The beleaguered Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, is the latest in the long list of the West’s favorite political leaders turned into pariahs. The conventional wisdom now is that Maliki’s flaws and wrongheaded policies, especially his alienation of the Sunnis and dictatorial style of governance, are at the root of Iraq’s problems, including its latest troubles with extremist Islamic militants.
Clearly, Maliki has not been a successful prime minister. Yet have his very real and assumed flaws been the only, or even the main, cause of Iraq’s problems today? Could a different person have done a better job? Or have the real culprits been structural problems, Iraq’s long and more recent history, and the policies of regional and international actors? A further question: are the grievances of Iraq’s Sunnis solely attributable to the Shias’ desire to monopolize power? What about the Sunnis’ inability to come to terms with any type of government in which the Shias have a real rather than ceremonial function?
These questions are by no means posed to minimize or underestimate the impact of the current leadership’s mismanagement and mistakes, or the corrosive influence of dissension within Shia ranks among the supporters of Maliki, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Council of Iraq. But if viewed impartially, the weight of evidence shows that other factors have played more substantial roles in causing Iraq’s previous problems and the latest crisis than Maliki’s incompetence and dictatorial tendencies.
The most significant factor behind Iraq’s problems has been the inability of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and its Sunni neighbors to come to terms with a government in which the Shias, by virtue of their considerable majority in Iraq’s population, hold the leading role. This inability was displayed early on, when Iraq’s Sunnis refused to take part in Iraq’s first parliamentary elections, and resorted to insurgency almost immediately after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein. All along, the goal of Iraqi Sunnis has been to prove that the Shias are not capable of governing Iraq. Indeed, Iraq’s Sunni deputy prime minister, Osama al Najafi, recently verbalized this view. The Sunnis see political leadership and governance to be their birthright and resent the Shia interlopers.
The Sunnis’ psychological difficulty in accepting a mostly Shia government is understandable. After ruling the country for centuries, both under the Ottomans and after independence, and after oppressing the Shias and viewing them as heretics and dregs of society, the Sunnis find Shia rule to sit heavily on them. It is thus difficult to imagine what any Shia prime minister could have done — or could now do — to satisfy the Sunnis. For example, during the early years after Saddam’s fall, once they had realized their mistake of abstaining from politics, the Sunnis made unreasonable demands as the price of cooperation, such as taking the defense portfolio. Yet considering what the Shias had suffered under Saddam, there was no possibility that they could agree.
Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have not been alone in undermining the authority of the country’s Shia leadership. Masood Barzani, who dreams of an independent Kurdistan, has also done what he can to undermine the authority of the government in Baghdad, by essentially running his own economic, oil, and foreign policies. A factor in Barzani’s attitude has been his anti-Iran sentiments, which go back to the troubles that his father, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, had with the Shah.
Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but also Qatar, also cannot countenance a Shia government in Baghdad. In addition to the anti-Shia impact of the Wahhabi creed that is dominant in Saudi Arabia and among the Qatari leadership, this Sunni animosity has derived from the perception that a Shia government in Iraq would change the balance of regional power in Iran’s favor. Yet Maliki is the least pro-Iranian of Iraq’s Shia leaders, with the possible exception of the now-notorious Ahmed Chalabi. During Saddam’s time, Maliki belonged to the Dawa party, a rival of Iraq’s Islamic Revolutionary Council that was supported by Iran, and he spent more time in Syria than in Iran. This is one reason why the US preferred Maliki to personalities like Ibrahim Jafari.
Moreover, Maliki tried to reach out to Turkey and to other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. But Turkey snubbed him and supported his rival, Tariq al-Hashimi. The Arab states have also shunned him. Under these circumstances, Maliki had no choice but to move closer to Iran. Yet the idea that he has thus become an Iranian pawn is a myth with no foundation in reality. Even now, Iraq has not reestablished the Algiers Agreement of 1975 that regularized Iraqi-Iranian border disputes, an agreement which, before attacking Kuwait in 1990, Saddam had accepted. Iraq has not signed a peace treaty with Iran and competes with it in courting clients for oil exports. Iraq also has more extensive trade relations with Turkey than with Iran.
In short, by exaggerating the sectarian factor, Iraq’s Sunni neighbors have exacerbated Shia fears and made it more difficult for them to pursue a more inclusive policy vis-à-vis the Sunnis. Further, most killings in Iraq have been in Shia areas, undertaken by Sunni extremists of various kinds who are funded by Sunni governments in the region. The plight of the Shias has also not been limited to Iraq. Similar mistreatment in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan has gone unnoticed by the West, while the exclusion of Iraq’s Sunnis from leadership posts in Baghdad has been blown out of proportion. Western and especially US dislike of Iran has been a major cause for the disregarding of mass killings and assassination of Shias.
America’s conflicting policy objectives in the region have also led it to pursue policies in Iraq that have contributed to current US dilemmas. The most glaring example was the US courting of Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders, both of which were thus emboldened to commit acts such as attacking the Shia shrines in Samara in 2006 and frightening the Shias that America would again betray them as it did at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Wanting to isolate Iran and perhaps to bring about regime change there, the US has also done virtually nothing to reign in the Saudis and others, including Turkey and Qatar, to prevent them from funding Sunni insurgents. Instead, Washington has blamed Iraqi unrest solely on Iranian meddling. Even today, there is no acknowledgement by the United States that the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) cannot achieve what it has been doing without outside help.
At an even more fundamental level, America’s efforts to achieve too many contradictory and incompatible goals have been at the root of Iraq’s crisis. To date, it has proved to be difficult — indeed impossible — to eliminate Saddam but produce a stable Iraq; to isolate Iran and possibly change its regime; to get rid of Assad in Syria without exacerbating its civil war; to forge a Sunni-Israeli alliance against Shia Iran; and to convince other Shias throughout the region to continue playing second fiddle to the Sunnis.
To summarize, Nouri al-Maliki is certainly flawed and has made many mistakes. But the real culprits have been Iraq’s considerable fault lines, contradictory policies pursued by the West, and the predatory approach of Iraq’s neighbors. Thus even if Maliki is removed from office, Iraq’s situation will not improve unless these fault lines are dealt with and the policies pursued by outside states in Iraq are remedied. Rather, the situation will get much worse because the Shias are most unlikely to once again accept living under a regime that can be characterized as “Saddamism without Saddam” or, worse, what they would consider a Salafi-Takfiri government that considers them heathens deserving death.
Shireen T. Hunter is a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.