A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan.
A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region, June 12, 2014.
Courtesy Reuters

Lately, Iraqi politics has been full of contradictions. On April 30, millions of voters -- including millions of Sunni Arabs -- selected mostly moderate candidates in the country’s third general election since its current constitution was adopted in 2005. Just weeks later, the local government in the largest Sunni city, Mosul, fell to a group of Syria-based radicals called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Iraqi security forces barely resisted.

With the situation in Mosul rapidly deteriorating, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems to be considering two main alternatives: proceed with forming a new cabinet, which, to achieve a modicum of stability, would require him to include at least some of his political enemies, or consolidate his influence among Iraqi Shia, with little regard for what happens to the Sunni and Kurdish parts of the country. 

These two alternatives reflect two very different strategies, both of which Maliki has pursued over the last several years. Since he became prime minister in 2006, Maliki has sometimes tried to transcend the ethno-sectarianism that has characterized Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S. invasion. By going after hardliners within his own Shia community, especially the Sadrists, Maliki tried to paint himself as a prime minister for all Iraqis. By insisting on a centralized energy policy, he broke down the Shia-Kurdish compact that had been so central to Iraqi politics in earlier years. He also alienated many fellow Shia in Basra and in the far south, who had hoped for greater energy autonomy. Finally, by standing firm against Kurdish claims to territories in the north, he won friends outside his own ethno-religious community, including the Sunni Turkmens, Sunni Arabs, and Christians living in those areas.

Maliki’s attempts to overcome Iraq’s divided politics were more enthusiastic between 2008 and 2010, when he discovered that he could increase his own power by challenging fellow Shia politicians and appealing to Iraqis more broadly. His plans fell by the wayside after the 2010 general election thanks, not least, to a concerted effort by other Shia parties and Iran to bring him back into the sectarian fold. Maliki did try, however, to revive his old strategies before the general election this year. In that race, he spoke of Iraq’s “political majority” and seemed to assume that he’d be able to win over at least some Sunni Arabs, who would join forces with him in the struggle to stamp out Kurdish attempts at an ever more independent energy policy.

At the same time, though, a very different -- more sectarian -- Maliki has been lurking just around the corner. In his first term, for example, Maliki was one of the few Shia leaders to urge moderation in the regime’s de-Baathification program. But he was highly selective in his moderation; regardless of legal criteria, Shia former Baathists were often allowed to continue to serve and Sunnis tended to be dismissed. In his second term, Maliki also became associated with projects that smacked of sectarianism. Sometimes, they went even further than schemes he had criticized back in 2005, such as a plan by some of his Shia political competitors to create a Shia federal canton. At the time, Maliki had dismissed the idea as a recipe for the partition of Iraq. But, just before this year’s general election, he backed similar legislation to create new provinces in a number of areas in northern Iraq -- a move that would protect Shia minorities there from Sunni control and potentially connect them with the Shia-dominated Baghdad province. More generally, despite plenty of opportunities during his two terms in office, Maliki failed to reach out to Sunni Arab communities beyond striking personal friendships with selected tribal sheikhs and local politicians.

Maliki’s ambiguity on sectarian politics informed his reaction to the fall of Mosul. The rapid withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Mosul and other Sunni areas suggests that Maliki simply gave up on defending them, preferring instead to consolidate his control over Shia zones. The moves have added fuel to discussions about the potential partition of Iraq.

At the same time, however, Maliki has tried to distance himself from the army’s withdrawal, calling it a conspiracy and hinting at subversive local Sunni politicians’ involvement. Maliki knows that, to finally form a government after the April 30 election -- out of which he emerged with the largest number of seats but not an outright majority -- he would need to join with at least one major Kurdish or Sunni leader. Until now, his hubris has seemed to prevent him from doing so, but events in Mosul may have finally injected some much-needed realism into his political thinking.

Maliki must know that he has already lost many of his cards. For example, to the extent that some Sunni politicians were previously interested in dealing with him, it was predicated on Maliki’s tough stance on Kurdish claims to disputed territories. Following the ISIL attack, though, Kurdish forces have occupied most of those territories, thereby depriving Maliki of what little leverage he had over Sunni Arab politicians. If Maliki wants to try to strike a partnership with the Kurds instead -- probably the most realistic alternative at present-- he will find that they have already secured much of what they want on their own. The only things Maliki would have left to offer are more generous payments to the Kurdish armed forces out of the central government’s coffers and painful compromises on the independence of the Kurdish oil sector.

Alternatively, Maliki could be thinking that a smaller, Shia-dominated Iraq offers him the best chance of staying in power, since he does enjoy a clear parliamentary majority in Shia areas. But any move toward a formal partition of the country will meet will considerable regional resistance. Despite its support for Iraqi Kurds, Turkey probably is not ready to recognize a fully independent Kurdistan. For its part, Saudi Arabia would likely feel threatened if the ISIL were to build bases beyond Syria. Even Iran, although potentially tempted by the emergence of a smaller and more Shia Iraq that might be easier to dominate, would not be happy about having its access to Syria blocked by an explicitly Sunni political entity in western Iraq.

So far, Maliki’s response to the crisis has indicated that he wants to further concentrate power instead of sharing it more broadly. Just after Mosul fell, he attempted to impose emergency rule, a plan the Iraqi parliament failed to embrace. When his supporters responded by threatening to involve Iraq’s supreme court, one felt a sense of déjà vu. Maliki, it seems, could be aiming to amass power based on his strong Shia majority and a belief that the rest of Iraq simply does not count. If this tendency prevails over coming weeks, it would mean that Maliki learned nothing from the dramatic fall of Mosul.

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