by Emile Nakhleh
Much blame could go around regarding the current chaos in Iraq and the recent territorial gains of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Four contributing factors stand out:
- The 2003 decision by the Bush administration to dissolve the Iraqi army and “debaathify” the country (ban the Baath Party and remove all senior Baathists from the government and security forces).
- The refusal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish an inclusive governing process.
- The US military’s poor knowledge of the Iraqi military’s state of readiness since the US departure.
- Inaction by US and Western powers in the past two years to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Senior US diplomat Paul Bremer’s decision in 2003 to dissolve the Iraqi army and to debaathify the country, with the approval of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, was disastrous. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and thousands of officers, many of whom were Sunni Muslims, found themselves on the streets without a job and with a debilitating loss of influence and status. Their anger fueled the first insurgency.
Most Iraqis were expected to hold Baath party membership under Saddam Hussein if they desired a position in the government and in the private sector, including education, health services, and corporations. Bremer’s decision to lay off these people because of their party affiliation produced millions of unemployed Iraqis — angry, alienated, desperate, and willing to carry arms against the new Shia-dominated power structure and the US occupation.
According to media reports and published memoirs, Vice President Cheney and his top advisers, including David Addington and Scooter Libby, believed on the eve of the invasion that Iraqis would view the US military as liberators, not occupiers.
They failed to realize at the time that Iraqis’ dislike for Saddam did not automatically translate into love of foreign occupation. Debaathification and dissolving the army created a “perfect storm,” which explains what’s happening in Iraq today.
Prime Minister Maliki has pursued a narrow-minded partisan policy, which excludes anyone — Sunni and Shia — who does not belong to his Dawa Party. Visitors to his office would be hard-pressed to find any senior employee without party affiliation.
Contrary to American advice, Maliki refused to keep thousands of Sunni tribesmen, who were involved in the “Awakening,” on the government payroll. Here again, thousands of these tribesmen who received regular incomes from the American military became unemployed.
Not surprisingly, they became the backbone of the second insurgency against the Maliki government.
Maliki misjudged his countrymen thinking that they would tolerate a regime based on divisiveness, sectarianism, systemic corruption, and a budding dictatorship. He promoted sectarianism even among the senior military officer corps and promoted party allegiance over competence and experience.
He thought mistakenly that for geopolitical reasons, both the United States and Iran would continue to support him despite his poor policies. This support is now tepid at best; even mainstream Shia political leaders are calling for his removal.
Maliki has clearly reached a dead end and should be replaced. Following the US departure, he failed to lead Iraq into a more inclusive and stable country. Key regional and international actors no longer believed his accusations that his critics were “terrorists.”
ISIS’ territorial advances, as were dramatically depicted on television screens around the world, highlight the disintegration of some divisions within the Iraqi army. It’s an embarrassment not only for the Iraqi army, but also more significantly for the US military, which trained these units.
Depicting ISIS’ sudden success as another case of “intelligence failure” is tempting. In reality, the US military had inadequate knowledge of the loyalties, commitment, professionalism, and sectarianism of the Iraqi military. Abandoning their uniforms and weapons and refusing to fight for their country meant Iraqi officers did not believe in what they were fighting for or their mission. Billions of dollars spent by the US on training these units went to naught.
Washington’s failure to bring about the fall of Assad early on has also emboldened Sunni militants to fight in Syria. “Jihadists” from across the globe, including from Western countries, descended on Syria for the same cause. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and other Gulf countries have funded these groups.
Bashar al-Assad’s self-fulfilling prophecy that terrorism is the main enemy in Syria has come home to roost, not only in Syria, but also in Iraq.
The way forward
- The United States, in cooperation with Iran, the Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Sunni tribal leaders, and mainstream Shia and Sunni politicians, should work to create a new government that is ethnically and religiously inclusive. Someone other than Maliki should be the leader.
- The Iraqi government should establish transparent and accountable procedures in politics, the economy, and the judiciary, and institute territorial and economic compromises and power sharing in ethnically mixed cities in the north. Sending 300 US military advisers to Iraq is at best a Band-Aid approach; at worst, it could become another “mission creep.”
- The Obama administration should urge the Saudis, Qataris, and other Gulf countries to stop funding ISIS and other militant Sunni groups. These countries have also promoted sectarianism in Syria and Iraq.
- Western countries, under American leadership, should revisit their ineffectual policies toward the Assad regime. Recent developments have shown the longer he stays in power, the more emboldened militants and terrorists become.
A failed state in Syria and a dismembered Iraq could push the entire Middle East toward sectarian wars and instability, which could in turn unsettle oil markets and rattle the global economy. Before the 2003 invasion, former Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush of the Pottery Barn rule. The United States pushed Iraq into this mess; it’s time Washington owns what it broke.
Photo: Demonstrators carry al-Qaeda flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq on June 16, 2014.
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