On June 10, Sunni rebel forces overran the city of Mosul, Iraq seizing enormous amounts of territory, weapons, prisoners, and money. Fighting then erupted in Tikrit—birthplace of the late president Saddam Hussein—and chaos quickly crept in through the widening cracks, as the government crumbled and Sunni rebels, Kurds, and local clans all seem to have grabbed what they could of northern Iraq’s abandoned real estate.
The Shia-dominated central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is reeling from the shock but hardly broken as a fighting force. It will now try to turn the tide. Reclaiming Mosul is a must: leaving Iraq’s second-largest city in rebel hands could fatally undermine Maliki’s already weak legitimacy as a national leader and head of Iraq’s central government. But even if the army were to blast its way back into the north and recapture all or most of the rebel-held cities, the Mosul debacle has already dealt a tremendous blow not only to Maliki but to the Iraqi state as such.
International reporting has focused on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known by its acronym ISIS), an al-Qaeda splinter faction that operates both in Syria and in Iraq. It is a powerful group that has played a leading role in these events, but it is hardly a mass movement. The Brookings Institution analyst Charles Lister has noted that while ISIS can’t hope to seize and hold several major cities at once, it seems to have acted as “a catalyst force capable of taking individual targets separately,” thereby clearing the way for a wider and as of yet disorganized Sunni rebellion.
Rather than simply being an ISIS project then, Iraq’s rebellion is rooted in the alienation of Sunni Muslims in general and certain regions and tribes in particular from the Maliki-led government. The Fallujah-born grand mufti of Iraq, Rafie al-Rifai, calls the past few days “a revolution of the Sunni tribes,” and there are clearly many groups involved apart from ISIS, including tribal factions, other Islamist groups, and revanchist Baathists.
Sunni discontent against the Iraqi central government has been brewing for a long time and ISIS’s armed campaign is nothing new. Mosul’s fall cannot be explained simply by looking at the rebel side. The answer is more likely found on the other side of the equation, since the seminal change on June 10 was less a sudden surge in ISIS’s power than the sudden collapse of a large portion of the Iraqi army.
Trained, funded, and armed by the United States—which has spent more than 20 billion USD on Iraq’s security sector—the army had all the manpower and equipment that it should have needed to keep the mounting Sunni militancy at bay in Mosul. Yet, on Tuesday, two divisions of the Iraqi army simply crumbled and fled as thousands “dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses.” Soldiers who deserted Mosul tell of a demoralized, dysfunctional, and hollowed-out army—much like the Iraqi state itself.
The Iraqi central government is weak, corrupt, and visibly under the sway of Shia factions. Under these circumstances, support from the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities could only be weak, and as sectarian polarization climbs and government power slips, that support will fade further.
The disinvestment of non-Shia forces from the central state seems to have had a direct impact on the army’s staying power. The Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan notes that Maliki’s Shia-sectarian power-hoarding has “led Sunnis, even while they dislike ISIL, to feel they have no stake in fighting ISIL or resisting its presence because the government is just as bad,” while there is also a “growing sense among Shiites that they have no stake in fighting in Sunni areas” like Mosul and Tikrit.
Indeed, many Sunni Muslims in Mosul seem to have greeted the expulsion of Baghdad’s army with relief, though that doesn’t necessarily translate into support for ISIS or any other rebel faction. And the Kurds, who are equally distant from Iraq’s central government, have already exploited the unrest to realize a decades-old dream of reclaiming the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
All this is not to say that Iraqi central governance is an illusion or that it would be impossible to firmly reestablish it. While lacking in both legitimacy and authority, the Iraqi central state is still a powerful apparatus, with an army and a bureaucracy, vast resources at its disposal, and powerful allies abroad, including both Iran and the United States. Unless the Iraqi army somehow unravels entirely, rebel advances are unlikely to reach far beyond Sunni-populated areas. The media hysteria about ISIS seizing Baghdad, a heavily militarized Shia-majority city with millions of inhabitants, seems rather delusional.
Once he regains his footing, Maliki will certainly push north again and seek to dislodge the rebels from, above all, Mosul. If he cannot, then his regime will indeed be in danger—though not of being destroyed or of losing the capital, but of simply ceasing to be a national government in any meaningful sense of the word.
The question is therefore not if but how Maliki will try to move north. Will he respond to the threat like the leader of a national government must, by seeking to pacify rebel areas by a judicious mixture of pressure and concessions, or as a Shia warlord, who plays to his own sectarian base and treats the Sunni uprising as a “war on terror?”
His history as prime minister inspires little confidence that Maliki will make the right choice and, in fact, the situation he now finds himself in provides him with little incentive to do so. Lacking Sunni allies of any stature and with the army having failed him once already, Maliki may instead reflexively lean on Iran and Shia Islamist militias to counter the rebel threat. But that is not a recipe for reunifying Iraq—it would be the prelude to a complete sectarian breakdown.
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