As the Iraqi government, backed by U.S. airstrikes and military trainers, begins an all-out offensive against ISIS, the Obama administration seems caught in a bind. “We are deeply concerned by reports of abuse that we have seen associated with some volunteer militia forces and, in some instances, by Iraqi security forces,” says Jen Psaki, the State Department’s spokeswoman. “We have received assurances from the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces that they will use U.S. equipment in accordance with U.S. law and our bilateral agreements.”
But the Obama administration has also argued that its program to supply weapons to the Iraqi government should be eligible for an exemption from arms-control laws. U.S. weapons have already fallen into the hands of Shiite militias, and by supporting — inadvertently or not — paramilitary groups whose excesses are approaching the worst abuses of the sectarian civil war in 2006, the U.S. risks helping to perpetrate the same violence and state corruption that led to ISIS’s stunning rise last year.
It’s hard to imagine that five years ago, Iraq seemed to be on the mend. According to the Iraq Body Count project, at least 17,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2014, the worst year by far since the peak of the violence in 2006 and 2007. The Bush administration, having belatedly realized that it had triggered a full-scale civil war by invading Iraq, managed, with the troop surge, to guarantee a sort of victor’s peace by convincing Sunnis they could reject Al Qaeda and still survive. “Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future,” Obama said in March 2011, as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its combat forces.
But the optimism of those times belied the fragility of the political accord between Shiite and Sunni, as well as the tremendously corrupt and patchwork nature of the Iraqi state. In Hanash Square, a bustling hub on weekends for Baghdad’s intelligentsia, I meet with Ali Sumery, a diminutive young television director in a dapper brimmed hat and scarf. During the 2010 national elections, Sumery, a longtime political activist, threw his support to the Iraqiya coalition of Ayad Allawi — an opportunist surrounded by opportunists, but at least one who espoused a sort of nonsectarian liberalism. Allawi’s coalition managed to win two more seats than that of the incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki of Dawa, a religious Shiite party. But in the political struggle that followed, Maliki succeeded in retaining power, with the tacit assent of both the U.S. and Iranian governments. Sumery and his friends were disappointed but felt emboldened enough to protest what they saw as Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism and sectarian politics. “They were slicing up the government like a cake,” Sumery says. “They weren’t speaking as leaders for all of Iraq. They were speaking as leaders of sects.”
The American occupation had enlisted religious leaders and exiled carpetbaggers to help run the country, and a cancerous system of party-based patronage had grown within the Iraqi state. It flourished during Maliki’s second term. Each ministry was given to a particular party, which doled out positions to its cronies. As a result, Iraq’s public institutions — which had already atrophied under international sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship — became parodies of corruption. One professor at a major university in Baghdad tells me that Ph.D.s from his faculty were readily available for $10,000.