President Barack Obama has done the predictable thing by sending more weapons to Iraq to counter an alarming rise in violence. But arms alone will not solve a problem that has its roots in the political alienation of Sunnis and other minorities and the undermining of democratic processes, especially by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The bloodshed has reached catastrophic proportions. More than 8,000 Iraqis died in 2013, including 952 members of the Iraqi security forces. Overall, it is the highest death toll since 2008 and shatters a trend that in 2012 prompted a top administration official to assert that “Iraq today is less violent” than “at any time in recent history.”
The deadly surge is attributed to al-Qaida’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni group that is a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Its predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq, waged the insurgency that brought the country near civil war in 2006 and 2007 before suffering big defeats from Iraqi Sunni tribal groups and American forces. Since the United States withdrew at the end of 2011, the group has gained strength against Iraqi security forces that are incapable of fully protecting civilians, and it has taken in foreign fighters from neighboring Syria and the region. American officials say that Islamic State is deliberately trying to tear the country apart.
Al-Maliki sought help from Obama at the White House in November, a turnabout after he failed to reach a deal to keep a small number of American troops in the country after 2011 for training and intelligence gathering.
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Some 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, to be fired at militant camps with the CIA providing targeting assistance, were delivered to Iraq last week and 10 reconnaissance drones are expected to follow in March. The Obama administration also plans to provide 48 other reconnaissance drones and the first of an order of F-16 fighter jets. It is pushing a reluctant Congress to lease and eventually sell Apache helicopter gunships to Iraq.
The United States has a strategic interest in Iraq’s stability, which is undoubtedly at risk, making increased counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence-sharing essential. But even the most lethal weapons will not have much positive effect if al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders bicker rather than unite the country around shared goals through credible democratic processes. Al-Maliki has been central to the disorder, wielding power in favor of his Shiite majority brethren at the expense of the minority Sunnis, stoking sectarian conflict and enabling a climate in which militants could gain traction.
American officials say al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials finally understand the dangers of the growing extremism and the fact that a security-only approach will not bring stability. They say that Iraqi security forces have lately been more successful against the militants and that al-Maliki and his government have shown more willingness to work cooperatively with Sunnis, resolve oil disputes with the Kurds, and put in place a new agreement aimed at promoting civil and social peace. Given his authoritarian duplicity, it is hard to be optimistic. On Tuesday, more than 40 Sunni lawmakers submitted their resignations from Parliament and Sunni ministers threatened to withdraw from the Cabinet after al-Maliki’s security forces dismantled a camp used by Sunnis protesting second-class treatment by the Shiite-led government.
As it doles out weapons, intelligence and advice, the Obama administration needs to press al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to do those things, to ensure that the election in April is free and fair and to commit finally to adopting laws that will address Sunni grievances. It also needs to be prepared to halt or withhold deliveries of weapons if they are misused or if al-Maliki continues to put his own interests over his country’s.