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Iraq: A military solution to a political problem?

The unconditional nature of foreign military aid has contributed to Maliki's rigidity in solving the conflict in Iraq.

Last updated: 06 Jul 2014 09:05
Sharif Nashashibi

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.
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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting with military commanders in Samarra, Iraq [AP]

The ongoing delay in forming a government that could alleviate the crisis in Iraq is largely due to foreign involvement - specifically, the considerable military help being given to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The necessity and urgency of halting or reversing the spread of the Islamic State group (formerly known as ISIL) is understandable. However, the unconditional nature of foreign military assistance has contributed to Maliki's rigidity in solving the conflict, even amid increasing dissent from his own Shia community, political coalition and government.

While the US is at odds with Russia, China and Iran over Syria, they are backing the same horse in Iraq. US Secretary of State John Kerry has promised Baghdad "intense and sustained" support. In this regard, US President Barack Obama has said he is considering "all options". There are several hundred US military personnel coordinating with the Iraqi army.

Iran has sent 2,000 advance troops to its neighbour, as well as the head of its elite Quds Force. Iranian troops have fought alongside the Iraqi army in Tikrit. Tehran is reportedly directing surveillance drones over the country, and supplying Iraqi forces with tonnes of military equipment and other supplies.

Russia has pledged "complete support" for the Iraqi government "to speedily liberate the territory of the republic from terrorists". Moscow added that it "will not remain passive to the attempts by some groups to spread terrorism in the region". Baghdad has bought more than a dozen Sukhoi warplanes from Russia, and has already received the first batch.

China has said it is "willing to give whatever help it is able to", adding that "for a long time, China has been giving Iraq a large amount of all sorts of aid".

Fundamental reforms

While there have been external and internal calls for fundamental reforms and a unity government - with or without Maliki - military backing is not being conditioned on the prime minister heeding such calls. The US is particularly guilty of this, being a vocal advocate of a more inclusive government, while being a pivotal backer of the current dysfunctional administration.

A consequence of this is Maliki's refusal to step down, compromise, or accept that he has exacerbated Sunni Arab alienation - the cause of the current conflict. He has rejected a national unity government, and said on July 4 that he will "never give up" on his bid for a third term in office.

Maliki has cracked down on opposition media, and described the Sunni revolt as a 'conspiracy' - a favourite excuse of Arab strongmen. He has vowed to teach militants a 'lesson', offered to arm civilians willing to fight them, asked the US to launch air strikes, and is being bolstered by Shia militias. Basically, Maliki is looking for a military solution to a political problem.

Maliki has cracked down on opposition media, and described the Sunni revolt as a "conspiracy" - a favourite excuse of Arab strongmen. He has vowed to teach the militants a "lesson", offered to arm civilians willing to fight them, asked the US to launch air strikes, and is being bolstered by Shia militias. Basically, Maliki is looking for a military solution to a political problem.

Without unconditional backing from his principal foreign allies, it is far more likely that he would heed internal calls for him to step aside. Such calls are not just coming from Iraq's Sunni Arab community.

The head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, has said a solution would require Maliki to step down, and for US support for Iraq to be contingent on that.

"There is no trust between Maliki and the Kurds," Barzani said, adding that the crisis is "the result of the wrong policy in Baghdad vis-a-vis Sunni areas. It's about the Sunni community feeling neglected".

Sunni Arabs and Kurds walked out of the first session of Iraq's new parliament on July 1 after Shia Muslims failed to name a prime minister. Dissenters within Maliki's own government include Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, who told CNN that Maliki has "isolated" Sunnis from decision-making and power-sharing.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric, has called for "a new effective government that has broad national support, avoiding past mistakes and opening new horizons towards a better future for all Iraqis". Although Sistani did not clarify whether he thought Maliki should have a role in such a government, his call was a blow to the prime minister.

Another powerful Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr - a former ally of Maliki - predicted in January 2013 that there would be an "Iraqi Spring", when he came out in support of Sunni demonstrations against the prime minister's discriminatory policies.

Critical period

In February, Sadr described Maliki as a "tyrant" and "dictator", accusing his "corrupt" government of "silencing, deporting and arresting" opponents, and of labelling any dissenters as "terrorists". In April, he accused the prime minister of wanting to "marginalise the Sunnis".

Even members of Maliki's own State of Law coalition concede that he may need to step down.

"Everything is on the table," a senior member told Reuters. If Sunnis and Kurds "insist they will only go forward if Maliki is not prime minister, we are ready to discuss it".

Another member confirmed that there was talk within the coalition of replacing him.

Next week could be critical to finding a possible solution to the crisis, as parliament is due to meet again to try to piece together a broadly inclusive and acceptable government. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia - which holds sway over Iraq's Sunni Arabs - has urged them to join a unity government.

Also, former Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, an outspoken Sunni opponent of Maliki, has said he will not nominate himself for another term to facilitate Shia political parties to find a replacement prime minister.

Given widespread Iraqi opposition to a Maliki role in the next government, and violence being fuelled by political uncertainty and discontent, now is the time for countries backing the Iraqi state to make clear that their continued support will depend on the prime minister putting the national interest above his own. If they do not, they are only prolonging a conflict they claim to want to end.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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