10 Myths about the Crisis in Iraq


Iraq ISIS control 6-14

The ongoing Iraq crisis has upended many assumptions about Iraq and US policy in the Arab East (al-mashriq) and Persian Gulf. Unfortunately Western media reporting is filled with much erroneous information on the crisis.

Sectarian politicians, who seek to manipulate ethnoconfessional cleavages, contribute to this misinformation because it benefits their own interests. Most Western journalists are dependent on these political elites for information. Often unable to speak or read Arabic (or Kurdish), they cannot communicate with ordinary citizens and grasp the feelings of “the street.”

To offset what I consider to be the misinformation on the current crisis in Iraq, I offer 10 myths about the crisis. These myths not only distort the crisis but have the potential to lead policy-makers, both Iraqi and American, to implement to counter-productive policy outcomes.

Myth # 1: The crisis in Iraq is caused by sectarianism

No argument is more flawed than the one that the Iraq crisis pits Sunnis and Shi’a against each other. Emblematic of this misunderstanding is Wolf Blitzer’s recent assertion on CNN’s The Situation Room that, “Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have hated each other and been engaged in violent conflict for centuries.”

Rather than based in some visceral hatred between Sunni and Shi’i Arabs, this crisis is the result of destructive public policy implemented by Iraq’s sectarian entrepreneurs (tujjar al-ta’ifiya), especially Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In short, Maliki and large sectors of the political elite have used their power and access to oil wealth to promote a corrupt political system in which “divide and conquer” strategies are a core component of their political culture and rule.

The stereotype of purported Sunni-Shi’i hatred is belied by even a superficial knowledge of modern Iraqi society and history. Sunnis and Shi’is have a high rate of intermarriage (much higher than Whites and African-Americans, or Christians and Jews, in the United States) that, prior to the violence that beset Iraq between 2004 until 2008, reached 40% in some Iraqi cities such as Baghdad.

Intermarriage takes place between Arabs and Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, and among other ethnic and confessional groups in Iraq as well. After 2003, intermarriage between Sunnis and Shi’a has continued, even if some parents discourage it, fearing that the rise in politically motivated sectarianism will prove dangerous to their offspring.

In public opinion polls taken after 2003, sectarianism has hovered around 10% in terms of issues important to Iraqis. In all polls, the two main concerns consistently have been employment and personal security. To gain a “down to earth” feeling about sectarianism in Iraq, I highly recommend the film, Baghdad High (http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=5e0_1232315843 ), that was made by 4 Iraqi youth – Sunni, Shi’i, Kurd and Christian – who are studying for their comprehensive examinations at the end of high school. This film, completed during the height of insurgent violence in 2006 and 2007, makes clear that sectarianism is not a core value of Iraqi society.

If we look back at the Iraqi nationalist movement that was crushed by the first Ba’thist regime that came to power in February 1963, we see a long period of cooperation, that began with the June-October 1920 Revolution, that included all Iraq’s ethnoconfessional groups, including Shi’a, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Jews, Christians and other groups (for details, see my Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520235465 – English and Arabic editions; and Orit Bashkin’s, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq).

The Iraq crisis is all about money and power and the manipulation of identity politics. Iraq’s sectarian entrepreneurs exploit the legacy of the 1990s UN sanctions regime that created distrust among Iraqis (See my articles: “Sectarianism, Historical Memory and the Discourse of Othering: The Mahdi Army, the Mafia, Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta” http://fas-polisci.rutgers.edu/davis/ARTICLES/DavisIraqItaly.31111.pdf ; and, “Islamism, Authoritarianism and Democracy: a Comparative Study of Egypt and Iraq” http://fas-polisci.rutgers.edu/davis/ARTICLES/Iraq.pdf ).

After having suppressed a March 1991 uprising that almost brought down his regime, Saddam spent the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s trying to set Iraq’s different ethnoconfessional groups against one another in an effort to prop up his rule.

Myth # 2: Nuri al-Maliki can solve the current crisis

Nuri al-Maliki is one of the main causes of the Iraq crisis, if not the main cause. The two enablers in keeping him in power have been the US and Iran. Although his State of Law Coalition did not win the 2010 parliamentary elections – won instead by the cross-ethnic al-Iraqiya Coalition – the US and Iran colluded with Maliki allowing him to gain a second term on very dubious constitutional-legal grounds.
Since gaining a second term in 2010, Maliki has done everything he could to consolidate his power. He removed the autonomy of the Independent High Electoral Commission and the Central Bank and intimidated the judiciary so they would vote according to wishes. He has appointed commanders who are incompetent but who were either loyal to him or paid bribes to obtain their commissions.

Cabinet ministers receive their posts based on support for Maliki according to corrupt hierarchical calculus based on what a particular ministry can provide in terms of money, patronage and power (see my post: “The Iraqi elections: 10 reasons why Nuri al-Maliki will win the battle but ultimately lose the war.” http://new-middle-east.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-iraqi-elections-10-reasons-nuri-al.html).

Maliki undermined the Anbar Awakening (Sahwat al-‘Iraq) that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker organized in 2006 and that played a key role in ridding al-Anbar Province of al-Qa’ida forces between 2006 and 2008. Maliki promised to integrate 80,000 Sahwa members into the armed forces and police but subsequently reneged on his promise.

Nuri al-Maliki has alienated all elements of the Iraqi political system to such an extent that his own Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da’wa al-Islamiya) asked him not to run for a third term last summer.

Some of the most hostile criticism of Maliki has come from Iraq’s Shi’a, again belying the notion that the crisis is sectarian pitting Sunnis vs. Shi’a. For example, Basra Province said it would not support Maliki unless he gave the province control of local oil production because he has not consulted, as required by the constitution, the Basra Provincial Council about oil concessions to foreign corporations.

The southern provinces – all predominantly Shi’a – have bitterly criticized him for not dispersing needed revenues to the province for infrastructural needs such as improving the electric grid that is needed to provide more electricity. This criticism has led surrounding provinces such as Misan and Dhi Qar to seek to form a semi-autonomous region with Basra that would give Maliki less control over the far south of Iraq. The Shi’a here see Maliki and his allies in the shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala’ as trying to control the south’s oil wealth.

Myth # 3: There is no alternative to Nuri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister

There is another false assumption. Dr. Adel Abdel Mahdi, an economist who was president of Iraq from 2005 until 2011, and who previously served as finance minister, would be an excellent prime minister. Trained in France, he is the son of a respected Shi’i cleric and a member of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) headed by Ammar al-Hakim, he has strong leadership credentials.

To counter the argument that he is not a member of Maliki’s Islamic Call Party or his State of Law Coalition, a number of vice-prime ministers could be appointed to meet the concerns of other parties, including someone from the State of Law Coalition. For example, Ayad Allawi, whose al-Iraqiya Coalition won 91 seats in the 2010 elections, could serve as a Vice-Prime Minister, as could Barham Salih who has served as Iraq’s vice-prime minster and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) prime minister.

Husayn al-Sharastani, who has served as Maliki’s Minister of Oil, could represent the State of Law Coalition, also as a Vice-Prime Minister. Finally, Masoud Barzani, currently the president of the KRG, could serve as president of Iraq, a position in which he has expressed interest. Thus Barham Salih would represent one of the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Barzani, the other main party, the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Myth # 4:   Maliki should remain as prime minister because he won the 2014 elections

Although the State of Law Coalition did win the largest number of votes in the April 2014 parliamentary elections, the results of the elections still have not been certified. In any event, Maliki’s coalition did not win anything close to the number of seats needed to form a government. Few parties want to give him their support in light of his highly divisive and authoritarian style of rule.

The Arab and Iraqi press reported a number of irregularities in the elections. First, many of the vote counters have close ties to the State of Law and the large parties. Second, poll officials report the delivery of incorrect ballots to polling places that were meant for other areas of the country. Finally, the fighting in Anbar meant that many Sunni Arabs were unable to vote. There were reports that ballots meant to be used by refugees may have been used by other voters instead. In short, Maliki’s State of Law did not win the elections in any decisive manner.

Myth # 5: US airstrikes represents a quick fix to the Iraq crisis

Most military analysts argue that airstrikes are only as good as the intelligence on which they are based. US airstrikes without the proper intelligence on the ground could actually work against Iraq and the US by creating significant collateral damage in civilian casualties and destruction of local infrastructure.

Because ISIS fighters are skilled at urban warfare, and do not leave themselves open in mass formations or large daytime convoys, airstrikes could be useful at the margins but cannot substitute for “boots on the ground.”

Myth # 6: If the Iraqi army is ineffective, there is no alternative but to introduce US forces

It is quite remarkable that, to date, little or nothing has been said about the 350,000 Peshmerga troops that guard the KRG. The Peshmerga are hardened fighters and have special units trained specially for urban warfare. Peshmerga forces could be very effective attacking ISIS in Mosul which is near the KRG border, just south of Dohuk.

Turkish troops could also enter the battle in Syria behind ISIS lines. Indeed, ISIS kidnapping of Turkish diplomats and truckers could be used to convene NATO and have the alliance convene a force to support Turkish troops. Jordan possesses a small but well trained army that could contribute forces as well. An international force would have much more legitimacy than US forces fighting alone, especially when US public opinion opposes American troops in Iraq by 2 to 1.

Myth # 7: Shi’i militias can provide a substitute for Iraq Army units that deserted in Mosul

Apart from a few trained militias with combat experience, such as the League of the Righteous People (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq), the Shi’i militias that are proceeding to the Samarra/Diyala front are ill-trained. Some fighters were already been killed in an ISIS ambush near Samarra. Not only will these units provide little added value militarily, but they can interfere with the logistics of the Iraqi Army, thus creating more problems than they solve.

What mobilizing these militias does do is provide Nuri al-Maliki with a national forum to prop up his support and popularity among Iraq’s Shi’a population. Maliki has appeared on a number of occasions thus far in front of militia members exhorting them to do their national duty. The policy of organizing Shi’i militias seems as much as political as military. It also does not require Maliki to make the more politically undesirable decision to call upon help from other armed forces, such as the Peshmerga or the Turks, with whom he has had bad relations.

Myth # 8: Iran strongly supports Maliki and therefore will not allow him to leave office

All indications are that Iran is hedging its bets in terms who it supports for Iraq’s prime minister and had been doing so before the current crisis developed. Recent Iranian calls for Maliki to develop a more inclusive government representing all ethnoconfessional groups points to the fact that Iran is as worried as many Iraqis and foreign observers that Maliki’s sectarian policies preclude him from being an effective national leader in the future.
Myth # 9: If US troops had remained in Iraq after 2011, the crisis would not have developed

One of the refrains of neo-conservative thinkers such as William Kristol, Robert Kagan and others, and US senators such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham, is that the crisis was caused by the Obama administration. Because the Obama administration refused to leave US troops in Iraq 2011, there was no impediment to ISIS forces successfully attacking the country .

The first point to note ois the Bush adminstration conclude a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that called for full withdrawal of US troops by the end of 2011. Even if, as John McCain claims, Nuri al-Maliki indicated in a private meeting with him that he supported a residual force remaining in Iraq, McCain does not understand the power of  nationalist pressures for US forces to leave Iraq in 2011. Maliki’s main nemesis at the time, the Sadrist Movement, that had a strong presence in parliament, would have used any remaining US troops as a rallying point to attack Maliki for being an “American puppet.”

Further, allowing US troops to remain in Iraq beyond the date for their departure as specified by the SOFA would have undermined Maliki’s strongman image. Maliki feared that it would have also given the Obama administration greater influence in Iraq to try and offset Maliki’s sectarian policies (although the Obama administration has never exerted the type of pressure on Maliki that it could have done given the amount of weapons and military training that it has provided to Iraq).

Myth # 10: The US has no right to exert influence on Iraqi politics

The US does not have the right to tell Iraq who should be its rulers. However, there is no reason that prevents the Obama administration from indicating to Iraq’s political class that it no longer supports Nuri al-Maliki in light of the sectarian and destructive policies he has pursued to date.

Such a policy is not the same as telling the Iraqis who they should choose as prime minister. It does let Maliki and his allies know that, given the military aid, military training, and support for Iraq’s remaining debt burden to Kuwait stemming from the 1991 Gulf War, the US is no longer going to prop up a regime that pursues policies that run counter to the Iraqi, regional and American interests in the Middle East.

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