Iraq: Still there, Still in Crisis, Fragmenting?

The elections are over. It was a larger turnout of voters than many anticipated and the present prime minister,  Nouri Al-Maliki drew the most votes, but not enough to form a government.  Now the horse trading will begin. It seems that many in the Arab, Iraqi and Western media are very unhappy over the possibility that Al-Maliki will serve a third term.   He is very  unpopular with much of the Arab world, the Western world, and  especially among  most of the Sunnis in Iraq, as well as many be

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington 2013 | AP

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington 2013 | AP

tter educated Shi’a. Dexter Filkins, who has been writing on Iraq  for years, recently published an article in the New Yorker painting an unflattering portrait of Al-Maliki. Among the less appealing characteristics, according to the author, was his reluctance to smile a lot.  The article circulated widely among Iraqi intellectuals among whom Al- Maliki is generally unpopular. Al Maliki is a product of his village antecedents, and while very unsophisticated, is a cunning and savvy politician.

Most of the Sunni politicians, his major Shi’a rivals, Ammar al-Hakim, and Muqtada al-Sdar, as well as many Kurds seem determined to block his third term even though he received most of the votes. With all these negatives, how does Al Maliki manage to remain in power, and why is he likely to get the third term?

Primarily because most Shi’a see him as standing against a return  to Sunni/Ba’ath  rule. The widely circulated exploits of the  various Islamist insurgent groups in Anbar province, and Western and Arab Sunni  media pushing the story of a  surging Sunni movement, ” encircling Baghdad” ensured al Maliki’s vote plurality.  Al Maliki even used the ineptitude of the Iraqi Army against his opponents, depicting the adverse views toward the army as being Sunnis touting their martial superiority.

Al Maliki is justifiably being censured for his inability to create a secure Iraq and limit the corruption, which is embedded in the culture. The Iraqi army is inept, and despite repeated announcements of an imminent  offensive to retake Fallujah, it never happens. The Shi’a soldiers who make up most of the army now are lost in the urban centers of Sunni land.The officers are poorly prepared and not well trained. The exodus of the Ba’athi officers of Saddam’s army hurt some, but more importantly many Shi’a officers have left as well, citing the corruption and nepotism rampant in the army. Like all Arab leaders, Al Maliki has begun relying on his clan and extended family and is building a network of security apparatus to maintain himself in power.

So if not Al Maliki who? This is a central question. He will have to be Shi’ a and  neither Al Hakim or Al Sadr have the mojo to take the job. Al Sadr may be popular in the Shi’a slums of Sadr city but he is mostly a joke among the educated people. Al Hakim is where he is  because of his father,  as is Muqtada. Their fathers’  prestige and name are their claim to leadership.  Neither are strong personalities. Neither obtained a large share of the vote.

A great deal of the blame lies with the Obama’s hasty exit from Iraq. As usual most of the Dexter Filkins type articles try to shift the blame to the Bush era, but leaving Iraq without an effective residual US military presence was Obama’s decision, As Gates repeatedly brought out in his book,  the Obama administration only cared about the domestic  political impact.  As a consequence the Iraqi army is basically ineffective.

So where does this lead?  In my humble opinion, Al Maliki will get his third term, the security situation will continue to be poor, with daily attacks and bombings mostly in Shi’a areas.  The apathy of the Iraqi people beaten down by the brutality of the Saddam regime and decades of violence and conflict will simply continue to endure….. or leave if possible.The Kurdish region will continue the process of unobtrusively seceding from Iraq in all but name. However, the prospects for a Sunniland in Anbar are dim. The Sunni population, being fed with funds and illusionary dreams by  some Western media and  Gulf Arabs, will continue to believe they have the divine right to rule Iraq. Unfortunately, for them, they have few resources, limited access to oil , and will be surrounded by  mostly hostile neighbors, particularly, if as it appears the Assad regime in Syria will prevail. The Turkish support of Sunni insurgencies has proved to be a massive blunder made by Erdogan.  It has proven particularly unpopular in Turkey especially among the large Alevi population of the south that borders on Iraq and Syria.

So no dramatic predictions.  The Kurds will quietly go their own way  but Iraq will not fragment,  and perhaps in a decade or so Iraqi nationalists will refashion a political structure to re-integrate all the Arabs of Iraq. But for now  look for more of the same.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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