On the night of June 9th, jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) overran Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Other majority Sunni-Arab parts of Iraq such as Ramadi and Faluja have fallen in and out of Baghdad’s control since last year, of course, but Mosul represents a watershed moment in the crisis. Decision makers in Washington will probably conclude from these events that the government in Baghdad is too weak. They will agree with Prime Minister Maliki that he needs “emergency powers” to deal with the crisis.
As usual with American policy on Iraq these past several years, this will only make the problem worse. For years, Washington promoted a “united Iraq” and stronger central government over all other considerations. While occasionally paying lip-service to the need for Prime Minister Maliki to “share power more,” the Americans effectively gave Mr. Maliki carte blanche to do as he likes. They delivered huge sums of money, weapons, training and other aid to Baghdad, including this month’s delivery of the first of thirty-six F-16 fighter planes. While American diplomats appeared resolute in siding with the Maliki government in its disputes with the Kurds and others wanting more decentralization of power, they showed no such commitment to Iraq’s constitution and the clear limits it places on Baghdad’s authority.
When during the past several years Maliki blocked the legal formation of more regions in Iraq, even going so far as to send his security forces to arrest Sunni Arab politicians trying to exercise their constitutional rights on the matter, the United States had nothing to say. When Baghdad failed to incorporate Sunni Awakening Councils into the armed forces or allow Sunni Arab regions to look after their own security (something which is also constitutionally permitted), no more than a few murmurs of concern were heard from Washington. When Baghdad cut off the Iraqi Kurds’ share of the budget, spokespersons in Washington remained mum.
Now the Americans are shocked, and asking themselves how some rag-tag ISIS Jihadis, outgunned and outnumbered by Iraqi military forces in Mosul by around 15 to 1, managed to overrun the city. “We gave them so many weapons, training and money,” they exclaim, “and now they won’t even step up to the plate.” Policy makers in Washington should also ask themselves how the Iraqi Kurds, who received next to nothing in military or financial assistance, manage to hold out against the Jihadis and keep their region secure.
The answer, I think, has to do with governance. Kurdish fighters feel that their regional government represents them and are willing to fight for it and their land. In contrast, Shiite Iraqi Army recruits do not know Sunni areas like Mosul and do not want to be there, much less die there. Sunni soldiers, meanwhile, do not feel that the government they serve is theirs. They have seen their communities shut out by Maliki and his disconnected politicians in Baghdad. The Sunni Arabs faced serious persecution in the last couple of years, seeing their peaceful protests violently put down by Maliki and their elected leaders sidelined and hunted down one by one.
Allowing constitutionally-envisioned decentralization of power and the formation of other regions could have stopped this and put locals in charge of their own security and finances. This never happened except for in Iraqi Kurdistan, and even there local governance has come under threat by Maliki’s pressure (although Washington could not care less, of course). In the rest of Iraq, promised money and governing authority from Baghdad hardly filters down to the regions, and security forces take all their orders from far-away politicians of the central government.
Given how badly the Americans continue to misread Iraq, whoever in Washington has been making U.S. policy there should be transferred to the Fiji, Mauritius or similarly important desks as quickly as possible. The real threat in Iraq was never Kurdish secession, but rather renewed authoritarianism in Baghdad and the resistance this would spark in excluded communities. Instead of being so overbearingly “respectful of Iraq’s territorial unity,” the Americans should have been a bit more concerned with Iraq’s constitutional integrity and the decentralization it promised.
In the meantime, the Kurdistan Regional Government will continue to secure its region and help refugees from Mosul and other places. If the Kurds are wise, they will also refuse to lift a finger for the Americans and Baghdad unless their demands are met. These demands will probably relate to ending the budget embargo on the Kurdish region, financial aid to care for the refugees, payments and weapons for peshmerga forces, recognition of Kurdistan’s hydrocarbons rights and a new government without Mr. Maliki. While the Americans and Baghdad mull over these demands, they might also consider promises regarding disputed territories they both made to the Kurds some ten years ago – before the Kurds use current events to take matters into their own hands.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor (with Mehmet Gurses) of the forthcoming Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).