A middle-ground strategy by president Obama might have pleased neither hawks nor doves in US politics but has put Iraq on a better track, writes James Zogby.
Al Maliki’s departure is only the first step in securing Iraq
With Nouri Al Maliki agreeing to step aside in favour of Haider Al Abadi, Iraq may have passed its first hurdle on the way to forming the kind of government that will be needed to defeat the Islamic State and save the country from further conflict and fragmentation. Passing this hurdle may also serve to vindicate the cautious approach the Obama administration has taken in addressing the crisis created by the brutal eruption of the Islamic State.
Iraq’s problems didn’t begin with the advances of the Islamic State. The successes of this horrific and violent extremist movement were in large measure the result of years of Mr Al Maliki’s bad governance and sectarian repression.
In late 2011, when America was preparing to leave Iraq and Mr Al Maliki was completing the first year of his second term, Zogby Research Services polled Iraqi public opinion. The survey revealed warning signs on the horizon. Two-thirds of all Iraqis said they were afraid that with the departure of the US their country would sink into civil war, split into parts, and/or be dominated by a neighbouring country. A plurality of respondents in all groups – Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds – were, therefore, worried about the US departure. The survey also established a deep sectarian and ethnic divide, with Sunni Arabs and Kurds being the most worried about the US departure and having the deepest concerns about the future of their country. The poll also revealed Mr Al Maliki to be a polarising figure. Attitudes towards him were nearly evenly divided among Shia Arabs, while three-quarters of Sunni Arabs and Kurds viewed him unfavourably. Most Iraqis said they lacked confidence in Mr Al Maliki.
He lived up to these negative expectations. With the US departure, he broke his commitment to absorb tens of thousands of decommissioned Sunni “Sons of Anbar” into Iraq’s military and security services. He tormented prominent Sunni leaders with charges of “supporting terrorism”, forcing them into exile. And he operated in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
In the face of such oppressive sectarian behaviour, a disaffected Sunni insurgency in the restive Anbar region was inevitable. And as the brutality of Mr Al Maliki’s response matched that of his Syrian neighbour, Bashar Al Assad, it was also inevitable that the Iraqi insurgency would become increasingly extreme and that it would develop closer ties with its Islamic State counterparts operating across the border in Syria.
Mr Al Maliki’s forces engaged in bloody conflict with the Islamic State and an array of Sunni Arab groups for months. It was not until the Islamic State overran Mosul in the face of a disintegrating Iraqi military that he felt the need to appeal to the US for help. This presented the Obama administration with both domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Conservatives, who had long blamed the president for having left Iraq in the first place, were now hounding him to become militarily engaged. Liberals were war-averse and cautioned against any involvement, fearing “mission creep”.
Aware of both the regional and worldwide threat posed by the Islamic State and the problems created by Mr Al Maliki’s sectarian rule, the Obama administration took a cautious approach. Making it clear that it did not want to strengthen Mr Al Maliki’s hand, the US made support for the Iraqi military conditional on the establishment of a more inclusive and representative government in Baghdad. The US also provided emergency airlifts to beleaguered refugees fleeing Islamic State brutality and used air power to strike at both Islamic State targets.
Even this limited engagement paid dividends. It provided many of the previously trapped refugees with the cover they needed to escape. It enabled Kurdish forces the opportunity to regroup and retake some areas that had fallen under the control of the Islamic State. And with the US back in the game, it became clear to Iraqis that only with Mr Al Maliki out of the way could the Iraqi military and political system secure the support they needed to beat the extremists.
Had the knee-jerk liberals had their way, the Obama administration would have done nothing for fear of becoming ground down in another Iraqi war it could not win. Had the knee-jerk conservatives won the day, the US would have supported Mr Al Maliki, thereby reinforcing his corrupt, autocratic and sectarian rule.
The Obama approach recognised that the problem of the Islamic State was created by bad governance and could only be remedied by Iraqis moving in a different direction. With Mr Al Maliki gone, one hurdle has been passed. In the next month, Mr Al Abadi must make critical decisions. He must form a government that will be inclusive of all segments of Iraqi society, he must act quickly to re-engage Sunni leaders who were forced into exile by his predecessor, and he must create opportunities for disaffected Sunni Arabs and Kurds so that they see the government in Baghdad as representing their interests.
This struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq is only one front in what will be a long and protracted conflict against militant extremism in the Levant. The Iraqi military will need to finish the job by defeating the group militarily. Then comes the more difficult task of tackling the group’s base of operations in Syria – a situation made more difficult by the very different circumstances that exist in that country.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
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