Iraq's Maliki: Under Pressure

burning oil fields in Iraq

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Iraq's Maliki: Under Pressure
| published June 21, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

With oil refineries under siege, some of them in flames, and with border checkpoints and security outposts falling, Iraq’s rapidly-evolving sectarian chaos poses a grave threat to the very existence of a unified Iraq. Sunni extremists and militants, under the highly-organized banner of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), have swept across much of northeastern Syria and northern Iraq, taking control over scores of cities and towns, including Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq.

Militants have pressed to within 75 miles of Baghdad, and now pose a threat to oil refineries, oil wells and oil distribution facilities. ISIS fighters have advanced so rapidly—with the Iraqi army withering and melting away in the path of ISIS units—that panicked Iraqi officials have requested the urgent assistance of the United States. And though U.S. President Barack Obama has said he does not intend to put American military back on the ground in combat situations, he has sent roughly 300 Special Forces personnel into Iraq to serve as advisors to Iraqi officers.

The crisis threatens to not only fragment Iraq, but also to unravel a decade of military involvement by the United States, a war in which thousands of Americans died.

This week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under intense criticism for too-long presiding over a government and a military so heavily managed and controlled by Shiites that the birth of Sunni extremism was an inevitable outcome of exclusionary policies. Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shiite cleric, has weighed-in publicly, asking that Maliki open up a conversation with Sunnis. Al-Sistani has been instrumental in diffusing ethnic and religious tensions in the past in Iraq, most notably when the violence was at its worst in Baghdad in 2004-2005.

Maliki is under pressure from all sides to reorganize his government—especially at the top levels—to allow for more Sunni participation. President Obama has repeatedly stressed this week that continued U.S. support for Maliki must be contingent upon a broader-based government and democratic reforms to include ethnic minorities and Sunni Muslims.

Iraq is split roughly evenly between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, though the Shiite populations tend to be more in the south of the country and the Sunni areas mostly in the north. In the northeast, there are predominantly Kurdish areas, and fighting has begun along the lines separating the Kurds from Sunni-controlled areas as well.

The fighting in Iraq has become widespread. ISIS militants seized control of border crossings and border checkpoints at al-Qaim this weekend as army troops abandoned their positions in the face of heavy firepower. Earlier in the week, fighting was intense—and by some reports building-by-building at the huge oil refinery and distribution center of Baiji. News footage and amateur video shot near the area shows enormous plumes of smoke rising from the facility. The refinery at Baiji supplies mostly domestic oil to Iraq, but its capture may trigger further destabilization in Iraq, disrupting transportation and shipping and affecting daily life in Baghdad.

Furthermore, there are widespread concerns by both military and economic analysts that if the militants continue to succeed in capturing oil facilities, it may embolden them to move with even greater force and speed in an attempt to take not only Baghdad—Iraq’s capital—but also the vast areas of oil wells and oil refineries in southern Iraq.

Iraq is one of the largest producers of oil in the world, and the second-largest among OPEC nations.

The desperate situation in Baghdad is fostering strange bedfellows. Though not officially cooperating, U.S. Special Forces personnel will be working near—or alongside—military leaders and rank-and-file soldiers from neighboring Iran. Shiite clerics are also rallying young Shiite men in southern Iraq, many of whom are flooding into recruitment areas to volunteer to fight the advancing Sunnis.

Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, has a stake in seeing the ISIS militants fail in their quest to take over Iraq and form a caliphate. In addition, Iran was Maliki’s patron during his exile from Iraq, and it was, in part, through their long-distance intervention that Maliki became a front-runner for the new head of state after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Maliki also came to power thanks to the support of many Shiite clerics and leaders in Baghdad. Many of those same backers are now unhappy that Maliki’s heavy-handed treatment of Sunnis has brought Iraq to the brink of civil war and sectarian violence. Indeed, many of Maliki’s original patrons now think he should go, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to resentful Sunnis that there will be room for compromise in the near future. There has been so much pressure to oust Maliki that a dozen potential successors have come to the forefront in the last week, including former vice-president Adel Abdul-Mahdi and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Optimists believe that if Maliki steps down or is pushed from his position, and a replacement can be found quickly who can bring together elements of Shiite, Sunni and Kurd representation in the government, that Iraq’s fragmentation can be halted. But some observers are pessimistic, suggesting that the violence has already gone too far, and that the ISIS militants will want little to do with any compromise or effort at reconciliation.

ISIS militants now control a massive area stretching from Syria’s northern border with Turkey to northern Iraq. ISIS forces have been moving swiftly over the last ten days, emboldened in part by the rapid deterioration of Iraq military units and security forces.

The sectarian animosities now threaten to engulf all of Iraq.

“There’s no amount of American firepower,” President Obama said this week, “that’s going to be able to hold the country together.” Obama also said that no part of the region or the world benefits from a divided Iraq.

Economists and market analysts fear that oil prices—normally lower in June each year—may climb substantially as a direct result of the violence in Iraq.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Iraq Violence Means Higher Oil Prices; Thursday Review; June 20, 2014.

Iraq’s Collapse & The Consequences for Saudi Arabia; Thursday Review; June 16, 2014.