Shadow Government

After Losing Iraq, Is Maliki Going to Lose His Job?

Political deadlock in Iraq's National Assembly, Baghdad's parliament, means that it may be until after mid-August before it tries to elect a speaker, two vice presidents, and a new prime minster, which are steps in forming a new government following April elections. Bargaining goes on backstage; hence, it is critical to examine how Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki might be outmaneuvered from office.

Domestic politics are against Maliki being selected to form the new government. He is unacceptable to key stakeholders: religious leaders; Iraqi Kurds; Sunni Arabs; and many Shia factions, such as followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. They do not trust Maliki's pledges and believe he uses State institutions to consolidate his hold on power.

Maliki lost confidence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose opinion carries great weight. In 2014, Sistani has been critical of the government. Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, considers the Sistani critique a blow to Maliki. 

In the March 2010 elections, Maliki's State of Law Party won 89 seats of 325 possible and was second to Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya list, which had 91; the Kurds won 57. Pushed by Tehran, backed by Washington, and supported by Irbil (Kurdistan), Maliki not Allawi formed the government. Washington and Irbil presently have buyer's remorse.

Now defunct, Iraqiya was a cross-sectarian coalition, which Maliki targeted with politically-motivated charges. He made allegations against former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab in Maliki's government. In my 2013 interviews with Hashemi in Brussels, he provided evidence that he was unlawfully besieged by Maliki. Hashemi's mistreatment is a vivid indication of the political shadow cast by outside military presence: Fewer than 24 hours after the last American combatants departed Iraq, Maliki ordered the arrest of Hashemi. Without boots on the ground, Washington's influence plummeted.

During September 2010, Qassem Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, held a meeting with Iraqi political leaders in Qom, Iran. Tehran's aim included smuggling into Iraq rocket-assisted mortars to kill Americans and thereby compel a withdrawal, and reinforcing the influence of Iran's Shiite proxies in Iraq. Suleimani persuaded Sadr to back Maliki for promises that remain unfulfilled, and buyer's remorse characterizes another former ally.

Suleimani exercised oversight for De-Baathification of Iraqi Sunni opponents of Iran by Ahmad Chalabi. Let the buyer beware of this candidate for prime minister: U.S. Army General Ray Odierno (now Chief of Staff) describes Chalabi as being in the pocket of Tehran and in close contact with Suleimani. Covert arms transfers that targeted American and loyal proxy militias in his portfolio helped Suleimani play the role of "tough trader" in Iraqi politics. The backstory to such actions by Tehran is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the main threat to Iraq not the Islamists. If Washington wishes to defeat them, first coerce Iran to cease destabilization of Iraq.

Sunni Arabs never had faith in Maliki and many are in open rebellion against him now. When peaceful protests erupted in Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, Maliki ordered a ferocious crackdown in Anbar's main City, Ramadi. Forces of the tribes had liberated it, not those of the Islamists. Though the media focuses on nonstate extremists, the threats to Maliki are his domestic political opponents in the Sunni tribes.       

In the April 2014 Iraqi elections, Sunnis boycotted. There was no voting in about 80 percent of Anbar, where Sunni tribes controlled Falluja and parts of Ramadi. The Sunni vote split among several parties, including the United List led by National Assembly Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi; the Arabiya bloc led by Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq; and the Wataniya list led by the moderate Shiite, Ayad Allawi. Voter fraud that benefited Maliki casts a cloud over these returns.

It is hard to imagine a Sunni as prime minister due to the Shiite majority; so an option for Sunnis and Kurds is to align with Allawi. Despite not having a ground combat presence, Washington could use its leverage from the threat to employ airstrikes against Islamists. During June 2014, rumors abounded in Baghdad that President Obama informed Maliki Washington would not order airstrikes unless Maliki resigns; Obama then might support Allawi as prime minister.

It is in the U.S. interest for Obama to support Allawi rather than back an increasingly unpopular, narrowly-based Maliki. Many Iraqis feel he is the problem and cannot be part of the solution. Allawi held the office in 2004 and pursued inclusive politics that attracted Sunni and Kurdish support; thus, he is an ideal candidate for Washington. Allawi can hold the country together to the satisfaction of Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites.

If Maliki remains de facto prime minister despite expiration of his term, it would be an opportunity for Tehran and a threat to Washington. The longer President Obama waits, the greater the possibility of extremists hijacking the Sunni rebellion and Tehran gaining even more of the political-military upper hand in Iraq. If not now, when? Now is the time for Obama to break the political deadlock in Baghdad's parliament with quiet support for Allawi.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A Setback in the Long War

The rapid advance of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has momentarily reminded foreign-policy pundits that Iraq exists. It has also reminded the Obama administration that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq did not usher in a just and lasting peace there. But while critics' attention has focused on the daily headlines -- in some cases with no small degree of schadenfreude -- they have underemphasized a deeper trend that ISIS illustrates: The Middle East is now a more favorable operating environment for jihadist groups than ever before.

Violent jihadism is not new. It arose at least as early as the formation of the Egyptian Brotherhood in the early 20th century. But jihadist terrorism was sporadic and typically met with swift, brutal, and effective reprisals by the local governments against which it was targeted, such as the Egyptian government's crackdown on the Brotherhood in the 1940s and 1950s. Marxism and Arab nationalism were far more popular ideologies across the Middle East up through the 1960s and 1970s.

Today there is no serious ideological rival left to Islamist politics in most Middle Eastern countries. Nationalist and Marxist politicians discredited themselves with decades of corruption, mismanagement, and autocracy that left the region nearly worst in the world for human development. The groups gaining ground in the political ferment of the last few years tend to espouse variations of Islamism -- of the peaceful sort, where possible, as in Tunisia (the Ennahda Party) and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood has publicly foresworn violence since the 1960s), but of the violent sort elsewhere. 

At the same time, the breakdown of state institutions and the spread of state failure have left states increasingly unable to meet challenges to law and order from criminal gangs, terrorist groups, and insurgents. On the Fund for Peace's color-coded map of state fragility, the Middle East is a sea of orange and red.

These trends have come to the fore with special vigor in Iraq and Syria, states that have neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to resist the march of violent jihadist groups that feel they have the force of history on their side. The civil war in Syria has severely damaged whatever ability the Baathist government had to sustain even the malign order of dictatorship there, while the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq deprived the nascent government of crucial support it needed to keep itself together in the face of continuing sectarian tensions.

As a result, there is now a wide swath of territory across Iraq and Syria that is essentially safe haven for jihadist militants. This is probably the greatest strategic setback to the United States in its long war against jihadists since al Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996. That a menagerie of like-minded jihadist militant groups are alive and well and capturing territory suggests the irrelevance of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's claim in 2011 that al Qaeda was nearing "strategic defeat." The fate of al Qaeda is simply one small piece of a much larger problem. 

The situation is all the worse today because jihadist groups can now exploit the international border between Iraq and Syria to their advantage. In a move familiar to anyone watching the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, terrorists plan, train, and hide on one side of the border, unmolested by the local government because they only carry out operations on the other side.

The solution is a coordinated and simultaneous counterinsurgency strategy and counterterrorism strikes by both states against their common enemies. It is nearly impossible to imagine this happening. The United States attempted to foster such a strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan when both states were receiving massive U.S. security assistance and when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were in the region to actually conduct half of the coordinated campaign. The United States did not succeed in ending the Taliban's safe haven in Pakistan.

The United States has no such leverage in Syria or Iraq. Having called for Assad's resignation while also passing up opportunities to build a more robust relationship with non-jihadist rebel groups, the United States has managed to cut itself off from any potential local partners there. In Iraq, there was no agreement in 2011 to provide immunities for a residual force of military trainers. U.S. troops would not have solved Iraq's political problems, but could have blunted the current security challenge. Instead, the U.S. government has now responded to Iraqi requests for help with a deployment of 300 advisors.  

There is virtually no imaginable scenario in which Iraq and Syria will develop the capacity to root out the insurgents and terrorists in their respective territories with the current meager level of U.S. involvement, much less on their own.

With Iraq and Syria incapable of defeating ISIS and affiliated militants, the jihadist groups are on their way to becoming the FARC of the Middle East in the depth of their roots and in the difficulty of any campaign against them. The FARC have plagued Colombia for 50 years and become an endemic, integral part of that country's political and economic fabric. It may finally be petering out, after a decade and a half of massive U.S. help to the Colombian government.

Regardless of whether al Qaeda or ISIS or any other particular group rises or falls, jihadist militants across the region are enjoying a perfect storm of political upheaval and American retrenchment. The U.S. failure to secure a lasting presence in Iraq or to intervene effectively in Syria's civil war has contributed to one of the worst imaginable outcomes for the region and for U.S. security: al Qaeda copycats blighting the Middle East and beyond for decades to come.

-/AFP/Getty Images