Overcoming sectarian divisions won’t solve Iraq’s crisis. Embracing them will.
- By Marina OttawayMarina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Want to see what futile U.S. foreign policy looks like? See Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Baghdad and Kurdistan earlier this week.
President Barack Obama has sent a small number of military advisors to Iraq and bolstered the defenses of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but the White House has made clear that it believes the only solution to Iraq’s spiraling civil war is political. "Only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together," Obama has declared, with Kerry picking up the refrain at all meetings during his recent trip.
The centerpiece of the U.S. strategy is the formation of an "inclusive government" that would give Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds a common interest in standing up to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The end goal of Washington’s nation-building dream would be a country where different sects and ethnic groups came together as equals to form a government. This is, indeed, the only plausible solution for Iraq’s crisis. But in order for it to happen, Iraq’s government would have to embrace organizations and leaders whom the United States has considered anathema in the past and that would pursue goals at odds with Washington’s. It would also have a different architecture from the present one.
The problem, as Kerry’s trip made clear, is that not all Iraqis are sure that they want to be part of the country the United States envisages. In fact, most don’t: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in an address to the nation after Kerry’s visit, defined the formation of an inclusive government of national salvation as a "coup against the constitution and an attempt to end the democratic experience." In Kurdistan, President Masoud Barzani went further, telling Kerry openly, "We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq." The new Iraq, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani had declared earlier, would at best be a loose confederation of three largely autonomous Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni regions. (Such a solution would be ideal for Kurdistan, giving it, de facto, the independence its people want without the complications of obtaining international recognition.) There are no takers for the U.S. plan — and Sunnis, the most alienated population group, were not even consulted.
Iraq already has experience with a government of national unity in which all parties are included. It was formed in 2010, when nine months of bargaining after the elections failed to produce a majority with sufficient support. Maliki immediately started undermining the national unity government, filling important positions with his people. Sunni and Kurdish political parties no longer trust Maliki, nor do important Shiite leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim. If parties could be prevailed upon to become part of a unity government, that still wouldn’t suffice at this point to generate a common interest among Iraqis in combating ISIS. Even if Maliki stepped down, which he is refusing to consider, the formation of a government including only the parties that participated in the elections would leave out players that are now crucial to holding the country together.
To be attractive to Sunnis — the Iraqi faction most needed to stop ISIS — a new government would have to offer more than a few ministerial positions to Sunni politicians in Baghdad. It would also have to bring in the tribal leaders and former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military who are currently siding with ISIS, despite not sharing its extremist jihadi ideology and goal of a new caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Exactly who these tribal leaders and former Baathists are is unclear. The Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a Sunni nationalist political organization and militia led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam’s top associates, are the most-often mentioned in news reports. Tribal leaders and former Baathists are now governing Mosul and other towns, providing an Iraqi face for the largely foreign ISIS.
Dealing with these groups, particularly the Baathist officers, would constitute a major change for the United States and Baghdad. Saddam Hussein’s loyalists have been the targets of U.S.-supported de-Baathification efforts since 2003, which banned most from government positions and the armed forces. Some tribal leaders cooperated with the United States and Iraqi authorities against al Qaeda in 2008 during the so-called Sunni Awakening but were subsequently shunted aside by Maliki, who stopped cooperating with them and funding the militias the United States has encouraged. They remain resentful and suspicious. If they decided to turn against ISIS, they would do so to pursue their own goals, not to help Maliki keep Iraq together under his own control.
Those goals appear to be changing rapidly, but they do not appear to include building a radical Islamist state. Sunni nationalists have historically been strong advocates of a united, centralized Iraq and were incensed by the adoption of a constitution that weakened Iraq by granting the Kurds a large degree of autonomy. More recently, however, some Sunni provincial governors and council members have been demanding autonomy for Sunni provinces similar to that enjoyed by Kurdistan. And the idea that the political solution to the current crisis includes the creation of an autonomous Sunni region is now upheld by neighbors of the Sunni provinces, including Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Huseyin Celik, a prominent advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At this point, Sunnis who have been cooperating with ISIS against Maliki would not change their position just to be reabsorbed into a Shiite-dominated Iraq. They want more autonomy.
This is exactly what the Kurds, Iraq’s other large and disaffected minority, want — and proclaim clearly. Kurdish parties, while squabbling among themselves in the regional government, maintain a united front toward Baghdad. An inclusive government acceptable to the Kurds at this point would be one that recognizes Kurdistan’s control over the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other contested areas, as well as the region’s right to freely sign contracts with international oil companies, and, above all, to sell its oil directly on the international market without fear of legal action from Baghdad. Not only has Baghdad opposed such demands but so has the United States.
The final challenge in the formation of an inclusive government is the question of who represents Shiites. Maliki’s State of Law coalition has gained the plurality in the April 30 parliamentary elections, but other important Shiite parties, including the one headed by the hard-line cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have run independently of Maliki and oppose his ambition to remain prime minister for a third term. Promising that his militias will "shake the ground" against ISIS militants, the Sadr has threatened that he and Ammar al-Hakim, leader of another important Shiite party, will pick the new prime minister unless Maliki drops his bid for a third term. Despite the crisis, Maliki will face an even stronger challenge from his Shiite rivals because his decision over the past two weeks to summon Shiite militias to shore up the disintegrating army has turned militias that were previously sidelined into stronger political actors who will demand a seat at the table. At least three of these militias have been operating for years, although officially disbanded: the Badr Brigade, Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the Iraqi Hezbollah. Many more are bound to appear.
All of these groups — Kurdish political parties, Shiite militias, Sunni tribesmen — and more who will emerge over time will need to be integrated for an inclusive Iraqi government to succeed. Some would undoubtedly refuse, and many will remain unacceptable to the majority of political actors. But unless the so-called inclusive government goes well beyond the political parties that participated in the elections and is willing to look at solutions that go beyond the template of a non-sectarian democracy that the United States tried to impose on Iraq during the occupation, the hoped-for political solution will remain elusive.
The solution to Iraq’s crisis cannot be based on overcoming sectarian divisions, no matter how desirable this seems in the abstract. The divisions are real and deep, with different groups pursuing different goals. Iraq can only be held together if these groups are convinced that by doing so they will attain what they want most. The United States has been telling Iraqis what their country should look like since 2003 and has failed to convince most. It is time Washington found out what Iraqis want their own country to look like — and whether the visions of the various groups can be reconciled. The political solution the United States envisages cannot be based on a model that Iraqi leaders are telling Secretary Kerry they reject.