Some of the countries in the Middle East are make-believe countries. That is, after the First World War the British and the French carved up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were created on map tables in Europe before they had any reality for the people who lived there. Religious and other divisions within these areas were of little interest to the French and British decision-makers of the time. Those administrative territories then became sovereign states, mostly after the Second World War. So, Kurds were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims were grouped together in Iraq and—to a lesser extent—in Syria. Tensions smoldered: a Sunni minority dominated the Shi’a majority in Iraq; Christians, Muslims, and Druze struggled in Lebanon; and Palestine became the target for immigration by Eastern European Jews without the consent of the Arabs. That did not mean that these countries were doomed to fail. Good judgment, a spirit of cooperation, and self-restraint could go a long way to building bridges. All of those things have been in short supply in post-American Iraq.
The Iraqi insurgency had been defeated when the Sunnis switched sides to oppose the Islamist fundamentalists of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nouri al-Maliki–a member of the Shi’a Muslim majority sect–became Prime Minister in 2006. During his campaign for re-election in 2010 he promised to form a “unity” government that included representatives of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Then the United States withdrew the last of its forces in 2011.
Maliki (and the Shi’a he represented) promptly changed course. Maliki’s program was to concentrate power in the hands of Shi’ites, while spurning both Sunnis and Kurds. First, he opened the way for a spectacular increase in the high level of corruption. Hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue had been diverted to private hands. The diverted revenues benefitted only Maliki’s followers. Soon, Maliki turned on the Sunnis more directly. They were purged from the government and tens of thousands were imprisoned. Maliki’s power grab alienated the Sunnis from the government. It sent some of them back into co-operation with Islamist groups.
The key Islamist group is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is simultaneously fighting in Iraq and in the Syrian Civil War. The major cities have been targeted for bombings. This coincided with the run-up to elections in April 2014. In April 2014, 750 people died, either in bombings of public places or in street-fighting between the security forces and insurgents. By May 2014, ISIL and the Sunni opponents of Maliki had won control of Anbar province west of Baghdad. By June 2014 the decision by Maliki and the Shi’ites to grab all the toys for themselves proved to have been a catastrophically bad decision. In June ISIS forces suddenly over-ran Mosul and Tikrit, while four divisions of the Iraqi Army just folded up in front of the attack. (“Iraq, three years later,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 11.)
Iraq’s Army offers a particularly telling example. Under Maliki, religious affiliation replaced competence as a criteria for many senior officers; purely Shi’ite divisions concentrated near Baghdad, while mixed divisions were sent to the provinces; troop training, equipment maintenance, and logistical support all suffered as the military budget was diverted just like the oil revenue. (Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, “The Iraqi Army was Crumbling Long Before Its Collapse, U.S. Officials Say,” NYT, 13 June 2014.)
ISIL probably can’t conquer Iraq or even hold its present gains. But when their tide ebbs, what will Iraqis do with their country?