by Dexter Filkins June 30, 2014
President Obama won the White House in part by promising to end the war in Iraq, and since then he placed his faith in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to help him do so. It was Maliki who would hold together the state that the Americans had helped build. Obama had correctly judged the war in Iraq to be a catastrophe, but placing his confidence in Maliki required no small exertion of faith. Maliki’s past, and his present, often raised doubts about his inclination to reach beyond his own community, the Shiites—the country’s long-suppressed majority—and mend relations with the country’s other main groups, the Sunnis and the Kurds. In early 2009, a group of American diplomats in Iraq warned the White House that it ran the risk of creating a dictator. They were largely ignored, and when Maliki won reëlection a year later Obama gave him his full support. In 2011, after the collapse of halfhearted discussions about keeping some U.S. forces in Iraq, the last American soldiers left the country. Just a few months ago, Maliki was feeling so proudly independent that he wrote in an e-mail, “I am the owner of the idea of withdrawing the U.S. troops.”Then, in recent days, Sunni militants took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and a string of towns along the Tigris River. The Iraqi Army, trained and equipped at enormous American expense, melted before the rebel advance; the Sunni insurgents, led by a vanguard called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), have moved to within forty miles of the capital, threatening to reignite the sectarian war that inflamed the country during the American occupation. In a strange and unpredictable way, the crisis has brought President Obama and Maliki together again.
As dramatic as the insurgents’ approach has been, it is not terribly surprising. They have fed on the deep discontent that prevails across the Sunni heartland, provoked and sustained by Maliki. Since the last American forces departed, he has embarked on a stridently sectarian project aimed at marginalizing the Sunni minority. He has presided over the arrest of his Sunni political opponents, jailed thousands of Sunni men, and excluded the Sunni population from any meaningful role in government. The Sunni Finance Minister, Rafe al-Essawi, fled the capital; the Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, fled the country and faces a death sentence if he returns. When the Sunnis rose up in anger, as they did in Falluja and elsewhere, Maliki ordered the Army to shell civilian areas and detain more Sunni men. Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Sunnis have been faced with the choice of pledging their allegiance to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad or to the armed groups within their own community. Ordinary Sunnis may find the insurgents’ methods barbaric—during the occupation, Sunni leaders helped the Americans crush Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia—but the relentless sectarianism of the government in Baghdad has confirmed for many of them that they have no place in Maliki’s Iraq. The Kurds in the north of Iraq have pulled away from the rest of the country; as the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites becomes an explicit land war, Iraq threatens to break apart.
Some leaders in both countries have said that the presence of even a small number of American troops, acting in non-combat roles, would help stabilize not just the military but Iraq as a whole, in part by helping to blunt the country’s sectarian dynamics. Whether or not this proves true, the actions that the President ordered will probably not prove decisive. Administration officials said that they were shocked not by the strength of ISIS, a group they have been tracking, but by the woeful performance of the Iraqi security forces. For the foreseeable future, the Iraqi Army is unlikely to be capable of retaking many of the areas lost to the militants.
In any case, the real questions are political, and they center on Maliki. Obama suggested that his offer of help would be determined by the progress the Iraqis make in knitting the country back together. The President didn’t say it, but he almost certainly wants Maliki to step down, and American diplomats in Baghdad appear to have begun signalling such a desire to other Iraqi leaders. This will be no easy thing. Maliki, whose self-regard has ballooned during his eight years in office, will very likely try to prevent his Shiite competitors from marshalling the support they need to unseat him. (As long as they can’t, he will remain in the job.) And he has very likely appealed to his backers in Iran, who have assisted him in his sectarian project. Removing Maliki would deal the Iranians a blow as well.
In 2003, when American troops first rolled into Baghdad, they destroyed the Iraqi state and its institutions; for the next eight and a half years they tried to build something to replace it. The truth is that the political system imposed on the Iraqis has never worked very well without substantial U.S. involvement; since the Americans left, it hasn’t worked at all. American diplomats and military advisers can’t save Iraq and they can’t govern it, but the decision by President Obama to return to Iraq amounts to a recognition that there was work left unfinished. It’s likely to be a long and difficult job. ♦