November 5, 2013 | Issue Brief on Middle East
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington last week in search of greater U.S. security assistance in battling the al-Qaeda-led insurgency that increasingly threatens Iraq's internal security as well as regional stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
The United States shares Maliki's goal of defeating al-Qaeda's franchise in Iraq, which has expanded into neighboring Syria. But it should be assured that Maliki’s Shia-dominated government does not use U.S. arms to crush the legitimate rights and aspirations of Iraq's Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and Christian minorities, which are enshrined in Iraq's constitution. Washington should also press Maliki to distance himself from Iran’s outlaw regime and halt Iraqi smuggling operations that undermine international sanctions against Iran.
Since Maliki's last visit to Washington in December 2011 to mark the rebirth of Iraqi sovereignty after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Iraq's internal security has severely deteriorated. Al-Qaeda forces, which had been degraded and marginalized by U.S. and Iraqi security forces in an intensive counterterrorism campaign from 2006 to 2011, made a bloody comeback.
In part, this was the predictable result of the Obama Administration's failure to negotiate an agreement to extend the presence of U.S. troops past the deadline set by the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, as it had long planned. The abrupt U.S. military departure greatly weakened Iraqi counterterrorism, intelligence gathering, and special-operations capabilities and allowed a decimated al-Qaeda to revive in a more permissive environment.
The onset of Syria’s rebellion in 2011 and its transformation into a sectarian civil war also fueled rising sectarian tensions in Iraq. But Maliki also bears a considerable portion of the blame. Within weeks of the U.S. troop withdrawal, he moved to consolidate his own power and that of his Shia coalition partners while marginalizing moderate Sunni political leaders.
Baghdad also reneged on promises to support the Awakening movement, a Sunni tribal backlash against the brutal extremism and indiscriminate violence of al-Qaeda. By ruling in an increasingly authoritarian and sectarian manner, Maliki helped to foster a polarized political atmosphere that pushed growing numbers of Sunnis into the arms of al-Qaeda.
Political violence is now surging to levels not seen in Iraq since 2008. The U.N. estimates that more than 7,000 Iraqis have died in terrorist attacks and counterterrorist operations this year, and the death toll is rising steeply as radical Shia militias increasingly have launched reprisals against Sunnis. The Sunni-supremacist al-Qaeda, rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now appears to be on the verge of successfully transforming a struggle for power into a sectarian apocalypse, as it has done in Syria.
Although President Obama promised to "end" the war in Iraq, he merely ended U.S. participation in the fighting. The abrupt U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011 deprived the Iraqi government of important counterterrorism, intelligence, and training capabilities that were needed to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda and allowed it to regain strength and expand into Syria. Now the U.S. is confronted with the adverse security consequences of this abdication of responsibility.
Washington and Baghdad share a common interest in defeating ISIS. The leader of Iraq's al-Qaeda franchise threatened to launch attacks against Americans “in the heart of your land” in July 2012, and several members of the group have been arrested in the U.S. and Canada since 2010.
Maliki came to Washington with a shopping list that includes weapons such as Apache helicopters, drones, and other military equipment useful for counterterrorist operations. He also seeks advisers and trainers to upgrade Iraqi intelligence-gathering and special-operations forces.
But defeating ISIS cannot be accomplished solely through military action. Sunni Iraqi support for ISIS must be drained away by boosting moderate Sunni political and tribal leaders who also share an interest in defeating ISIS. This requires the Maliki government to make a genuine effort to reach out to Sunni Iraqis and ensure that they gain an equitable share of political power and Iraq’s oil wealth.
Washington should agree to bolster security cooperation with Iraq on the condition that Maliki's government adopts a more inclusive approach to Iraq's Sunnis and other minorities. President Obama should signal to Iraqis that Washington remains committed to helping build a stable and pluralist democracy in Iraq and opposed to Sunni and Shia extremists, who both threaten that goal. He should make it clear that U.S. support is not narrowly attached to Maliki or any other leader but to Iraq's elected officials, and he should stress the importance of conducting free and fair Iraqi elections in April 2014.
Washington should agree to expedite deliveries of arms already sold to Baghdad wherever possible, but it should be careful not to sell sensitive advanced technology items such as drones, which could be passed on to Iran by sympathetic Iraqi Shia officials. If Baghdad wants the deployment of armed drones, then they should be kept under strict American control, which would also ensure that they are used solely against terrorists and not against legitimate non-violent opposition movements. Similar restrictions should be put on sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment, which could be used to infringe on the rights of Iraqis peacefully opposed to the government.
In return, Maliki should take stronger action to halt Iranian arms transfers to Syria through Iraqi territory by air and ground. Such arms transfers not only violate U.N. Security Council resolutions but help prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime and prolong the fighting in Syria, enabling ISIS and other Islamist extremist forces to grow even stronger along both sides of the Iraqi–Syrian border. Washington should also press Baghdad to crack down on oil smuggling and other activities that help Iran evade international sanctions.
In a recent television interview, Maliki compared Iraq to a ship in a storm. President Obama should make every effort to convince Maliki that he needs to set a new course that minimizes sectarian tensions and isolates extremists in Iraq and in the region. This means Maliki should distance his government from the regimes in Iran and Syria, both of which purposefully manipulate tensions between Shias and Sunnis as a means of advancing their own agendas. If he continues on his present course, Iraq is likely to disintegrate, just like Syria has.
--James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.