IRAQ: Paths off the Mountain and Towards Forming a New Government

In my previous post I mentioned what was a crisis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq where tens of thousands of Yasidis were trapped by ISIS.   Since then a path down the mountain leading to a circuitous route to freedom in Kurdistan has been opened up and only a few thousand still remain on that mountain, so that potential “genocide” has been averted. 
Also, I mentioned that steps were being taken to replace Prime Minister Maliki with another man from his own party.  At the time Maliki seemed willing to resist the change by any means possible, which could have prolonged the gridlock.   However, yesterday he decided to step down opening the way to form a new government under Haider al-Abadi, a member of his own party who is acceptable to most factions there, in addition to both the U. S. and Iran, the two foremost external power brokers. 
That is great news, but Haider al-Abadi will have a huge challenge to face in developing some degree of national unity, enough to gather its forces and crush ISIS, with likely considerable outside help.   We can only hope he is up the task.  It will be a very tricky process indeed. 

For those looking for background information to both situations mentioned above, I suggest clicking this article in the Wall Street Journal published a few days ago.   Even if you don’t wish to read the article you might find a map there enlightening as it locates Mount Sinjar and the escape path as well as areas under ISIS and Kurdish control, a fluid situation to be sure.

IRAQ: Who is Nouri al-Malaki?

Yes, Prime Minister of Iraq.  But who is he as a man, a man our government did much to promote to his present position and continued to back through the G. W. Bush and Obama administrations, but now is commonly seen as the biggest stumbling block to any real effort to unify the country.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi...

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a joint press event on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7, 2009. Obama spoke to hundreds of U.S. troops during his surprise visit to Iraq to thank them for their service. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I read that the Iraqi Parliament,  scheduled to meet tomorrow, Tuesday, has put off meeting until August 12.   Basically it seems they have not found a way to move forward and select a Prime Minister.  More deals and arm twisting seem in order.

Al-Malaki has asserted that they first must deal with the ISIS threat and then deal with national unity issues, but there is much opposition to his remaining PM, even within the Shia community.

While the ISIS campaign to conquer the country has stalled somewhat, much of that seems to be a matter of their just not having enough warriors – usually estimated at around 10,000 – to continue to expand their authority.  Of course, they receive some military support from various Sunni tribes, and what seems tacit support from many more (all of which is impossible to sort out), but the government forces are holding their own better right now.  Even taking back some territory.

However, none of that really addresses the basic issue of Iraq unity, which the Kurds are quite willing to do without, as both them and the Sunnis are fed up with unity meaning a centralized al-Malaki government marginalizing them into second class citizens, especially the Sunnis.

Given the centrality of al-Malaki’s role in what’s next and to help clarify how we got to this point, I recommend reading this editorial by Ali Khedery:  Why we stuck with Malaki and lost Iraq in the Washington Post.  From 2003 to 2009, Khedery ” was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, acting as a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of U.S. Central Command.”

In short, he’s been a veritable fly on the wall over years of key American diplomatic discussions on Iraq.  Also, he knows al-Malaki well, even considering him a friend whom he backed early to become Prime Minister.  By 2010, though, he came to see him as the biggest stumbling block when it comes to Iraqi unification.   Khedery was part of the Bush administration that basically plucked al-Malaki from obscurity and boosted him to his present position, but then argued in 2010 with the Obama administration, albeit in vain,  that they must find someone other than Malaki to back.

In short, Khedery, unlike so many other commentators, seems most interested in telling what happened rather than trying to score political points.   He blames himself for helping the Bush administration promote al-Malaki to power and blames the Obama administration for continuing to back that unwise choice:  “By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

The editorial is quite long, so you might want to skim some of it, but it offers numerous interesting insights, such as the dominant role Iran has attained in shaping the politics of Iraq.  The piece is an antidote to the spin from both parties blaming each other for the failed state that Iraq has become.

UNITING IRAQ: Mission Impossible?

With the stunning success of ISIS revolutionaries spread throughout Sunni territory Iraq has reached a stage of upheaval that threatens destruction of the country as a nation state. The situation is too intricate to summarize well in a post, but I will give it a shot nonetheless.  Please allow me leeway as far as generalizations go.   As they say in business, it is the view from 30,000 feet, so it doesn’t capture many details. (More details are given in the examination of the situation found in this link:  A guide to the bitter political fights driving the Iraq crisis)

English: The distribution of the predominant I...

English: The distribution of the predominant Islamic sectarian afficilations followed in majority-Muslim countries and regions. Green=Sunni, Orange=Shi’ite, Purple=Ibadi CLICK TO ENLARGE (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As usual, President Obama’s critics are blaming him for not doing enough fast enough to deal with the surprising success of ISIS, and they blame him for not making a deal with al-Maliki to keep a U.S. contingent of troops there in 2011.

The latter point merits a book to sort out, but the former point was quashed by General David Petraeus last Wednesday, when he agreed publicly with Obama that U. S. military support should be contingent on a change of government.  Ironically, John McCain, one of Obama’s constant critics, had recommended Obama trash his security advisers and seek advice from Petraeus.

Setting political theater aside, the single biggest source of the present situation has been Prime Minister al-Maliki’s failure to incorporate Sunni’s (and Kurds) into his government which is what has led to ISIS troops knocking on Baghdad’s door.   ISIS has been called a splinter group of Al Queda, which now disowns them.  Both are Sunni, but in their radicalism, are not fully embraced by Sunnis, just seen as preferable (at least for now) to al-Maliki’s Shia non-inclusive government.  On the other hand, some Sunni tribes are fighting along with ISIS.  The picture is not clear cut.

But the bottom line is that ISIS has been so surprisingly successful because they have made their way from Syria to Baghdad through Sunni territory.   Now Shia volunteers have poured into Bagdad to enlist, and it seems likely the Shia dominated government will put up a better fight as time goes by.   However, many of those enlistees are joining Shia Militia’s, which are not exactly under the control of the Iraqi army, leaving room for them to act on their own accord and provide their own form of viciousness to the fight.

All is in flux as  Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad conversing with al-Maliki and Sunni and Kurd moderates to see if a more united front can be developed, but al-Maliki’s attitude has been let’s deal with ISIS first and then work on widening the government later.

That position is not going to fly with Sunni’s in particular, while the Kurds have essentially developed their own state, which includes oil reserves, and they seem content to stay out of this dog fight if just left alone.   Having recently taken control of Kirkuk they can send their oil to Turkey from there,  avoiding dependence on Baghdad to channel the oil. Though the Kurds, like the Sunnis, have also been dependent on Baghdad for funds, the Kurds have a unity and a way forward to be self-sustaining over time.

What might this portend?  Well, al-Maliki’s willingness to step down is the key issue when it comes to developing a more united front, and he hasn’t shown any inclination to do so, though a statement by the Shia leading Iraqi cleric, Ali Sistani, that a change of government is needed, may prove the deciding push out the door.   But stay or go, there is no guarantee that another central government which would also be Shia dominated could induce many Kurds and moderate Sunni’s to  support it.

Given the dubious prospect of a united government being formed, there is talk by many of the possibility of dividing Iraq into three areas related to their ethnic origins, a suggestion Joe Biden made years ago and was largely dismissed. Of course, this would have its own set of problems, perhaps the biggest one being that the Sunni territory is not economically viable, having little oil and largely subsidized now by money from Baghdad.  The only thing that really might help the Sunnis is to defeat the Shia, and though unlikely, that would leave them with a radical ISIS government, which many Sunni would not like.

Unless moderate Sunnis in now occupied ISIS territory can somehow be persuaded to abandon ISIS, as the tribes in Anbar province did with Al Queda during “the Surge” years ago (and that was with much American help), we seem to be looking at a Shia/Sunni civil war in the making, which ISIS can only win by keeping their fellow Sunnis’ in line and forcing the Shia to give up. The  Shia’s chances look better as they have  more resources, more people and  aid from Iran and some aid from us, since we, too, have reason to want ISIS to be crushed.

But here is another fly in the ointment.  We want to avoid being Shia identified and thus alienate Sunni nations, in particular our allies Saudi Arabia,  Jordan and the UAE.   Illustrative of the twisted nature of this situation is the backing Saudi Arabia has been giving  ISIS in Syria – as fellow Sunnis – while now ISIS is threatening Saudi Arabia  (details in this article link).

So the fantasy is:   We want to destroy ISIS without making war on the Sunnis as a whole, like picking out the few rotten grapes in a bunch without touching any others.  And while we don’t mind some help from Iran in beating ISIS we don’t want Iran becoming “too helpful” to the al-Malaki  government, which it continues to back,  as it already has more influence than we do at this point.  And more Iranian involvement would risk wider Sunni reaction, i. e. from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, as this is only the latest chapter of a sectarian struggle that goes back centuries.

Developing our foreign policy for Iraq seems much like tip toeing through a mine field, with plenty of potential for things to blow up.  It may not prove Mission Impossible, but how it will play out seems impossible to predict.