The Magazine

Is Iraq Lost?

Things fall apart . . .

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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With administration officials celebrating the “successful” withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, thanking antiwar groups for making that withdrawal possible, and proffering outrageous claims about Iraq’s “stability,” “sovereignty,” and the “demilitarization” of American foreign policy even as Iraq collapses, it is hard to stay focused on America’s interests and security requirements. Especially in an election year, the temptation will only grow to argue about who lost Iraq, whether it was doomed from the outset, whether the current disaster “proves” either that the success of the surge was inherently ephemeral or that the withdrawal of U.S. troops caused the collapse. The time will come for such an audit of Iraq policy over the last five years, but not yet. For the crisis in Iraq is still unfolding, and the United States continues to have a huge stake in the outcome. The question of the moment is not “Who lost Iraq?” but rather “Is Iraq definitely lost?”

Photo of Nuri al-Maliki

Nuri al-Maliki: L’Irak, c’est moi.


It certainly seems so. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appears to be undertaking a deliberate and rapid strategy of driving the principal Sunni leaders out of his government and consolidating his personal control over parliament, the executive branch, and the security forces. He had been moving in that direction for several years, but generally with caution and occasional reversals. 

The impending withdrawal of U.S. military forces and the revelation of a plot to assassinate him at the end of November seem to have brought his normally conspiratorial mind to fever pitch. He appears to have dramatically accelerated this Sunni purge after his meeting with President Obama in Washington.

Maliki has acted in the political realm with the same suddenness and determination with which he launched the military operation in 2008 that retook Basra from Iranian-backed Shiite militias. He has thus once again taken both Iraqis and Americans by surprise. 

He began the escalation of the crisis by sending tanks of the Baghdad Brigade, commanded by his son, to surround the residence of Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, arresting several of Hashimi’s bodyguards and forcing confessions from them implicating Hashimi in terrorist plots—including one to assassinate Maliki. Almost before that news could be assimilated, he revealed an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice president and demanded a no-confidence vote in the Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh Mutlaq. As Iraqi parliamentarians were mulling over that demand, Maliki let it be known that he had decided he had the power to fire Mutlaq without vote and that he had already done so. 

Mutlaq and Hashimi have both fled to Erbil, where the Kurds are sheltering them. Maliki wasted no time, however, in demanding that the Kurds hand Hashimi over for trial, thus escalating a sectarian conflict into an ethno-sectarian struggle.

Events in the provinces are even more worrisome. Provincial councils in three of the four principal Sunni provinces (Anbar, Diyala, and Salahaddin) have declared their intention to form autonomous federal regions similar to the Kurdish Regional Government, in accord with the relevant provisions of the Iraqi constitution. Maliki has angrily denied that they have any such right, and has dispatched security forces to Diyala to prevent secessionist activities. Diyala has always been among the provinces most fraught with sectarian tension, and this political escalation is mirrored there by the reemergence of local militias, including Moktada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al Mahdi, preparing for sectarian violence. With both the Sunni political leadership and local Sunni groups seceding from or being driven out of the government, the stage is set for a return to sectarian civil war.

Terrorist groups seem to be seizing this opportunity to accelerate sectarian and political conflict, as they have in the past, to create openings in which they can operate freely. Sixteen bombings occurred in 11 neighborhoods of Baghdad on December 22, killing scores and wounding hundreds. Most of these neighborhoods had been heavily contested either as Al Qaeda in Iraq safe havens or as sectarian fault lines at the height of the 2006-07 conflict. It is unclear as of this writing who conducted these attacks, but their locations, along with the escalation of tensions in Diyala Province, are likely to be significant accelerants to the renewal of sectarian fighting.

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