Friday, June 13, 2014

ISIS and Maliki's Legitimacy Gap

I've seen some headlines in mainstream news sources talking about the "Fall of Iraq."  This is a terrible misreading of what is happening with ISIS's expansion in the country's north and west.  Consider this reporting:
That many Sunnis would prefer to take their chances under a militant group so violent it was thrown out of Al Qaeda sharply illustrates how difficult it will be for the Iraqi government to reassert control. Any aggressive effort by Baghdad to retake the city could reinforce the Iraqi Army’s reputation as an occupying force, rather than a guarantor of security...
And most said the militants in Mosul had not terrorized the population and were keeping a low profile, with a small number of men in black masks staffing checkpoints...
Each security sweep that rounds up innocent Sunni men in the name of fighting terrorism has deepened resentment in the Sunni population toward the government, especially the Shiite-dominated army...
The events over the last several days in Mosul — which is majority Sunni, although it has a sizable population of Kurds and some Shiites, too — highlight what critics have said for years: that Sunnis see the army not as a national force but as the protector of the Shiite population. A Western diplomat, in a recent interview, said that in places such as Mosul and Anbar Province, the security forces are regarded as “a foreign force in their own country.”
But residents of Mosul say that so far the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has handled the local population with a light touch. Some residents, hardened by their hatred of the army, spoke of the insurgents almost as if they were a liberating army. The militants, residents said, greet people at checkpoints and ask citizens if they are carrying a weapon, and if the answer is no, they let them on their way.
Many spoke of being able to move around the city more freely for the first time in years, after the militants unblocked roads that the army had shut down for security reasons and took down the blast walls that had become a permanent feature of nearly every major Iraqi city over the last decade...
One of the Mosul residents who escaped to Erbil was Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh Province, where Mosul is. In an interview on Thursday, he said that one of the reasons Mosul was quiet on Thursday — and the citizens felt comfortable returning — was the presence of other groups, like tribal militias and a group led by former Baathist officers, in addition to the Islamists.
So what's happening there is that during his years as prime minister, Maliki has monopolized political and economic power in the hands of Shi'ite allies from the country's south, including violating understandings with Sunni leaders who helped end the anti-government insurgency late in the Bush administration in conjunction with the U.S. "surge."  Sunnis have revolted against this, and the national army has essentially been occupying Sunni areas on behalf of a hostile national government.  When ISIS arrived, the national army simply melted away, and Mosulis felt liberated to go about their lives.  ISIS itself does not fully occupy the city, but co-exists alongside local militias, much as it does in Anbar.

This shows the limits of ISIS's expansion.  Once it hits largely Shi'ite Baghdad, it will come crashing to a halt, and t will make no headway in Shi'ite and Kurdish areas of the country.  What's more, within the Sunni areas, it must tread carefully to avoid wearing out its welcome.

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