The story most media accounts tell of the recent burst of violence in Iraq seems clear-cut and straightforward. In reality, what is happening is anything but. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), so the narrative goes, a barbaric, jihadi militia, honed in combat in Syria, has swept aside vastly larger but feckless Iraqi army forces in a seemingly unstoppable tide of conquest across northern and western Iraq, almost to the outskirts of Baghdad. The country, riven by ineluctable sectarian conflict, stands on the brink of civil war. The United States, which left Iraq too soon, now has to act fast, choosing among an array of ugly options, among them renewed military involvement and making common cause with Iran. Alternatives include watching Iraq splinter and the creation of an Islamist caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Nouri al-Maliki
Nouri al-Maliki; drawing by Pancho

Much of this is, at best, misleading; some is outright wrong. ISIS, to begin, is only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups. Besides ISIS, the Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the government of Nouri al-Maliki includes another jihadi group, Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), as well as the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, comprising as many as eighty tribes, and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group that claims to have Shiite and Kurdish members and certainly includes many Sunni Baathists once loyal to Saddam Hussein.

This is a partial list. The important point is that within the forces that have proven so powerful in recent weeks are groups with profound differences, even mutual hatred. ISIS, for example, has turned on al-Qaeda, its parent, for being too moderate, and considers Baathists to be infidels. These disparate groups are fighting together now, yes, but they won’t be together for long. And they have been fighting in places where local populations are friendly to them. It will be a different matter when they meet the tough and motivated Kurdish peshmerga or Shiite forces in the Shiites’ own regions.

The story, which has seemed to be all about religion and military developments, is actually mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice. True, one side is Sunni and the other Shia, but this is not a theological conflict rooted in the seventh century. ISIS and its allies have triumphed because the Sunni populations of Mosul and Tikrit and Fallujah have welcomed and supported them—not because of ISIS’s disgusting behavior, but in spite of it. The Sunnis in these towns are more afraid of what their government may do to them than of what the Sunni militia might. They have had enough of years of being marginalized while suffering vicious repression, lawlessness, and rampant corruption at the hands of Iraq’s Shia-led government.

What is happening now—not its details, but its essentials—was clearly evident at the time of President Bush’s “surge” seven years ago. The premise for the added American troops then was that insecurity in Iraq blocked political reconciliation. If the violence could be reduced, the administration argued, reconciliation would follow—but it didn’t. The important agreements on the eighteen political “benchmarks” specified by the US never were carried out and haven’t been to this day. (They included, for example, laws that were supposed to distribute oil revenue equitably and reverse the purge of Baathists from government.) When a government is wrenched apart, especially an authoritarian one, a struggle for political power immediately fills the vacuum. In Iraq the struggle has been, and continues to be, within sectarian groups almost as much as between them. Among the Shia, for example, Muqtada al-Sadr has openly opposed Maliki. The US presence forced the struggle into nonviolent channels for a while, but it could neither remove nor resolve the multiple contests for political power that continued to be fought.

Mike King

Had the US been willing to stay longer, might the artificial peace its troops imposed have turned into a real one? Perhaps it might have, if American forces had continued to occupy Iraq for another decade or two. But it is unlikely that Iraq or its neighbors would have been willing to tolerate our presence for that long, and people can nurse a political dream or a desire for revenge for far longer even than that. Iraqis knew that someday we’d be gone and they would remain. They could afford to wait.

Nor did we give short shrift to building up Iraqi security. Iraq has a huge military apparatus—a million men under arms—extensively and expensively trained, and equipped with American weapons. It is a fantasy to argue that another year or two of the US presence would have fundamentally altered Iraq’s military response to the jihadists, for an army will not fight well for a government it does not respect. As Admiral Michael Mullen told Congress in July 2007, shortly before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Iraq needs political reconciliation; “barring that, no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference.”


What Prime Minister Maliki has done since taking office eight years ago is to systematically exclude and abuse Iraq’s Sunnis. He has justified everything from denial of government resources to arbitrary arrest and torture on the grounds that he is fighting a war against terror. But he has pointedly failed to classify Shia violence—including, for example, dozens of killings by Asaib, a Shia militia in Basra—as terror. At the same time, he has put himself at the center of the state’s power at the expense of its other institutions. Parliament is powerless and government ministries, the judiciary, and the security forces are politicized and corrupt. The criterion of appointment is loyalty to Maliki, not competence. Lawless Shia militias, answerable only to their leaders, supplant the army and police. Under varying degrees of US pressure to change this behavior, Maliki has nonetheless enjoyed US backing throughout, including through two reelections.

There is no military solution to this state of affairs. The solution must be political, and the fact that there is only a slim chance of success does not make doing the wrong thing any more sensible. The administration should not be stampeded by either Washington hawks or cries of imminent collapse from Baghdad into mission creep on the ground or into becoming Maliki’s air force. Instead, over the coming month or two, it should use all its strength to push for a new Iraqi prime minister and a government that can make a credible case for Sunni and Kurdish support. It is true that Maliki has just been reelected, but his party holds only a quarter of the seats in Parliament—hardly a mandate.

At the same time, the situation cannot be resolved domestically. Every state in the neighborhood has its hand in the mess. There will have to be an international effort to shore up a more workable government with the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and others involved, perhaps under UN auspices (though one could wish for a more able and energetic secretary-general). All share, to some degree, an interest in avoiding stateless anarchy, Sunni or Shia, on their borders.

Finally, this is the time for the US to reconsider the political goal it has pursued since 2004 of a strong central government in Iraq. It has held steady to this goal through countless changes of tactics—but none of core strategy—and it has done so without success. Without moving toward division of the country, a more federal vision for Iraq—in which its regions enjoy greater autonomy and the central government less power (though it would have to include a workable division of oil revenues)—is better suited to a country in which mutual fear, real and perceived wrongs on all sides, and the momentum of violence will continue for years to come.

—July 10, 2014