Maliki’s sectarian policy backfires in dramatic style

Iraq PM Nouri al-Maliki could resort to forming Shiite militias to confront advancing Sunni jihadists, raising fears of a potential civil war in the country

Mustapha Ajbaili

Published: Updated:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian-based domestic policies backfired this week in a dramatic fashion when his army – pieced together across sectarian lines – quickly fell apart after it was confronted by jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The sudden collapse of military units defending Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the late Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk is reminiscent of the swift disintegration of Saddam’s army at the gates of Baghdad in 2003.

But in 2003, Iraq’s military was poorly armed, with rusty Soviet-made weaponry, and had only years earlier fought a devastating war with neighboring Iran and another one in Kuwait. In addition, Saddam’s army was fighting the most powerful military on the face of the planet and its eventual collapse had come as little surprise to many.

Maliki’s army is of a different class than that of Saddam’s, enjoying modern and sophisticated weaponry, from U.S-made Apache helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter jets to Abrams tanks and Humvees. U.S. occupation authorities alone spent an estimated $16 billion to build the Iraqi army, which they had envisioned would form the backbone of a modern Iraq.

Despite the investment, Maliki’s military has failed to withstand a ragtag of armed jihadists who have seized in very short space of time city after city across Iraq.

On Tuesday morning, soldiers withdrew from the northern city of Mosul, leaving behind their vehicles, weapons and even uniforms. Several army commanders also reportedly fled to Kurdish-controlled areas.

Video footage showed ISIS fighters parading army Humvees left behind in the streets of Mosul.

While Maliki blamed a “conspiracy” for the collapse of army units, which are dominated by his Shiite co-religionists, independent observers said the Iraqi leader himself bore responsibility for the failure, citing the sectarian makeup of the military which suffers from a lack of discipline and solid military doctrine.

“The existing forces of al-Qaeda and ISIS are not enough to face the army and police forces but what has happened? How did this happen? How did some military units collapse? I know the reasons, but today we are not going to hold responsible those who carried out this action,” a baffled Maliki said in a televised address on Wednesday.

“The army, police and security forces are much stronger than them but a deception took place and a conspiracy as well. We will deal with it, but after we eliminate their presence, God willing, and by force with the will of the people of the province, and the will of the people of Iraq,” the prime minister added.

Failed state

Adnan Hussein Kadhum, a Baghdad-based political analyst, told Al Arabiya News that the military failure was the result of “the lopsided political process since Maliki took office in 2006.”

“The division of power across sectarian lines created a struggle between various sects of society, which led to a failed state, and this reflects on the state of the military,” Kadhum said.

“The military institution is deeply corrupt and is built on sectarian lines.

Military commanders are given their jobs not on the basis of competency or experience but rather on their sectarian affiliation,” he added.

“You cannot expect an institution built this way to be effective,” Kadhum said.

Haydar Moussawi, a political analyst close to the movement of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, said most of the army is made up of Shiites, a perfectly “natural” state of affairs given that the sect is the dominant one in the Arab country.

“The new army was hastily formed under the U.S. occupation and most of its members were not properly trained and equipped,” Moussawi said.

He noted that many citizens were drawn into the military for “material reasons” given the harsh economic conditions as a result of the U.S.-led invasion.

In his televised address, Maliki said he will form an army of “volunteers” to support the regular government forces in areas seized by ISIS.

Moussawi explained that Maliki could resort to forming a “parallel army” made up of the more religiously indoctrinated Shiite militias to fight ISIS, an al-Qeada inspired group that is also operating in neighboring Syria.

“If the situation continues like this [for the next couple of days], Shiite religious parties will dispatch their militias to support security services in areas controlled by the [Sunni] extremists,” he said.

Civil War?

Ahmad al-Abyad, an Iraqi political observer based in Jordan, warned that any further sectarian mobilization could “drown Iraq in a civil war, God forbid, that may not end for years.”

“These areas that are controlled by ISIS may reinforce local forces who won’t allow the central government to re-exert its influence in this region,” he said, arguing that this was in line with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s 2007 “soft-partition” plan for Iraq.

The plan was similar to the blueprint splitting Bosnia in 1995 and sought to divide Iraq into three autonomous regions – Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite – held together by a central government in Baghdad.