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Al Maliki’s sectarian policies proving disastrous for Iraqi stability

As ISIL captures more and more territory, it is increasingly evident that the Shiite prime minister's marginalisation of the Sunnis is fuelling the insurgency.
Nouri Al Maliki, Iraq’s uncompromising prime minister who barrel-bombed his own people, has brought the country to a breaking point with the pursuit of sectarian policies.

Ahead of parliamentary elections in April, Mr Al Maliki campaigned on the promise of providing security in Anbar province, where Sunni extremists had taken control of key cities.

Part of the city of Ramadi and all of Fallujah had fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a few months earlier, and violence was rising throughout the country: Mr Maliki might be ruthless, but so were his enemies.

Most voters wanted a leader who showed his resolve. That was reflected in the election results – Mr Al Maliki’s allies won the most seats, but not enough to form a government without coalition partners.

But on Tuesday, Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was taken over by ISIL, along with a large part of the surrounding Nineveh province.

Situated along the border with Syria, Nineveh was a vital strategic base for Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL’s predecessor. Sunni-dominated Mosul was an important centre of trade and commerce. Many residents also had family connections to officials in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, now banned, giving them reason to resent the Shiite-led government of Mr Al Maliki that came to power following the 2003 invasion by the United States.

The US military and pro-government Sunni tribesmen had deeply wounded Al Qaeda in Iraq by 2010. But ISIL emerged in 2013, aided in no small way by the civil war in Syria, which provided the ground for extremists to flourish.

ISIL likely tapped into the remnants of Al Qaeda’s network of financiers and supporters in Mosul and other parts of Nineveh. The group extorted or stole what it could not gain through donations, unleashing violence and intimidation against those who opposed it.

Mr Al Maliki’s marginalisation of Sunnis aided ISIL’s rise and, with the group having taken over Fallujah and Mosul, it is now threatening parts of Iraq’s energy infrastructure and is poised to push towards Baghdad.

ISIL’s resurgence is the fault of many, but foremost Mr Maliki’s failed policies. He chose to either ignore or attempt to violently crush those opposed to him, engaging in power tactics not useful in an age of guerrilla warfare, shifting regional alliances and the survival of fragments from old regimes.

Similar tactics were used in Syria by Bashar Al Assad. But like in Syria, the tactic only fanned the flames of revolt and empowered extremists such as ISIL and the anti-Maliki groups aligned with them.

It is now that the future of Iraq, an open question since the US invasion, will be decided. Will the country descend again into an all-out Sunni-Shiite civil war? Will Mr Al Maliki be able to make common cause with Iraq’s Kurds to oppose ISIL? Kurdish territory borders Nineveh province and the Kurds are strong fighters. Will the US once again send forces to Iraq? What would the use of armed drones­ – Washington’s counter-insurgency weapon of choice – do to the uprising?

By joining forces, the Kurds and Mr Al Maliki could form a coalition government and also fight ISIL together.

In the endless negotiating table that is Iraq, both sides will demand concessions from each other.

Even if Mr Maliki is not able to compromise, he could perhaps cut a deal to win a war.

jvela@thenational.ae

Updated: June 11, 2014 04:00 AM

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