How Maliki Lost Iraq

The Slow Motion Collapse of a Sectarian Truce

Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr train in Najaf, June 18, 2014.
Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr train in Najaf, June 18, 2014. (Ahmad Mousa / Courtesy Reuters)

In some sense, Iraq's present security crisis was unexpected. In early June, a relatively small group of terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seemed to suddenly launch an offensive against Iraqi government forces in Sunni-majority areas of northwestern Iraq. The Iraqi military and police then quickly abandoned their posts, essentially ceding control of the area to ISIS and setting the stage for a battle over Baghdad.

In another sense, however, we are simply witnessing the bursting of a dam whose cracks have been visible for some time. ISIS may seem like it appeared out of nowhere, but the group’s onslaught was no surprise. The groundwork was laid a long time ago, and was evident for anyone who cared enough to notice.

In fact, it is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who bears responsibility for the current debacle. His self-defeating security strategy in the Sunni-majority areas during his second term in office squandered the security gains enabled by the United States’ military surge between 2007 and 2009. Maliki’s counterinsurgency policies, particularly in Anbar province, were debilitating for the Iraqi military’s morale and alienating for the local population and the country’s Sunni population more generally. Maliki placed the Iraqi military stationed in Ninewa province under the control of officers who were personally loyal to him but were otherwise incompetent or implicated in vicious crimes. (By the time of the ISIS offensive in June, the Iraqi military in Ninewa was under the command of one general who was implicated in torture in secret government prisons; another general who had been sacked in 2009 for failing in a previous assignment to protect Baghdad from terror attacks, only to be reinstated the same year; and a third who oversaw deployments in the town of Hawija in April 2013 that resulted in dozens of deaths of Sunni civilians who were protesting peacefully.) As a result, the military was quickly depleted of morale and cohesion, and the local population lost confidence in the central government.

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