The Army Alone Can’t Save Iraq

Published in The New York Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — THE Obama administration must help the Iraqi government retake the city of Mosul from Islamists and stem their march toward Baghdad. But military aid will not be enough. For lasting success, the United States must compel Iraq’s divisive leadership to pursue government by reconciliation just as vigorously as it pursues battlefield victory.

We have learned the hard way that military counterinsurgencies that do not address political grievances always fail. Unless the Shiite-led Iraqi government adopts radical reforms that address the complaints of Iraq’s Sunni minority, an influx of American weapons will only add fuel to the fire consuming the country.

On Tuesday, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to Islamist militants led by a breakaway group of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. That puts ISIS, a leading force in the Syrian civil war, dangerously close to its goal: establishing a militant Islamist ministate straddling the two most violent countries in the Middle East. The United States simply cannot allow this, and the Obama administration is indeed responding by pouring military aid into Iraq.

The scope of the militants’ victory shows how desperate the situation is. When ISIS fighters swept into Mosul, a largely Sunni city, they faced virtually no resistance; the armed forces in and around the city shed their uniforms and fled. An estimated 500,000 residents also fled. Having consolidated control over Mosul, the militants then continued south. They captured the Qaiyara air base, the restive towns of Hawija and Salman Beg, and then the city of Tikrit, more than halfway to Baghdad itself.

The blitz shocked Baghdad and Washington, but Iraqi militant groups had been gaining ground for months. They have held the town of Falluja for half a year, despite Iraqi Army bombardments. In April, they seized a nearby dam on the Euphrates River and flooded surrounding areas to thwart any counteroffensive.

Even so, the fall of Mosul is a game-changer. The city is a commercial, political and military hub. The extremists have seized American-supplied weaponry, including armored vehicles. Mosul is at the heart of Nineveh Province, which has a 300-mile border with Syria. Across it, militants already exchange arms, money and men with comrades fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. A pipeline from Kirkuk, Iraq, to Ceyhan in Turkey is nearby. A long ISIS occupation could be ruinous for Iraq.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has called on Parliament to declare a state of emergency, which would greatly expand his powers. They could include imposing a media blackout, restricting movements of citizens, enforcing curfews and devolving sweeping powers to the military. He has called on civilians to join the army and may try to boost the army’s resolve by incorporating violent Shiite groups in his plans.

But such a move would only make the military situation worse. Iraq’s Sunnis have long felt sidelined in the Shiite-majority state, and a sense of being attacked by Shiite militants could well lead to a huge surge in Sunni support for ISIS.

This crisis comes just two weeks after the results of a parliamentary election were announced, with a new government yet to be formed. Mr. Maliki’s coalition won more seats than any other group, but opposing parties have banded together, trying to oust him. Now the fall of Mosul may derail efforts to form a new government, leaving Mr. Maliki unlimited powers to silence political opponents.

The United States must use its assistance as leverage to prevent Mr. Maliki from becoming, in effect, a dictator. Many young Iraqis who join the Sunni militants already see the government as a sectarian oppressor. The Maliki government has targeted senior Sunni politicians, and failed to respond to Sunni demands for reform. Its exclusionary approach has helped enable extremism, and the United States must ensure that Mr. Maliki does not use the new outbreak of fighting to shore up his authority.

Moreover, the United States must compel the Iraqi Army to adopt a sensitive, population-centered approach to reversing the militants’ conquests. If the Iraqi Army sends Shiite militant groups or Kurdish forces to the heart of Sunni-dominated Mosul, or if it carpet-bombs the city and arbitrarily arrests or kills groups, it will alienate the hearts and minds essential to winning this battle.

ISIS is showing that it knows the importance of the Mosul population’s support. A contact of mine inside the city has quoted ISIS figures in the local mosque saying: “We are your brothers. There is nothing to be scared of. We are here to help you.” They encouraged residents to return to work, promised to protect them, and said they would to try to provide necessities like gasoline. Such efforts make it critical that the government’s military response is guided by a strategy to reclaim the confidence of Sunni Iraq.

The United States must also insist that Mr. Maliki’s forces shield the residents of Mosul during any counterattack, and that his government make concessions to Iraq’s Sunnis that he may deem unpalatable: radically easing the de-Baathification law, which Sunnis see as discriminatory; releasing Sunni prisoners held without charge; empowering Sunni politicians who have been sidelined; dropping charges against the popular Sunni leader Rafi al-Esawi; and moving toward letting Sunni regions become locally administered federal territories. However unpopular such reforms may be with non-Sunnis, the alternative is wave after wave of violence from a resentful and despondent Sunni constituency.

Even now, on the brink of a breakup of Iraq, the United States has an opportunity to stem the appalling growth of extremist militancy at the heart of the Arab world — but only if it remembers that wars of counterinsurgency must defuse political grievances.

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Nussaibah Younis discusses Iraq’s 2014 elections on Al Jazeera America

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Nussaibah Younis Interview BBC Radio Five Live

Nussaibah Younis talks about the political roots of the continuing violence in Iraq

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Nussaibah Younis Interview on BBC Global News

Nussaibah Younis interview on escalating violence in Iraq on BBC Global News, 30th May 2013

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Nussaibah Younis Interview on Newsnight

Interview on Newsnight on 28th March 2013 to discuss escalating violence in Iraq.

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From Power-Sharing to Majoritarianism: Iraq’s Transitioning Political System

See my new article on Iraq’s transitioning political system in Chatham House’s set of collected essays, published to mark 10 years since the invasion of Iraq.

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Why Maliki Must Go

Published by the New York Times.

NOBODY wants another civil war in Iraq, yet events are propelling it in that direction. War can be averted only by a new political understanding among three main groups — Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds — but Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has become too divisive to deliver it.

So the United States, together with Iraq’s neighbors, must press Mr. Maliki to resign so he can be replaced with a more conciliatory figure.

Last week, Iraq experienced the most serious escalation of violence since 2006, when it slid into civil war. Now it risks being sucked into a catastrophic vortex of regional violence centered on Syria.

America, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states have a rare, deeply shared interest in preventing another civil war that would benefit only militant extremists.

Iraq’s first civil war developed after decades of authoritarianism, warfare and devastating sanctions destroyed Iraqi society, and after the 2003 American invasion dismantled the Iraqi state without a plan for swift reconstruction. The power vacuum let sectarian tensions, latent in the long-brutalized population, explode. But by 2007 and 2008, Iraq was putting itself back together; the United States helped Sunnis battle extremists in their midst and supported Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, as he suppressed radical Shiite militias. Only by putting their trust in the political process, and turning against the extremists in their own communities, did Iraqis stem the violence.

But if Mr. Maliki, who took office in 2006, had a successful first term, he has squandered the opportunity to heal the nation in his second term, which began in 2010. He has taken a hard sectarian line on security and political challenges. He has resisted integrating Sunnis into the army. He has accused senior Sunni politicians of being terrorists, hounded them from power and lost the cooperation of the Sunni community. The result: the political bargain that had sustained the fragile Iraqi state broke down.

Today, resurgent terrorist groups have killed hundreds of moderate Sunnis who once fought them, and are offering others a grim chance to save their lives — by “repenting” and joining the extremists.

Meanwhile, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, remains in exile, having fled and then been given a death sentence in absentia on charges of terrorism. Similar moves to charge Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi, a moderate Sunni, led to the protests that have now engulfed Iraq’s Sunni heartland and alienated other communities. An army attack on a protest encampment last week brought only wider violence.

Relations between Mr. Maliki and Iraqi Kurds, who are largely self-governing, also rest on a knife’s edge after a year in which territorial disputes almost led to military confrontation. Even as the Kurds deployed security forces to the disputed region of Kirkuk, they negotiated for concessions from the Maliki government. This week, Kurdish sources reported the signing of a new deal, but after all the broken promises there is little reason to think it will last.

Given the two-year-old Syrian civil war escalating next door, a sectarian crisis and political collapse in Iraq would be a disaster at the worst possible time. It would blur the boundaries between the two conflicts, bring additional misery to Iraq and pose enormous challenges for Iraq’s neighbors and the United States.

That specter is so frightening, it just might be possible to stave off — if Iraq’s neighbors and the United States can recognize, and decisively act on, their shared interest in maintaining Iraq’s stability and territorial integrity. Iran and the United States, despite their deep divisions over the Syrian government and the Iranian nuclear program, can cooperate quietly, as they did in 2001 against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey could lend their strong voices; they, too, want good relations with a stable, prosperous Iraq, and have their hands full aiding Sunni rebels in Syria.

It is true that Iran supported militants in Iraq to frustrate the American occupation, but the withdrawal of American troops has changed such calculations. Now, in Iraq, Iran has a market for its goods and a friend to relieve its isolation. For its part, the United States is less concerned about Iran’s current role in Iraq than about the possible empowerment of extremist militants during a civil war.

If all of these countries could persuade Mr. Maliki to resign, it would give moderate Sunnis a symbolic victory and dampen extremist influence in their community. That, in turn, could show all Iraqis that change can be achieved through politics, rather than war.

Iraq’s parliamentary democracy could survive a resignation. It is normal for a prime minister to step down and be replaced by another figure elected by Parliament. There are other capable Shiite politicians who could recruit and lead a national-unity government.

A decade after Saddam Hussein’s fall, violence threatens to overwhelm Iraq. Getting Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to cooperate with the United States on a new political bargain there, with Mr. Maliki out of the picture, won’t be easy, but it’s essential to save Iraq.


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Nussaibah Younis Interview on Al Jazeera English

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Time to Get Tough on Iraq

Published by the New York Times

THE next president of the United States must fundamentally reassess America’s broken relationship with Iraq.

Under two American presidents now, the regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has operated in an atmosphere of immunity while the United States government focused on pacifying Iraq and finding its way to leave. Fearful of how criticisms of Iraq reflect on American policy, and now resolutely opposing any re-entanglement in Iraqi affairs, Washington’s approach has been simply to look the other way while Iraq runs roughshod over America’s strategic interests in the region.

The current clash of interests is over Syria. It is both right and in the interests of the United States that Bashar al-Assad’s brutal reign there comes to an end. And at the very least, the United States should be able to prevent its own allies from aiding the transfer of arms to the Assad regime.

An intelligence report cited by Reuters last month said that Iraq has been allowing Iran to funnel “personnel and tens of tons of weapons” through Iraqi airspace and into Syria “on almost a daily basis.” And according to The New York Times, buses carrying pilgrims to a Shiite shrine in Syria are reported to have also carried weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Assad regime.

Of course the Obama administration is beseeching Iraq to give up this practice, but the response should have been ferocious. There ought to have been an unequivocal condemnation of Iraq’s behavior and a demand for the Iraqis to desist immediately or to face the loss of their country’s friendship with the United States. That would include losing the $1.7 billion of American aid now destined for Iraq and an end to arms dealings with the United States.

By enabling the rearming of the Assad regime, the Maliki government is responsible for prolonging a conflict that has already exacted a devastating human toll, destabilized Lebanon and is threatening to draw in Turkey and Jordan.

Iraq could have helped more. The pressure Iran has sustained over its nuclear program is destabilizing its economy, and Iran cannot afford to alienate its next-door neighbor. So if Iraq had seriously objected to such uses of its airspace, it is difficult to imagine that Iran would not have complied. And although signs of rising Iranian influence in Iraqi politics were evident almost immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, pan-Shiite solidarity is not the only thought that animates the country. Iraqi nationalism is there too, often expressing itself in virulent anti-Iranian rhetoric. Mr. Maliki’s government may be happy to play the sectarian card when it suits him, but he is ultimately driven by a single-minded commitment to ensuring the survival of his own regime.

With that in mind, Mr. Maliki is not making an irrational choice in allowing assistance for the Assad regime next door. He is supporting an Iranian regime that brokered his own return to power, while also guarding against the possibility that the rise of a Sunni government in Syria could reignite the Iraqi civil war. So it is up to the United States to change Mr. Maliki’s calculations to bring them in line with American interests.

To do that, the next American president needs to increase the costs to Iraq of pursuing its current activities. He can, and should, threaten imminent financial sanction and public humiliation of the Maliki government.

Even apart from the Syrian crisis, the United States should be getting tough on the Maliki regime to prevent Iraq’s descent into authoritarianism. Although Prime Minister Maliki’s first term had its successes, including the “Charge of the Knights” attack against Shiite militias in Basra in 2008, Prime Minister Maliki has become increasingly consumed by his own dictatorial ambitions. And a number of his actions have heightened sectarian tensions in Iraq. He cut a deal with the extremist Shiite party led by Moktada al-Sadr. He reneged on a promise to meaningfully include the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya list in government. He presided over what’s being seen as a witch hunt against leading Sunni politicians, culminating in the sentencing to death in absentia of Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.

In addition, Mr. Maliki’s government is plagued by incompetence, corruption and a contempt for human rights; ordinary citizens are fast losing confidence in the power of the democratic system. Mr. Maliki has further undermined Iraq’s independent institutions, such as the electoral commission and the Iraqi central bank, by bringing them under his direct custodianship. And, most dangerously of all, he is concentrating power over Iraq’s entire security apparatus in his hands by refusing to appoint permanent ministers to lead the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the Interior and National Security Council.

Mr. Maliki is, in short, presiding over a disintegration of Iraq’s representative political system, and the United States is doing nothing about it. In 2011, in his speech marking the end of the Iraq War, President Obama promised to “help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable.” The United States only stands to gain by honoring that promise, and it has many options at its disposal that do not require an extensive re-entanglement in Iraqi affairs. The United States has the power to discredit the Maliki regime on the world stage. In addition to restricting aid, it could bolster its support for legitimate Iraqi opposition parties.

The next American president must start holding Prime Minister Maliki’s government to account for its appalling abuse of power inside Iraq and for its morally bankrupt role in enabling the rearming of Bashar al-Assad next door.

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Iraq is left in a sectarian rut after the elite’s horse trading

Published by the Guardian.

The war-ravaged country finally has a government, but what kind of precedent does it set for the future?

Iraq’s new power-sharing deal is certainly an improvement on the recent prospect of a Shia-Kurdish coalition that excluded Sunni and secular Iraqiya supporters.

Without wishing to read doom into every development, I find it difficult to see a bright future at the end of the road chosen by Iraq’s political elite. The intransigence and self-interest of Iraq’s politicians over the past eight months may have squandered the country’s last opportunity to build a truly democratic political system.

The Iraqi people voted for nationalism and against sectarianism in the 2010 elections – for Iraqiya and not for Sunni Islamists, for the Da’wah party and not for the ultra-Shia Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. But the electorate’s supposed representatives are rewarding them with a sectarian government par excellence.

In fact the new government promises to be very similar to the old government: the same Shia prime minister will govern alongside the same Kurdish president, with the simple addition of a new role for the Sunni representative – chair of the National Council for Strategic Policy.

Dividing up political roles like this sets a dangerous precedent. Politicians should come into office because of electoral success based on political programmes – and not simply because they claim to represent ethnic or religious groups.

If Iraqi politics is to continue in this way, we can all sit back and relax – waiting every five years for the elections that mean nothing, the backstage horse trading in which politicians nakedly vie for personal advantage, and finally the divvying up of power between groups in a way that promises to hamstring the new government before it has even begun.

The 2010 elections gave Iraq’s politicians a rare opportunity to take politics in another direction. Together, Allawi and Maliki gained overwhelming support because they spoke of Iraqi unity, reconciliation, and reconstruction. But when it came to forming a government, self-interest won. Neither could bear the thought of not being prime minister, and both were content to drag the process on and on – waiting to clinch a political advantage while ordinary Iraqis paid with their lives in the escalating violence.

The months of negotiation led Iraq’s parties to retreat into their sectarian identities, which is exactly what the electorate voted against. Iran’s involvement bolstered the position of the Shia parties, while the US desperately sought Sunni participation to stymie the recent resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq.

In a dangerous parallel with Lebanon’s “National Pact”, which led to two civil wars and continuing political volatility, Iraq’s developing political model spells trouble for the years ahead. It does not take constitutional amendments to institutionalise identity-based politics. The allocation of top jobs according to community in Iraq may set a precedent just like Lebanon’s unwritten Pact.

Governments based on communal power sharing can be extremely damaging for national reconciliation in a country like Iraq which is recovering from civil war. Political leaders discover that it pays to be in charge of a strong, well-defined religious or ethnic group. And communities realise that the political system will reward them the more they act like a unified interest group.

These arrangements also empower political elites at the expense of ordinary voters. Elites from each ethno-religious group can quickly gain a stranglehold over their communities, quelling dissent by pointing to the threat posed by the other Iraqi communities.

By undermining national unity, such a government also renders itself vulnerable to meddling from external powers. Iran and the US, for instance, are able to wield far greater leverage in Iraq when Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds are more concerned about protecting themselves from other Iraqis rather than protecting Iraq from foreign exploitation.

While we should be relieved that Allawi’s Iraqiya is being included in the new Iraqi government, the compromise that has been cobbled together should not be seen as a long-term political solution for Iraq.

Iraqis want a transparent and accountable government that wins power on the basis of its political policies and that can be held responsible for its actions come election time. After all, the Middle East does not need yet another government run by political elites who ignore their duty of public service and content themselves with sharing the spoils of power behind closed doors.

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