Sunday, January 19, 2014

The ISIS (al-Qa'ida) attacks and the "blame game" in Iraq

The recent attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) have not only have unleashed a stream of violence and mayhem in al-Anbar Province but a torrent of finger pointing and blame as to who is "at fault" for the ISIS assault.  What sense are we to make of what has occurred and who exactly is at fault for what has occurred?  Is there really an al-Qa'ida threat to Iraq?  Is Iraq doomed to sectarian conflict or is there a way out of the present conundrum?

I will argue that much of what is occurring in al-Anbar should be understood as a reaction to Maliki's policies and part of his strategy to mobilize greater support in the Shi'i community so that he can win election for a third term as prime minister in next April's parliament elections (a topic I will elaborate in my next post).

First, let's place the blame where it is most deserved, and that is with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has pursued the most sectarian and statesman like policies that were intended to intimidate his political opposition and eliminate, one by one, any potentially powerful politcian from Iraq's Sunni Arab community who might rise to challenge him the future.

A close second is US policy in Iraq that helped replace the Sunni sectarianism of the Saddam Husayn regime with that of a Shi'i sectarian regime.  Placing political forces in power such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) - later to change its name to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Islamic Call Party and the chameleon pro-American secular-turned-pro-Iranian Shi'i sectarian, Ahmad Chalabi, created the foundations for the current crisis.  The responsibility for this policy lies with the former neo-conservative policy-makers in the Bush adminstration.

Following at number 3 is the Obama administration's decision to cooperate (tacitly) with Iran to support Nuri al-Maliki - the loser in the March 2010 parliamentary eelctions -  in his efforts to circumvent  the Iraqi constitution and manipulate the political system to retain his position as prime minister.  The disingenuous efforts of the US  to establish a role for the election's winner, Ayad Allawi - the leader of the al-Iraqiya Coalition - as head of a never to be created National Council of Strategic Affairs (NCSA) created much resentment among those who supported to victorious al-Iraqiya Coalition.  Subsequently, when Maliki reneged several times in establishing the NCSA despite numerous promises to do so, the US did nothing to force Maliki to live up to his word.

Fourth, Iran's support of Shi'i militias in southern Iraq has contributed to destabilizing the country.  Iran has simultaneously intimidated Maliki, who desperately seeks Iran's support in his quest for a third term as prime minister following the next April's parliamentary elections, but also supported his authoritarian policies that are designed to exclude not only the Sunni Arab population but secular Shi'a, as well as the populist Shi'i  base, epitomized by Muqtada al-Sadr Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri).

Finally, and pulling up the rear, is the Saudi-Gulf Arab-radical Islamist nexus that encouraged Sunni Arab extremism through verbal and material support.  From the 1990s when the Saudis offered Sunni women money for wearing the hijab and men for praying 5 time per day, to their current support for radical Islamist organizations fighting the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria  - terrorists who double as tyrants and criminals as they behead members of the local populace and steal their property - Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have been a force for instability in Iraq.

In trying to attribute for blame over the ISIS attacks in al-Anbar Province, many critics conveniently forget that the Bush administration signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq in late 2008 that required all US forces to leave the country by the end of 2011.  For Senator John McCain and others to argue that the US could have ignored that agreement and pressured the Maliki government to allow American troops to remain ignores the political pressures on the Iraqi prime minister from his main political enemies, the Sadrists, the head of Iraq's Shi'i religious community, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Iran not to agree to restructure the SOFA.  They also ignore the overwhelming desire of American public opinion at the time for a complete US military withdrawal from Iraq.

When engaging in the "blame game," what should not be  brought into the argument?  First, it is completely disingenous to argue that, had the US been able to leave a residual military force in Iraq - 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 troops - the current ISIS attacks in Falluja and Ramadi would not have occurred or could have easily been suppressed.  Had US troops remained in Iraq, clearly, none would have  been sent into battle.  Second, even with a residual military force, it is not the number of troops that determines a battle but that politcial strategy that informs the overall conflict.

ISIS has been successful largely becasue it has been able to  capitalize on  Sunni Arab political discontent.  No critics of the Obama administration have addressed the problem of Iraq's current political leadership and the fact that "the fish rots from the head down."  The reason for the success of the anti-American insurgency that began in late 2003 and continued until 2008, as Ahmad Hashim demonstrates so cogently in his study, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, was a series of destructive policy decisions made by the US after invading Iraq and its total lack of preparation
for occupying and bringing stability to the country.

The United States cannot and should not tell Iraq how to run their security policy.  However, the US is Iraq's main weapons supplier, particularly its providing of jet fighters and attack helicopters.  It is helping Iraq build its navy and training its military and security personnel.  The US is Iraq's main international backer.  If the US is going to provide a high level of assistance to Iraq, it should expect in return that its political leadership's policies should not jeopardize the country's political stability and security, especially when they run counter to both Iraq's and the US' national interests.

In the current instability in al-Anbar Province, a number of analysts have argued that the US should immediately deliver Apache attack helicopters.  Last April, the Maliki government used helicopters tro attack a camp of mostly peaceful protestors (some say a few radical elements had penetrated the camp) near Hawija, outside Kirkuk.  This attack, which killed 42 people, almost all civilians, and wounded 100, was instrumental in setting in motion the angry protests that culminated in the recent ISIS attacks in the cities of al-Fallaja and Ramadi.

Rather than jump every time Prime Minister al Maliki utters the word al-Qa'ida, the US should extract major concessions on pushing for a more inclusive politics before it gives his government further weapons.  Indeed, local analysts have asked why Maliki hasn't spent  more time trying to destroy ISIS camps in the dessert outside Anbar's cities and fear that, should he receive American helicopter gunships, they will be used in urban areas and result in still further civilian causalities.

If the US wanted to maintain a military presence in Iraq after 2011, it created the very problems that prevented that outcome.  In supporting Nuri al-Maliki to retain his position as prime  minister in March 2010, when it still could assert some power, the US tied its interests to a political leader who is authoritarian, maintains close ties to Iran, and consistently places his personal interests ahead of those of the Iraqi citizenry.  The Bush administration was responsible for putting Iraqi carpetbaggers in power and the Obama administration is responsible for maintaining their hold on power.

The ISIS attacks in al-Anbar are not the cause of Iraq's security problems.  Rather they are the outcome of ill devised US policies in Iraq.  Theses policies lead the US to continue to support a narrowly constituted political leadership whose behavior and decisions serve the interests of a narrow elite while offering little in the way of policies that benefit Iraq's long-term political, economic and social development.

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