Sunday, August 17, 2014

The coming disintegration of Iraq

Inside the legacy of Nouri al-Maliki

Army Col. Joel Rayburn, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University, is a historian who served as an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. He is the author of “Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance.” The views he expresses here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense.

Nouri al-Maliki may have agreed to step down as prime minister of Iraq on Thursday, but the damage he has wrought will define his country for decades to come. The stunning collapse of the Iraqi state in its vast northern and western provinces may be Maliki’s most significant legacy. After nine decades as the capital of a unitary, centralized state, Baghdad no longer rules Kurdistan, nor Fallujah, nor Mosul, and might never rule them again.

To his likely successor, Haider al-Abadi, Maliki will bequeath an Iraqi state that has reverted to the authoritarian muscle memory it developed under Saddam Hussein. But it will be a state that effectively controls not much more than half the territory Hussein did. As Maliki and his loyalists succeeded in consolidating control of the government and pushing rivals out of power, they drove the constituencies of those they excluded — especially Sunni Arabs and Kurds — into political opposition or armed insurrection. Their drive for power alienated Iraqis across all communities from the central state whose wards and clients they had once been, leaving almost no provincial population trustful of the central government. Maliki has held sway in Baghdad, but whole swaths of Iraq have fallen out of his control: The tighter he grasped the state, the more the country slipped through his fingers.

The current crisis in Iraq goes far beyond the question of who will lead the next government in Baghdad. Iraqis have entered into a civil war whose logical conclusion is the breakup of the country. What we are witnessing in Iraq today is the beginning of a process that could become at least as destructive and bloody as the breakup of Yugoslavia. The longer it is allowed to unfold, the less likely it will be stopped, and the more likely it will spill over on a large scale to destabilize the surrounding region.

(More here.)

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