Maliki Isn't the Problem

The Roots of Sectarianism in Iraq

A Mehdi Army fighter loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gestures during military-style training in Najaf, June 19, 2014. Alaa Al-Marjani / Courtesy Reuters

The news that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had taken control of Mosul on its way toward Baghdad caught Americans by surprise. 

It shouldn’t have. More than a third of all ethnic civil wars restart within five years. And about a third of all post-conflict power-sharing agreements fail within the same time frame. For example, in Angola, concessions to increase representation through multiparty elections led to a new bout of war in 1991. In Afghanistan, the losing side remobilized in 1992, 1996, and 2001. And in Sri Lanka, a 2002 ceasefire collapsed in 2006.

In other words, today’s reignition of the 2006–07 Iraqi civil war fits a well-established pattern. And that pattern has several implications for U.S. strategy in the region. 


Peace after an ethnic civil war is so tenuous because violence reifies ethnic identities and post­–civil war politics is inevitably cast along ethnic lines. This creates a dilemma. To cultivate peace, citizens must learn to identify with their nation more than their ethnic group. But leaders often stand in their way. Since officials do not trust that nationalism will fully replace parochialism, they are reluctant to give up the sectarian basis of their political power in favor of the unknown. And so they play to ethnic tensions to shore up their bases.

Iraq illustrates the dilemma. U.S. observers and officials increasingly demonize Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who they say is to blame for sectarian conflict. But he is a symptom more than a cause.

At first, Maliki enjoyed the support of some Sunni leaders who appreciated his decisive moves against Shia militias in early 2008. But their trust in him was never complete; they wanted to wait and see how he would treat the Sunnis who had fought al Qaeda in Iraq and had participated in local and national elections in 2009 and 2010. Needless to say, Sunnis were soon disappointed as Maliki personalized his rule, politicized the security services, and resorted to the old sectarian politics.


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