Kerry has advice for Maliki, but the US has few good options in Iraq

John Kerry said the Sunni Arab uprising in Iraq posed an 'existential' threat to the country today. But what the US can or should do about it is something else again.

Brendan Smialowski/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 23, 2014. Kerry said the fate of Iraq may be decided over the next week and is largely dependent on whether its leaders meet a deadline for starting to build a new government.

The arguments in Washington over who’s to blame for Iraq’s unraveling have become fodder for Sunday morning TV talk shows and editorial pages. But political point scoring doesn’t really help guide or answer the most crucial questions now facing US policymakers: What should the United States do – and what can it realistically do – to cobble back together an Iraq that is rapidly coming apart?

US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad today promising "intense" support for Iraq against an "existential threat," without being specific. Jihadis, in alliance with Sunni Arab Iraqis, some clearly former members of Saddam Hussein's military, have been marching in strength across much of Iraq's north and center. Iraqi government soldiers have deserted in droves and Iraq's ethnic Kurds are expanding their territory and mulling independence.

The US, both during the George W. Bush administration and under President Obama, has repeatedly urged Mr. Maliki and his government to reach out and allow Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority a seat at the table, saying exclusive and sectarian policies would drive Iraq to conflict. Mr. Kerry made a similar point today, 

But Maliki and fellow Shiite Islamist politicians have consistently refused to do as the US asks in this regard, viewing the Sunni Arabs – the core of support for the deposed Hussein – as implacable enemies that must be brought to heel. They have given no signs of a recent change of heart.

Maliki’s sectarianism has set up a situation in which many Iraqi Sunni Arabs, most of whom don’t share the dreams of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which wants to set up a medieval-style caliphate in the region and expand from there, feel they have no choice but to fight.

Mr. Obama and his advisers should be well aware of this. The president has said all options short of combat troop deployments are on the table – though last week he said up to 300 special operations forces advisers could be sent to the country. The military is also looking into the feasibility of airstrikes in support of Iraqi government troops. To be effective, US airstrikes would involve moving in forward air controllers to work with Iraqi government troops. But the risk of killing civilians will remain high.

The US has also repeatedly stressed the need for political reconciliation in Iraq – something that Maliki and his allies have been consistently opposed to for many years now.

In 2006 and 2007, with Iraq in the grip of a sectarian civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives, Maliki opposed US military efforts to work with Sunni Arab tribesman as a counterforce to Al Qaeda-affiliated Sunnis. This strategy created the “Awakening” movement, which was credited with driving militants from Anbar Province, essentially doing a job that US-led forces couldn’t achieve. 

In late 2008 US troops had to intervene to protect Sunni Arab fighters in the movement from troops loyal to the central government in Baghdad. 

Since the US was kicked out of the country at the end of 2011, the situation has worsened. Maliki’s government has pursued politically motivated terrorism trials against senior Sunni Arab politicians who worked with the government, arrested and killed members of the Awakening who fought beside US forces, and driven Iraq in dangerously authoritarian and sectarian directions. His choices made another Sunni uprising, and the splintering of Iraqi institutions along sectarian lines, almost inevitable.

Obama and his advisers have been leery about committing military power to shoring up Maliki, since that may end up enabling the political behavior that has made Iraq so ungovernable. But Maliki, by both temperament and track record, appears to be disinterested in any form of reconciliation with Sunni Arabs. 

Instead, Maliki has called up civilian Shiite militias who participated in the bloodletting in 2006 and 2007 to fight on the government’s behalf against “traitors.”

Given its military muscle and regional footprint, the US has it in its power to help him, but based on his long track record, he displays no willingness to shift his treatment of the Sunni minority that he – and many of his aides – appear to despise. Eleven years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the American ability to control and guide Iraqi politics is as weak as ever. 

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