Tuesday, June 16, 2015


By Ronald Fox

Maliki Public enemy

Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister in 2005. After assuming power, despite promises of democratic governance, he launched a campaign to eliminate potential Sunni threats to his regime. This translated into reducing the presence of former Ba’athist Party members and Sunnis from influential government positions and the military. Maliki moved cautiously at first, but his purges picked up in 2011 after American troops left Iraq and he no longer felt constrained by the U.S. presence.

Tariq al Hashimi
Tarig Al-Hashimi
When he purged his vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, the highest-ranking Sunni in his government (on a trumped-up charge about a planned coup), and President Obama blinked (more on this in a later post), Maliki felt free to escalate attacks against Sunnis. What followed was a brutal repression of Sunnis he considered potential threats, and in his paranoid mindset, the list was expansive. Thousands of Sunnis were arrested and jailed, many without charges. Several simply disappeared. Shiite militias took violence to new heights; blood flowed in the streets. Tribesmen of the Sunni Awakening were even targeted. These were people who had helped defeat al-Qaeda years earlier.

Maliki’s anti-Sunni campaign led many Sunnis to take to the streets in peaceful protest of his repression. The Iraqi president responded against demonstrators with extreme force and hundreds were killed. Attacks on demonstrators caused Sunnis to lose whatever faith they had left in the Maliki regime. Many began to warm to the messages of Sunni Islamists, whom most had previously opposed.  Washington understood that Maliki’s crackdown was instigating a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis, yet little was done to stem his violent campaign.

Mass Sunni Protest
Mass Sunni Anti-Iraqi Protest
Al Qaeda in Iraq had been severely weakened by the time of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, thanks in large part to fighting support provided by Sunni tribesmen as part of the so-called Awakening. Some al Qaeda followers, however, remained in Iraq and some fled across the border into Syria and joined forces with the Nusra Front, the local al Qaeda affiliate.  Both began to play key roles in the rebellion against Assad.

Al Qaeda followers who remained in Iraq were battle-hardened veterans. They included Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the previous head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Al-Baghdadi would later become the head of ISIS.  Also remaining in the country were remnants of Saddam’s Ba’athist militia who were determined to regain power.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
The savageness of Iraqi army and Shiite militia attacks on demonstrators led al Qaeda members remaining in Iraq to conclude that peaceful protests were useless.  Effectiveness required muscle. It was time to meet violence with violence. This message found traction among the growing legions of angry and alienated Sunnis.

Iraq’s Sunni population had reached the limit of their tolerance. They had seen their leaders removed from positions in the government and the military. They had been humiliated, jailed, tortured and killed by Maliki henchmen. Many were ripe to take up arms against their oppressors. Meanwhile al Qaeda, which by now had morphed into ISIS, was gaining ground in Syria and beginning to infiltrate back into Iraq. This time it found a more receptive Sunni audience, including many former moderates who had previously opposed, and even fought against, al Qaeda. Sunni tribes were beginning to see ISIS as the only people they could trust for protection.

As the Islamic State began to bring reinforcements over the Iraqi border, it was clear the Maliki Army could not stop them. As ISIS moved south, it built coalitions with Sunni tribal militias. It captured tons of American weapons. Islamist groups began to form and merge into ISIS, swelling its numbers.  Emboldened by its steady stream of victories, ISIS set its sights on the ultimate target: Baghdad. Maliki now had a real threat to worry about. He had created a monster.

The only chance for an orderly and relatively peaceful transition into the post-Saddam, post-U.S. era was if an inclusive governing system could be established that included a Shiite-Sunni sharing of power. To be sure, working out such a sharing would not have been easy, but Prime Minister Maliki made sure it didn’t happen. In the eyes of his accusers, by casting thousands of jobless and angry Sunnis into the streets, Maliki set the stage for the Sunni insurgency that was to come.

The next post looks at the role ISIS leaders and fighters played in the organization’s ascent.  

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