News / Middle East

Column: Maliki’s Last Chance to Save Iraq

FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2011, file photo, Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq
FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2011, file photo, Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq
Saddam Hussein must be laughing in his grave.
President George W. Bush celebrated Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 as the liberation of Iraqis from decades of dictatorial rule and costly warfare against Iraq’s neighbors.

But the democratically elected government that followed has failed to stabilize the country and opened the door to the expansion of a safe haven for Islamist militants so extreme that even al-Qaeda has rejected them.

This week, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, unfurling the black flag of jihad over the corpses of Iraqi security forces and sending half a million residents fleeing in terror.

For months now, ISIS has withstood Baghdad’s efforts to recapture Fallujah, scene of so much American bloodletting a decade ago.

Reinforced with newly captured American Humvees and weapons from Mosul, ISIS has also taken Baiji, site of a major oil refinery, and is advancing toward the outskirts of Baghdad.
The success of ISIS has much to do with the collapse of government authority in Syria as the civil war there continues into its fourth year.

The long border between Syria and Iraq is essentially open to the movement of fighters between the two countries. With Bashar al-Assad consolidating control over part of Syria, ISIS may have decided that Iraq is an easier target.
But the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also bears responsibility for alienating so much of Iraq’s Sunni population, which dominated the country for centuries.

No inclusive government

Despite “winning” parliamentary elections in April to give him a potential third term in office, Maliki has yet to form an inclusive government with Sunni buy-in or resolve differences over oil exports with the Kurds.

With his country falling apart around him, this is more than a wakeup call; this is probably Maliki’s last chance to overcome his sectarian Shiite roots and work with other ethnic and religious factions to preserve an even nominally united Iraq.
Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has written that “the potential silver lining to the crisis is that it could spur Iraqi factions to refocus on national stability.”

Knights also notes that the United States “is still uniquely positioned to be an honest broker in Iraq” using its leverage as a trainer and arms provider to push Maliki toward compromise.
But the fact remains that while the US can rush ammunition to defend Baghdad, U.S. troops are not going to return to fight Maliki’s battles for him. Unfortunately, rather than reach out to Sunni moderates,

Maliki has increasingly relied on Iran-backed Shiite militias that have committed atrocities against Sunnis.

Knights told VOA that he fears these militias will start “cleansing” remaining Sunnis from Baghdad in a reprise of 2005-2006 sectarian blood-letting.

“We’re back to 2005 when we just had elections but we had no security,” he said.
Knights described the panicked withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Mosul and Baiji as “a morale collapse of epic proportions” that reflects the exhaustion of troops who have been fighting a counterinsurgency for over a decade and the inexperience of others who had been doing checkpoint duty in southern Iraq and now have been rushed to the northern front.
“You’ve got the guys who burned out who were used constantly in the worst places and the units that never did anything and now must do everything,” Knights said.
Knights predicts that Baghdad and the south will hold but that Iraq will be increasingly divided into Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurdish regions.

Options proposed

Rather than try to recapture lost territory, Maliki may have to try to negotiate with tribal and old Baathist powerbrokers and accept a looser federal structure that permits substantial Sunni autonomy.
However it turns out, there will be likely be new threats emanating from ISIS-held Iraq that menace Jordan, an important US ally, and potentially Europe and the United States.

An Iraqi haven for this group will also make it much harder to bring about a cease-fire in Syria’s horrible war.
George W. Bush and his enablers – Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Don Rumsfeld and Richard Perle among them – sold the Iraq war to the American people as part of the “war on terrorism,” conveniently blurring the fact that Saddam was not colluding with al-Qaeda but actually fighting it.

It would be beyond a tragic irony if Iraq now becomes a refuge for a group even more hateful bent on establishing a “caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Ray J from: Asia
June 12, 2014 3:23 AM
The author is either ignorant or assumes ignorance on the part of her readers - or both. There is no irony in the fact that chaos has followed upon the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. It is precisely what was to be expected.

by: Pamela curr from: Melbourne
June 11, 2014 7:05 PM
What about the Iraqi people? We made their country into a wartime playground, destroyed their infrastructure and now as those we installed have failed- we stand back. When the people flee for their survival- will we open our arms? Not bloody likely. Australia will lock them up in hell camps in PNG and Nauru until they go mad. And what will the rest of the west do?

by: Max D from: Latin America
June 11, 2014 3:33 PM
I'm pleasantly surprised...not by the ISIS, but by the even-handed tone of this article by VOA. Hopefully, a more competent leader will be found for Iraq soon, as Al-Maliki has not only antagonised the U.S., but is now obviously failing in the essential-to-his-occupation task of ensuring security and governmental control in Iraq.

by: peter42y from: portugal
June 11, 2014 3:20 PM
Maybe Iraq is an artificial state that should be divided in 3 diferent countries . more stable . A Kurdistan.., a Sunite Iraq and a Shiite Iraq.
American incursion in the region was a complete cathastrofe. It was suposed to bring democracy and peace but democracy only brought war.
A democratic Iraq is an Iraq divided in 3 smaller countries.

by: Safari from: Tanzania
June 11, 2014 3:16 PM
I think it is the right moment that America and it allies has to rethink about their foreign policies.look at Iraq,Libya,Syria and other countries.plsease stop supporting terrorist by the idea of overthrowing dictators.This has to be a lessons to the american and weatern countries.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs