Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s self-portrayal as the only viable barrier against a resurgent al-Qaeda has won support from the U.S. and Iran. Critics say he can’t solve the problem because he’s part of it.
Maliki has urged residents of Fallujah in Anbar province on to join government forces massing outside the city, held by al-Qaeda and allied forces for about two weeks. The 63-year-old premier is receiving air-to-ground missiles and other equipment from the U.S., and has received offers of military aid from Iran, America’s main Middle Eastern foe.
Domestic opponents and analysts at Human Rights Watch and the London-based Royal United Services Institute say policies implemented by the Shiite-dominated government have enabled al-Qaeda’s revival among Iraq’s Sunni minority. With an election scheduled for April in the oil-rich nation, sectarian division is only likely to increase, they say.
Maliki’s opponents “don’t trust him, he has failed to keep promises and the whole sectarian conflict is of his making,” Gareth Stansfield, RUSI’s Middle East director, said in a telephone interview. Still, “Maliki is the least-worst scenario for the U.S., given the lack of other options.”
Maliki will seek to extend his eight years in office on April 30, battling for votes in a fractured political scene that includes 142 political groups representing Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
While Maliki leads the biggest Shiite political group, the Daawa party, there are rival groups from the same community, notably the Sadrist Movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq of Ammar al-Hakim. Both Hakim and the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have been critical of Maliki for excluding other political groups from power.
The Shiite premier must retake Fallujah to underline “to much of his key constituency that he is capable of taking the fight to those who have inflicted a massive amount of death and destruction over the last 12 months,” Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said in an e-mail.
Shiites constitute at least 60 percent of Iraq’s population, with Sunnis making up about 32 percent, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Sunni leaders accuse the premier of engineering the Anbar fighting to improve his electoral prospects by rallying the Shiite majority.
Speaking in a Jan. 5 interview, Dhafir al-Ani, a Sunni member of parliament who was among the 44 who resigned from the legislature last month, said Maliki’s military campaign seeks to “create this chaos and weaken the Sunni leaders to portray them as unable to protect their voters’ interests.”
Suspicions are also being aired by key U.S. figures, including the Senate armed forces committee chairman, Carl Levin, who said on Jan. 9 that Maliki’s government must provide assurances that U.S. weapons “will be used to target Iraq’s real enemies, and not to further sectarian political objectives.” U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011.
Maliki’s last election victory four years ago coincided with a sharp rise in al-Qaeda strength, analysts say. From around 200 “hard core” fighters at the start of the period, according to U.S. military estimates cited by the Brookings Institution in 2010, it had become “the most violent, lethal and divisive force in Iraq” by the end of 2013, Anthony H. Cordesman and Sam Khazai wrote in a Jan. 6 report for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Groups shut out of the political process have stepped up violence against the government and its Shiite power base, often striking indiscriminately in order to diminish public confidence and destabilize” Maliki’s government, the CSIS report said. The country faces civil war, they wrote.
While the U.S. armed forces won’t return to Iraq, according to Secretary of State John Kerry on Jan. 5, “we’re going to do everything that is possible to help them.” The U.S. pledged military aid last month. Iran is also ready to provide advice or equipment, according to a Jan. 6 Fars news agency report citing Iranian General Mohammad Hejazi, deputy chief of staff.
“There’s little evidence that Iraq’s failure to improve security in the country stems from a lack of weapons, but rather from its short-sighted approach to corruption and sectarian politics, and a counter-terrorism strategy that targets Sunni Iraqis,” Erin Evers of New York-based Human Rights Watch wrote last month.
Violence has plagued the nation since the toppling of President Saddam Hussein in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Sectarian attacks in 2013 were the worst in five years, with 7,818 people killed, according to the United Nations. As al-Qaeda-linked militants urged residents in Fallujah to join the armed fight against Maliki’s troops, a bomb exploded in an outdoor market in Baghdad’s eastern suburb of Nahrawan today, killing three civilians, according to the Associated Press.
Maliki’s government is meanwhile seeking to rebuild the energy industry, which generates 95 percent of its revenue while employing only 1 percent of the working population, according to the International Monetary Fund. While Iraq owns the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves, the benefits have failed to reach the whole population. According to the IMF, unemployment is probably considerably higher than the official 11 percent rate and about 23 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Even as rising oil exports have driven an improving economy, the IMF cut its forecast for Iraq’s growth rate last year to 3.7 percent from an initial estimate of 9 percent.
That’s not surprising “given the escalation of violence, some issues with oil exports and political conflicts that have been scaring off investments,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, which advises clients on risk in the Middle East, said in a Jan. 15 interview from Abu Dhabi.
Total crude output increased to 3.4 million barrels a day at the end of 2013 according to the Oil Ministry from 1.9 million barrels a day when he took office in 2006.
Maliki says that for now Iraq faces an immediate threat, as terrorist groups attempt to destabilize the country.
“We have been very patient, but our patience has led to the expansion of these killers,” Maliki said in a speech on Jan. 4 that was posted on his website as military action in Anbar province got under way.