Few developments are as central to understanding the modern political landscape of Iraq as the rise of the so-called caliphate known as the Islamic State. Originally an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) developed from an organization known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), but informally broke off their affiliation in 2006 after Al-Qaeda became uneasy with the group’s violent supressive tactics. It was after this break, one punctuated by the killing of their leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by a United States airstrike in June 2006, that they changed their name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
While they were temporarily beaten back between 2008 and 2011, this weakened state was to be short lived. Ian Fisher, in a 2015 New York Times retrospective on their ascent to power, quoted Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan as saying, “It had maybe 700 or so adherents left…and then it grew quite a bit.” The factors leading to the prominence of this organization are many and varied, but a few stand out as particularly notable. The rise of the Islamic State would not have been possible without the Iraqi peoples’ historical and continuing reliance on patronage as well as the public sector for wealth building, exacerbated by the overrepresentation of Sunni Arabs in the Ba’thist civil service sector and the policy of de-ba’thification instituted by the newly elected democratic governments of Iraq, political maneuverings against prominent Sunni politicians and political aspirations, and Saddam Hussein’s anti-kurdish campaigns and subsequent attempts to “arabize” Northern Iraq.
Together with the Syrian Civil war only a border away, and the untimely withdrawal of United States military personnel that happened to coincide with the Arab Spring, these factors ensured that a sectarian group without the means to provide for themselves in an Iraqi Political apparatus dominated by Shi’i and Kurdish interests would be ripe for manipulation and integration by Islamic State. The path forward to rebuilding Iraq lies in containing Iran’s influence on domestic politics through disbanding some of the militias since used to defeat IS, utilizing the United States’ historical responsibility to create housing and private sector jobs for all Iraqis, but particularly the Sunni Arabs and refugees, and reducing the size of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet while rooting out corruption. The system of political patronage as a means of advancement, as a more palatable nomenclature for nepotism and corruption, can be found in numerous societies, but it was particularly strong in Iraq. Iraq inherited this practice as a system of advancement from the Ottomans who had ruled over their territory until the British claimed it following the first World War. With a sizable majority of its GDP coming from revenues generated by the oil industry, but only a small amount of actual jobs from that field, strong men such as Saddam Hussein had to redistribute wealth to Ba’thist loyalists in order to enjoy their continued support. He found willing partners in the Sunni Arab population and a system to utilize in this task through patronage. The CIA’s Economic Data Team, not with pinpoint accuracy since Hussein kept economic information under lock and key, estimated that before 2003 approximately forty percent of the Iraqi labor force was employed in the public sector. Today, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that ninety-nine percent of government revenue comes from the oil industry, and the same percentage of the Iraqi workforce, forty percent, work in the public sector.
Since the government is now democratic, and because forty percent of the available work depends on having a tie to the government or civil service, the political representation of particular groups becomes, quite literally, a matter of survival. As Dr. Adeel Malik (Globe Fellow, Islamic Centre Lecturer in the Economies of Muslim Societies) pointed out in a lecture he gave at the Oxford University Middle East Centre in February 2016, it is no surprise that the very regions that would comprise the bulk of the Islamic State’s territory are also the regions most dependent on the “informal economy.
” If it were simply a matter of knowing the right people, then Sunni Arabs might not have found themselves in such dire straits. However, as the Sunni population had made up an outsized percentage of the Hussein civil service, and were thus connected to, if not members of, the Ba’thist party, the now governing Shi’i population was not inclined to reward their years of faithfulness to the “Butcher of Baghdad.” De-Ba’thification, a legal process instituted by all governing coalitions since Iraq’s first free elections in 2005, barred former Ba’thist party members from holding government positions. Eventually, Prime Minister Maliki instituted a reform of this process called the Accountability and Justice Law. Passing in January of 2008, it allowed for the lowest-ranking Ba’thists to return to their former positions and restored pensions to the next rank up. Simultaneously, however, the law required the removal of all former members of the Ba’th-era intelligence and security agencies regardless of their party status. This move effectively placated the demands of many Sunni Arab politicians while actually weakening their position.
Those former Ba’thist Security and Intelligence operatives would find a new home in the coming years: IS. Former Ba’thist military officers and members of the Hussein movement made up large swaths of IS leadership. Prior to IS declaring itself a caliphate though, back when it was still AQI, many disparate Sunni Arab tribes managed to find a new source of patronage by taking up arms against it. In a process known as Sahwa, or the Awakening movement, many “victory councils” formed coalitions of militias to fight back insurgents. These began in the Anbar province, historically the deadliest for United States troops (Gasiorowski/Yom, 247), but soon the model was taken up elsewhere. In return, the United States government supplied and paid select Sunni tribesman as well as allowed for a degree of autonomy in the governance of their regions. Prime Minister Maliki was content to allow the United States to foot the bill for this, but this proved to be a fatal error. Although the few years after this new patronage was established were among the least violent in modern Iraqi history, full American withdrawal from the country was of political importance both to Maliki and United States President Barack Obama.
Therefore, in 2011, just as the Arab Spring was beginning around the region and the destabilization of next-door neighbor Syria had begun, the United States pulled its troops from Iraq – and its financial support for the popular Sunni militias along with it. Desperate for a solution, many of the sahwa leaders attempted to form a Sunni political network to rival the largest such party, Tawafuq, but tribal balkanization and a history of political isolation prevented this from occurring. So it was, in a moment of fevered political activity and upheaval across the region, and before AQI had entirely been defeated, that Sunni Arabs once again found themselves on the outside looking in. The Arab Spring brought with it the art of protest politics to the Iraqi political landscape. In every region, demonstrations demanded an end to corruption and for stability of basic services (Haas/Lesch, 149). This specific raison d’etre is highly significant. Unlike in other countries such as Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the protests in Iraq largely did not desire an entirely new government. From this, it is clear that some comfort with the governing mechanics of the “new” Iraq had developed.
Yet although Iraq was, at least somewhat, pluralistic and democratic, the informal system of patronage meant that average Iraqis were dependent upon two power structures for sustenance. One, the political, was volatile in regards to the composition of parties, but not so much in the major players at the heads of them. The other, more sectarian and/or ethnic, was an organic effect of living in a highly polarized and decentralized society. As the years went by and the protests continued, especially in the Anbar provinces and other Sunni-majority governorates in the north, Maliki continued to attempt to reign in what he viewed as the potential foundation for new Sunni paramilitary groups. These groups would be difficult to control, even for a skilled political strategist such as Maliki, and what’s more there would be little profit in doing so for the Prime Minister. Normalizing these protests, which he accurately held as the perfect recruiting ground for insurgents, would only anger his Shi’i allies. Instead, in 2011, Maliki put out an arrest warrant for one time Iraqi Vice President, and Arab Sunni, Tariq al-Hashimi. He then followed that in 2012 with a government order to arrest the bodyguards of another prominent Sunni politician, Rafi al-Issawi.
Ever since the Sunni population had been given only a token, and mostly ceremonial, role in the writing of the Iraqi Constitution, the group had felt that it was taken advantage of. To be denied access to the network of patronage was a death sentence in the job market, and to add insult to injury, the Shi’i led governing coalition of Maliki actively avoided opportunities to integrate new developments, like the Sahwa movement responsible for fending off AQI. To threaten prominent Sunni politicians, themselves no favorites of the protestors but necessary for the patronage they would bring if included, was a bridge too far. Maliki even labelled the two as having links to “terrorist groups,” borrowing western terminology for the insurgent groups that was a calculated insult. In this isolation, as the Arab Spring evolved into the Syrian Civil War, these provinces that were once heavily ba’thist were easily infiltrated by what was now, officially, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The economic and political isolation, exacerbating issues inherent to a cradle-to-grave patronage state, destabilized a region already burdened by thousands of refugees and with great animosity towards the Central Government. A final contributor to the rise of IS in Iraq, especially as it relates to Sunni Arab parties such as Mutahidoon, comes from an unlikely source: Saddam Hussein’s anti-kurdish campaigns and attempted “arabization” of northern Iraqi provinces. Since the first half of the twentieth century, heightened after the anfal, the Kurdish name for Hussein’s attempted genocide against his own citizens, the State of Iraq has engaged in a large ethnic cleansing project that expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other non-arab minorities from the northern provinces and moved in Arab citizens to take over the land.
After the gas attacks and the Iraq-Iran war had subsided, the hundreds of thousands of homeless Kurds weren’t allowed to return to their land. Though exact numbers are difficult to come by, and it’s doubtful to represent a majority, many of the Sunni Arabs who would eventually form the backbone of the Sahwa movement and coalitions like Mutahidoon, to say nothing of the Ba’thists, were descended from or were the people moved into these regions. Following the fall of Hussein, and with a long history of American realities not living up to their promises and an eye towards independence, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) argued persuasively and fairly successfully for a decentralized, confederate-style government that would preserve their autonomy and provide the launching point to strengthen it. Crucially, they also won a guaranteed seventeen percent of GDP for their region, and used the money to create more independent monetary ties that helped them over the Central Government in Baghdad.
These developments were strengthened by the moral justice of the action following Saddam’s actions, but in turn had the unexpected effect of inspiring both Shi’i and Sunni groups to demand their own autonomous regions. United States Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden would eventually support the idea which became known as the “3-State Solution.” While the feasibility of such a plan may be suspect, and it would certainly represent the end of the Iraqi National project as we know it, the success and growing influence of the KRG inspired even greater enmity between them and Sunni Arabs in the north. Indeed, Mutahidoon itself primarily serves to contest the increasing influence of Kurdish society. Without Hussein’s Arabization campaigns, the Kurds may have wielded considerably greater influence in provinces that eventually became easy targets for IS.
Such influence would have drastically altered the landscape of the conflict.The last year has brought a string of stunning defeats to IS. From the recapture of Mosul, to Raqqa, Hawija, and recently Dier Az Zor, 2017 has proven to be a year of great military triumphs. For Prime Minister Abadi, and the Sunni Defense Minister he appointed from Mosul, Khaled al-Obaidi, it is undoubtedly a victory. Abadi announced formal victory of IS on the state television service only last week, but the defeat of IS will soon give way to the perhaps irreparable damage they inflicted. As a weak state, Iran’s growing influence, well earned from their support military in stopping the IS advance towards Baghdad, must be monitored and contained. To fail to do so would risk starting Iraq down a road towards a situation like in Lebanon, and to this end the current U.
S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman has announced his intent to do just that. Additionally, the Shi’i majority are hurting and understandably angry at the devastation brought on them by Sunni insurgents (nationalist or religious, as the case may be). The country will be rife for exploitation, this time on the Shi’i side, and the disbanding or manipulation of Iranian backed “brigades” will be a significant current going forward. While cynical, the possibility of future destabilization should be prepared for by strengthening the private sector and cracking down on corruption. To increase the efficiency of government and aid in doing so, the number of cabinet ministers should be reduced.
Whether or not Abadi, or whomever emerges from the upcoming elections as Prime Minister, has the political willpower to tackle that issue remains to be seen. The political ambitions of United States politicians can be leveraged to produce further aid for the country, but also uncertainty regarding U.S. culpability in providing arms which were later used by IS. Ultimately, a stronger share of the oil revenues are going to have to be appropriated for rebuilding.
The refugee crisis and devastation of Sunni communities will be considered though in any effort to rebuild. A recent article in The New Arab documenting the political chances of Sunni parties in Iraq in 2018 notes that Mutahidoon will most likely be relegated to irrelevance. The ease with which IS took Mosul was blamed by Maliki on Atheel al-Nujaifi, the leader of Mutahidoon and brother of a sitting Vice President. Thus, the Sunni Arab political interests in Iraq will once again be lacking the unified leadership needed to pursue them. The rise of the organization that has been known as AQI, ISI, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, and finally the Islamic State remains a cautionary tale for would-be nation builders around the globe. Failure to recognize the effects of sectarian resentment on minority groups in a society where almost half of the work force depends on the public sector created an untenable situation for nation’s Sunni population.
Objectively, it is difficult not to understand where the Shi’i population’s distrust comes from, but such considerations should have been dealt with in the Transitional Administrative Law and Constitution in the early years of the modern Iraqi state. Instead, the Sunni population, due to political expediency and its minority status as a power player in a democratic regime, found itself practically excluded from both. This mistrust fermented into outright resentment and insurgency as the political and economic patronage that had been practiced for centuries in the region was unavailable to a group that didn’t have the numbers to win coalition stakes.
The dependence of the Iraqi economy on this system of patronage and the ensuing failure of then Prime Minister Maliki to bring the Awakening movement into his sphere of patronage left Sunni Arabs desperate and easily infiltrated by ISIS during periods of unrest. Exacerbating this primary defeat was the unavoidable Ba’thist ties of the Sunni population. These ties made the Kurds and Shi’i powers even more contemptuous of Sunni policy goals as they reminded both populations of the atrocities of the Hussein regime. Without options as the Arab Spring gave way to large economic protests in Iraq, many of these Ba’thist elements, knowing they could never regain power in Iraq, joined IS. While anti-Kurdish sentiments in the Northern Provinces that had been nursed by Hussein’s Arabization campaigns were capitalized on by Sunni politicians, IS infiltrated these provinces and began establishing itself as a rentier class. It knew how to posture as well, erasing the Syrian-Iraqi border in a symbolic anti-Western move that appealed to the Sunni nationalists even as its radical religiosity attracted thousands of foreign fighters. It would not be until the end of 2017, some thirteen years after the establishment of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Mesopotamia by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that Iraq could declare victory over them.
In this way, the patronage system and sectarian affiliation were the primary avenues for wealth and advancement in Iraqi society, and the inability to compensate for the loss of these avenues, combined with the other aforementioned Sunni antagonisms, provided the primary catalyst for the success of the Islamic State in Iraq.