Sectarian Entrepreneurs: How the U.S. Broke Iraq

Sectarian Entrepreneurs: How the U.S. Broke Iraq

U.S. soldiers at the site of an oil leak in Iraq, 2004 (Dave Chung/Flickr)

“Today, America is coming to help.” These were Barack Obama’s words as, on August 7, his administration authorized airstrikes on northern Iraq, targeting militants belonging to the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria or ISIS). The militants had seized control of large areas of Sunni Iraq and launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Iraq’s minority communities in the north, forcing the Christian community of Qaraqosh from their homes and expelling thousands of Yazidis from their villages.

The images of thousands of Yazidis, a “small and ancient religious sect,” fleeing to the hills of Sinjar, where they faced starvation and death, rightly galvanized the international community. President Obama framed U.S. military actions as fulfilling a duty to protect the Yazidis and other religious minorities, and indeed those displaced by the humanitarian crisis required—and continue to require—urgent assistance and refuge. Yet there is no small amount of irony and historical amnesia attached to Obama’s argument that the United States has a duty to “protect” Iraqis. It was, after all, U.S. actions that brought Iraq to its knees. In the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion, conservative estimates put the civilian death toll at 500,000 and the number of Iraqi refugees at over one million. Torture remains embedded in the security apparatus of the state, and minorities have been subjected to a steady drip of harassment and forcible displacement. Conversely—and most conspicuously today—U. S. and allied policy decisions have fostered the security vacuum that the Islamic State has so quickly filled.

If the current intervention were just about providing humanitarian aid and a safe zone, then surely it would not require U.S. bombing. What we are currently witnessing is a much more complicated story of competing U.S. (and regional) interests, hinted at by the fact that the United States decided to re-enter Iraq’s fractious political landscape only after militants moved in to Iraqi Kurdistan. (The Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] has long been a U.S. ally, and is the home of significant U.S. oil interests, with several companies headquartered in Erbil.)

Leaving aside the rather obvious dangers yet another military intervention will bring, the United States’ decision to unilaterally intervene, again bypassing the United Nations, raises significant questions about the sovereignty of Iraq. It is true that on this occasion, the Iraqi government requested U.S. assistance. But the Obama administration did not answer a similar request by then–Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in June. The difference between then and now is that, at that time, it would have been much more difficult for the United States to remove al-Maliki and replace him with a more U.S.-friendly ally—such as the current prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi.

U.S. and allied policy decisions have fostered the security vacuum that the Islamic State so quickly filled.

Although the U.S. strikes (as well as airdrops of food and other supplies) have provided space for Kurdish forces to regain some control of the security situation in northern Iraq, they will bring only short-term relief for Iraq’s besieged minority communities and will do very little to address Iraq’s endemic political crisis. The increasing levels of displacement and violence throughout the region—especially, over the last three years, in Syria—as well as the current regional political and security vacuum have created ideal conditions for armed groups (notably, but not exclusively, the Islamic State) to strengthen, making this a much thornier political terrain than the one the United States faced in 2003. When President Obama stated there would be no short-term solution, it seems he was really signalling that the United States is back for the long haul.

This latest intervention serves as a stark reminder of the colossal policy failures that have plagued Iraq since the U.S. military intervention in 2003. Of course, the country’s political fissures long predate the U.S. invasion: in one of his seminal earlier writings on Iraq, Eric Davis observed that “political instability and authoritarian rule in Iraq trace their origins to a fundamental disagreement over the nature of political community in the modern nation-state.” Coupled with contemporary Western involvement, this fundamental and unresolved disagreement—between a pan-Arab vision of state and one that adopts an Iraqi nationalist narrative—has catalyzed the underlying identity fractures in Iraq today. The political deadlock, violent unrest, sectarian attacks (most tragically unfolding in the hills of Sinjar), and, alarmingly, the fall of several Iraqi cities to the Islamic State have sprung from these fractures. The same fractures have been carefully cultivated and exploited by actors both within and from outside of Iraq.

An established pattern of externally driven “sectarian entrepreneurship”—where, as Davis puts it, outside actors “exploit the political vacuum created by an absent state”—has long plagued Iraq. Ever since the British colonial period, various states—the United States and its allies, Russia, regional powers—have seized on the country’s tangle of ethnic and tribal loyalties to establish their own blocs of economic and political power. Yet the sectarianism that existed before 2003 is markedly different from what has emerged in the wake of the U.S. invasion. While Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athists were sectarian entrepreneurs, they were, as historian Dina Khoury argues, “equal opportunity repressors.” Ethnic, religious, and tribal differences were employed as part of a divide-and-rule policy, but they were underpinned by security and power concerns, and favors (or repressive measures) were not distributed on explicitly sectarian lines.

By contrast, the sectarianism that emerged post-2003 is expressly political and was, as Davis notes, “the result of a deliberate manipulation of social differences that had been largely transcended in Iraq’s major urban centres through decades of national state-building.” The U.S.-led political and constitutional overhaul after 2003, which reconfigured political representation along ethnic and tribal divisions, fostered widespread political corruption and exacerbated rather than dampened sectarianism in Iraq. Sectarianism became institutionalized, with parties formed along communal divisions and politicians rewarded for proffering communal agendas.

Against this backdrop, the possibility for a unified national government to form was fraught from the beginning. Iraq’s Sunni community—condemned by the resurgent Shia parties as either Ba’athist remnants or disloyal to the Iraqi state—were soon marginalized, politically and socially, from the “new” Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the revival of identity politics at the heart of the country’s political system fostered stalemates, corruption, allegations of nepotism, and violence. Secular and inclusive voices were also silenced. For example, in the 2010 national election, Mithal al-Alusi, an independent candidate and former parliament member and Hamid Majid Mousa, leader of the Communist party, were shut out of parliament. Al-Alusi and the Communist party had received more votes than many of the parliament members who were seated, but the electoral laws in Iraq at the time allowed major-party candidates to pass their surplus votes to other candidates down their party lists.

Iraq’s economic conditions were just as hostile to a stable democracy as the electoral ones. Between the lingering effects of UN sanctions and the inertia of the informal networks of economic privilege and patronage that had taken root under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s already fragile economy was woefully unprepared for the “shock therapy” of the neoliberal economic restructuring imposed after 2003. More damaging still to the prospects of political stability was the decision by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to dismantle the army and civil service in Iraq under the policy known as “de-Ba’athification.”

The U.S.-led political and constitutional overhaul exacerbated rather than dampened sectarianism in Iraq.

The de-Ba’athification policy, first mooted in a 2002 report by the Democratic Principles Working Group, was intended to remove the ideology of Saddam’s Ba’ath party and its adherents from Iraq’s political landscape. It sparked opposition across the Shia–Sunni divide, with support limited to a small number of Shi’ite parties. The demobilization of some 400,000 soldiers that took place under this policy created a security vacuum that was quickly filled by armed Shia militias (specifically, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq) who would later become significant political actors in Iraq. This security vacuum, sustained by both the embedded sectarian landscape and ongoing political deadlock, also enabled al Qaeda—and fighters from Syria, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere—to infiltrate large swaths of Iraq.

In 2003, critics questioned the extent to which U.S. energy interests factored into the occupying powers’ short-sighted push towards political fragmentation. Haytham Bahoora has called the denationalization of Iraq’s natural resources, and their handing over to foreign multinationals, “the most consequential long-term economic consequence of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.” At a time when Iraqi central government was weak, corrupt, fractured, and unable to provide even basic resources or security to its population, it delivered oil fields as well as multi-billion dollar development projects to companies including the U.S.-based giants Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron; the London-based BP; Total, from France; Lukoil, from Russia; and the China National Petroleum Corporation. Most of the key concessions are in southern Iraq, but since 2011, multinationals including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, and the Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries have signed major contracts with the Kurdish Regional Government for exploration both within and around the official borders of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Did oil interests play any role in the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Iraq this August, when the Islamic State threatened Erbil? Central to Obama’s justification of the air strikes—along with rescuing the Yazidis—was the need to defend U.S. citizens residing in Erbil. The president neglected to mention that these thousands of Americans have largely been attracted by the oil industry. They are not there, as Steve Coll noted in the New Yorker, “to take in clean mountain air.”


Internally, the salience of identity politics and the increasing power of armed militias have also underwritten the political stalemate that has been in place in Iraq since the reelection of (now former) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2010. When the United States withdrew troops in 2011, al-Maliki set out to consolidate his power by deploying state resources to cement loyalty and outmaneuver political opposition, and bring newly created “independent” institutions under his direct control. He also dealt harshly with his political opposition. In 2012, he targeted Sunni leaders, sentencing Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi to death in absentia, and arresting the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi.

Challenges to al-Maliki’s power base—both on the streets and at the polls—had been largely unsuccessful, before international and regional pressure made his position untenable. Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, and faced with a collapse of basic services (especially outside of Baghdad) and rampant corruption, Iraqis took to the streets in February 2011 to demand reforms and protest against, amongst other things, the ongoing occupation, sectarianism, unemployment, and high cost of living—all of which steadily increased in post-Saddam Iraq. This collective and largely nonviolent response to problems faced by ordinary Iraqis lasted only six months before the Maliki regime violently crushed the resistance. Protests mounted again in Hawija in April 2013, when local Sunnis staged a sit-in in the main square of the city, demanding an end to Sunni discrimination in Iraq, the revocation of de-Bathification laws, and the release of female prisoners. The protestors were once more dispersed by the army, ultimately leaving twenty-seven dead and more than seventy wounded. In narrating the state version of events, al-Maliki again played the sectarian card, characterizing the protestors as Ba’athists and al Qaeda members and arguing that security forces had come under attack and reacted in self-defense.

The government response to the protest in Hawija had three immediate effects. First, in its aftermath, Iraq experienced an increase in suicide bombings and violent attacks on government institutions. Second, the event served to reinforce an already marginalized Sunni community’s distrust in the central government. Lastly, the repressive state actions failed to either address the demands of the Sunni minority or crush the rise in al Qaeda (and other Sunni militia) influence in Sunni-populated areas. It is against this backdrop that the rise of the Islamic State, and other armed groups in Iraq, should be understood.


The presence of the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey had been flagged by regional press and commentators for some time. As the Syrian uprising shifted from a nonviolent revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, primarily led by an oppressed Sunni majority against Alawite minority rule, into a civil war spilling across borders, the window opened for groups like al Qaeda in Iraq to launch a broader regional campaign. When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed control of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2010, both Sunni insurgency and Islamist militancy in Iraq were at a low point. The conflict in Syria changed the power dynamics in the region and al-Baghdadi, who had previously established al Qaeda in Syria, sought to merge it with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), thus producing the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in 2013.

In December 2013, ISIS attacked and killed Iraqi military personnel in Anbar province. The response by al-Maliki’s forces—both air and ground—displaced an estimated 400,000 people from the province and failed to regain full control of the area. Ramadi, Fallujah, and other key cities became jointly controlled by ISIS and other Sunni insurgents, tribal leaders, and Iraqi security forces. At the same time, ISIS was also forging alliances in Mosul with the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, which is comprised of tribal leaders, and Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), also known as the Naqshbandi Army, a Sufi militia closely identified with Ba’athist officers from Saddam’s regime, particularly former vice president Izzat al-Douri.

As the Islamic State expanded its control not only of territory but also of Iraqi military depots and oil refineries, the Kurdish peshmerga militias and other newly formed militias also became increasingly entangled in the battle to control oil-rich areas. The Kurdish peshmerga have fought back against Islamic State encroachment in northern Iraq, especially near the oil refineries in Kirkuk, a city that they have long claimed to be part of Kurdistan. In response, Turkmen and Arabs, alarmed at the prospect of the Kurdish presence becoming permanent in Kirkuk, have formed the Iraqi Turkmen Front. These armed groups add to an already complicated and crowded landscape in Iraq and will make it all the more difficult for the Iraqi government (even with U.S. military aid) to root out the militias and regain control of this territory.

As rival militias grew, Maliki’s popular support—which had earned him a comfortable reelection in 2010, despite political challenges to his increasingly authoritarian rule and Baghdad-centered governance—waned, even among Shias. In local elections held in August 2013, his State of the Law list secured only ninety-seven of 378 seats on the governorate councils, preventing him from forming key local governments. Two major Shia rivals—the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Ammar Al-Hakim, and the Sadrist Trend of Muqtada Al-Sadr—secured 124 seats and went on to form local coalition governments in Baghdad and several other southern provinces after reaching agreements with Sunni lists and blocs representing a mix of secular and minority groups (which secured the remainder of the 378 seats). Yet Maliki still carried the April 2014 national elections—if buoyed by alleged electoral impropriety and reports that Sunnis simply stayed away from the polls (either from fear of ISIS or a belief that the elections would not be free and fair)—suggesting that, even as his electoral coalition shrank and his country collapsed around him, he retained a degree of popular support.

Now that Haider al-Abadi is confirmed as Iraq’s new prime minister, will a more inclusive government emerge in Baghdad? Not if the sectarian quota system persists.

In July 2014, however, Maliki’s announcement that he would seek to serve a third term was met—internally and externally—with dismay. Now that Haider al-Abadi is confirmed as Iraq’s new prime minister, the critical question is whether a more inclusive government will emerge in Baghdad. The persistence of the sectarian quota system suggests otherwise. The rationale behind the ethno-sectarian system, first established by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003, was to try to ensure that all groups (including small minority communities and women) were represented. A twenty-five-member Iraqi Governing Council was set up that included thirteen seats for Shiites, five for Kurds, five for Sunnis, and one each for Assyrians, Turkmen, and women. In reality this institutionalized an ethno-sectarian system that the Saddam opposition had already created on its own during the 1990s. And while neither the system nor its operation were codified, the top government positions and offices were, in practice, parcelled amongst the major sects and ethnicities, ensuring that Iraq’s prime minister will always be a Shiite Muslim, the president will be an Iraqi Kurd, and the speaker of the house will be Sunni Muslim, with similar distribution for less senior positions.

These sectarian quotas also prevent cross-cutting secular initiatives from taking root, as the case of the Civil Democratic Alliance (CDA) illustrates. The CDA is comprised of secular groups who joined together to provide an alternative to the dominant ethno-religious blocs; they secured only three out of the 328 seats in the April 2014 elections. In contrast, results published by the Iraqi High Electoral Commission indicate that Iraqi Shia groups (State of Law Alliance, Sadrists, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) secured 157 votes, followed by Iraqi Kurds (Kurdistan Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Gorran) with fifty-five. The Iraqi Sunni bloc (Mutahidun and Arabiyya Alliance) secured only thirty-eight seats, with the remainder of the seats distributed amongst a mix of secular and minority groups. Given these results, any successor to Maliki must also be Shia (as is true of al-Abadi), who will very likely also adopt a sectarian model of political and social entrepreneurship in order to stay in power.

The way forward in Iraq depends largely on the ability of Iraqis to overcome the dominant model of politics since 2003, which has allowed Iraqi politicians and militias to use the sectarian card to advance their own ambitions. The expanded influence of international power blocks in Iraq over this period will provide an additional stumbling block. Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have armed Sunni militias in order to counter the rise of Shi’ism and Iranian influence in Iraq. Meanwhile, the United States, Israel, and Russia all vie for influence in the region, and their interventions (militarily and politically) contribute to an already crowded and morally corrupt space.

As regional and international interests and rivalries continue to play out across Syria and Iraq, the chances of successfully undertaking political reform in Iraq seem remote. Even if U.S. strikes and air drops provide temporary relief to Yazidis and other groups and help the Kurds to push back the Islamic State’s advance, the U.S. experience in Pakistan and elsewhere suggests that there is usually a heavy civilian price to pay and that, in the longer term, this will not resolve Iraq’s endemic political problems. Absent a political will—internal, regional, and international—to reform a poorly engineered political system and end the vested interests and proxy wars that have played out in Iraq, we will continue to be audience to the fragmentation of Iraq and its peoples.


Kathleen Cavanaugh is a Lecturer of International Law in the Faculty of Law, Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR), National University of Ireland, Galway. Her most recent book, co-authored with Joshua Castellino, is Minority Rights in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2013).

To read a response to this piece by Michael Walzer, click here.

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