They came from the west through the Syrian Desert, across the Euphrates River, and down off the Nineveh Plain. Mosul, Baiji, Tikrit, Samarra—cities held by the U.S. military just two and a half years before—fell almost without a fight, absorbed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a prospective terrorist caliphate based on sharia law and governed by Salafist militants who make even al Qaeda shudder.
For the moment, America’s $3 trillion attempt to plant a pluralist democracy in the heart of the Middle East lies in ruins. Trained and equipped at a cost of $25 billion, Iraq’s army is in disarray, the Humvees, tanks, and field artillery it inherited from the United States now in enemy hands. Al Anbar sheikhs like Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha who joined the Sunni Awakening in 2007 at the behest of Gen. David Petraeus are being hunted down and killed. Captured government officials who happen to be Shiite face the possibility of summary execution.
No armed foreign intervention will quell the enmity that divides Sunni and Shiites. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi disdain for Shiites is such that an inadvertent handshake requires ablutions. Pakistani Sunni disparage fervent Shiites with nicknames like “mosquitoes.” In Iraq, where the collision of the Persian and Arab worlds has left a 60/40 Shiite to Sunni divide, American options are limited. “The initial impulse is to take short-term military action, but the problems in Iraq are political,” says American Academy of Diplomacy president Ron Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador who served in Iraq with the Coalition Provisional Authority. “Sending in American troops will just redirect all the anger toward us.”
Much of the blame for the current chaos goes to Iraq’s 64-year-old premier, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite who came to power in 2006 after promising George W. Bush and U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad he would form a government of national reconciliation. After twice building coalitions with Sunni support, Maliki denied Sunni political parties the ministries he had promised. His biggest mistake, however, was dismissing from government service the former al Qaeda sympathizers Petraeus had employed at minimal expense during the surge.
A dour politician, Maliki is no man of the people. Instead of shaking hands with voters, he moves through a crowd head bowed, enveloped by a flying wedge of bodyguards with linked arms. “In return for military assistance, Maliki once again has promised to form an inclusive government, but I suspect he will break his promise,” says Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar of Middle East affairs at the Wilson Center. “Maliki has no credibility left. There can be no reconciliation as long as he heads the government.”
Iraq’s constitution requires Maliki, who has already served two terms as premier, to relinquish power. But there is little chance of that happening since last year cronies on Iraq’s Supreme Court voided that part of the constitution.
ISIS has no chance of taking over Iraq. The Shiites will fight to the death to protect the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf that lie south of Baghdad. With massive support from Iran, Maliki might even survive politically. Washington’s reasons for saving Maliki and befriending Iran are less compelling given the fact the United States has an alternative, alliance with a more prosperous and stable partner in northern Iraq’s Kurdish population.
Spend more than a few days in the Kurdish capital of Erbil and you’ll hear Kurds say, “We love America but it doesn’t love us.” From an American perspective, it is hard to see what’s not to love. The Kurds have a booming capitalist economy, a functioning court system, two political parties that manage to compromise on most issues, and a regulatory environment that favors Western investment. Though officially part of Iraq, the three Kurdish provinces function as a quasi-independent nation in that they collectively issue visas, control border crossings, and pursue a foreign policy independent of Baghdad. Though largely Sunni in orientation, the Kurds maintain friendly relations with Tehran’s Shiite government and close business ties with Ankara.
All this is possible because of oil, a commodity Washington fears might prompt Iraq’s Kurds to proclaim independence.