The recent announcement that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will resign to pave the way for Haider al-Abadi to take over the premiership has led some U.S. policymakers and analysts to proclaim that this event marks the beginning of a process that will eventually lead to the defeat of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq. This supposed “great leap forward” seems to imply that it was merely Maliki’s stubbornness and opposition to inclusivity that was holding back Iraqi reconciliation and cooperation. While Maliki was certainly part of Iraq’s problem, he was representative of much larger trends, post-2003, which are still very much with us today and are unlikely to go away. What might eventually defeat ISIL is not a more inclusive Iraqi government (if that can ever be achieved) but a combination of more effective military forces moving against ISIL and more economic resources channeled to the Sunni tribes.
Maliki was compelled to resign because all of his traditional backers abandoned him: the United States, Iran, Ayatollah Al-Sistani, and a majority within his own Dawa party, not to mention key military units. The Obama administration was particularly adamant that Maliki needed to leave the political scene because of its belief that only a more inclusive Iraqi government can wage a successful military campaign against ISIL. The administration even held up the transfer of substantial military assistance (though some was delivered before Maliki’s announced resignation) as a lever. There are now great expectations that Abadi will be more reasonable, will reach out to the disaffected Sunnis, and will somehow create a more unified and inclusive government.
This analysis falls short on several levels. While Abadi, with his Ph.D. from Britain and his more urbane manners, will certainly interact better with the United States and other Western powers, he is from the same Dawa party as Maliki. This party was an underground and severely repressed Shia fundamentalist party during Saddam Hussein’s rule (membership in it was a capital offense) that returned to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Dawa has competed with other Shia fundamentalist parties for the allegiance of the Iraqi Shia population since that time and was the compromise party from which a prime minister was chosen. The party still believes that the Shia should remain in a dominant political position in Iraq. Indeed, neither Ayatollah al-Sistani, nor the Iranian leadership, would support Abadi being prime minister if he did not believe this as well.
While Abadi may be able to strike deals with certain Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the Sunnis as a whole still feel they got the short end of the stick after the 2003 invasion. They were Iraq’s privileged group since the time of the British mandate in the 1920s through the rule of Saddam Hussein even though they were numerically a minority. With the 2003 invasion, the numerically larger but long repressed Shia came out on top and have ruled ever since. The only way the Sunnis would be truly happy is if they returned to their once-dominant position, but the Shia politicians, religious figures, militia leaders, plus the Iranians, are not going to let that happen. Hence, it is not surprising that the Sunnis of western and central Iraq have, by and large, thrown their support behind ISIL even though they may not (and probably do not) adhere to ISIL’s rigid and doctrinaire ideology. ISIL, according to recent press reports, also understands these Sunni grievances and has allowed local Sunnis in areas that it now controls to run municipal affairs.
Meanwhile, the Kurds, buoyed by recent U.S. airstrikes against ISIL forces near Irbil, have regained their military composure. They are currently cooperating with the Baghdad government because of their common interests in opposing ISIL. But this does not mean that underlying Arab-Kurdish tensions have been swept aside. The Kurds have indicated that they are not going to give back Kirkuk, the mixed Kurdish-Arab city whose future was to have been decided by referendum in 2007, which they took in the aftermath of ISIL’s advance in northern Iraq in June. Nor are the Kurds going to give up their claim that oil resources in Kurdistan should be theirs alone. Abadi is unlikely to change Kurdish positions on these two main issues.
The key challenge is how to defeat ISIL in Iraq. Having the Shia make nice with Sunni politicians in Baghdad and hoping that the Sunnis in areas under ISIL control will eventually turn against ISIL will not be enough. There needs to be a sustained effort against ISIL forces, plus large promises and deliveries of oil revenues to the Sunni tribes—to turn things around. This will mean that the United States needs to step up the delivery of weapons to both the Baghdad government and the Kurdish pesh merga forces, more U.S. military advisors to retrain Iraqi military units to get them into effective fighting mode, and a decision by the Iraqi Shia to turn over a greater share of Iraq’s oil wealth to the Sunni tribes. Since these Sunnis do not trust the United States, it may make more sense for the Saudis to deliver this message. Perhaps when the military situation on the ground changes and ISIL starts to retreat, the Sunni tribes will then be more receptive to this approach. The Sunnis of western and central Iraq will not be able to change Shia domination of the government, which is here to stay, but perhaps with concrete promises of broad autonomy and more financial resources, they will move against ISIL, but this will only happen when military forces loyal to the Baghdad government and the Kurdish pesh merga, with U.S air support, go on the offensive against ISIL.
Gregory Aftandilian is a Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Center for National Policy