The “Rise” of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Threat from Prime Minister Maliki

No one can deny that al Qaeda is a violent extremist threat wherever it operates. It poses a threat in terms of transnational terrorism in the United States and Europe, and a far more direct threat to the people who live in every area it operates. It has consistently been horribly repressive, violent, and often murderous in enforcing its political control and demands for a form of social behavior that reflect the worst in tribalism and offers almost nothing in terms of real Islamic values.

Like all extreme neo-Salafi movements, al Qaeda is also an economic and social dead end. It does not offer any practical way of operating and competing in a global economy, it is too dysfunctional to allow meaningful education and social interaction, and it finances itself largely through extortion in ways that cripple the existing local economy. Moreover, it does not tolerate competition even from other Islamist fighters. In Syria, it has provoked its own civil war with other hardline Islamist movements – a civil war it now seems to be decisively losing to other Sunni rebel factions.

It is precisely that type of behavior, however, which should lead U.S. officials, analysts, and media to do a far, far better job of reporting on exactly what has really happened in Anbar, and in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. Bad as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, far too much of the evidence points to Prime Minister Maliki as an equal threat to Iraq and to U.S. interests. Ever since the 2010 election, he has become steadily more repressive, manipulated Iraq’s security forces to serve his own interests, and created a growing Sunni resistance to his practice of using Shi’ite political support to gain his own advantage.

He has refused to honor the Erbil power-sharing agreement that was supposed to create a national government that could tie together Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite, and he has increased tensions with Iraq’s Kurds. As the U.S. State Department human rights reports for Iraq, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) make all too clear; Maliki’s search for power has steadily repressed and alienated Iraq’s Sunnis on a national level. It has led to show trials and death sentences against one of Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians including former Vice President Taqris al-Hashimi, who has been living in asylum in Turkey since being convicted nad sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. It has shifted the promotion structure in the Iraqi Security Forces to both give the Prime Minister personal control and has turned them into an instrument he can use against Sunnis.

Al Qaeda in Iraq - nor its recent incarnation the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - has not risen up as a rebirth of the opposition the U.S. faced in 2005-2008. In spite of attempts by the Maliki government to label virtually any major Sunni opposition as terrorists, the steady increase in that opposition orginated primarily in the form of peaceful and legitimate political protests against Maliki’s purges of elected Iraqi Sunni leaders, and a regular exclusion of Sunnis from the government – including the Sons of Iraq in areas like Anbar. It came because Maliki used the Iraqi Security Forces  against segments of his own population in the name of fighting terrorists and extremists. It came because of the failure to use Iraq’s oil wealth effectively and fairly – resulting with an economy that the CIA ranks Iraq 140th in the world in per capita income. The opposition to Maliki's government also resulted from corruption so extreme that in December 2013 Transparency International ranked Iraq the seventh most corrupt country in the world, with only Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia ranking worse than Iraq in terms of corruption.

Any analysis or news report that focuses only on al Qaeda’s very real abuses is little more than worthless – it encourages the tendency to demonize terrorism without dealing with the fact that terrorism almost always only succeeds when governments fail their people. Just as serious counterinsurgency can never be successful if it only addresses the military dimension, counterterrorism cannot succeed if it is not coupled with an effort to address the quality of the nation’s political leadership and governance, and the legitimate concerns of its people.

Any failure to analyze Maliki’s actions since the 2010 election – his disregard for the Erbil agreement that called for a true national government, his manipulation of the courts to create multiple trails and death sentences for political oppponents, including one of Iraq’s vice presidents – Tariq al-Hashemi; his use of temporary appointments to take control of key command positions in the Iraqi Security Forces; his efforts to bribe senior Iraqi Sunni politicians to support him with ministerial posts; and his steadily increasing suppression of Sunni popular opposition and protests – is dishonest, lazy, intellectual rubbish.

It is the Maliki threat that actually reinvigorated al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and gave the extremist group a toehold among some alilenated and disenfranchised Iraqi Sunnis. His increasingly violent repression of protest camps and Sunni opposition in Anbar during 2013 culminated in efforts to shut down protest camps with lethal force.  When this provoked massive opposition among Sunnis and key Sunni tribal leaders, he pulled the army out of key cities and tried to rely on a police force that was seen as corrupt and as a toolof the regime. AQI/ISIS fighters took advantage of the resulting power vacuum – and did so at time they were facing what became major military opposition from other Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria.

Since that time, Maliki has threatened the tribal leaders and people of Fallujah and Ramadi with sending in the army to deal with al Qaeda in ways that would kill large numbers of civilians and destroy much of their property. Unlike much of the reporting on the situation, he realizes that AQI/ISIS’s control is marginal and faces major potential tribal resistance – resistance that has been limited largely because of anger at Maliki and his actions. Once again, AQI is repeating all of its past excesses and mistakes – the same excesses and mistakes that have led to its recent defeats in Syria.

Proper reporting and analysis should be a net assessment of these facts and a comparison of the Maliki government’s actions relative to those of AQI and the vast majority of Iraq Sunni who now have reason to be angry with both. It would push as hard for reform in Iraq’s leadership and government as for efforts that can defeat AQI/ISIS without causing a massive rise in Sunni anger, endorsing more Maliki government repression, and creating more seeds for civil conflict.

At the same time, proper reporting and analysis on U.S. policy options should take account of the dilemma the Obama Administration and Congress faces. There are no good options in Iraq. The Maliki government controls the security forces, it has all the money it can possibly need from Iraq’s oil revenues, it can manipulate the courts and Iraq's parliament, and it can play Iran off of the United States if the United States puts too much pressure on the Maliki government – and particularly if the United States is too open in official criticism of Maliki’s actions.

In fairness, the United States also has done more at the official level than many media reports and analysts have done outside it. Key U.S. officials like Secretary Kerry and Anthony Blinken have publically stressed the need for basic reforms by the Maliki government within the limits imposed by realpolitik. Key Senators have pushed for limits on U.S. aid to Iraq and changes in the behavior of the Maliki government.

When Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Brett McGurk visited Iraq last week, he met with national and local leaders from across the political spectrum to discuss the security situation in western Iraq. A press release from the US Embassy in Baghdad noted that:

 McGurk's itinerary included meetings with  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Speaker Osama Nujaifi, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, Deputy Prime Minister Husayn Shahristani, head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, Ammar al-Hakim, and members of the Council of Representatives from the Iraqiyya and State of Law blocs. He also conferred with prominent leaders from Anbar province, including Governor Ahmed Khalaf, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, and former Minister of Finance Rafa al-Issawi.
In all of these meetings, DAS McGurk confirmed the enduring U.S. commitment to the Government and people of Iraq in their efforts to isolate and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He noted the encouraging trend in Ramadi where local leaders, working with tribes and supported with resources from Baghdad, have pushed ISIL to the outskirts of the city. He further noted the planning to separate ISIL and other militant groups from the population in Fallujah using a similar strategy while also accounting for the unique circumstances there. The United States, he emphasized, will provide all necessary and appropriate assistance to the Government of Iraq (GOI) under the Strategic Framework Agreement to help ensure that these efforts succeed.

In addition, McGurk stressed with all of these leaders that long-term stability requires a close fusion of security and political measures, as well as guarantees from the GOI that courageous and patriotic Iraqi citizens who stand to fight ISIL and other extremist groups be recognized and ultimately incorporated into the formal security structures of the state. He further emphasized to all parties the importance of pursuing political initiatives and addressing the legitimate grievances of all communities within the framework of the Iraqi constitution.

Both media and analysts need to be far more realistic and objective in evaluating the fact there is only so much the Obama Administration and Congress can do. Sending in U.S. forces now would mean taking sides in what threatens to become a far more intense Sunni versus Shi’ite civil conflict. Providing counterterrorism aid without tight controls on the weapons involved would enable the Maliki government to use them against the Iraqi people.

The Administration seems to have realized this in in making its initial response to the crisis that began in December 2013. Sending in a few precision-guided Hellfire missiles with limited lethality and value only against point targets – plus some limited-performance reconnaissance drones that left the Maliki government dependent on broader and quieter U.S. intelligence aid – was such an approach. 

So does trying to find ways a U.S. advisory team could control later transfers of systems like the AH-64 – weapons that could only be delivered and operated months after the December/January crisis peaked, as well as sending in small advisory teams.

The U.S. government cannot stand by and let AQI/ISIS gain more power, and it has to provide some aid in counterterrorism. At the same time, it needs every bit of outside leverage that is possible to push the Maliki government towards reform and equitable treatment of Sunnis and Kurds, and that lays the groundwork for demanding an honest outcome from Iraq’s upcoming election and an outcome that moves back toward the level of national unity called for in the Erbil agreement.

These are actions that require the best possible reporting in the media, and equal depth of analysis from outside analysts and NGOs. To date, far too much of the output from both has had narrow and often partisan focus on counterterrorism and the threat from AQI/ISIS. The Maliki threat is at least – if not more – important.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Note: These issues, and a history of the Maliki government’s actions, are presented in detail in a CSIS report entitled Iraq in Crisis, available on the CSIS web site here.

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