Iraq is basically one front in a great big proxy war between the Shia and Sunnis — but as I mentioned in a previous article, the fighting in Iraq isn’t necessarily about religion. It’s the latest round of a regional power struggle between the Middle East’s two dominant Islamic powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran happens to be top dog in the world of the Shia and Saudi Arabia lords over the Sunni Establishment, so it’s convenient for observers to characterize the situation as Shia versus Sunni.
This is why people neatly divide the combatants between the region’s two big factions: Team Shia and Team Sunni. The Sunni faction breaks down into the Sunni Establishment, represented by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Team Sunni Extreme, which includes ISIS, al Qaeda, and other similarly charming groups, who draw their support from hardliners in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
The two other major players in this fight are Team Iraq and Team Kurd. Team Iraq is the nationalist, patriotic support for Iraq as a country — a faction that has fallen on some particularly hard times as of late. Team Kurd represents the Kurdish people in northern Iraq who have suffered persecution by various powers in the region. They’re making out like bandits so far in this war, because everyone else is too busy fighting one another to bother picking a fight with them.
The previous installment of the Field Guide to Iraq’s Fighting Factions discussed the aims of the Sunni team (or teams), as well as how they fight and cooperate with each other. This article lays out what’s happening on the Iraqi Shia side of this fight — and if you’re going to start talking about Team Shia, you’ve got to start by talking about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Player: Nouri al-Maliki
(Team Shia, formerly of Team Iraq)
No matter how much we want to assign a villain in every drama, not every crisis and upheaval can be traced back to the actions of one particular culprit. But in this case, it’s pretty easy to spot the guy who screwed up and has pissed off the most people: Maliki.
By 2010 or so, after a long, ugly war and who knows how many iterations of American counterinsurgency strategy, the situation in Iraq was looking sort of stable-ish and relatively peaceful-ish. Things were more or less okay, and it looked for a while like things were heading towards “… and they lived happily ever after” — provided nobody did anything stupid to screw it up.
Enter Prime Minister Maliki.
Iraq basically consists of three main ethnic/sectarian groups: the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds. Before he was deposed in 2003, Saddam Hussein was able to keep the wheels on the contraption called Iraq through ruthless oppression and torture. He was pretty big on picking on everyone in Iraq (and occasionally Iran or Kuwait). Granted, he was a member of the Sunni minority and did take care of the Sunnis, but he was ruthless enough toward everyone that nobody got a “Get Out of Secret Police Jail Free” card just for being in the right sect.
After the US kicked in the door and blew everything up, the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds started going after each other pretty hard. By 2007, as part of their counterinsurgency strategy, the US had hit upon the strategy of uniting Iraqis against foreign jihadis, imported fighters, and anyone (other than the US) who was messing with their system. This was the heyday of Team Iraq.
The US obviously wants Iraq to remain whole, but isn't willing to wade into the sectarian bullshit and get covered in it.
Maliki came into power in 2006 as part of a power-sharing agreement in which the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds all got a piece of the action. The prime minister runs the government, and seeing as Iraq is a majority Shia country, it seemed pretty sensible to appoint a Shiite prime minister. But the problem isn’t exactly that Maliki is Shiite and is looking out for Shia interests. The problem is that he’s a suspicious, suspicious soul with a lax attitude toward corruption and a nasty authoritarian streak.
Maliki, rather naturally, has always been rather intent on generally finding and rooting out threats to his government — but he’s convinced himself that the country’s Sunnis and Kurds pose a threat. So he’s been using the Iraqi army like a private goon squad, sending them around arresting, terrorizing, and persecuting the heck out of the Sunnis and Kurds, which has driven them away from Team Iraq and back to their own respective sectarian loyalties.
This, in turn, has fueled suspicions and created more and more people who are genuinely interested in getting Maliki run out of town. This in turn has helped feed the cycle of aggression, and now everything has gone downhill. In effect, Maliki has been sort of a low-grade Shia version of Saddam Hussein, without as much of the ruthless brutality that Saddam found necessary to keep Iraq together during periods of misrule.
So while Maliki talked a lot about being on board with Team Iraq and US efforts to make Team Iraq the winning team over there, his actions (especially since his victory in the 2010 parliamentary elections) have been telling a different story entirely. He’s been leveraging his post as prime minister to use what’s left of the Team Iraq camp to beat down Sunnis and Kurds, effectively coming out as a fully-fledged bona fide member of Team Shia and best friend to Iran.
For the last several years, he’s basically been trying to play the US and Iran against each other, jumping back and forth between his roles as a leading advocate for Team Iraq and Team Shia, depending on which way the wind blows. And just to cap it off, Maliki has liberally indulged in some hip, inflammatory anti-American posturing for the Iraqi public.
Between his actions among his people and his damaged relationship with the US, Maliki has been one of the leading practitioners of the “Burn ALL the Bridges” school of diplomacy.
Which makes it pretty impressive that he has the chutzpah to bitch about the US not sending him brand new combat aircraft fast enough. Seriously. Fortunately (for someone), Russia has been completely willing to step in and beef up the Iraqi air force just in time to randomly drop bombs on the late Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit. The Russians are merrily shuffling a dozen ground-attack aircraft and technical experts (Iraq swears they’re not “military advisers”) over there to carry out the important business of blowing up parts of Iraq that haven’t seen a good explosion in years.
Basically, Maliki had been counting on two things: that the US is really invested in keeping Iraq together, and that the US is really intent on blowing up anyone representing Team Sunni Extreme.
To some extent, these might seem like reasonably safe bets — if you’ve not been paying the slightest attention to US domestic politics. President Obama got elected in some measure to get the US out of Iraq, because it turns out that the American public got kind of sick of the place after the first five or so years of US troops getting killed and wounded over there.
Maliki was playing hard-to-get with the US about keeping American forces in the country (which would have gone a long way to restraining Maliki’s worst impulses and keeping Team Iraq viable). Once the US recognized that Maliki wanted to screw around on the Status of Forces Agreement to keep US troops in country, it decided it would take its toys and go home. Maliki got a freer hand to promote Team Shia and dump on everyone else, and might have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for the fact that Iraq neighbored a place that turned into the worldwide headquarters for Team Sunni Extreme — Syria.
Sensing Iraqi weakness, Team Sunni Extreme — most notably the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — hopped the border into Iraq and made its presence felt in a serious way when it captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. It didn’t hurt its ambitions that 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, representing two army divisions, did a runner and simultaneously quit the army en masse.
At which point, Maliki rediscovered the fact that he was best friends for life with his benefactor (and owner of the world’s most powerful military), the US. While the US has sent in some 300 military advisers, it has been remarkably slow to jump in and blow everything up all over again. The US told Maliki that if he were going to have any shot at keeping the country glued together, he would have to play nice and share power with Sunnis and Kurds and really put his weight behind Team Iraq.
After all the sectarian shenanigans of the last few years, the Iraqi government and army have basically become Maliki’s own personal Shia projects, relying heavily on Iranian support. Without a more inclusive government, the US would simply be augmenting Iranian efforts to keep Maliki afloat. The US might not like Team Sunni Extreme one bit and even relish the opportunity to blow its members up, but the US has absolutely zero interest in becoming a rented air force in the service of an Iraq-based Shia militia fighting on behalf of Iran. The US obviously wants Iraq to remain whole, but isn't willing to wade into the sectarian bullshit and get covered in it.
But Maliki could be out of a job right quick: on July 1, Iraq’s parliament will meet to form a new government that might also have a new prime minister — one who presumably will not have burned as many bridges as Maliki has. If Iraq’s politicians pick a new leader, the country’s odds of survival would improve drastically.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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