Anyone listening to Iraq these days would hear the beating of war drums. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki appears to be preparing for a military assault against opposition groups in Anbar province, with the besieged city of Fallujah as the principal target.
It may be too late to debate the wisdom of such a move or to offer advice on resolving the crisis.
However, the best advice to Maliki would be to take a deep breath and reconsider his strategy.
In military terms, Maliki may seem to have the upper hand. The new Iraqi military that he controls consists of almost a million men, including the regular armed forces and security and police outfits. Maliki also has some allies among the Arab Sunni tribes in Anbar, including part of the as-Sahwah coalition that helped defeat an older insurgency almost a decade ago.
Maliki’s jingoistic stance also enjoys support among several Shi’ite groups that have been distancing themselves from his bloc. That bellwether of Iraqi politics, Moqtada Al-Sadr, is softening his tone against Maliki in the name of Shi’ite solidarity. Even the more sober Ammar Al-Hakim is injecting nuances into his critical stance on Maliki’s performance.
Maliki, who appears keen to seek a third term as prime minister in the forthcoming general election, would need both men if he were to realize that dream.
Maliki has also secured an impressive degree of foreign support.
The Iranian mullahs, who never liked him because they thought he was Washington’s man, are now rallying behind him as the only Iraqi Shi’ite political figure capable of holding the community together in the coming battles.
For its part, the administration of US President Barack Obama is putting its chips on Maliki, supplying him with sophisticated missile-launching drones. Some circles in Washington and Tehran are propagating the idea that the US and the Islamic Republic have a shared interest in crushing Sunni groups in Iraq and maintaining a weakened President Bashar Al-Assad in power in Syria as a puppet they could jointly manipulate.
More importantly, perhaps, Maliki has at least two arguments working in his favor.
The first is that no armed group should be allowed to terrorize the people, let alone overthrow an elected government through insurgency. And, yet, this is exactly what rebels in Fallujah and Ramadi appear to be aiming for.
The second argument is that the insurgents in Anbar belong to the same nebulous group of jihadists who have been trying to plunge Iraq into sectarian war since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
However, all the elements in Maliki’s strategy, including arguments in his favor, could quickly develop into their very opposite.
To start with, if Maliki succeeds in crushing the insurgency by force and arranging a victory for himself in the next election, he would jeopardize Iraq’s only major gain from the fall of Saddam. The gain in question is that Iraqis could, as they have already done on three occasions, change their government through election rather than military coup, civil war, or terrorism. By invading Fallujah, Maliki would risk losing democratic legitimacy and, if he won, would become yet another Third World dictator holding on to power by massacring his opponents. A ruler who owes his legitimacy to the sword faces the risk of falling by the sword.
A strategy based on crushing the Sunnis by force is sure to shake the ethnic Kurds, who make up at least a fifth of Iraq’s population. They might wonder whether a government that was ready to fight political battles with tanks and missile-firing drones would turn against them next.
If Maliki burns his bridges with the Sunni community he would re-emerge as a mainly sectarian figure, a divisive element at a time Iraq needs unity. That, in turn, would make him hostage to Sadr and Hakim, ambitious men with a clerical pedigree that outshines Maliki’s. Even then, it is not certain that the Sadr–Hakim tandem would be able to ensure full Shi’ite legitimization for Maliki. Together, the political groups the three men control account for around 40 percent of the electorate, not enough to form a government within the current constitutional framework.
More importantly, perhaps, none of the trio could claim to speak for Iraqi Shi’ites without at least tacit approval from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. That, however, is unlikely to come as long as Maliki plays sectarian games in the name of anti-sectarianism. Sistani is resolutely opposed to the sectarianization not only of Iraq politics, but also of the broader political picture of the region. Maliki’s current strategy could split the Shi’ite community and alienate the Najafi clerical leadership.
Winning with support from Iran and the US would also weaken Maliki’s position. He would be cast in the role of a marionette fielded by foreign powers with their own agendas in Iraq.
That, in turn, could alienate those who believe in “Iraqiness” (Iruqa), including many in the Shi’ite community.
An even greater danger is that the use of the military to achieve political power could revive the evil tradition under which Arab armies are enlisted as arbiters of power struggles and end up grabbing power for themselves. If that happened, Iraqis might wonder what was the point of a decade of suffering in the wake of Saddam’s demise.
The irony is that Maliki is acting against his experience, maybe even his character. I had a positive opinion of Maliki because of his ability to offer a mixture of firmness and flexibility. He should use that ability in dealing with various Shi’ite armed groups in the largely Shi’ite provinces, notably by taming Jaysh Al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) while giving the Sadrists a share of power. He has also resisted the temptation to pick a fight with Kurds over Kirkuk, despite immense pressure from Sunni revanchist circles.
Maliki should remember that he is still a prime minister who enjoys a measure of democratic legitimacy. By using force to “re-conquer” Fallujah, he would be behaving like Assad—not to mention Saddam.
Maliki deserved the benefit of the doubt if only because he appeared determined to help bury the political culture that bred Saddam. Now, as he is dispatching troops to invade Fallujah, he may be in danger of reverting to that diabolical culture.