War Stories

The Iraqi Spiral

Iraq is descending into civil war—again. But this time only Iraqis are in a position to call a truce.

Residents stand amid rubble at blast scene in Tuz Khormatu town in northern Iraq May 21, 2013.
Residents stand amid rubble at a blast scene in Tuz Khormatu in northern Iraq on May 21, 2013. The main reason for the spurt of recent slaughtering is the same now as it was six years ago—a struggle for power.

Photo by Stringer Iraq/Reuters

Civil war is re-erupting in Iraq. Sectarian violence, mainly Sunnis killing Shiites, is soaring to levels not seen since the deadliest days of the American occupation. More than 1,000 civilians were killed in May, up from 700 in April. This falls well short of the era’s peak, at the end of 2006, just before the U.S. troop-surge, when monthly death tolls climbed three to four times as high. Yet the trend is unsettling, and its cause all too familiar.

The main reason for the spurt of slaughtering is the same now as it was six years ago—a struggle for power. Specifically, the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, refused to absorb, co-opt, or otherwise share power and resources with Sunni political factions. The resulting disaffection turned violent—then and now—when the more militant Sunnis formed alliances with al-Qaida jihadists.

Back in 2007, the violence subsided after clever American commanders (especially Gen. David Petraeus) found ways to drive a wedge between the millenarian jihadists and the merely alienated Sunni militants. The resulting switch in loyalties—a phenomenon called the Sunni Awakening—persuaded Maliki to make accommodating gestures to the pacified Sunnis: letting some of them join the Iraqi National Army and holding conferences on such contentious matters as the sharing of oil revenues and the settling of property disputes.

The violence has now revived, along with the Sunnis’ alliance with al-Qaida, because Maliki backpedaled on those pledges.

The Obama administration is trying to prod Maliki back on track. Vice President Joe Biden recently talked on the phone with the leaders of all three major factions (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish). Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Baghdad once and plans to return soon. Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq affairs (and a onetime ambassador-to-be), is there for an extended round of diplomacy.

Still, the United States has much less leverage than it once had. Back in 2007, during the early steps toward reconciliation, more than 100,000 American troops helped keep al-Qaida at bay and Maliki in line. This is no longer the case.

Some Republicans blame President Obama for the collapse of U.S. leverage and Iraqi order, claiming that all would be well, or at least better, if he hadn’t pulled out the troops. The criticism is both misplaced and academic. It was President George W. Bush who, in November 2008, signed the Status of Forces Agreement, which required the United States to withdraw all of its armed forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. (The accord gave the Iraqi parliament the right to suspend the terms and extend the Americans’ stay, but no one in parliament proposed doing so.) True, Obama wanted to pull out the troops, but his preferences were irrelevant. The fact is, the Iraqis (the government and the people) wanted us out as soon as possible, legally mandated the troops’ departure, and no American president—Bush, Obama, or John McCain, had he won—could have done otherwise.

One thing that U.S. officials are beginning to do is advise and assist the Iraqi army and police on shrewder tactics in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. The question is to what extent the Iraqi government wants their help—and to what extent it really wants to stop the violence.

A new, aggravating source of sectarian tension is the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has inflamed Sunni-Shia hatred across the region. Iraqi sheikhs of both suasions have rallied pilgrims to take up arms alongside their brethren—Shiites to aid Bashar al-Assad’s army, Sunnis to swell the ranks of the resistance.

Whatever its effect on the armed clash across the border, this proselytizing has radicalized the sects at home, hardening their identity as Shiites or Sunnis and softening their allegiance to the increasingly abstract concept of a unified Iraq.

This radicalization has also made it politically harder for the leaders of Shiite and Sunni political factions to make conciliatory gestures, even if they wanted to—and there are signs that some of them may want to, if just to stave off another civil war. Maliki recently endorsed a bill to repeal the de-Baathification laws, which have excluded former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from government jobs in the new Iraq—laws, enacted in the early days of the U.S. occupation that still rile many Sunnis who joined the party only because Saddam made them. But as Maliki no doubt knows, the Iraqi parliament is extremely unlikely to pass the bill.

More intriguing, on June 2, Iraq’s top political and religious leaders—including Maliki and his main Sunni rival, the speaker of the parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi—held a meeting, which had been promised but delayed for nearly two years, to discuss the country’s stability. News outlets—the few that noticed—treated it with skepticism. (The headline in Middle East Online read, “Maliki and Nujaifi succeed…in exchanging kisses.”) Some U.S. officials hope that the very fact that the meeting took place might augur some change, though they admit their expectations are low.

A year-and-a-half ago, when President Obama greeted the final group of troops to come home from Iraq, some dour observers with a history in the region noted that the Americans were done with the war in Iraq—but the Iraqis might not be. That turned out to be truer than they imagined.