Quick Thoughts: Zainab Saleh on Iraq


Jadaliyya (J): Recent events in Iraq have been rather dramatic. What led to these developments?

Zainab Saleh (ZS): The fall of Mosul and other Iraqi cities to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) needs to be understood against the combined background of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the sectarian political system installed by the occupying powers, regional and international politics, and the conflict in Syria.

The institutionalization of sectarian politics after 2003 has had a catastrophic impact on Iraq. It made the formation of a genuinely national government viewed as credible and legitimate by the majority of its citizens impossible. Iraqi political life instead became dominated by parties and politicians with narrow communal agendas, whose main concern has been to preserve their own role and marginalize rivals, including those with similar politics. The new political system additionally led to the alienation of Iraq’s Sunni community, whose members were characterized as either Ba’thist remnants or insurgents determined to undermine the Iraqi state. This institutionalized sectarianism resulted in a spike in sectarian violence, especially between 2006-2008. Under such conditions secular, inclusive voices have been altogether marginalized.

The occupation of Iraq contributed to its political instability in other important ways. The breathtaking incompetence of the US administration, for example, both enabled al-Qa‘ida to infiltrate Iraq and establish a significant presence in the country, and fuelled an insurgency in Anbar and other provinces on account of the dismantling of the military and marginalization of the Sunni community. Additionally, Shi’i militias such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq became significant players in Iraqi politics, particularly since their ranks overlapped with that of the regular armed forces. The presence of these various armed groups continues to form a major challenge to stability in Iraq because their role and indeed existence depends on a weakened and divided Iraq.  

The salience of sectarian politics and the power of militias were key contributors to recent developments. Ned Parker and Raheem Salman of Reuters convincingly argue that the events of last week were “facilitated by the sectarian distrust and stalemate among Iraq’s political leaders.” This stalemate began with re-election of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a second term in 2010. Emboldened by the imminent withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, he began to deal harshly with his rivals. He targeted Sunni leaders such as Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, who was sentenced to death in absentia in 2012, and Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, whose bodyguards were arrested that same year.

The situation escalated in April 2013 when the army was used to storm a protest camp in the town of Hawija near Kirkuk, killing fifty and wounding over one hundred. The protesters were demanding an end to what they termed government discrimination against Sunni Iraqis, the release of female prisoners, and annulment of terrorism and de-Ba’thification laws. The Hawija massacre led to a spike in suicide bombings and other attacks, raising the specter of renewed sectarian conflict along the lines seen in 2006-2008. It also led to greater Sunni distrust and hostility towards the government, and attracted renewed attention from al-Qa’ida, which had been primarily fighting in Syria.

The situation further deteriorated in December 2013 when ISIS militants attacked and killed Iraqi military personnel in Anbar province. Maliki responded aggressively, launching the air force against these militants. He also dispatched police, pro-government militiamen and SWAT teams to recapture neighborhoods in Ramadi that had fallen to ISIS. Iraqi special forces filmed summary executions of suspected militants, and mutilated the corpses of some in revenge for similar ISIS treatment of captured Iraqi soldiers. The military offensive in Anbar led to the displacement of around 400,000—out of a total of 750,000—residents of Anbar between January and April of this year. Nevertheless the government failed to regain the entire province; key cities like Fallujah and Ramadi came under the control of a combination of tribal leaders, ISIS, Iraqi security forces, and other Sunni insurgents.

During this period ISIS was also gaining influence in Mosul. It forged alliances with the Military Council consisting of former military officers, Ba’thist remnants, tribal leaders, and the Naqshbandi Army, a Sufi militia closely identified with the former regime and particularly former vice-president Izzat al-Douri. Douri, the most senior former regime figure who has not been captured, appears to have played a key role in recent developments, confirming that it is much broader than ISIS alone. 

In short, the loss of Mosul and other Iraqi cities from government control is tied to both the legacy of US occupation and the struggle for power among different Iraqi factions. It also reflects regional and international interference in Iraq’s affairs. The ascendancy of Iraq’s Shi’a and their leaders’ close relations with Iran have had a significant impact on regional politics. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia in particular seem intent on weakening Shi’i and Iranian influence in Iraq.

The sectarian discourse that has increasingly dominated the region’s politics since 2003 also came to play an important role in Syria, which in turn influenced the situation in Iraq. The Syrian uprising, which started as a non-violent revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, degenerated into a civil war between the regime and different rebel groups. It was also cast as an uprising by an oppressed Sunni majority against Alawite minority rule. The current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, established al-Qa’ida in Syria and then sought to merge it with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), thus producing the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Along with similar groups, ISIS has enjoyed military support and funding from the Gulf states and Turkey.

Finally, the fall of Mosul and other cities revealed not only the inability of the Iraqi government to defend them from attack, but also weak state control of key regions within the country. The military’s failure to repel the assaults on Mosul and Tikrit came as a shock, and the full story of how this transpired has yet to be written.

J: In April of this year Iraq held its first parliamentary elections following the US military withdrawal. What is the significance of these elections? Do you think they contributed to the recent escalation?

ZS: The recent Iraqi parliamentary elections were in effect a referendum on Maliki’s premiership and whether he should serve a third term despite growing opposition to his tenure by different Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni groups, especially on account of his mishandling of deteriorating conditions in the country.

I do not think the elections contributed significantly to the recent escalation. They did however reflect and consolidate the status quo in Iraq. Many Iraqis in Sunni areas did not vote, either because they feared retribution by ISIS or because they did not consider the electoral process to be free and fair.

Additionally, some secular groups formed the Civil Democratic Alliance in an attempt to challenge the sectarian quota system, but garnered only three out of 328 seats. Once again, the majority of seats were won by communal parties and coalitions—whether ethnic or religious. As such these elections, like the previous two held in 2005 and 2010, served to further entrench sectarian divisions and to further marginalize secular and national groups, who lack the support enjoyed by their ethnic and religious counterparts.

J: What are the implications of these elections for the development of the Iraqi political system?

ZS: The significance of these elections remains to be seen since a new government has yet to be formed. The key question is not whether al-Maliki will remain in office; any successor—who according to the current sectarian allotment of positions must also be Shi’a—will similarly manipulate communal sentiment and fears to weaken rivals and aggrandize power.

The problem is the sectarian quota system. Based on the marginalization of secular and national forces, it presents a huge challenge to any serious political solution in Iraq. The sad reality is that once sectarianism becomes institutionalized it is very difficult to overcome. It produces powerful vested interests that will fight off any attempt to change it. Indeed, as we have seen since 2003, it empowers and even produces communal forces, including armed militias, who act to perpetuate the system while marginalizing secular and national forces that are reduced to the role of dissidents.

The 2011 uprising in Iraq provides a glimpse into the difficulty of dismantling this sectarian quota system. In addition to institutionalized sectarianism, post-Saddam Iraq has also been afflicted by rampant corruption and nepotism, unemployment, and the collapse of basic services. In response to this bleak reality Iraqis, inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab states, in February 2011 took to the streets against their government. For six months, in different parts of Iraq, there were mass protests against sectarianism, the continued presence of US troops, high prices, corruption, and unemployment. In Baghdad demonstrators managed to destroy walls separating neighborhoods. The uprising was refreshing in that it showed ordinary Iraqis’ desire to move beyond the sectarian system and fight for collective demandsTwo years later protesters in Hawija expressed similarly legitimate demands by conducting a peaceful sit-in in the city’s main square.  

Al-Maliki’s forces succeeded in stifling these attempts. They used violence and sectarian agitation to disperse the protesters and erected concrete blocks to prevent them from reproducing Tahrir Square in Baghdad. In the case of Hawija, the government justified its use of violence by asserting that al-Qa‘ida militants and members of the outlawed Ba’th party infiltrated the protest camp and fired at the security forces.

J: What is your prognosis for Iraq?

ZS: The way forward in Iraq, not unlike that in Syria, depends on the willingness of local and regional powers to find a solution. This however seems unlikely for the moment.

As I mentioned earlier, Iraqi politicians and militias are not willing to compromise or renounce sectarian politics. The same applies to regional and international powers. Saudi Arabia does not want to see a strong Iraq. Turkey, Iran, and the rest of the Gulf states will keep interfering in Iraqi affairs in accordance with their interests and rivalries. As for international powers we have already seen what the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq has wrought.

There are other serious obstacles to any effort to find a solution. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the military groups associated with it have managed to hold the places they seized during their recent offensive, and have had free access to the Iraqi military’s weapons depots, including tanks. A few days ago they also managed to gain control of Tal Afar and are now fighting for the oil refineries in Baiji.

The Iraqi army, whose generals in the north did not fight as ISIS encroached upon Mosul and Tirkrit, has not been able to regain these areas. Kurdish peshmerga militias have stepped in to protect oil-rich Kirkuk, a city they have long sought to rule. Its Arab and Turkmen inhabitants have voiced concerns over permanent Kurdish control of Kirkuk. A few days ago, the president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front announced the formation of a militia to wrest control of Kirkuk from the Kurdish militias. Additionally, there are reports that Iran has sent military advisors and perhaps also troops to aid the government in its fight against ISIS.

Even if the Iraqi government manages to regain control of these areas, it will be extremely difficult for it to root out ISIS, dismantle newly-formed militias like that of the Turkmen Front, drive out any foreign troops, and persuade the Kurds to relinquish control over Kirkuk. As such, recent developments have already produced new and serious challenges.

It is difficult to predict what is next for Iraq, particularly after Barack Obama has expressed the readiness of the United States to strike ISIS and the Baghdad government’s formal request to Washington to launch air strikesinside its territory.

There are two things that should not be done. First, airstrikes will not be effective. If the US drone wars in Yemen and Pakistan, and the various US air campaigns against Iraq over the years have taught us anything, it is that airborne warfare does not weaken irregular groups and that it is the civilian population that pays the price. Second, Iraq should not be partitioned. The prospect of dividing Iraq into three is on the table. This scenario will result in the establishment of three weak entities, each beholden to and dependent upon regional powers. The Iraqi people will again have to pay a high price.

A political solution, no matter how impractical it might now look, is the only alternative. Its key elements would consist of dismantling the sectarian political system, and agreement among regional and international powers to cease using Iraq as an arena to further their own interests and engage in proxy conflicts on its soil. Absent such developments Iraq will not be stable