Can al-Abadi win over Iraq’s Moderate Sunnis?

By Juan Cole

Arguably, the so-called Islamic State (actually a vicious gang of serial killers) could never have taken over northern and Western Iraq if the largely Sunni Arab populations there had not been deeply alienated from the government in Baghdad by the openly sectarian politics of former Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki systematically marginalized and angered the Sunni Arabs, many of whom in the end prefered even the vicious criminals of IS to al-Maliki’s Shiite army lording it over them.

Now that al-Maliki has resigned in favor of prime minister-desigante Haydar al-Abadi, some prominent Sunni Arab leaders in the Sunni-majority provinces have offered to work with the new prime minister to fight the al-Qaeda offshoot, IS. (Most Iraqi Sunnis are relatively secular-minded, or, if religious, not Saudi style hard line fundamentalists).

But they have demands they want to see met by al-Abadi before they agree to the dangerous task of taking on IS. They want to see a more balanced, new government with regard to the security forces and civil society. I think they want more Sunni Arabs in the Defense Ministry and in the officer corps. They want more Sunni Arabs in the Ministry of Interior. The central, powerful ministries, they are saying, cannot be the preserve only of hard line Shiites. (Iraq has a spoils system, so jobs in the ministries go to members of political parties in coalition with the prime minister’s party. Since the dominant parties are Shiite fundamentalists, that’s who got the government jobs. The Sunni Arabs want in.)

They also want an end to continual government shelling of Sunni towns and cities, the release of thousands of Sunni Arab prisoners, and the withdrawal of hard line Shiite militias from largely Sunni cities.

They want the largely Sunni Arab provinces to be ruled by local Sunni Arabs, and they want a non-sectarian national army to be rebuilt.

For his part, al-Abadi has pledged an anti-corruption campaign and a new leadership style.

If al-Abadi can actually get the support of any significant number of Sunnis, it will make all the difference. For a mostly Shiite government and army to overrun Sunni Tikrit looks like an occupation. For a joint Sunni-Shiite alliance of tribal leaders and government fighters to take it looks like a national victory.

In fact, the fate of Arab Iraq as a unified state depends on whether this opportunity is real, and whether al-Abadi can take advantage of it.


Related video added by Juan Cole

The Telegraph: “Iraq PM ‘must re-engage the Sunni population in Iraq'”

20 Responses

  1. I think al-Abadi realizes that his nation has no chance of surviving if he cannot integrate the Sunni’s into his government. He’s coming into a serious crisis, so I think that if he can successfully eliminate IS from Iraq with a coalition, then the world can look forward to further improvement in Iraq under him. The threat posed by IS has the opportunity to unite Iraq behind al-Abadi, or crush him.

  2. Eric Margolis, one of our more astute observers, is not impressed.

    “US Armed Humanitarianism 2.0: ‘They pulled me back in…'” by Eric Margolis – link to … “Meanwhile, the White House has ousted its Shia sock puppet in Baghdad, Nuri al-Maliki, in favor of a newer, even more obedient satrap. Maliki was foolish enough to actually believe he was prime minister of Iraq and refused to allow US troops to stay there indefinitely.”

    • What good would this independence have done Maliki once ISIS entered Baghad and beheaded him? I mean, you can call the US the source of all evil, but what is your actual position on who stops ISIS, which captured many weapons from Iraqi troops who WOULDN’T fight for Maliki? At least I am willing to say the US should kiss Iranian ass and admit that Iraq is permanently part of Iran’s sphere of influence, so please send your legions and airstrikes to stop ISIS’ reign of terror. So you can’t say I’m an American imperialist, Bill. Which of those do you prefer getting its hands on millions of Shia, ISIS or Iran? It seems you are basing that decision on what will punish America or Barack Obama more.

      • It seems you are basing that decision on what will punish America or Barack Obama more.

        I’m at a loss to understand how you came to that conclusion. America deserves some form of punishment for its role in creating the current chaos – despite warnings from knowledgeable people – by initiating the war in 2003, but it is more important just now to focus on reducing that chaos.

        • By saying Maliki is the good guy when he so utterly failed to stop ISIS, you don’t seem to be advocating that anybody stop ISIS at all, because you judge the quality of a regime by how opposed it is to America. Like, I’m glad that the Communists of Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot, instead of the US intervening again. It was worth Vietnam ruling Cambodia. Similarly, as brutal as the Iranian regime is, I would be glad if it saved the targets of ISIS’ madness and became the dominant power in the region. But that does require sacrificing many innocent lives to the vengeance of Iran’s proxies, and it means at best a long Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If we stay out and that happens, that’s on us too. I just think it’s the least bad solution right now.

  3. “Eric Margolis, one of our more astute observers, is not impressed.”

    “Maliki was foolish enough to actually believe he was prime minister of Iraq and refused to allow US troops to stay there indefinitely.”

    Eric Margolis may appear to be an “astute observer” by some who are awed by the fact that he is “not impressed,” but Margolis is the one who is “foolish” in thinking that in refusing to sign off on the SOFA, Maliki was demonstrating his independence. Recall, please, that as soon as ISIS began defeating the Iraqi army and controlling large swaths of Western and Northern Iraq, Maliki began pleading for the U.S. to assist. None of this would have been necessary had Maliki and the Iraqi parliament signed off on the SOFA, which would have allowed troops to remain and would have deterred ISIS from spilling into Iraq from Syria. “Foolish” indeed!

      • Bill Blodden, you suggest that ISIS got its weapons from non-extremist Syrian rebels (who defected to ISIS or were defeated by ISIS, I guess). My understanding is that ISIS received weapons from paymasters in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Qatar, and then enlarged its arsenal as it defeated (or forced defections from) rival Syrian rebels, and then further enlarged its arsenal as it overran Iraqi army positions and took American arms abandoned by the Iraqi army. I guess ultimately money and weapons come indirectly from the U.S. (because it supports and supplies Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, non-ISIS Syrian rebels, and the Iraqi army). The militarization of international aid and nation-building is certainly one of the root problems.

        • My understanding from reliable reporters is that ISIS got its weapons and money to buy them from a number of sources. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of those weapons were supplied directly by the US.

      • This is from an e-mail from

        “If Senator John McCain had his way, we’d be arming ISIS in Syria and fighting them on-the-ground after they cross over the border into Iraq.

        “It’s enough to make you wonder why television news shows have him on so often.

        “Last year, as President Obama considered arming Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, Senator McCain snuck into the country to meet with opposition leaders. While he was there, he paused for some photos — including some with ISIS militants.

        “Today, just over a year later, he wants to fight ISIS in Iraq – ostensibly against the weapons he wants to provide them in Syria.

        “It’s sad to say, but John McCain has exhausted his last measure of credibility.”

    • Robert Fisk (link to on Syria and al-Maliki and Obama:

      “In an article published by the Independent under the title “Syrian ‘moderates’ aren’t so moderate in Iraq”, Fisk said “Well, God bless Barack Obama – he’s found some ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria. Enough to supply them with weapons and training worth $500m. Congress wants to arm these brave freedom fighters, you see. “

      “And Obama,” he added, “having sent his 300 elite Spartan lads to Iraq to help [Iraqi PM] Nouri al-Maliki fight the rebels there, needs to send help to the rebels in Syria.” link to

  4. Why would al-Abadi really care about helping out the Sunnis and eliminating Islamic State? After all it is the Sunnis who are being occupied by Islamic State. Eventually, it actually might be the Sunnis who beg for help to get rid of Islamic State. I cannot image the Sunnis will want to live under Islamic State very long with no economy, no freedom and no government services and only strict Islamic rule. I think al-Abadi has all the cards and not the Sunnis, after all it was the Sunnis area, with largely no oil, that was taken over by Islamic State. al-Abadi will only want to keep strategic assets and areas like the Mosul Dam, the refineries and oil producing areas out of the hands of Islamic State. Islamic State pounding down the Sunnis under occupation may actually help the Shia.

    • The problem is, why would said Sunnis necessarily want to rejoin Iraq after getting rid of ISIS? Consider the very cynical alliances between Baathists, ISIS, and far-right oil sheikhs bankrolling this horde all the way across the Middle East. Maybe when ISIS wears out its welcome, a “moderate” Arab nationalist force suddenly appears, controlled by Saudi money, and establishes something more sustainable?

      It looks like Iraq is becoming like Germany in 1945, dismembered to serve as the Oder-Neisse line in a new Cold War; Iran and Saudi will each pour money and arms into their occupation zone, and create their NATO and Warsaw Pact to endlessly patrol the barbed wire across the desert. Problem is, they’re both as bad as the Warsaw Pact, but the US is economically chained to Saudi Arabia.

  5. Eric Margolis observes Maliki to be an American sock puppet? Based on what? His massive backing and support from Iran? His disdain for America’s hopes that he would integrate the Sons Of Iraq into Iraqi paid security forces/army/etc. as the US strongly hoped and thought had been negotiated? His refusal to grant the SOFA that the American government so badly wanted so the American government could keep troops there?
    I am not impressed with the so-called ‘astutefulness’ of Eric Margolis’s ‘observationalizing’.

    Whole sections of the security system in Iraq have been thoroughly Malikified. This new guy would have to wage and win a very nasty and possibly bloody purge of Maliki’s legacy organizations if he hoped to force their defeated remnants into any sort of respect or even politeness whatsoever towards the Sunni Arab Iraqis. I don’t claim enough expertise to predict whether he will purge the Malikists out of their lairs and bunkers, or whether he even can.

    • Eric Margolis observes Maliki to be an American sock puppet? Based on what?

      My recollection of the time frame when al-Maliki became prime minister it was with influence from Washington with the intent that he be their man. Many events have taken place since then. Al-Maliki was considered a weakling for a time and didn’t look like he would last long. He managed to survive which probably meant he acquired obligations to other forces that pushed him to the actions that led to the departure of the US military. It is also probable that he figured how the system worked and amassed power that he learned to use and became something of another American Frankenstein.

      Then, again, there were comments from President Obama taking pride in extracting the US military out of Iraq. Now, he wouldn’t BS us, would he?

  6. From what I keep hearing ISIS is a force with unimaginable force and ability. When ISIS grabs territory it immediately sets its tentacles into the area, with fully functioning schools, government social services, infrastructure—the whole gamut. ISIS has an elaborate public relations and media machine that is simply awesome. ISIS is rich in money, armaments, savoir faire, flair, fanaticism, ferocity, fervor…oh, where to stop in superlatives?
    They are the living, breathing and growing inferno of a super civilization. Abandon all hope ye who enter their path. The Calphate will soon claim and rename Caliphornia…and then it will sprawl forward.

    • Hilarious post..! a bunch of psychotic criminals in pick-up trucks. they completely run away and get their ass handed to them after only a few U.S. bombs dropped on them… anyone who joins that gang of criminals is likely to meet a quick and sudden death. ISIS has no future.

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