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iraqIt is hard to remember exactly when there was widespread optimism about Iraq, but it is easy to remember the circumstances. Shi’a were united, Kurds were united with them, and Sunni dissatisfaction was the only obstacle to the country coming together. Unfortunately, the Sunnis didn’t see the events of 2004 or so that way. They saw the country’s politics freezing them out permanently, and many committed to doing anything they could to disrupt Iraqi stability. Some supported al Qaeda in Iraq, to protect themselves from what they saw as the depredations of Iraq’s Shi’a community. Bombs exploded, shrines were destroyed, civilians were murdered, and the optimism evaporated.

Things have gotten better slowly in Iraq, but in the last several months, politics seem to be melting down. The Shi’a coalition is coming undone, Kurdish unity seems to be fraying, and different Sunni groups aren’t sure where to turn. Mosul is about to be in flames. Although Iraqi politics seem headed for a cliff, in fact, recent events are actually a hopeful sign.

The U.S. government’s approach to governance in Iraq was flawed from the beginning of the 2003 invasion. Ideologues were at center stage. They saw themselves as the creative souls who had won the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and they would now turn their attention to fixing the Middle East. They didn’t have much competition. After decades of animus, no one in the U.S. government had significant knowledge of how Iraqi society worked. Many Middle East experts were marginalized because they had failed to predict 9/11. The State Department was marginalized because we were at war.

Unfettered by doubt, the U.S. government set about trying to restore Iraq to its “natural balance.” Managing requires metrics, and one of the first metrics in the establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council was deftly balancing the sectarian and ethnic breakdown of its members: thirteen Shi’a, five Sunnis, five Kurds, a Turkmen, and an Assyrian. The balance was thought to represent the relative proportions of the population in Iraq.

The decision helped address a problem of inclusion, but it also made sectarianism worse. Insisting on seeing Iraq principally through a sectarian and ethnic lens made sectarian and ethnic identity more important than it already was. Saddam Hussein had highlighted such identities to consolidate his rule, but he was swimming against Iraqi history. Intermarriage in the cities had become relatively common in the 20th century. Massive conversions from Sunni to Shi’a Islam were widespread in the 19th century. Saddam steered things in the opposite direction, and the U.S. government continued the path he had chartered.

It is easy to see how the strategy made sense. If Shi’a represented a majority of the population, using sectarian leaders to line up Shi’a provided an easy path to winning majority support. The Shi’a community, with Saddam’s treachery and efforts at genocide still fresh in memory, did its best to unite and preserve its bid for national control.

The Kurds were an auxiliary. Keenly aware of the historical fragility of their position, they both worked out an internal division of labor—and spoils—and they struck an even deeper partnership with the United States as they hitched their wagon to Shi’a fortunes.

The only people this left out in the cold were the Sunnis. They had no oil, and they were not only unwanted by the other parties, but they were also unneeded. Together, the Shi’a and the Kurds comprised more than 70 percent of the electorate. If the Shi’a stuck together, and the Kurds stuck together, there was no need for Sunni participation. In time, most Sunnis ceased to participate. When jihadi networks reemerged in the Sunni heartland, some joined and many others acquiesced.

In time, the Shi’a block has begun to fray. It showed early signs in 2008 when the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr used his Mahdi Army to bid for power in Basra, but it has emerged into full breakdown today. Al-Sadr is once again agitating against the government, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to be making a new bid for power, leading efforts to impeach ministers and attacking the allies of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. The Kurdish coalition is also coming undone, as political disputes have kept the Kurdish parliament from meeting for more than a year, and as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party adopt different strategies toward the government in Baghdad.

Yet, within these shifts are opportunities. After all, politics are less about being willing to win, than they are about being willing to lose with the hope of winning next time. The flaw baked into Iraqi politics after the U.S. invasion was that they didn’t provide any hope for the losers. The sectarian math was dismal, and it left no place for the Sunnis. A world in which parties flit from ruling coalition to opposition and back again might seem unstable, but it has a singular advantage over more seemingly stable systems: losers seek to maintain the political system so they can win power, not overturn it so they can seize power.

The battle that is unfolding in Mosul this month has a sectarian tinge, which is probably unavoidable. The fighting forces have sectarian roots, and the population has been increasingly divided along sectarian lines.

As the dust settles, however, it would be a profound mistake to see Mosul’s post-conflict environment principally in sectarian terms. There are many ethnic and sectarian groups in Mosul to be sure: Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, and others. But there are other ways to see the population: through tribes, leading families, economic class, and professions. There may even be differences in approaches to politics.

The easy way is to repeat the mistake of 2003, and create a body that is rigorously proportionate to the ethnic and sectarian divisions of the population. A wiser course would be to create seams over the kinds of things Moslawis should argue about in the future. Fights about ideas change minds. Fights about identity, sooner or later, lead to dead bodies.

(This essay originally appeared in Middle East Notes and Comment. To subscribe, please contact the CSIS Middle East Program at middleeastprogram@csis.org.)

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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