When the last remaining American forces withdraw from Iraq at the end of this month, they will be leaving behind a country that is politically unstable, increasingly volatile, and at risk of descending into the sort of sectarian fighting that killed thousands in 2006 and 2007.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has overseen a consolidation of military force, but the core of his government is remarkably unrepresentative: it is made up of mostly pro-Iranian Shiite Islamists. The secular Iraqiya Party, which won a plurality of votes in the March 2010 parliamentary elections, has been marginalized within the cabinet and was not represented when Mr. Maliki visited Washington on Monday.
This Shiite Islamist government bodes ill for the country’s future. And unfortunately, it is a direct product of America’s misguided thinking about Iraq since the 2003 invasion — an approach that stressed proportional sectarian representation rather than national unity and moderate Islamism.
This flawed policy has been more important in shaping today’s Iraq than the size of the original force that occupied the country in 2003, the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal in 2004 or the “surge” of 2007. And it is to blame for the precarious condition in which the United States is leaving Iraq today.
In the 1990s, America envisaged post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as a federation of Arabs and Kurds. At the time, Kurds focused on their own autonomy; Shiite Islamists rejected federalism south of Kurdistan; and many other Shiites explicitly ruled out an Iranian model of government for fear that it might alienate secularists and the Sunni minority.
The fateful change in American thinking came in 2002 as the Bush administration was preparing for war. At conferences with exiled Iraqi opposition leaders, Americans argued that new political institutions should reflect Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups proportionally. Crucially, the focus moved beyond the primary Arab-Kurdish cleavage to include notions of separate quotas for Shiites and Sunnis.
When Americans designed the first post-Hussein political institution in July 2003, the Iraqi governing council, the underlying principle was sectarian proportionality. What had formerly been an Arab-Kurdish relationship was transformed into a Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish triangle. Arabs who saw themselves first and foremost as Iraqis suddenly became anomalies.
Remarkably, Iraqis themselves turned against this system. After the violent sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007, Iraqis rediscovered nationalism. The American surge and growing nationalist criticism of the country’s new constitution provided the necessary environment for Mr. Maliki to emerge in 2009 as a national leader who commanded respect across sectarian lines. Some Sunnis even began considering a joint ticket with Mr. Maliki.
But in May 2009, with President Obama now in the White House, Shiite Islamists who had been marginalized by Mr. Maliki in the local elections regrouped in Tehran. Their aim was a purely sectarian Shiite alliance that would ultimately absorb Mr. Maliki as well. The purging of Sunni officials with links to the former government, known as de-Baathification, became their priority.
By this time, however, Washington was blind to what was going on. Instead of appreciating the intense struggle between the cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s sectarian Shiite followers, and moderate Shiites who believed in a common Iraqi identity, the Obama administration remained steadfastly focused on the Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish trinity, thereby reinforcing sectarian tensions rather than helping defuse them.
After faring poorly in the 2010 parliamentary elections, Mr. Maliki switched course and adopted a pan-Shiite sectarian platform to win a second term as prime minister. But Obama administration officials failed to see how Mr. Maliki had changed. Nor did they appreciate the chance they’d had to bring Mr. Maliki back from the sectarian brink through a small but viable coalition with the secular Iraqiya Party — a scenario that could have provided competent, stable government to Iraqi Arabs and left the Kurds to handle their own affairs.
Instead, an oversize, unwieldy power-sharing government was formed, with Washington’s support, in December 2010.
The main reason Mr. Maliki could not offer American forces guarantees for staying in the country beyond 2011 was that his premiership was clinched by pandering to sectarian Shiites. As a result, he has become a hostage to the impulses of pro-Iranian Islamists while most Sunnis and secularists in the government have been marginalized. His current cabinet is simply too big and weak to develop any coherent policies or keep Iranian influence at bay.
By consistently thinking of Mr. Maliki as a Shiite rather than as an Iraqi Arab, American officials overlooked opportunities that once existed in Iraq but are now gone. Thanks to their own flawed policies, the Iraq they are leaving behind is more similar to the desperate and divided country of 2006 than to the optimistic Iraq of early 2009.
By Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the author of A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010.