Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Political Background To Iraq’s Current Descent Into Violence

Iraq's insurgency is making a comeback. The number of attacks and deaths has gone up dramatically this year with almost weekly mass casualty bombings. The security forces have proven incapable of preventing any of these operations. The April 2013 raid upon the Hawija protest site in Tamim province is widely regarded as the spark that ignited the current unrest. There were larger political issues however, dating back several years, which led to the current deterioration in security. 

2010 marked the breakdown of Iraq’s fragile post-sectarian war politics. In 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went after Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the insurgency, and confronted the Kurds in Diyala. He also accepted the Anbar Awakening as an indigenous Iraqi group, and was forced to take on the Sons of Iraq put together by the Americans. Then in 2009, the prime minister broke with the United Iraqi Alliance, the umbrella Shiite list, and formed his own State of Law for that year’s provincial elections. That vote was a game changer as well as Sunnis decided to participate in large numbers including some insurgent groups, after boycotting in 2005. All together, these events helped change the image of the government. The premier was no longer seen as a sectarian Shiite leader, but an Arab nationalist one. The government appeared willing to accept Sunnis into the security forces, and the 2009 elections showed that the community could gain positions of power, and have their voices heard. In the 2010 parliamentary vote that all came apart as the main topic became whether candidates mostly from Sunni and secular parties, should be banned for their alleged ties to the Baath Party. Not wanting to be outdone by his Shiite rivals, Maliki took up this cause as well. When the final election results were released, the prime minister came in second to the Iraqi National Movement (INM) led by Iyad Allawi. The premier called foul, and got the courts to rule that it wasn’t the list with the most votes that could form the new government, but who could form the largest coalition afterward. The prime minister then outmaneuvered Allawi, and formed a new government based upon the Irbil power sharing agreement, which he promptly ignored. That was only possible because the Sunni and Kurdish parties gave up their objections to Maliki in return for ministries in the new administration. Sunnis took this as an affront to their votes and choices. It appeared to them that the National Movement should have formed the government, but instead Maliki manipulated the system to stay in power. Not only that, but the leaders the Sunnis voted for like Iyad Allawi appeared weak. In just two years, Sunnis went from feeling like Baghdad was less sectarian, and they could find a place in the new order, to the government being controlled by Shiites, and their ballots not counting. That was the beginning of the post civil war politics starting to unravel.

The 2011 U.S. military withdrawal undermined the security situation. The Americans wanted to maintain an advisory force, but the nationalist mood in Baghdad, meant the parliament was unwilling to grant them that. A small U.S. contingent could have only done so much anyway. What was more important was that the Iraqis lost the American intelligence capabilities, (1) their patrolling of the border, and their oversight of the logistics system for the Iraqi security forces (ISF). The U.S. released thousands of prisoners as well who could not be held or charged by the Iraqi courts. Many of these detainees rejoined the insurgency. Finally, the Iraqi forces stopped conducting counterinsurgency operations, and became more concerned with becoming a traditional military force with tanks and jet fighters. As a result, they no longer manned neighborhood combat posts, preferring to stay in large bases instead. They then resorted to raids and mass arrests to deal with militants, just as the Americans had unsuccessfully done before the Surge. That meant when the insurgency started making a comeback in late 2012, the ISF was not only unprepared to deal with them, but made the situation worse with their repressive tactics. Many Sunnis came to believe that the security forces were an arm of the Shiite led government, targeting them specifically for sectarian reasons. Stories of secret prisons and the well-known abuse of prisoners further alienated Sunnis from the authorities.

By the end of 2011, this anger was at a boiling point. First, a deBaathification drive by Baghdad along with general neglect of the provinces by the central government led places like Anbar, Diyala, and Salahaddin to consider forming federal regions. Maliki stamped out this drive by ignoring their requests, and then using carrots and sticks to threaten and cajole the local councils. Then in December 2012, the prime minister had arrest warrants issued for several bodyguards of then Finance Minister Rafi Issawi. Unlike Vice President Tariq Hashemi who went through a similar process a year earlier, Issawi had a large popular base in his home of Anbar, and they immediately began protesting. This quickly spread to other areas across Ninewa, Salahaddin, Diyala, Tamim, and Baghdad. The demonstrations eventually turned not only sectarian with constant rhetoric about Shiites being Persians, waiving Saddam era flags, and accusations of militias being behind all the violence in the country, but some sites became connected to the insurgency such as Hawija, which was run by the Baathist Naqshibandi group. Baghdad offered some concessions to the protestors such as passing an amnesty law and changing deBaathification, but Shiite and Sunni parties held them up either because they did not support the reforms or did not want to hand Maliki any victories before the 2014 parliamentary elections. Then the government made a major misstep by ordering the raid upon the Hawija site, and ended up using excessive force. That allowed the militants to argue that Baghdad was not interested in negotiations, and would eventually smash all of the demonstrations. This successfully convinced many to turn to force as not only Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Naqshibandi, and other insurgent groups carried out retaliatory attacks following Hawija, but so did tribes. That was the culmination of all the political and military missteps that occurred after 2009. Again, the government appeared to not care about the demands of Sunnis. Federalism for example, has never been a popular topic with Sunnis, yet they saw Maliki’s clamp down on Anbar and the other provinces as another example of him using extra judicial means to ignore their plight. By the time the arrest warrants came down for Issawi’s men, many Sunnis had enough, and took their frustration out into the streets. The government’s mishandling of that situation led some protesters to turn away from peaceful means, and provided the opportunity the insurgency was looking for to garner more followers.

Today’s rising levels of violence were the result of specific political moves and mistakes made by the central government and Prime Minister Maliki, along with the American withdrawal. Just a few years ago, the premier had completely changed his image from a sectarian Shiite ruler to an Arab nationalist one. Then he gave that up when he felt threatened by his rivals. Now Sunnis believe that their national leaders have either been discredited like Allawi or are persecuted like Issawi, and that the Shiite parties will do anything to hold onto office. To add to that, the U.S. military pulling out of Iraq deprived the country of resources, and direction that left the security forces incapable of dealing with the insurgency. Iraq’s security situation only stabilized when political breakthroughs were made such as the 2009 elections. Those same types of changes are necessary today. Unfortunately, the parties are only thinking short-term, and trying to position themselves for the 2014 vote. They are therefore unwilling to compromise or make any deals right now, which was already difficult when violence was down. That means sectarian tensions will continue, as there is a lack of national dialogue that could bring groups together, and draw people away from backing the insurgency. The result is that Iraq will get a lot worse, before anything gets better.


1. Dar Addustour, “Officers are busy imposing royalties to the owners of restaurants and garages and amusements – suffers a lack of funding intelligence information ..and most of its leaders are linked to third-hostile,” 3/19/13


Al-Ali, Zaid, “Iraqi regionalism and its discontents,” Open Democracy, 12/3/11

Dar Addustour, “Officers are busy imposing royalties to the owners of restaurants and garages and amusements – suffers a lack of funding intelligence information ..and most of its leaders are linked to third-hostile,” 3/19/13

Long, Austin, “The Anbar Awakening,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 4/1/08

Parker, Ned and Salman, Raheem, “Notes From The Underground: The Rise of Nouri al-Maliki,” World Policy Journal, Spring 2013

Salman Pax, “Sunni Side Down? .. I think not,” 2/2/09

Sky, Emma, “Iraq, From Surge to Sovereignty,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2011

World Politics Review, “Global Insider: Iraq’s Prisons Incubate Islamist Ideology,” 7/29/13

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