Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Middle Eastern impasses (1): The problems of the Shias in responding

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Best Defense guest columnist It has become a truism that resolution of the current crisis in Iraq that has seen major cities — most notably Mosul — fall out of government control at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) will require some form of ‘reconciliation’ between the Shia majority that ...

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Battle_of_Karbala_-_Abbas_Al-Musavi_-_overall
Brooklyn_Museum_-_Battle_of_Karbala_-_Abbas_Al-Musavi_-_overall

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi,

Best Defense guest columnist

It has become a truism that resolution of the current crisis in Iraq that has seen major cities --- most notably Mosul -- fall out of government control at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) will require some form of ‘reconciliation’ between the Shia majority that has led Iraq’s governments since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the Sunni Arabs, who likely constitute no more than 20-25% of Iraq’s population but were seen as dominant since the formation of the modern Iraqi state. ‘Reconciliation’ in the predominant understanding is expected to entail some kind of central government outreach to Sunnis. However, is that really forthcoming? If not, why not?

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi,

Best Defense guest columnist

It has become a truism that resolution of the current crisis in Iraq that has seen major cities — most notably Mosul — fall out of government control at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) will require some form of ‘reconciliation’ between the Shia majority that has led Iraq’s governments since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the Sunni Arabs, who likely constitute no more than 20-25% of Iraq’s population but were seen as dominant since the formation of the modern Iraqi state. ‘Reconciliation’ in the predominant understanding is expected to entail some kind of central government outreach to Sunnis. However, is that really forthcoming? If not, why not?

The new Iraqi premier Hayder Abadi — hailing from the Islamic Da’wah Party of his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki — is generally seen as a more conciliatory figure than Maliki, who is in contrast widely condemned for perceived sectarian policies that led to the deterioration in the security situation.

However, reconciliation must entail more than mere allocation of government positions to Sunni political figures who have become ever more detached from their constituencies. It must also include reforms on the ground that will make Sunni locals more amenable to working with the security reforms and integrate them into the post-Saddam order. One place to start would be amendments to de-Ba’athification legislation that was initiated after the overthrow of Saddam’s regime and came to be seen as ‘de-Sunnification’. And in that regard, nothing seems forthcoming.

The response to the Sunni protests of 2013 is instructive here. While it is widely claimed that Maliki did not attempt to make any concessions to protestor demands, such conventional wisdom is untrue. Through working with then deputy Sunni premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, Maliki allowed for meaningful reforms to de-Ba’athification to be put to parliament, but the legislation quickly died, most notably facing opposition from the Sadrists. It is indeed telling that when it came to this rather important issue on reconciliation, Maliki comes across as the moderate, illustrating the wider Shia political spectrum’s reluctance to consider such reforms, fearful at least of a supposed return to the prior Sunni-dominated order. More recent attempts at Sunni empowerment in the form of provincial autonomy have similarly been put down across the spectrum, partly due to belief that greater autonomy would only create problems akin to the constant disputes between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad.

Today, the notion of de-Ba’athification amendments is not even put to discussion. Indeed, the rise of IS, with the collapse of conventional army divisions caused by the group’s conquests in the north of the country, has only compounded the impasse, because it has helped midwife the birth of dozens of Shia militias while strengthening in particular the hand of long-established Iranian proxies (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr), the last of which was awarded the Interior Ministry and has spearheaded military operations south of Baghdad and in the mixed province of Diyala.

For the militias, the struggle is perceived — not wholly without justification — as existential in light of IS’s genocidal anti-Shia sentiments. Yet that only further damages chances at reconciliation, as the general tendency among Shia militias is to treat all Sunnis in a combat zone as IS, which has resulted in ethnic cleansing in areas like Jurf al-Sakhr (south of Baghdad) and the wider Baghdad belt area.

Considering that the militias are unlikely to simply disband and will seek to exert influence, Abadi’s efforts will likely only be undercut further. This is well illustrated in the recent hostility shown by Kata’ib Hezbollah to Abadi’s floundering ‘National Guard’ legislation that aims to create local Sunni forces to fight IS, saying it will treat the formations as an ‘American-affiliated Sahwa.’ As the Iranian proxies in particular frame the recent upheaval as an American conspiracy against Iraq, such enmity is sure to create conflict and hinder a coordinated effort to roll back IS.

But is the impasse wholly or primarily to be blamed on the Shia side? Stay tuned for part two, which will explore the issues regarding Sunnis and Iraq’s impasse.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Rubin Research Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel.

Brooklyn Museum

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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