Iraq: The Road to Chaos

Shi'ite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq in a parade.jpg

Mushtaq Muhammed/Reuters/Corbis

Members of Asaib Ahl al Haq, a Shiite militia, in Karbala, Iraq, March 21, 2014

Baghdad’s version of Tahrir Square is far shabbier than Cairo’s. It consists of a yellowed park, frequented by vagrants, and sits next to a crowded market, where second-hand appliances, sex videos, and penis enlargement pumps are sold. It was here that Iraq experienced its own Arab Spring in the first half of 2011. Almost every Friday, a few thousand people gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir and in other public squares around the country, from the Shiite-dominated south to the Sunni regions of the north and west. Like their counterparts in Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, and Damascus, the demonstrators had grievances about the existing political order—complaints about human rights abuses, corruption, and the misuse of oil wealth; but also the lack of jobs, reliable electricity, clean water, and adequate healthcare.

Yet in another respect, the very fact that these peaceful protests were taking place seemed to show how much progress Baghdad had made since the end of the violent civil war in 2008; the protesters included both Shiites and Sunnis, and they were facing off against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, though a former political exile with a long history of involvement in Shiite political parties, had sought to appear as a non-sectarian figure running a new national government.

Now, as Iraq prepares for its first national election in four years on April 30, it is hard to imagine democracy activists rallying weekly in Iraqi streets. For months, suicide bombers have been dynamiting themselves in crowded Shiite markets, coffee shops, and funeral tents, while Shiite militias and government security forces have terrorized Sunni communities. The Iraqi state is breaking apart again: from the west in Anbar province, where after weeks of anarchic violence more than 380,000 people have fled their homes; to the east in Diyala province, where tit-for-tat sectarian killings are rampant; to the north in Mosul, where al-Qaeda-linked militants control large swathes of territory; to the south in Basra, home to Iraq’s oil riches, where Shiite militias are once more ascendant; to Iraq’s Kurds, who warn that the country is disintegrating and contemplate full independence from Baghdad.

More than 2,500 Iraqis have been killed since the start of the year, including nearly three hundred in the first ten days of April; in the capital itself, which has become a showcase for the country’s multiplying conflicts and uncontrolled violence, there have been several brazen attacks on government buildings, and a terrifying string of car bombings, including eight on April 9 alone.

In theory, this month’s parliamentary elections, which are being contested by parties from across the political spectrum, will allow voters to take a stand against extremism. While many Iraqis say they are disillusioned with their current leaders, however, few think their vote is likely to produce major changes: Most of the candidates play to the fears of their own sects, or seem too weak to change the currently hateful mood. Across Iraq, people seek diversions through a trip to a mall or coffee shop, half-expecting a fatal explosion, or they lock themselves away at home losing themselves in American movies and video games. Others seek solace in the sectarian fantasies now promoted by the elite political parties: the stories told by many Sunnis of Iran’s domination of Iraq through militias and political figures, and by the Shiite religious parties of a plot hatched in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey to destroy the Shia communities in Syria and Iraq.

On the surface, the speed with which Iraq’s new political order has fallen apart is a puzzle. Although bombings never stopped, there had been relative stability since the spring of 2008, when Maliki, emboldened by the successful US-backed Sunni revolt against al-Qaeda, known as the Awakening, set out to disband the Shiite militias endangering law and order in Basra and Baghdad. The campaign, supported by the Americans, produced a surge of patriotism among both Shiites and Sunnis. By 2010, when the country was preparing to stage its second national elections for a four-year government, Iraq seemed poised to cast off its divisions. Maliki, running for reelection, had learned to present himself as both staunchly Shiite and a leader for all Iraqis. Resisting pressure from other Shiite religious parties and Iran, he ran his own list of candidates, including Sunni tribesmen and secular politicians. His main competition was the Iraqiya bloc, headed by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who had briefly served as prime minister of Iraq’s interim government in 2004–2005; it was supported by many Sunnis and included the most popular Sunni political leaders.

Yet Maliki and his Shiite Islamist supporters were unable to shed their deep mistrust of those they believed had fought them in the past. Rather than being integrated into the political system, several dozen leaders of the Awakening ended up dead or in jail, or forced into exile. Take Mohamed Husayn Jasim, a former Sunni insurgent who joined the movement against al-Qaeda and then became the deputy governor of Diyala province, to the east of Baghdad. His reward was to be arrested on terrorism charges and sentenced to death. (He was released in 2013 when, in a final appeal, a judge found the charges were without merit.)


After the Awakening, al-Qaeda fighters had been forced to retreat to remote rural areas and were in disarray. But the arrest of Awakening leaders like Jasim created a security vacuum that extremist groups were quick to exploit. On a visit I made in the fall of 2010 to Jufr Sakr, a farm community south of Baghdad, residents said they did not dare turn in Sunni militant cells in their area because they did not trust the army and had no one from their own community who could protect them.

Meanwhile, instead of producing a decisive outcome, the 2010 election left the country deeply divided. The vote was a near draw between Maliki and Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, and it took nine months of negotiation and heavy involvement from both the Americans and Iranians to forge a new “national unity” government. According to the compromise reached, it was to be headed by Maliki with important cabinet positions allocated to Iraqiya, including the vice presidency and the ministries of finance and defense. Allawi himself would head a new military and political council, a step the US had strongly pushed for. But as soon as the new government was seated, Maliki refused to relinquish control of the defense and interior ministries, and thwarted the establishment of Allawi’s council. He eventually chased his Sunni vice president and finance minister away with the threat of arrest warrants. As Maliki saw it, his political survival depended in part on ruthlessly limiting his opponents’ power, and he could not leave himself exposed to enemies, whether Shiite Islamist rivals or members of the Sunni opposition.

Campaign poster for Nouri al-Maliki .jpg

Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo

A poster of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, March, 2013

In the early months of 2011, as popular uprisings raised hopes for democracy around the Middle East, Iraqis were inspired to make their own call for a more democratic government and for a time, it seemed possible that they might induce significant reforms. On February 25, 2011, when thousands of young Iraqis took to the streets in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and more than a dozen other cities, several local officials, including the governors of two Shiite provinces, were forced to resign. A few days later, Maliki, unnerved by the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, announced a hundred-day deadline for the government to weed out corruption and improve the delivery of services. Maliki’s Sunni and Shiite critics seized upon the protests. Rather than come together to fix Iraq’s myriad problems, however, each political party saw the demonstrations as a way to pressure its rivals. It was a pattern that would repeat again and again over the next four years as politicians bullied and embarrassed one another at the country’s expense.

That summer, the prime minister responded with authoritarian tactics. During the second Friday protest in Baghdad that June, Maliki supporters and plainclothes security agents descended upon the protesters and attacked them with clubs and knives. These roving bands of pro-Maliki men, who identified themselves as victims of terrorism, waved pictures of Allawi with a giant red X slashed across his face, while shouting “death to Baathists.” Iraqi soldiers stood by and officials from Maliki’s office toured the square in praise of their armed supporters, ignoring the violence.

Maliki understood that the Americans were getting ready to leave and that the American-sponsored rules that had been imposed after 2003 were temporary. Vice President Biden, who traveled to Iraq four times between January 2010 and January 2011 to promote a successful democratic transition, had stopped coming as the American military prepared for its final withdrawal. And during the June crackdown, the US embassy—which is right across the river from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square—remained silent.

By the fall, Maliki’s office was insinuating that his own Sunni-vice president, Tareq Hashimi, was running death squads, and stories were circulating that Hashimi and his fellow Sunni politicians, including finance minister Rafaa Issawi and Parliament speaker Usama Nujafi, were conspiring with Turkey and the Gulf states to bring down the new Shiite-led order. Upon his return from a triumphant visit to the White House that December to mark the formal US withdrawal, Maliki sent security forces to arrest Hashimi, who fled to Turkey, and to surround the homes of prominent Sunni officials inside the Green Zone.

Maliki’s popularity surged with Iraq’s Shiite majority, but he underestimated how much he had alienated mainstream Sunnis. Many Sunni leaders were embittered by their lack of voice after an election they believed they had won, and the uprising in neighboring Syria, which increasingly pitted Syria’s Sunni majority against its minority Alawite leadership, seemed to offer a more radical approach to change. Sunni politicians spoke in private of the creation of a “Sunni crescent “ on Iraq’s Western flank if Syria fell. They believed it would deter Maliki from carrying out raids in their communities. At the same time, they were aware that a Sunni-ruled Syria meant more oppressive policies from Baghdad and the Shiites, who feared international plots by Sunni Islamist groups to topple them.


In February 2013 I traveled to Anbar to spend a week with Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman, the crown prince of Anbar’s largest tribal confederation. A hero of the Awakening, he had been one of the first to rise up against al-Qaeda in 2006, and had once posed for pictures with President Bush and then-Senator Obama. Now, however, he was throwing himself behind huge anti-government protests, which had erupted six weeks earlier after Maliki sent troops to arrest the bodyguards of the Sunni finance minister Issawi. Sheikh Ali drove his own jeep from meeting to meeting with tribal figures, a small silver machine gun strapped to his side, enlisting support for the protesters’ demands to free tens of thousands of Sunni detainees and to end discrimination against his sect. During my visit, he also invited Shiite tribal leaders to the demonstrations, hoping to find common cause with them over such grievances as government corruption and abuses by the security forces.

Barack Obama and Sheikh Ali, July 22, 2008.jpg

Erin A. Kirk/US Marine Corps

Barack Obama and Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, Ramadi, Iraq, July 22, 2008

But the government was in no mood to negotiate with Sunni leaders like Sheikh Ali and the demonstrations were quickly exploited by hardliners. In April 2013, after the shooting of an Iraqi soldier near a protest camp in Hawija, a town in the north close to Iraq’s traditional border with Iraqi Kurdistan, elite security units attached to the prime minister’s military office opened fire on the camp, killing fifty-one people, including old men and children. A Western diplomat described the event to me as “carnage” and “a vendetta out of all proportions.” Veteran Iraqi jihadists, many of whom had gone to Syria to fight against Assad, used the Hawija killings to recruit more fighters. The shootings came just two weeks after al-Qaeda-linked militants renamed themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and, while taking over significant areas of northern Syria, began to stage raids in Iraq itself, including a prison break at Abu Ghraib to free more than 500 Sunni militants.

In late December 2013, ISIS fighters ambushed and killed an Iraqi general and seventeen officers in the Anbar desert. Maliki responded by ordering the arrest of a senior Sunni lawmaker and by clearing out the main Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, where Sheikh Ali had been active. Maliki said his actions were necessary to stop al-Qaeda, but the brutal crackdown provoked mainstream Sunni tribes into a general armed uprising and forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes. Sheikh Ali was now roaming the Anbar countryside, trying to wage a guerrilla campaign against Maliki’s elite counter-terrorism forces and juggling an uneasy co-existence with ISIS. “I will die a victor or a martyr,” he told his brother in a phone call from the battlefield.

In interviews, US officials portrayed the fight in Anbar as a battle between Baghdad and al-Qaeda, and sent hellfire missiles for Maliki to use, regardless of the consequences and of the lack of a clearly defined objective. As my Reuters colleagues and I have documented, in recent weeks Iraqi Special Forces soldiers have bragged of executing suspected militants in Anbar. They describe it as revenge for what ISIS did to them. On Facebook community pages, Iraqi soldiers post pictures of ISIS fighters they have killed, depicting the executions as part of a regional war against Sunni extremists that spans from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. Despite such boasts, control of the province’s main cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, is now divided among the Iraqi security forces, tribal leaders, ISIS, and other Sunni insurgents. ISIS has even seized a dam near Fallujah and flooded land to prevent the military from approaching its strongholds.

But Iraq’s extremist violence is no longer limited to Qaeda militants, as Shiite militias, emboldened by the security forces’ conflict with Sunnis over the last year, have steadily regrouped. In the center of Baghdad, Shiite militias display pictures of fighters slain in Syria where they have gone to defend a sacred Shiite shrine against Sunni militants. It is a powerful recruiting tool for the groups and testament to their newfound sway in the capital. Shiite eyewitnesses and tribal figures describe Sunnis displaced or executed by militia groups. In Basra, the Shiite-dominated southern city where in 2008 Maliki stood up to the militias, the new radicalism is even more pronounced. The city is once again infested by such groups, some of them, like Asaib Ahl al Haq, enjoying close ties to the government.

Asaib is headed by Qais Khazali, a one-time aid to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr who the US military believes masterminded the kidnapping and execution of five US soldiers in January 2007. Jailed soon after, Khazali was released by US forces two years later under pressure from Maliki. But Khazali promptly reconstituted Asaib, which many Iraqis say has since carried out racketeering, kidnapping, and executions. Asaib and other Shiite militias have been suspected of a wave of killings in Basra that are reminiscent of the darkest days in Iraq’s civil war. At least seventeen Sunnis were assassinated, with some estimates putting the number as high as fifty between September and December. Letters were left on the doors of families from Basra’s main Sunni tribe, the Sadouns, warning the “killers of Hussein” to leave. The UN estimates at least fifty-nine families left Basra and its neighboring province Nasiriya for the north.

In December, I travelled to Basra, where I met Sheik Jamal Sadoun, the head of the Sadoun clan. A policeman watched from the door during our meeting; posters of dead Asaib fighters in Syria papered a nearby wall. Sheik Jamal called the killings and threats a “sectarian campaign” but swore he had never been bothered by Asaib or Kita’ib Hezbollah, another powerful Shiite militia. Echoing comments by Maliki, he nervously claimed that al-Qaeda must be responsible for the violence. “No one can protect you but the state,” he said.

Those not under the watch of the government, however, were far more alarmist. A family from the Sadoun tribe refused to rule out the government or the militias as responsible: “We don’t feel safe. You can’t recognize your enemy. You don’t know who he is.”

The ambiguity between regular security forces and militia groups evokes memories of 2005 and 2006, when many police units often doubled as sectarian death squads. Many Asaib militants carry badges from the prime minister’s office that allow them through checkpoints to conduct operations against their enemies. A Shiite politician, with links to Asaib, said the group has assassinated Sunnis, but that those killed were definitely terrorists. The question is: Are Asaib members carrying out gangland-style hits of Sunnis or Sadrists on behalf of Maliki, or are they free agents the prime minister cannot afford to alienate? One Western diplomat, who defended Maliki, suggested that Asaib bought their badges by bribing officials around the prime minister’s office.

Throughout the country, pervasive corruption has weakened the chain of command of the army and police. Security officers regularly detain people and then offer to free them for thousands of dollars in ransom; they take bribes at checkpoints, and run rackets based on inflating company rosters with names of soldiers who don’t exist. Actual battle commands are now for sale to the highest bidder, according to senior government officials. The more the chaos, the greater the opportunities for criminals and extremists to take advantage of an increasingly weakened state, as was the case during Iraq’s last round of civil war.

With elections now two weeks away the prime minister appears confident. One way his Shiite political opponents might challenge his bid to continue in office would be to form a ruling coalition with Sunnis and Kurds after the election. But despite their shared wish to replace Maliki, the competition among his Shiite opponents to claim his position, and the most lucrative governmental posts, may prevent them from coming together. Sunni political figures are in a similar battle for preeminence within their own community. Sunni candidates also face threats from members of ISIS, the Qaeda-linked group, who consider any participation in the election as traitorous. Deteriorating security conditions in the north and west are likely to limit Sunni voter turnout, and the electoral commission has already announced that some areas in western Anbar will not be able to cast ballots. In any case, a lengthy negotiation period will likely be required after the election to form a new government, during which Maliki, by virtue of his office, will continue to exercise the most power in the land.

Though less popular than in 2010, Maliki believes he will benefit from the fear and chaos, presenting himself as the only one capable of guarding his community and saving Iraq. Sectarian conflict becomes another way of waging politics and outlasting competitors. One evening in December, I visited a former commander of a Shiite militia who had become a politician. He eyed news of a bombing in Baghdad and said, “See, fifteen of our people died today.” As we talked, a dozen military-age men arrived at his house, some wearing green military pants and vests. The politician called the men to a separate room and terminated our meeting. He ordered no one to disturb them: suddenly, he had become his former self, a militia commander who defended Shiite areas against suspected terrorists during the heights of sectarian violence in 2005 and 2006. It was time for the next battle.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in