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'Disaster in Iraq was not inevitable’

A full-blown civil war is brewing in Iraq after the radical Islamist insurgent group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of cities in northern Iraq, with intentions of taking over the entire country. Most recently, ISIS fighters moved into Baghdad while claiming to have massacred 1,700 Shiite army recruits in cold blood. As fighting continues, the U.S. has deployed 275 troops to protect U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. 

“The current disaster in Iraq was not inevitable,” said Frank R. Gunter, a professor of economics at Lehigh University. Gunter, a retired Colonel of Marines and senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, spent two years in Iraq as an economic advisor and authored the book, “The Political Economy of Iraq: Restoring Balance in a Post-Conflict Society.” (Edward Elgar, 2013). When he left Iraq in 2008, the level of violence was the lowest since the U.S.-led invasion six years before.

Gunter cited three decisions made by Iraq Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and U.S. President Barack Obama that lit the fuse for the current conflagration:

Strike one
After the destruction of the Golden Mosque in early 2006, Iraq appeared to be sliding into a catastrophic civil war with al Qaeda taking over much of Anbar Province. But al Qaeda was eventually defeated by a combination of the U.S. military surge supported by the ‘Sunni Awakening.’ During negotiations with the U.S. military and Maliki, it was agreed that the tribes would fight al Qaeda and, in return, the Iraqi government would ensure that the tribal fighters – the mostly Sunni “Sons of Iraq” – received jobs in either the Iraqi Army or National Police. But after al Qaeda was on the run, the Iraqi government broke the agreement. Only a fraction of the Sons of Iraq ever received the promised employment in the security services. As a result, it should be no surprise that Maliki’s attempts over the last year to reach out to the Sunni community for military support have fallen on deaf ears.

Strike two
In the 2010 national elections, the Iraqiyya Party led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won the most seats. Although Allawi is Shi’a, the Iraqiyya Party was non-sectarian and received most of the votes of the Sunni community. Maliki outmaneuvered Allawi to not only continue as Prime Minister but also to ensure that Allawi’s supporters gained little from their electoral victory. The three most important Ministries – Defense, Interior (Police) and Oil – remained under Maliki’s direct control. And the Chairmanship of the Military Commission that was presented as a substantial concession to Allawi’s Iraqiyya supporters turned out to be powerless. The lesson to the Sunni community was clear, democracy under Maliki was a fraud. The Iraqiyya Party splintered; religious and ethnic parties dominated the 2014 elections.

Strike three
Obama’s decision to abandon Iraq. Negotiations on the size of a residual force bogged down although according to news reports, the U.S. and Iraq were fairly close. The U.S. was seeking about 10,000 U.S. military personnel to remain in Iraq primarily to train and support the Iraqi military while Maliki would accept about 5,000 but only if the U.S. insisted. Vice President Joe Biden took over the negotiations and the results were the complete departure of all U.S. military personnel. Without the U.S. military presence, the Iraqi security forces lost much of their capability to successfully fight the insurgency. And the inability of the U.S. and its allies to prevent either jihadist fighters from the Syrian civil war or the Iranian government from using Iraqi territory for their own purposes has greatly complicated maintaining security.

In their decisions since 2008, Maliki and Obama have something in common. Both have focused more on pleasing their political supporters than on making the hard decisions necessary if Iraq is to have a secure, prosperous, democratic future.
Sally Gilotti
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