Just before Christmas in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama stood in a cavernous hangar at Fort Bragg and welcomed home the final exodus of American troops from Iraq. After a brutal, nine-year conflict, Mr. Obama sounded almost triumphant about a war that he had once called “dumb."
“We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” he said. The new Iraq, though not exactly perfect was, in his words, an “extraordinary achievement.”
Barely two years on, Iraq has gone from not exactly perfect to profoundly, violently flawed. The country is now a shadow of its 2011 self, when an overconfident Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki essentially forced American troops to leave.
Back then, Mr. Maliki insisted Iraq could go it alone against any insurgent threat. He was keen to consolidate his power and reconfigure the relationship with the U.S., from protectorate to partnership. Politely, Mr. Maliki was asking America to butt out of Baghdad’s affairs.
The result has been a disaster. The level of violence has spiked back up to levels last seen in 2008.
More than 8,000 Iraqis died last year, including nearly 1,000 members of the security forces. Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become the dominant force in northern and western Iraq, its ranks swelling with jihadist fighters drawn to the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Meanwhile, Fallujah and Ramadi – cities in the Sunni triangle that served as the backdrop for some of the fiercest fighting of the war – have once again fallen into the hands of insurgents. Bombings at cafés, mosques and checkpoints have become near-daily occurrences. For many Iraqis, it must feel like a horrific flashback.
There is nothing pre-ordained about the current chaos. Yes, there are longstanding Sunni-Shia tensions. But before the United States withdrew, significant progress had been made towards minimizing that conflict, by reaching out to Iraq’s Sunni minority.
The Sons of Iraq, also known as the Arab Awakening, was one of the biggest success stories of 2006 and proved a turning point of the war. Sunni tribal sheikhs in Anbar province allied with American forces to fight al-Qaeda offshoots, in exchange for guns and money. Concerns that the tribesman would turn on their coalition allies proved unfounded.
For several years, the Sons of Iraq helped bring security to the country’s most violent areas. But now, some of those same Sunni tribesman who once worked hand-in-hand with American troops have decided that their own government is their real nemesis. Some have thrown their support behind the al-Qaeda affiliates they once fought.
Why? Mr. Maliki is largely to blame. He used his power to further his own political interests. By favoring fellow Shiites over minority Sunnis, he inflamed sectarian tensions that had been tamped down. He also undermined Iraq’s new constitution by concentrating power in himself and the central government, drawing the ire of Iraq’s Kurdish north.
Many Sunnis have grown increasingly bitter under Mr. Maliki’s rule, and he’s just announced he will seek a third term as prime minister in April’s elections. Sunnis believe – in many cases with just cause – that the security forces and judiciary are aligned against them. The bodyguards of Iraq’s Sunni finance minister were recently arrested. There are reports of Sunni women being detained without cause. These grievances have snowballed, resulting in a Sunni backlash that gave rise to a protest camp in the city of Ramadi that thrived for a year before Mr. Maliki ordered it torn down on Dec. 30th, a decision akin to throwing a match in a tinderbox.
Security was supposed to be Mr. Maliki’s strong suit, but he’s proved an utter failure. Things have unraveled to such a point that Mr. Maliki has gone back to Washington, asking for more weapons.
Mr. Obama acquiesced with a shipment of Hellfire missiles and a promise to provide dozens of drones and even F-16 fighter jets. But America today is a far different country than the one that marched into Baghdad in 2003. Secretary of State John Kerry has wisely ruled out a return of U.S. troops.
“These terrorists aren’t just Iraq’s enemies. They are also America’s enemies,” Mr. Maliki pointed out in a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, to justify his weapons ask. This is pretty rich, coming from someone who could have very easily struck a deal back in 2011 that would have kept a skeleton force of American troops in Iraq after 2011.
The trouble is, Mr. Maliki is partly right. A stable, peaceful Iraq is in the best interest of Washington, its allies and the entire region. But weapons alone can’t solve Iraq’s current crop of problems. Mr. Maliki has to reverse some of his own destructive handiwork, by doing a better job of reaching out across the sectarian divide. The alternative is looking a lot like civil war.