Anbar might fit well with some journalists and diplomats, the situation in al-Anbar is more complex. Take resources: Iraq has vast oil wealth concentrated in its north where Kurds dominate, and the south, where Shi’ites hold sway. Anbar is not devoid of resources, however: It has—or had—vast subterranean water reserves which could have supported an agricultural boom. But Saudi enterprises came in, literally grew hay for animal feed which depleted the water table, trucked it back to Saudi Arabia, and claimed it was produced there to qualify for government subsidies as the Kingdom tries to bolster its own agricultural sector.

From the days predating the surge to the present, Anbar has also had to deal with the influx of Islamists and al-Qaeda adherents who run roughshod over local tribal culture. It is here that the Sunni vs. Shi’ite narrative breaks down because, whatever the faults of the government in Baghdad—and there are many—one of the biggest conflicts within al-Anbar has always been between Sunnis.

There is a narrative put forward by some diplomats and military analysts that the current problems in al-Anbar are simply the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provoking those in al-Anbar. For more than a year, some local residents had sat in protest camps to protest unemployment, sectarian discrimination, and voice other complaints. While that was certainly the case with some young participants, al-Qaeda elements were a presence in the camps long before Maliki sought to clear them out. Here are a few examples

  • At around 48 seconds in this YouTube video, the preacher declares fealty to al-Qaeda.
  • This video shows al-Qaeda members openly displaying their flag in Ramadi last October.
  • Here is a march from last November in which participants declared their loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and quote Abu Masab az-Zarqawi.
  • And here is another protest from last autumn in which protesters raised the ISIS flag.

I spent a part of last week in Tikrit and Mosul, Iraqi cities with large Sunni Arab populations. Locals expressed a great deal of unease about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and what they saw as the sectarian character of his government. Unlike some analysts outside of Iraq, though, they did not downplay or dismiss the presence of al-Qaeda in al-Anbar long before Maliki’s raid on the protest camps. They recognize that al-Qaeda poses as much a threat to Sunni Iraqis as it does to Shi’ites.

As the Iraqi army begins its operations to clear al-Qaeda from Fallujah, many Iraqi Sunnis hope that long-term Anbari residents can wear the uniform of the Iraqi army to clean house in their own home province. No one but Anbaris have ever been welcome in Anbar in a military sense, and so tribal elements hope that they rather than Shi’ite recruits from distant provinces will be the ones who do what is necessary. Here, Iraqis hope the United States will play just a supporting role, ensuring the Iraqi army has a qualitative military edge over al-Qaeda, and recognizing that al-Qaeda exists because of its ideology and its foreign sponsors; it did not simply materialize because of some political grievance, nor had it been absent from the protest camps which some outsiders describe as pure and nonviolent.

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Is America More Sectarian Than Iraq?

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.

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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.

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Never Force Concessions Under Fire

When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

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When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

As I discussed in a recent post about the roots of the current crisis, Iraqi politics are far more complicated than sectarian narrative or the all-Shi’ites-are-Iranian-puppets narrative would allow. The last thing that the United States should do is accept that the grievances of some Sunnis justify any terrorism whatsoever. If the population of al-Anbar does not like the current government and if they feel they have been systematically discriminated against, then they have two good recourses:

  • First, Anbaris can document and publicize widely very specific instances of abuse and then seek diplomatic pressure to force those changes. Granted, if countries like Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iraq, the people of Anbar might be able to seek to encourage their diplomatic leverage. So long as Saudis (and Qataris and many Jordanians) deny the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and remain unwilling to engage with Baghdad in the manner they once did under Saddam Hussein, then it is understandable that the Iraqi government will have reason to doubt their good will.
  • Second, Anbaris can focus on the forthcoming elections in Iraq in order to maximize turnout and their leverage in the post-election coalition building. If they dislike Prime Minister Maliki, they might reach out more to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Ammar al-Hakim, and they might also further their relationship with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the remains of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Noshirwan Mustafa’s Gorran Movement. That would, of course, mean dropping the notion expressed by some more extreme voices that the best course for Iraq would be to return to a pre-2003 system which blessed minority, strongman rule.

Hagiography regarding the surge also undercuts effective U.S. efforts to quell the violence. The surge was an important military and psychological strategy—it convinced allies and adversaries alike that the United States was committed to victory (at least until we announced our withdrawal)—but in an Iraqi context, it was politically short-sighted. Certainly, some Sunni tribesmen and political leaders put down their arms so long as the money flowed and they received outsized privileges. They did not change their ideology or convert to American or democratic values; they just made a short-term calculation that their own survival meant accepting American and Iraqi government terms.

The problem with those switching sides is they seldom do so only once. This was a lesson that Gen. David Petraeus should have learned when he commanded the 101st Airborne in Mosul: he achieved quiet so long as he empowered and subsidized Islamists and Baathists, no matter that as soon as the money dried up, his appointees flipped back to the insurgency.

Bribing groups and factions is seldom a long-term solution and, indeed, hampers peace by creating incentives not to compromise or accept the new reality of post-Saddam Iraq absent special privileges. Yes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should crackdown on corruption, sectarianism, and incitement which blight some of his allies. He should also reach out to all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity and sect. That said, he and his Shi’ite competitors have reached out to Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Kurds as they recognize that they will need to build a coalition after the next elections if they want to hold onto power.

But Maliki should never ignore terrorism or take a softer approach because its perpetrators might be Sunni. If Tariq al-Hashemi was guilty of murder, then he should face the consequences regardless of which mosque he attends. It would be counter-productive to accept any system in which the best way to avoid accountability for violence is to engage in further terrorism. That is a lesson the United States should have learned when U.S. forces had Shi’ite firebrand cleric and death squad leader Muqtada al-Sadr in their sites but chose to let him walk for fear of what his supporters might do if he were captured or killed. That decision enabled Muqtada al-Sadr and his gang to murder hundreds more.

Anbari politicians also need to dispense with the sectarian populism and religious incitement in which they too often engage. All Iraqis need to stop playing double games with militias and abuses. Al-Qaeda did not seize Ramadi and Fallujah because of a spontaneous reaction to the raid on the protest camp; they seized those cities because they planned to for a long time, infiltrated them, and stockpiled arms.

No ally should have to live with al-Qaeda or be denied the means to eliminate them. Rather than hold Iraqis hostage by denying the Iraqi government the means to respond effectively, the United States should instead provide whatever assistance is necessary coupled with real attention to guaranteeing Iraq’s next elections are free, fair, and will enjoy maximum participation.

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No Blank Check for Maliki

President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

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President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

If this were a Republican administration, such talk would lead to accusations that the administration is questioning Menendez’s patriotism. But in fact the Democratic senator has a good point–it will take a lot more than Apaches and Hellfires to stop AQI. It will take a political overture from Prime Minister Maliki to the Sunni tribes of Anbar, similar to the Awakening orchestrated in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

It is important to kill and capture al-Qaeda militants, to be sure, but absent political reconciliation with the Sunni population, AQI will have no trouble regenerating its losses. Indeed the indiscriminate application of firepower by Maliki, while it may play well among the prime minister’s Shiite constituents (which, with an election looming, may be the point), is likely to simply arouse more Sunni opposition.

Selling Maliki military hardware without preconditions is a bad idea. What’s needed is a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy centered on political outreach. If Maliki launches such an effort, the U.S. should support him–even flying armed Predators to directly target AQI if Maliki agrees. But unless and until Maliki ends his sectarian attacks on prominent Sunnis, giving him a military blank check, as the administration wants to do, would be counterproductive.

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Iraq’s Squandered Opportunity

Veterans of the hard fighting in Fallujah in 2004 must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Once again masked al-Qaeda fighters are parading through the streets and proclaiming the establishment of a new Islamic emirate. And once again military forces are massing on the outskirts preparing to wage a bloody battle to liberate the city. The only difference this time is that those troops are Iraqi, not American.

It is easy to imagine veterans of the Iraq War asking themselves what the point was of their service and sacrifice if al-Qaeda is back, as strong as ever–and arguably stronger because its reach now extends into Syria. It is an understandable question, and one that veterans of Vietnam no doubt ask themselves too. It is never pleasant to fight in a losing cause, but that does not mean that one’s service was in vain.

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Veterans of the hard fighting in Fallujah in 2004 must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Once again masked al-Qaeda fighters are parading through the streets and proclaiming the establishment of a new Islamic emirate. And once again military forces are massing on the outskirts preparing to wage a bloody battle to liberate the city. The only difference this time is that those troops are Iraqi, not American.

It is easy to imagine veterans of the Iraq War asking themselves what the point was of their service and sacrifice if al-Qaeda is back, as strong as ever–and arguably stronger because its reach now extends into Syria. It is an understandable question, and one that veterans of Vietnam no doubt ask themselves too. It is never pleasant to fight in a losing cause, but that does not mean that one’s service was in vain.

Vets can still derive satisfaction from the commitment and heroism they exhibited, from the tactical results they achieved, and from the knowledge that they were fighting for a good cause. It is not their fault that the hard-won gains of their service were squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington.

There was nothing inevitable about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. If the U.S. had kept troops in Iraq after 2011 and if Prime Minister Maliki had pursued more inclusive policies toward the Sunnis, AQI would have remained defeated, in all likelihood. Unfortunately, now that AQI has grown back, stronger than ever, it will have to be fought once again, and the battles that the Iraqi army will face in Anbar are likely to be bloodier than those fought by the U.S. Marine Corps.

It is a shame and a tragedy that President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki did not honor the sacrifices of so many troops in the past, both American and Iraqi, by doing more to build on the success of the surge. But that is not the fault of those troops, who fought magnificently to give Iraq an opportunity–now being squandered–for a better future.

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What’s Really Happening in Iraq?

The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

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The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

Perhaps Maliki should not have timed the raid on the Ramadi protest camp in the manner he did, and it is unfortunate that the timing appears to have been colored by partisan politics: With the elections forthcoming in April, the theory that Maliki ordered the raid to prove his “Shi’ite” credentials is believable among a wide segment of Iraqi society. It would also be good to reinforce the notion of blind justice by moving with similar seriousness against those Shi’ites and Kurds who engage in murder and terrorism. Again, the answer to that is not immunity for the perpetrators in al-Anbar, but rather greater action against Shi’ite abusers of Iraqi law.

The spark, however, was the raid on the Ramadi camp. According to residents of al-Anbar, most residents of the protest camp were unemployed youth who joined the camp both for the free food and the camaraderie. Residents do acknowledge supporters of al-Qaeda were present—and, indeed, their presence is undeniable and caught on YouTube videos—but locals dismiss the al-Qaeda presence as few and far between (somewhat akin to the way “International ANSWER” or “Code Pink” show up at random protests to try to hijack the press attention).

Perhaps, however, the al-Qaeda presence was underestimated: After all, al-Qaeda didn’t spontaneously organize to the point that they could seize Fallujah in just a week. The al-Qaeda presence was not created in the mind of the prime minister, as it is too easy to imagine from the safety of Washington or New York.

It is fashionable to blame Baghdad for the alleged discrimination which fuels the unrest in Al-Anbar but, once again, the situation is more complicated. There are huge differences in the proportion of allocated budgets actually spent from province to province. The way the Iraqi system works, some governors explain to me, is that the province has a budget, but only when a certain amount of money is spent will they receive the next infusion of cash. Kirkuk spends almost all of its budget, and has the results to show for it. In Ninewah and al-Anbar, the proportion spent is miniscule. What is unclear is whether the reason for that is a capacity issue in Mosul and Ramadi, or whether there is some bureaucratic blockage in Baghdad. Either way, if the protestors simply buy into the sectarian rhetoric, they will be no further to solving the very real problems which impact predominantly Sunni areas.

Political culture is also a problem. One of the most remarkable aspects of visiting and analyzing Iraq is meeting politicians of all backgrounds in their homes, offices, and in restaurants and hearing their assessments of the situation: They are down to earth, calm, and assess the situation rationally. Put the same politician in front of a television camera, however, and the personality shifts 100 percent: it’s fire and sectarian brimstone. Iraqi politicians all acknowledge the problem, but no one is willing to address the problem.

Within the United States, the surge colors analysis. The surge was a very successful military strategy in the short-term, but it created and exacerbated very real long-term political problems. General David Petraeus sometimes promised what he did not have the power to implement, and throughout his career seems to have prioritized short-term stability and security over the long-term viability of his strategies. If the situation went to heck after his departure, too often his successors would be blamed even if the seeds had been sown under his command. The unfortunate fact is that the surge rewarded violence and convinced some elements of Iraqi society that if they simply hold out longer or threaten (or even engage in violence), that they can win concessions through violence that they will never win through the ballot box. Proponents of the surge may not like to see the long-term consequence tarnish their legacy, but to pin the blame on the prime minister would be dishonest: the problem isn’t Maliki, but rather the absolutist vein which continues to course through Al-Anbar’s body politic.

So what can be done? A civil war in Iraq would be tragic, but offering concessions in the face of terrorism would simply pour fuel on the fire. If terrorism is motivated by ideology and, indeed, when facing al-Qaeda, both Iraq and the West are facing a corrosive ideology, then the only solution can be to kill the terrorists. Secretary of State John Kerry might be right when he says the United States no longer should be involved in the fight inside Iraq, but let us hope then that the United States will not get squeamish when Iraqi security forces do what must be done.

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The Tragedy of Maliki’s Iraq

If it’s the end of December or the beginning of January, it must be time for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to arrest another prominent Sunni politician.

The trend began in December 2011, just days after the departure of U.S. troops, when security forces raided the compound of Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. Hashemi was able to flee but several of his bodyguards were arrested and based on their testimony, allegedly extracted under torture, he was convicted in absentia of various terrorist offenses and sentenced to death.

A year later Maliki’s forces raided the home of Raffi el-Essawi, a former finance minister who barely managed to elude arrest.

Now it is the turn of Ahmed al-Alwani, a prominent member of Parliament who was arrested at his home a few days ago after a two-hour gun battle between his bodyguards and security forces that left his brother and five guards dead.

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If it’s the end of December or the beginning of January, it must be time for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to arrest another prominent Sunni politician.

The trend began in December 2011, just days after the departure of U.S. troops, when security forces raided the compound of Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. Hashemi was able to flee but several of his bodyguards were arrested and based on their testimony, allegedly extracted under torture, he was convicted in absentia of various terrorist offenses and sentenced to death.

A year later Maliki’s forces raided the home of Raffi el-Essawi, a former finance minister who barely managed to elude arrest.

Now it is the turn of Ahmed al-Alwani, a prominent member of Parliament who was arrested at his home a few days ago after a two-hour gun battle between his bodyguards and security forces that left his brother and five guards dead.

If Maliki wants to know why al-Qaeda in Iraq is suddenly resurgent, and why violence is returning to 2008 and even 2007 levels, all he need do is look at this trend. Sunnis certainly do. Many prominent leaders of the Anbar Awakening, who allied with American and Iraqi forces in 2007-2008 to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, have now made common cause with AQI because of what they see–with some justification–as a campaign of persecution directed against them by Maliki and the militant Shiites who surround him.

After Alwani’s arrest, one sheikh, Ahmed al-Tamimi, was quoted as saying: “The war has begun. I call on young people to carry their weapons and prepare. We will no longer allow any army presence in Falluja.”

The threat is not to be taken lightly as the Iraqi army recently learned–it just lost 18 soldiers, including a general in command of a division, during an attempted raid on an AQI encampment in Anbar Province.

Maliki understands that the threat against him is growing, but the actions he keeps taking–one crackdown after another–simply spark more protest. Buying more Hellfire missiles and Scan Eagle drones from the U.S. will accomplish little beyond further enflaming the situation.

Maliki needs to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign such as the one that General David Petraeus implemented in 2007-2008 whose central feature must be outreach to the estranged Sunnis. The tragedy of Iraq today is that Maliki lacks the acumen to do that–and the U.S. lacks the leverage to compel him, because of the ill-advised pullout of American forces at the end of 2011.

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Don’t Blame Maliki for Iraq Violence

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama today, as Max Boot notes. His visit comes against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in violence, with terrorists killing almost 1,000 people a month. While Max notes the relative success of Iraqi Kurdistan (and he could have also mentioned much of southern Iraq as well), he places much of the blame for the current violence on Maliki himself:

…The overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Frankly, Max is not alone. The Washington Post published a masthead editorial yesterday calling on the United States “to hold Maliki accountable.” Certainly, there’s enough blame to pass around, but it would be wrong to place too much blame on Maliki.

First of all, when a terrorist detonates a car bomb in a crowded market, the fault lies with the terrorist. Period. There are many places in the world where political grievances exist; none excuses terrorism.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama today, as Max Boot notes. His visit comes against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in violence, with terrorists killing almost 1,000 people a month. While Max notes the relative success of Iraqi Kurdistan (and he could have also mentioned much of southern Iraq as well), he places much of the blame for the current violence on Maliki himself:

…The overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Frankly, Max is not alone. The Washington Post published a masthead editorial yesterday calling on the United States “to hold Maliki accountable.” Certainly, there’s enough blame to pass around, but it would be wrong to place too much blame on Maliki.

First of all, when a terrorist detonates a car bomb in a crowded market, the fault lies with the terrorist. Period. There are many places in the world where political grievances exist; none excuses terrorism.

There are two schools of thought with regard to terrorism. The first sees terrorism’s roots in grievance, and the second in ideology. Those who subscribe to the grievance-based approach believe if a grievance is addressed, the cause for terrorism goes away. I’d argue far more of the Iraq-based insurgents root their terrorism more in an absolutist ideology. To accept the grievance-based philosophy is a bit dangerous as well, not only because it legitimizes some terrorism but also because terrorists and other rogues know the susceptibility of Western diplomats to declarations of real or contrived grievance, and it simply encourages some elements of society to stake out ever more extreme positions.

When it comes to Iraq, Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The surge was wise military strategy, but it was at times politically short-sighted, especially as some elements concluded that the shortest path to empowerment was the appeasement that followed violence rather than the ballot box. Indeed, the most extreme sectarian parties fared poorly in the most recent provincial polls; they were beat out by more moderate parties.

It is also dangerous to suggest that Iraqi security forces should not have sought to arrest Tariq al-Hashemi and Rafi Issawi if valid evidence against the two prominent Sunni politicians existed and, indeed, ample evidence exists. Being a Sunni politician should never lead to a free pass for terrorism. That Issawi is already paying blood money to those who his guards murdered suggests there may be something to the charges. Maliki should certainly target those leading Shiite death squads with the same fervor. While I would like to see Muqtada al-Sadr behind bars one day—and believe one of the Bush administration’s greatest mistakes in Iraq was not authorizing the shot when Muqtada al-Sadr was in the crosshairs—Maliki has dispatched his forces to take on Shiite militias in Basra and elsewhere.

Maliki may have flaws—though I cannot think of a single Iraqi politician (or American politician for that matter) that does not. But he has guided Iraq well through some turbulent times against the backdrop of a cabinet that as often answers more to political bosses outside the government rather than to the prime minister. Despite frequent accusations to the contrary, he does not cultivate a personality cult. Other Iraqi politicians do, however, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr and some Kurdish regional leaders. He is hardly authoritarian as his opponents too often seek to paint him because Iraqi political rhetoric still tends toward exaggeration. That said, Maliki should be held accountable, but that accountability should come first and foremost from the Iraqi people in the 2014 elections and not by an American administration which has largely abandoned Iraq hastily passing judgment. A major flaw of U.S. policy toward both Iraq and Afghanistan has been prioritizing personality over system. It is time to respect the system.

The United States should seek close ties with Baghdad. Not only would that enable Baghdad to better resist Iranian pressure, but it would also enable American businesses to take advantage of the growing Iraqi market. Long-term defense cooperation—for example, with regard to provision of the F-16 fighters Iraq seeks—would also help Iraq protect itself in a hostile neighborhood and would create a framework for decades of exchanges and interaction. It would make it harder for the Iranian government to try to run roughshod over Iraqi sensitivities. Such decisions should be based on American interests and Iraqi needs, not frustration with the outcome of the 2010 Iraqi elections or misdirected personal animus toward Maliki himself.

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Iraq’s Violence: What Can Be Done?

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is in the United States this week for high-level meetings, including a sit down today with President Obama. It seems like an awfully long time ago that Obama proclaimed the Iraq War a “success” and claimed “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” 

That speech–Obama’s own “Mission Accomplished” moment–occurred on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Nearly two years later Iraq is unraveling. Violence has returned to 2008 levels, with an average of 68 car bombings a month. No exact figures exist, but it’s estimated that 7,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks this year, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is warning “it could easily get worse,” with a “continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war.” 

Even the White House concedes that al-Qaeda in Iraq has staged a dismaying comeback, spreading its tentacles into Syria and emerging as “a ‘transnational threat network’ that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States.” There is, in fact, a very real danger that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, as al-Qaeda in Iraq has now restyled itself, can consolidate a fundamentalist emirate stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria which will become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001: a magnet and breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is in the United States this week for high-level meetings, including a sit down today with President Obama. It seems like an awfully long time ago that Obama proclaimed the Iraq War a “success” and claimed “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” 

That speech–Obama’s own “Mission Accomplished” moment–occurred on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Nearly two years later Iraq is unraveling. Violence has returned to 2008 levels, with an average of 68 car bombings a month. No exact figures exist, but it’s estimated that 7,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks this year, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is warning “it could easily get worse,” with a “continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war.” 

Even the White House concedes that al-Qaeda in Iraq has staged a dismaying comeback, spreading its tentacles into Syria and emerging as “a ‘transnational threat network’ that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States.” There is, in fact, a very real danger that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, as al-Qaeda in Iraq has now restyled itself, can consolidate a fundamentalist emirate stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria which will become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001: a magnet and breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.

To be sure, not all is awful in Iraq today. One of the few bright spots is surging oil production, which has increased 50 percent since 2005. Iraqi Kurdistan, almost a separate country by now, is also flourishing. But the overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Feeling cornered, the Sunnis have fought back the only way they know how—with car bombs targeted against Shiites. This is the deadly strategy perfected by al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, and it is risking a repeat of what happened in those dark days when Shiite death squads retaliated by torturing and killing innocent Sunnis.

Problem is, while it’s easy to see the toxic trend, it’s hard to reverse it. The administration, never particularly interested in Iraq in the first place, lost most of its leverage when it pulled U.S. troops out at the end of 2011. Maliki is now hoping to buy high-end American hardware including F-16 fighters and attack helicopters, and that gives us a bit of leverage–but only a bit. Iraq is rich enough to buy from Russia or China or, for that matter, France if the U.S. decides not to sell it weaponry. 

There are, however, certain capabilities that the U.S. has that no other nation can match, and it is those that should be used to try to affect Iraqi behavior. As the Edward Snowden revelations have made plain, the U.S. has unrivaled intelligence capabilities, especially in the sphere of electronic snooping, which could be shared with the Iraqis. So, too, we have drones and Special Operations Forces that once helped to unravel al-Qaeda in Iraq’s networks. If sent back into Iraq, they could probably do it again.

Obama should offer Maliki the use of these forces and capabilities, but only on certain conditions: namely that Maliki start accommodating and stop persecuting the Sunnis. Specifically, he should re-start the Sons of Iraq program, which between 2007 and 2008 enrolled some 100,000 Sunni men to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. This pro-government militia was critical to the success of “the surge” in Iraq, and it could help to catalyze a new, smaller surge—one that would not involve any conventional American ground troops but that would send more Special Operations and intelligence personnel to work with their Iraqi counterparts. 

Re-establishing relationships which once existed between the U.S. and Iraqi military could pay further dividends by giving the U.S. side greater “situational awareness” of events in Iraq. This would allow American personnel to help their Iraqi partners in the security forces to resist Maliki’s attempts to misuse them for political purposes. 

It would also give the U.S. greater insight into Iranian machinations in Iraq: Iran has been gaining power ever since the departure of U.S. troops. Not having the U.S. support to fall back on, Maliki has turned to the Iranians for advice and support in fighting back against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Iranians are Shiite hardliners whose involvement only further radicalizes the Sunnis and makes the situation more toxic.

Greater U.S. involvement in Iraq is necessary to counter the Iranians, but it is unlikely to happen because it conflicts with Obama’s desire to pull out of the Middle East at all costs. The cocksure president is also unlikely to take any action which suggests that his 2011 troop pullout was a mistake—which it was. That, unfortunately, increases the likelihood that Iraq will continue to drown in a sea of blood.

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Iraq’s Newest Insurgency

The latest alarming news from Iraq is that hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda terrorists have broken out of the Abu Ghraib prison–once used by Saddam Hussein, then by the U.S., now by the Iraqi government.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq–recently rebranded, after a merger with its Syrian affiliate, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–has already been displaying formidable capabilities, given that it now seems to set off a major explosion at least once a week. The raid to free imprisoned al-Qaeda members–which featured complex, military-style maneuvers–is a further sign of its strength. And of course with the aid of the newly released terrorists, al-Qaeda in Iraq will only get stronger still.

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The latest alarming news from Iraq is that hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda terrorists have broken out of the Abu Ghraib prison–once used by Saddam Hussein, then by the U.S., now by the Iraqi government.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq–recently rebranded, after a merger with its Syrian affiliate, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–has already been displaying formidable capabilities, given that it now seems to set off a major explosion at least once a week. The raid to free imprisoned al-Qaeda members–which featured complex, military-style maneuvers–is a further sign of its strength. And of course with the aid of the newly released terrorists, al-Qaeda in Iraq will only get stronger still.

While the prison breakout was the headline event, Reuters notes, almost in passing, “In the city of Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives behind a military convoy in the eastern Kokchali district, killing at least 22 soldiers and three passers-by.” That is another significant attack–what it signifies is that a full-blown Sunni insurgency is growing in northern Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Shiite extremist groups are beginning to fight back, just as they did in the dark days of 2006-2007 when Iraq was on the verge of all-out civil war. As Kim Kagan notes in the Weekly Standard, “Shia militias have mobilized in Iraq and have resumed extrajudicial killings in Baghdad, Diyala, and Hillah…. The militias are evidently reasserting their control of East Baghdad while projecting checkpoints into West Baghdad.” “Some of the militia activity,” she notes, “is occurring within sight of Iraqi Security Forces checkpoints,” which suggests that the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, “is either tolerating it or has lost control over the escalation.”

Maliki is responsible for this spiraling violence in other ways, as well, principally with his heavyhanded attempts to marginalize and prosecute Sunni politicians which is increasingly driving Sunnis to oppose the government via force of arms. A turning point, as Kagan notes, was “the January killing of several protesters in Fallujah and a deliberate military maneuver on the protest camp in Hawijah in April that left 200 casualties.”

The U.S., which has expended so much blood and treasure in Iraq, has been little more than a hand-wringing bystander to this worsening situation, our leverage severely limited by President Obama’s failure to reach an agreement that could have kept U.S. forces there past 2011. The U.S. can, as Kagan suggests, condition our arms deliveries on Maliki taking constructive steps to reach out to political adversaries, but Iraq is now rich enough–it is the second-largest oil producer in OPEC, behind only Saudi Arabia–that it can always replace U.S. weapons with others bought on the open market.

The fate of Iraq is not yet sealed, but its future does not look good. That is a precedent the administration should keep in mind as it openly flirts with the “zero-option” in Afghanistan–i.e., the removal of all U.S. forces after 2014. As the Iraq precedent should show, such a step would not “end” the war but worsen it.

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Looming Threat of Civil War in Iraq

The situation in Iraq continues to get grimmer and grimmer. Here is the latest: “A wave of car bombings and gunfire attacks hit cities in Iraq overnight and on Monday, killing at least 64 people and wounding more than 170, medical and security officials said.”

What is most alarming about this growth of violence is the intransigence increasingly displayed by both sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blaming “terrorist” politicians of Sunni persuasion for the attacks, while Sunnis once active in the Anbar Awakening are vowing to resist with force the presence of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province. It is difficult, if not yet impossible, to imagine some kind of negotiated solution. In all likelihood, the violence will get worse as al-Qaeda in Iraq stages a dismaying comeback from its near-defeat during the surge in 2007-2008.

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The situation in Iraq continues to get grimmer and grimmer. Here is the latest: “A wave of car bombings and gunfire attacks hit cities in Iraq overnight and on Monday, killing at least 64 people and wounding more than 170, medical and security officials said.”

What is most alarming about this growth of violence is the intransigence increasingly displayed by both sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blaming “terrorist” politicians of Sunni persuasion for the attacks, while Sunnis once active in the Anbar Awakening are vowing to resist with force the presence of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province. It is difficult, if not yet impossible, to imagine some kind of negotiated solution. In all likelihood, the violence will get worse as al-Qaeda in Iraq stages a dismaying comeback from its near-defeat during the surge in 2007-2008.

This is exactly the kind of scenario that advocates of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past 2014 warned about–with no honest broker in the middle, Shiite and Sunni extremists are on the verge of restarting the civil war that was extinguished during the surge at such great cost by American troops.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s pullback in Iraq has coincided with his unwillingness to do much of anything in Syria, raising the danger that the wars in the two countries will merge, involve other nations such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, and thus become a true regional conflagration. If we are not there yet, we are fast on the way to such a catastrophic outcome.

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CIA Plan Shows Mistake of Iraq Withdrawal

What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

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What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

Obama claimed that the pullout was necessary because Iraqi political leaders, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would not countenance an American role with immunity from prosecution. Does that mean that these CIA operatives are now subject to Iraqi criminal prosecution? One doubts it. Rather, one suspects that the Iraqis have granted the CIA a secret immunity deal, although if one exists it goes unmentioned in the Journal article.

But it is hard to imagine the CIA risking its operatives in such a quasi-public role without some legal protection. If in fact the Iraqis have granted such immunity to the CIA, it suggests they probably would have been willing to grant it to a limited contingent of military personnel as well–if only Obama had not made the onerous and unnecessary demand, opposed by his own negotiating team, that any immunity deal be approved by Iraq’s parliament.

Given the inability of the U.S. military to operate in Iraq, the CIA mission sounds like a reasonable stopgap, but almost surely there is a loss of capability in relying on the CIA rather than on seasoned American military organizations which built up long-term connections with their Iraqi counterparts and had more resources and expertise to devote to counterterrorism than an organization that is primarily devoted to the collection of intelligence. The CIA can make ample use of former military personnel–and perhaps some active-duty ones as well–but it simply is not as capable in carrying out this kind of mission as the U.S. Special Operations Command or other Defense Department organizations would be. Nor can the CIA presence, which is necessarily hidden and limited, provide the same kind of political clout to influence Maliki that the presence of uniformed military personnel could provide.

This is, in essence, a second-best solution–better than nothing but not as good as keeping an American military contingent after 2011 as America’s military commanders on the ground had argued for. Does President Obama now regret, one wonders, not trying harder to secure a Status of Forces Agreement?

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