Iraq: politics could be the solution, not the problem

The chaos in Iraq is largely a function of domestic political decisions. That means the democratic process can still work in Iraq's favor. 

Karim Kadim / AP
Iraqi tribal leaders march during a ceremony marking Police Day at the police academy in Baghdad, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.

Last year was the most violent in Iraq since at least 2008, and this year is off to a terrible start, with jihadis and their Sunni Arab allies in Anbar Province having driven central government forces out of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The suicide bomb that killed at least 21 people at an Iraqi military recruiting center in Baghdad today is certain to be followed by more bloodshed. (See "What's really going on in Anbar Province?")


The national reconciliation that the US military's "surge" of 30,000 extra troops into the country was supposed to enable never took place. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from the Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist political movement with close ties to Iran, has governed Iraq with intolerance and arrogance, stubbornly refusing to reach out to Iraq's disenchanted Sunni Arab majority and dismissing almost all of the community's political leaders who stand up to him as terrorists or friends of terrorists.

Though it may seem strange, this is good news. Because what's happening in Iraq at the moment is not some atavistic expression of "ancient" hatreds and irreconcilable cultural differences. Instead, it's a function of the failure of politics and power sharing in the modern era. And that's the kind of failure that can be rectified if Iraq's leaders, starting with Mr. Maliki, decide to change course from the politics of marginalization and exclusion. 

To be sure, there's been no sign of dawning wisdom yet.

The chain of events that touched off the current crisis in Ramadi stretch back to Dec. 21. That day, ISIS successfully lured the Iraq Army's 7th Division into an ambush in Nineveh Province (north of Anbar and along the Syrian border), killing the division's commanding general Mohammed al-Karawi and three other senior officers. The killings shocked the nation, with Sunni tribal figures in Anbar and elsewhere condemning the attack and vowing to stand with the Iraqi state against ISIS.

It was a rare moment of opportunity for the Maliki government, as Joel Wing pointed out in a prescient note on Dec. 30"In recent history there have been few times where Iraqis have rallied behind the flag," he wrote. "The deaths of the officers provided one of those events where both the elite and common people came out to express their support for the security forces and the fight against Al Qaeda." 

The problem? Maliki used the attack as a pretense to go after Sunni Arab political protesters and political leaders. He linked the Anbar protesters with Al Qaeda in public and on Dec. 28 dispatched troops to arrest Ahmed al-Alwany, a lawmaker for the Iraqi Islamic Party and a powerful figure in Ramadi. (Mr. Alwany had engaged in inflammatory and violent anti-Shiite rhetoric.) During the raid, six people were killed, including al-Alwany's brother. The arrest and killings inflamed Ramadi and Fallujah, with rallies condemning the central government. Peaceful protest encampments were forcefully evicted. 

All this had the thoroughly predictable result of infuriating Anbar's tribes and clans, and saw many make common cause with ISIS, which made its gains in Fallujah and Ramadi this week. At the national level, 44 Sunni Arab lawmakers quit parliament in protest. The group has support from across the Sunni political spectrum, from Islamists to the resolutely secular.

Right now, the central government is considering its options, with troops massing for assaults.

But this sad state of affairs also points to a way out. In 2007, after years of futilely trying to beat fiercely independent Sunni Arab tribes into submission, the US realized that encouraging cooperation with jobs, money, and promises of national respect was a better course. The Sahwa was born. That's a course that remains open to Maliki.

Sunni Arab grievances are real, and are symbolized by the fate of Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab from the Iraqi Islamic Party who was Iraq's elected vice president. Hashemi was targeted by the government on trumped-up terrorism charges within a week of US withdrawal in late 2011. He and his family were forced to flee, and he was sentenced to death in absentia in 2012, along with his son-in-law.

That sent an unmistakeable message from Maliki to the country's Sunni Arabs, and is important to understanding last year's spike in violence. But the ideal of Iraqi nationalism remains potent. A fairer share of oil wealth, jobs in the bureaucracy, and guarantees of political autonomy in places like Anbar could go a long way to containing this crisis.

Of course, whether Maliki will make that choice is far from clear; his track record doesn't inspire great optimism. But this is not an intractable conflict, nor one that Iraqis don't have the tools to sort out themselves, were they to choose to try.

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