Friday, January 10, 2014

About Those US Demands That Maliki Include Sunnis

At Bloomberg, former Bushie Meghan O'Sullivan calls upon Mr. Obama and his officials to head off a new Iraq war by making better use of the US's "new leverage" to convince Iraq PM Nuri al-Maliki to make his government more inclusive of Sunni representation.

She, of course, is not the only notable former official/expert/pundit calling for this.  And anyone who's been paying attention in recent years knows that much of Iraq's malaise post-US pullout stems from Maliki's failure to bring Iraq's Sunnis alongside.  Indeed, it's been more than a failure to simply include them.  Rather, in dealing with Sunni opposition, Maliki has resorted to the kind of repressive tactics - intimidation, torture, executions - that, even if we've no evidence of mass burials of people killed by the government, could have come from Saddam Hussein's manual of How to Run Iraq.

We all know that Iraq's chances of remaining a relatively unitary state (I say relatively because the Kurds have been out that door since even before 2003) hinge upon the ability of the Iraqi leadership, and Iraq's people, to create a political-social contract that will enable them to rise above the sectarian divisiveness that Saddam fostered (despite his supposed Baathist secularism) and that the Coalition Provisional Authority and its aftermath exacerbated and helped solidify, including  in the new Iraqi constitution.  Many have noted that non-sectarian Iraqi nationalism still runs deep in some elements of Iraqi politics and society.  How long that can persist if Iraq's current  cacophany of violence persists remains to be seen.

But all the American calls for Maliki to change his ways, seems to me, fail to take into account certain realities:

Nuri al-Maliki, besides being Iraq's prime minister since 2006, has also been the head of a Shi'ite religious party, al-Da'wa.  Members of that party were persecuted and executed, brutally, under Saddam's Sunni-led Baathist regime.  Maliki himself was forced into exile during that time.  The current members of al-Da'wa, and members of other Shi'ite religious parties, bear deeply seared memories of what they and their families suffered at the hands of a predominantly Sunni government.  American politicians like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who so stridently demand that Maliki change his ways cannot possibly understand the extent to which such deeply seated fear, as well as feelings of revenge, might motivate Maliki and those who back him - including millions of Iraqi Arab Shi'ites.

Although the US has professed to be a friend and ally of Maliki, much more important - and potentially much more useful - to him is the support of the friend and ally next door: the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran.  That, of course, is the same Shi'ite republic that Saddam attacked in 1980, launching an eight-year war during which the Sunni-led Baathist regime of Iraq was supported by the U.S. under Ronald Reagan.  And with U.S. backing, Saddam's forces inflicted hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimed lives on Iranian soldiers and civilians, using poison gas as well as more "conventional" weapons of mass destruction.  But the more important point here is that, given the awfulness of that war, the very last thing the Iranian leadership can countenance is the re-empowerment of Sunni parties or politicians in Iraq.

All of this means that Mr. Maliki is going to be inclined to turn a very tinnish ear to U.S. entreaties and demands that he bring Sunni elements within anything close to striking distance of effective power in Iraqi politics.  Given Iraq's history over the last several decades, this ought to be obvious.  McCain, Graham, Boehner - all of those now demanding more of Maliki, as well as more of Obama - need to wise up.

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