As Islamists gain ground in Iraq and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeals for help, the U.S. says it will only help if he first resigns. But it's not the only reason why his regime may fall.
One of the nuggets of conventional wisdom frequently bandied about these days is that Iraq is entering a new chapter in the historic hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The Sunnis — old Saddam Hussein supporters and young jihadists of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) — are fighting the Shias. What that mainly means is that they’re fighting against Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It will be a war of religion that could rip to pieces not just Iraq but also its post-colonial borders and indeed the entire political architecture of the Middle East.
Another observation being expressed is that it’s no wonder this is happening, now that a dictator is no longer forcing heterogeneous groups together.
This all seems to make sense, but it’s only half of the truth. It is often the dictators who use, drive and sharpen religious and ethnic rivalries. That applies to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and it applied to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It also applies to Maliki, a Shia, who has driven the Sunnis into the arms of his enemies.
Maliki is a creation of the Americans and the Iranians, and yet he may not survive this crisis. The extremists continue to gain ground. Barack Obama has sent an aircraft carrier to the region, but U.S. military officials say they won't launch an air attack against ISIS, as Maliki has requested, unless the prime minister steps down.
Obama wants Maliki gone in order to create a united government of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. Theocratic, Shia Iran wants to have influence over the 60% of Shias in Iraq and exercise Shia dominance in the region, with or without Maliki.
Allies of convenience
Should Obama use the Iraq crisis to forge lasting links with Iran, that would be a true diplomatic master stroke. But it would be naïve to believe in that happening: The fight against ISIS may bring the two countries together for a while, but their respective visions for the future of the region are too different for chumminess to persist long-term.
Nouri Mohammed Hassan al-Maliki was born into a family of Shia activists on June 20, 1950 on the shores of the Euphrates, near the city of Hilla in southern Iraq. His grandfather fought the British, his father fought a new power, the Ba'ath Party — secular but Sunni-dominated — and both ended up in prison.
Maliki studied Arab literature, and it is said that he can still quote from pre-Islamic classics. As a student, he also joined Dawa, the secret Shia organization, and worked for the creation of an Islamic state.
He hadn’t yet turned 30 when the Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran both spurred Saddam Hussein’s rise to power and saw Shia (the second-largest denomination of Islam) gain political power. Iraq’s new dictator cemented Sunni power and persecuted the Shias during the war with Iran and after the Shia rebellion following the first Gulf War.
Hussein's regime killed 150,000 people, and most of them were Shias. America first supported the rebellion, then let the Shias down. Maliki fled Iraq in 1979 and lived in exile for nearly 25 years. During that time, he supported various efforts to topple Hussein and nursed anti-American sentiment. After the fall of Hussein in 2003, Maliki returned to Iraq. Although the Americans supported him for prime minister in 2006, he never forgot their betrayal of the Shias decades earlier.
That it should be Maliki to pressure Washington to send in troops (if only to ensure the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad) is certainly an unexpected twist. Overall, Maliki’s development closely resembles the traditional career paths of autocrats who start out making promises to all religious, political and ethnic stakeholders but then go on to use their power solely to acquire more power and persecute former comrades.
A family dynasty?
Now, after the victory of his State of the Law party in the April 2014 parliamentary elections, many Iraqis fear that Maliki may try to claim life incumbency as prime minister or, worse, name his already powerful son Ahmed as his successor in a new dynasty.
As late as 2009, Maliki brought some Sunni Iraqiya members into the government. But American troops weren’t out of the country a day when he issued a warrant for the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the most prominent Sunni politician. Hashimi fled the country and has since been sentenced to death in absentia.
That marked both the start of Maliki’s ascendancy and a downward spiral for the young Iraq democracy. There has been corruption and nepotism among loyal Shias, and corroded oil revenues amounting to $90 billion in 2013. Tens of thousands of Sunni men are in prison, say human rights activists, and Sunni women have been abducted, tortured and raped.
Sunni tribes that Maliki and the United States had at one time helped chase out al-Qaeda feel betrayed. Additionally, in recent months Maliki brutally quelled Sunni protest in Anbar province, leaving hundreds dead. Meanwhile, the black flag of the radical Islamists was fluttering in Ramadi, and we now know that it was during this period that the rise of the ISIS militias was forged.
Not all Shias are with the prime minister. One of his biggest problems is his old rival Muqtada al-Sadr, the rabble-rouser theologian and anti-American militia leader. In 2008, when Sadr and his army were entrenched in Basra, Maliki sent in his army against them, forced American help with the endeavor, and a cease-fire was finally negotiated.
Now Sadr is calling for volunteers to defend the holy Shia cities of Najaf, Karbala and Samarra. While the state waffles, the hour of the militias has struck and the fate of yet another flawed political leader in the Middle East is more uncertain than ever.