31 October 2013

Hayder al-Khoei

Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House


When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets US President Barack Obama on Friday, he will push for the speedy delivery of fighter jets, attack helicopters and an air defence system to help secure the country's borders. More military hardware and intelligence cooperation may be useful in stemming the spill-over of sectarian violence from neighbouring Syria, but it will not solve Baghdad's terrorism problem. The worsening security situation in Iraq is undeniably influenced by Syria's civil war, but its roots are much closer to home.

A resurgent Al-Qaeda

Recent news reports from Iraq have a familiar ring: a rising death toll, increased sectarian violence and a fearless Al-Qaeda on a rampage against the government and innocent civilians from all ethno-sectarian backgrounds.

Maliki's approach to the deteriorating situation is focused on a one-track security solution: a heavy-handed show of military strength in Sunni-dominated areas on the outskirts of Baghdad. The Shia-dominated government is alienating large sections of the population and breeding resentment by collectively punishing Sunni areas, rather than mounting surgical strikes against Al-Qaeda. This provides Al-Qaeda with even more propaganda ammunition, which is half the battle won for it. 

Iraq's Sunnis increasingly feel marginalized by the government. This could be a result of the failures of their own Sunni representatives within the government or the sectarian politics of the Shia prime minister. But this becomes irrelevant, however, in a region where divisions run deep and perceptions often matter more than reality. Feelings of exclusion and marginalization impact how Sunnis relate to the state and its institutions. Unfair targeting by security forces and resulting mistrust impair intelligence-gathering which hinders the ability of security forces to fight Al-Qaeda.

The government is struggling to maintain security in the face of Al-Qaeda's frequent 'spectacular' coordinated suicide and car-bomb attacks. The corruption and incompetence that plagues Iraq's institutions add to the insecurity – as illustrated by the brazen Al-Qaeda jailbreak in July, considered by some to be an 'inside job', that saw hundreds of inmates freed from Abu Ghraib prison. The security forces and prime minister's office did not act on multiple intelligence warnings that an imminent attack on the prison was being planned.

Sectarian warfare

There are worrying reports that Shia militias are remobilizing and have been involved in sectarian retaliations to Al-Qaeda's onslaught. The main group responsible, Asa'ib Ahlil Haq, was integrated into the political process by the prime minister to act as a useful counterweight to the influence of his Shia rivals, the Sadrists. Its logistical capability to recruit fighters to travel to Syria as well as its ability to organize illegal checkpoints in Baghdad suggest it is acting as a government 'asset'.

Sectarian retaliations, in the form of intimidation, forced relocation and assassinations, have been condemned by Iraq's highest religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but they remain a threat to the legitimacy and integrity of the state.

If Al-Qaeda can provoke Shia militias onto the streets of Baghdad, Iraq may be pushed back to the dark days of sectarian and civil war. For now, it appears that few Iraqis have the stomach for this but, if the environment becomes so chaotic that people feel they can take the law into their own hands, it could become a real possibility.

Without reconciliation, violence will continue

Baghdad must not let Al-Qaeda win by allowing this scenario to be played out. What Al-Qaeda fears most in Iraq is political reconciliation – not the military capability of the Iraqi army. More military and intelligence assistance from the US will not stabilize the country in the long term. Unless serious efforts are made to address the needs of the people, then no surge in military force will help Iraq; the US learnt this lesson the hard way during the 2006–07 civil war.

On Maliki's visit to the US he will aim to present Iraq as a viable partner in a volatile region. But he cannot seriously expect the US to believe that Iraq can play a constructive role in solving regional crises when he is failing to solve his own domestic problems.

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