The hard-line Sunni militants of the Islamic State (IS), well-known for their staged murder videos and who today pose a very serious threat to Iraq, Syria and the international community, seem to have sprung out of thin air. However, IS has been on the international scene for years –under different names from Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad, to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, to ISIS and finally IS – and it is not simply the result of a spillover from the Syrian civil war: long-term internal Iraqi dynamics, in particular the role played by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is key in understanding the rise and consolidation of the terror group. As Maliki’s authoritarianism grew, he was able to freely implement policies that ostracized Iraq’s Sunni population and led them to support IS, based on grievances against the state more than on ideology.
After toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, the United States dissolved most of the existing Iraqi political institutions, hoping to create instead a strong democratic state that would enshrine civil liberties and a free-market economy. However, while old institutions were destroyed, new ones failed to be created and after its withdrawal in 2011, the US left Iraq with a weak political system. Upon taking office in April 2006, Nuri al-Maliki took advantage of the governmental institutions’ weakness to secure his grip on power: he gradually built a network of influence, and ensured his control over the Iraqi security forces. His increasingly authoritarian behaviour became particularly alarming when, faced with a potential defeat in the March 2010 parliamentary elections, he bluntly stated “No way we will accept the results.” As Maliki succeeded in centralising power in his own hands, subverting the system of checks and balances, he effectively attained a monopoly on most state institutions.
Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian regime allowed him to freely implement policies that would exacerbate the existing sectarian divide between the Iraqi Sunni and Shia populations: himself a Shia, Maliki largely ostracized the Sunnis, excluding them from political life. As grievances amongst the group grew, discrimination and peaceful protests that were violently repressed pushed the Iraqi Sunnis towards violence. When IS emerged as a powerful regional and international actor, Iraqi Sunnis saw it as an opportunity to rebel against the state and formed opportunistic alliances with the group.
After overthrowing the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, the US formed a new government dominated by Shias. The newly empowered majority used ethnicity and religion as political tools for mobilisation, and in the years following regime change, the Iraqi parliament and government were overwhelmingly dominated by Shias who overtly mobilised their electorate based on religious affiliations. The government’s use of sectarian rhetoric in political discourse estranged the Iraqi Sunni population, which greatly played into IS’s hands.
As Shia control over the state apparatus grew, Maliki enacted a number of policies aimed at reducing the share of Sunni representation in government. He quickly politicised the de-Ba’athification laws, introduced to keep members of Hussein’s regime out of government, and used them against their original purpose to target his opponents and keep Sunnis from positions of power. Mere weeks before the elections of March 2010, more than 500 candidates were banned from participating due to their alleged links to the Ba’ath party, most of them were Sunnis. The Maliki government initiated another Ba’athist crackdown in late 2011: more than 600 people were arrested under the pretence that they represented a threat to state security. But once again it appeared that most of those arrested were Sunnis, and that the legal justifications for the arrests lacked transparency. As a result, Sunni outrage against the state drastically intensified, and since December 2012, a significant number of Sunnis in western and northern Iraq have been mobilised and have actively protested against the Maliki government, loudly voicing their grievances over the perceived unfair targeting and treatment of Sunnis. What started out as peaceful protests was quickly radicalised when Maliki’s government opened fire on the protesters. Interestingly enough, these provinces that have hosted the Sunni demonstrations since 2012 are the ones that today are largely controlled by IS and the ones that show the widest support to the group. Maliki’s exclusive policies against Sunnis have thus led to social unrest and to the Sunnis’ interest in supporting IS.
The Iraqi army was similarly subjected to purges, with the intention of sacking the senior and midlevel Sunni officers in order to replace them with Shias. A shift in the sectarian composition of army officers towards an overwhelming Shia majority accompanied Maliki’s increasing control over the country’s security forces. As enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, the parliament has to approve candidates for the positions of military officers of a certain rank, and its approval is – or should be – necessary to the appointment of these officers. However, since Maliki’s rise towards authoritarianism, there has been a dramatic lack of parliamentary oversight regarding military appointments, and Maliki was able to empower his preferred officers, nearly all Shias, to head the most significant commanding positions in the Iraqi army. The Prime Minister’s choice was often based on personal relationships rather than merit and competency, which meant that many experienced Sunni officers were fired to be replaced with inexperienced members of Maliki’s Da’wa party.
A number of those Sunni officers who had been let go of by Maliki’s government have been reported to have re-emerged within the ranks of IS. Not only have Maliki’s sectarian policies in the army increased the number of IS militants, they have also – and more worryingly – led more or less directly to the humiliating defeat suffered June 10th, 2014 by the Iraqi armed forces in Mosul. Maliki’s replacement of competent officers with inexperienced ones undoubtedly played a role of significant importance in the fall of Iraq’s second largest city to the hands of IS militants. Indeed, how else could such a sweeping defeat of the government forces be explained? According to many sources in the media, the 30,000 men strong Iraqi army fled in front of less than 1,000 ISIS militants. Though it is still a mystery why the Iraqi forces retreated so easily, a convincing explanation is the inability of Maliki’s recently appointed military officers to coordinate a coherent response to fight IS insurgents. The defeat is hence a consequence of the incompetence that plagues the Iraqi military due to Maliki’s sectarian policies.
As Iraq’s Sunni population was increasingly targeted and discriminated against under Maliki’s rule, their grievances, which at first found a peaceful outlet in the 2012 demonstrations, were increasingly radicalised and hence turned to violence. When IS emerged as a strong actor in the region, a ‘marriage of convenience’ was established between those ostracized Sunnis and the terror group: to them, IS represents the lesser of two evils.