* Update: The essays in POMEPS Briefing #24 Iraq Between Maliki and the Islamic State offer a variety of perspectives on Iraq’s ongoing crisis by leading scholars

The world’s attention is now focused on Iraq’s military crisis following the capture of Mosul and rapid advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). POMEPS authors never stopped paying attention. Here is a selection of important POMEPS-produced background articles from the Middle East Channel and The Monkey Cage that help to put the current crisis into its broader political perspective:

– Maliki has only himself to blame for Iraq’s crisis, by Zaid Al-Ali (June 26, 2014): “Maliki is perhaps the worst candidate possible to occupy the prime minister’s position, precisely because he will not be able to successfully negotiate any further agreements or convince anyone of his good faith. He only has himself to blame.”

Was Obama wrong to withdraw troops from Iraq? by Jason Brownlee (June 26, 2014): “Did President Obama usher in Iraq’s current crisis when he withdrew all U.S. forces and shattered the stability achieved by former president George W. Bush’s “surge”? Foreign policy hawks have vigorously promoted that narrative, but their account does not withstand scrutiny. For one thing, it is now abundantly clear the Iraqi government was not “stable or self-reliant” at the end of 2011. Further, U.S. boots on the ground would not have made it so. Before the troops came home, Americans watched for eight years as the United States failed to resolve Iraq’s internal conflicts. Keeping soldiers there beyond 2011 would not have halted the political hemorrhaging.”

Want to defeat ISIS in Iraq? More electricity would help, by Andrew Shaver and Gabriel Tenorio (June 19, 2014): “A lack of basic services, including electricity, fuel and water, has remained a significant source of discontent for Iraqi citizens since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011. While such grievances are not sectarian in nature – protests have persisted throughout the country – the combination of sectarian policies and lack of social services may have laid conditions suitable for ISIS’ spread.”

How Arab backers of the Syrian rebels see Iraq, by Marc Lynch (June 18, 2014): “These Arab narratives about what’s happening in Iraq shouldn’t be taken at face value, but listening carefully to them might help to avoid a counterproductive American foray back into Iraq. Inside Iraq, a broadly based Sunni insurgency, which commands the support of non-ISIS tribes and armed factions, would reinforce the case for why pushing Maliki for serious political accommodation before providing military aid is the right policy (Petraeus, for what it’s worth, agrees). True, getting rid of him might not solve Iraq’s problems, but the crisis won’t be overcome without significant changes, which he seems highly unlikely to make (and nobody would trust his promises to do so after the crisis has passed). The point is not to appease ISIS, which could care less about such things, but to break the alliance between ISIS and some of its current Iraqi Sunni allies by giving them a reason to opt back into a political system in which they have largely lost faith. On their own, airstrikes and military support of Maliki without the prior delivery of real political change are likely to only push the various strands of the insurgency closer to ISIS. Political reform isn’t a luxury item that can be postponed until the real business of military action has been conducted – it is the key to once again dividing ISIS from those larger and more powerful Sunni forces.”

Getting rid of Maliki won’t help solve Iraq’s crisis, by Fanar Haddad (June 17, 2014): “Two articles of faith seem to dominate proposed cures for Iraq’s ongoing crisis: Getting rid of Maliki and ensuring more Sunni inclusion. At first glance these measures seem intuitively and self-evidently necessary, but the woeful state of Iraqi politics and the magnitude of the threats now facing the country mean that, no matter how pleasing these proposals may be to our sensibilities, they are nevertheless impractical solutions – at least for the moment.”

How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem? by Marc Lynch (June 13, 2014): “The most important answers lie inside Iraqi politics. Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq.”

Why the Iraqi army collapsed, by Keren Fraiman, Austin Long and Caitlin Talmadge (June 14, 2014): “The collapse of Iraqi security forces this week has been nothing short of catastrophic. A surprise offensive against the city of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has rapidly unraveled the military and police forces that the United States spent years training, arming, and equipping. Now the militant group has seized much of northern Iraq. Although ISIS had been resurgent for months, no one predicted that Iraqi security forces would simply disintegrate when facing a few thousand militants. Though stunning, such collapses are not unprecedented, and history highlights two key causes: poor intelligence, and the politicization and corruption of security forces.”

The Middle East quasi-state system, by Ariel Ahram (May 27, 2014): “The last five years have provided opportunities for a new crop of quasi-states to emerge, each articulating alternative visions of governance and regional order. Consider the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a splinter group originating as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Many observers see ISIL at best as an organized crime syndicate, at worst a terrorist group so viciously anti-Shiite that even al-Qaeda has disowned it. Both descriptions are correct, but incomplete, as they overlook ISIL’s ambition to be a state (and the extent to which all states resemble organized crime rackets). ISIL explicitly rejects the political divisions inherited from Sykes-Picot. At the same time, though, ISIL’s self-description as an Islamic state (dawlah), instead of merely organization, movement or army, is important and controversial. Indeed, despite a rocky beginning, ISIL today in many ways looks and acts like a state. In Mosul, according to reports, ISIL enforced taxes on a variety of commercial activities, including telecommunications companies that had relay towers in ISIL-controlled zones. Those who refused to pay risked abduction or murder. In Syria’s Raqqa province ISIL imposed the jizya (poll tax), the same tax the prophet Muhammad placed on non-Muslim communities in return for protection.”

Iraq’s House of Cards, by Zaid Al-Ali (April 29, 2014): ” the sad reality is that — given all the developments of his eight years in office — very few Iraqis are less suitable to be prime minister today than Maliki. Indeed, Maliki’s third term would likely be even more disastrous than his second, leading to a deterioration in security and causing the country to relapse into a new authoritarian era.”

Explaining the Rise of Sectarianism, by Toby Dodge (March 19, 2014): “The lesson of Iraq is clear: sectarianism is primarily driven by ruling elites and secondarily by state weakness.”

The lessons of Iraq for the wider region are hence clear: sectarian politics is primarily driven by ruling elites and secondarily by state weakness. A reduction in sectarian politics is possible but it would mean the ruling elites of the region choosing to move away from heralding their population in sectarian forms to a new politics based on citizenship, a highly unlikely possibility. – See more at: http://pomeps.org/2014/03/19/seeking-to-explain-the-rise-of-sectarianism-in-the-middle-east-the-case-study-of-iraq/#sthash.MmkbKRRw.dpuf
The lessons of Iraq for the wider region are hence clear: sectarian politics is primarily driven by ruling elites and secondarily by state weakness. A reduction in sectarian politics is possible but it would mean the ruling elites of the region choosing to move away from heralding their population in sectarian forms to a new politics based on citizenship, a highly unlikely possibility. – See more at: http://pomeps.org/2014/03/19/seeking-to-explain-the-rise-of-sectarianism-in-the-middle-east-the-case-study-of-iraq/#sthash.MmkbKRRw.dpuf
The lessons of Iraq for the wider region are hence clear: sectarian politics is primarily driven by ruling elites and secondarily by state weakness. A reduction in sectarian politics is possible but it would mean the ruling elites of the region choosing to move away from heralding their population in sectarian forms to a new politics based on citizenship, a highly unlikely possibility. – See more at: http://pomeps.org/2014/03/19/seeking-to-explain-the-rise-of-sectarianism-in-the-middle-east-the-case-study-of-iraq/#sthash.MmkbKRRw.dpuf
The lessons of Iraq for the wider region are hence clear: sectarian politics is primarily driven by ruling elites and secondarily by state weakness. A reduction in sectarian politics is possible but it would mean the ruling elites of the region choosing to move away from heralding their population in sectarian forms to a new politics based on citizenship, a highly unlikely possibility. – See more at: http://pomeps.org/2014/03/19/seeking-to-explain-the-rise-of-sectarianism-in-the-middle-east-the-case-study-of-iraq/#sthash.MmkbKRRw.dpuf

Maliki’s Anbar Blunder, by Kirk H. Sowell (January 15, 2014): “With national elections set for April, Maliki’s Christmas speech, a show trial-like airing of ‘confessions’ by detainees on state television, and a wide-ranging media campaign in the days that followed were part of an effort to tie Ramadi protests to al Qaeda. The case was largely wrong, and to an extent made in bad faith. This and the December 30, 2013 bulldozing of the Ramadi encampment were among several actions that led to the total breakdown in security in Anbar province at year’s end and exacerbated the security crisis there. However, the roots of the current crisis go back over the past year.”

Why Arab Iraq Survives, by Fanar Haddad (November 7, 2013): “Beneath a deeply fragmented and intensely violent surface lies an insurmountable obstacle to any plans for the partition of Arab Iraq: the mythology of the Iraqi nation-state retains a considerable degree of emotional traction amongst Arab Iraqis and ‘Iraq’ remains the canvass against which political imaginations are formulated in Arab Iraq. Despite the extent of disunity amongst Iraqis, the daily violence, and the consistent failure of the state to deliver, and regardless of the elusiveness of even the faintest glimmer of light in what often seems like an endless dark tunnel, Arab Iraqis have yet to imagine an alternative to the burdensome entity they call Iraq.”

Iraq’s Moment to Rise or Burn, by Marc Lynch (October 18, 2013): “Maliki might be forgiven for rolling his eyes at another lecture on the need for national reconciliation — a shared goal written into the SFA, for what it’s worth (and something that some might hope to see out of the U.S. Congress, too). American officials have been urging that upon the prime minister, as well as every other Iraqi politician who would sit still for more than 15 minutes, for more than half a decade. The political failure in Iraq is nothing new and has very little to do with the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Maliki ignored such advice when there were 140,000 American troops in Iraq; he ignored it when those troops began to withdraw; and he ignored it after they left altogether. He was never going to make such concessions unless he felt them absolutely necessary for his own survival. In part due to the temporary security gains of the U.S. ‘surge’ and co-optation of the Sunni insurgency, he never really felt that he did. Things might be different now, though. The harvest of his exclusionary politics has been long months of sustained Sunni protest, renewed insurgency, and an increasing perception that the country is coming apart at the seams. A dramatic increase in violent deaths has driven a widely held fear that Iraq is unraveling and that the fire is again burning. The perverse consequence of this year’s growing violence and political crisis could finally be that the carnage is finally enough to push him to such belated, reluctant concessions. His own political survival instincts, not American leverage, might finally bring him around.”

Sunni Voters and Iraq’s Provincial Elections, by Kirk H. Sowell (July 12, 2013): “If we take these results as reflecting voters’ views on the issue, then the segment of the protest movement pushing for an autonomous Sunni region suffered even worse, as Arab parties opposing autonomy won a majority in both provinces. In Anbar all the key protest figures in Ramadi favor a Sunni-dominated region with an independent budget and army, just like the Kurds.”

Not an Iraqi Civil War, by Douglas Ollivant (July 16, 2013): “The comparisons to the Iraqi civil war that peaked in 2006 and 2007 may seem appropriate if looking at the raw numbers. However, when one pushes another level down and realizes this is not two communities fighting each other (as did occur in the civil war) but instead a nihilist al Qaeda franchise attacking both the Shiite community randomly and the Sunni community strategically, the resemblance quickly fades.”

Remembering Iraq’s Displaced, by Elizabeth Ferris (March 18, 2013): “in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq’s total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias.”

 

POMEPS Background on Iraq’s Crisis

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