WASHINGTON — One of Iraq’s top Sunni Muslim leaders on Tuesday delivered a pointed message to Washington: The United States has a moral responsibility to help defeat Iraq’s twin ills of sectarianism and terrorism because those forces were unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq repeatedly warned that it would be impossible to conquer a deadly resurgence of al-Qaida in the country’s Anbar province without simultaneously pushing for a more representative government than the one led by Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite Muslim prime minister who’s enraged Sunnis with sectarian rhetoric and policies.
So far, the Obama administration has expedited weapons deliveries to al-Maliki and dispatched envoys to nudge him toward reaching out to Sunnis, but the efforts have done little to thwart al-Qaida, which remains in control of Fallujah, the Anbar city that was the scene of the bloodiest battle of the American-led occupation of Iraq.
Mutlaq warned that there would be no peace in Iraq until legitimate Sunni grievances are addressed with reforms to include more Sunnis in security and other government posts and until there’s a crackdown on politicians’ inflammatory sectarian rhetoric. He stuck to this theme in interviews, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece and an appearance at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where the audience looked like a reunion of U.S. occupation-era policymakers and strategists.
“Arming the Iraqi army is not enough on its own,” Mutlaq said in his speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “A cohesive society also is needed to fight terrorism, and if you don’t have these two factors, things will be very difficult. And, as you know, the American army with all its might couldn’t defeat al-Qaida without the cooperation of the local people.”
Mutlaq was referring to the movement known as the Sons of Iraq, a tribal backlash against al-Qaida in Anbar province that U.S. military commanders say was instrumental in the campaign to rout militants from their strongholds there.
Today, however, tribesmen in Fallujah and other Anbar hubs say they’re divided because they lack reliable allies from a pool that includes the openly anti-Sunni government, Sunni politicians who lack street credibility and al-Qaida militants whose promises of protection always turn into takeovers. The effort is also hurt because al-Qaida’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has established a major presence in Syria and can move its forces back and forth across the Syria-Iraq border largely without challenge.
In telephone interviews, residents of Anbar echoed Mutlaq’s talking points but said they no longer viewed him as a legitimate envoy for their concerns because he’d refused to resign from the Maliki administration. Tribal leaders said Mutlaq should have consulted with them about their priorities before he went to Washington representing the Sunni population.
Some Anbar residents say the U.S. silence as al-Maliki’s forces target residential areas, ostensibly to flush out al-Qaida militants, amounts to ingratitude for their help in battles against jihadists in late 2005.
Suhaib al Mihamdi, an engineer and housing project manager whose offices were destroyed in recent fighting in Fallujah, said the United States was making a mistake in supporting al-Maliki’s “sectarian” government by “giving him weapons to kill us, to kill those who defeated al-Qaida from 2005 to 2007.” Mihamdi said the U.S.-trained Iraqi army’s No. 1 mission now was attacking Sunnis.
“They are pushing Sunnis into a corner and leaving them with no allies but the devil, al-Qaida, in order to protect themselves from being massacred by both the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias that are free to detain and kill Sunnis,” Mihamdi said.
Anbar residents, reached by phone from the United States, suggested that rather than consulting with someone like Mutlaq, a Baghdad insider, U.S. officials should reach out to new tribal councils that are struggling to contain the violence.
More than 60 people have been killed in clashes between militants and security forces that erupted after the arrest of a Sunni legislator and the dismantling of a protest camp in the provincial capital of Ramadi last month. The spate of violence is described as the worst unrest since the sectarian bloodshed of 2008.
“We hope that the American administration will pressure Maliki to release the thousands of innocent prisoners and to answer the demands of demonstrators that participated in a peaceful protest for over a year,” said Sheikh Khalid Daham, a tribal leader in Fallujah who’s been active in council efforts to quell the violence. “We need the U.S. to help us make the Iraqi government listen to the voice of logic.”
Al-Maliki has stuck to a hard line, insisting the battle is against terrorists and that he won’t negotiate. Even a visit this week by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon didn’t seem to sway the prime minister. Ban urged the government to address the “root causes” of the violence; al-Maliki said dialogue with militants wasn’t an option.
It’s unclear whether the United States would have much better luck at encouraging al-Maliki to make overtures to reassure Sunnis that his campaign is targeting extremists, not the sect in general.
Iraq’s violence is so diffuse and complex that even when they occupied the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Americans officials had only had limited influence with real power brokers. Then U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011 without a “status of forces agreement” under which some Americans would stay as trainers and advisers. The parties failed to strike a deal and the talks collapsed.
Mutlaq, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, shrugged off the breakdown with two words: “It happened.” The absence of a bilateral agreement, he argued, didn’t absolve the United States from its moral responsibility toward Iraq. Instead of just taking out Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said, the United States “destroyed” the country.
Anbar residents worry that the sectarianism of the government is so institutionalized now that any efforts, whether by the United States or others, are doomed to fail. They say they’re desperate to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — the local al-Qaida branch, which one resident described as “alien to our customs and traditions” — but are afraid to take up arms without reassurance that they won’t face an Iraqi military backlash against all Sunnis.
“America must pressure Maliki — and I’m afraid it’s too late — to open dialogue with the newly formed military councils that are now fighting the Iraqi army. They need guarantees so they will turn their weapons against the Islamic State,” said a former high-ranking army officer from Fallujah, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.
U.S. observers of Iraq offer mixed views on how the Obama administration should deal with the flare-up in the country. Generally, one camp advocates full-throttle support for al-Maliki because it’s in the U.S. interest to pursue al-Qaida, even if it means ignoring its partner’s authoritarian tendencies. The other camp counters that it’s precisely al-Maliki’s dictator-in-training behavior that pushes Sunnis toward the dubious “protection” of al-Qaida.
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an opinion piece this week that “far too much of the evidence points to Prime Minister Maliki as an equal threat to Iraq and to U.S. interests.”
“Ever since the 2010 election,” Cordesman wrote, “he has become steadily more repressive, manipulated Iraq’s security forces to serve his own interests and created a growing Sunni resistance to his practice of using Shiite political support to gain his own advantage.”