While the world was focusing on some other troubled areas, residents of six Sunni provinces of Iraq staged sit-ins in December 2012 to protest widespread repression and executions by the government of Nouri al-Maliki. The Shiite prime minister completely reneged on all of his commitments and agreements after assuming the U.S.-brokered premiership in 2010, thus fueling sectarian strife by purging and marginalizing Sunnis and Kurds.
The abuse of human rights and women’s rights became rampant (Iraq has the third-highest number of executions in the world). Corruption was commonplace, sectarian violence a daily staple.
During the same period, Maliki grew closer than ever to Tehran’s ayatollahs and followed their policy initiatives even on regional issues like supporting Bashar al-Assad in his brutal massacre of Syrian civilians. The bitter reality is that after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Iranian regime filled the power vacuum in Iraq. In service of that new power, Maliki repeatedly attacked unarmed Iranian refugees, members of the opposition group — the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran — at Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.
The peaceful protests in Sunni provinces and in parts of Baghdad were confronted by suppression and lethal attacks by the Iraqi military under direct orders from Maliki. If the early warnings were not enough for the West, they were enough for people and tribes in these provinces, especially al-Anbar, who have been forced to defend themselves.
Maliki resorted to the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians with barrel bombs, missile strikes and repeated air attacks in these areas. According to scores of witnesses, these operations are carried on under the command and monitoring of the Iranian regime’s Quds Force, the extraterritorial arm of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The recent elections further exacerbated the crisis, since they were neither free nor fair. While most of the Iraqi political factions oppose Maliki, he is desperately trying to buy or bribe his way to becoming prime minister for a third consecutive term, as well as relying on intimidation and threats and the support he receives from Iran.
In the last phase of this saga, reacting to the continuing attacks and oppression, the Iraqi people and tribes took control of Nineveh province and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. They released hundreds of political prisoners and drove out the Iraqi military, routing forces in Nineveh and more than half of Salahadin Province, with additional fighting reported near Baghdad.
Maliki misleadingly pretends that the terrorists, particularly the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have taken control of Nineveh province. Such assertions serve to pave the way for bombings and missile attacks that can be dubiously justified to the West. Maliki has also asked Iraq’s neighboring countries to help him suppress the so-called terrorists in these areas.
This is tantamount to an open invitation to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Quds force to intervene. While there is no doubt that elements of ISIS from Syria have infiltrated this popular uprising, the majority of the forces opposing Maliki’s beleaguered military are local tribesmen and members of the Sunni population.
There are reports that Mosul has been relatively calm and some resemblance of normalcy has come back since its takeover by the insurgents, a fact that defies Baghdad’s claim regarding the terrorist nature of the uprising. Also, it seems that the advancing insurgents are refraining from taking over the holy city of Samara, where the majority of residents are Sunni, but Shiite shrines are located there and any armed conflict would enable the Iraqi government to beat the drums of ethnic strife.
The current crisis has escalated, which was not foreseen by the Western capitals. No one can predict the exact future trend of events, but if one is interested in preventing Iraq from falling into a complete civil war, the crisis can only be resolved by an urgent change of leadership. The first step toward this change would be the ousting of Maliki, who has turned into a totalitarian dictator monopolizing power and capital under his control.
This should be followed with the complete eviction of the Iranian regime from Iraq, through the creation of a national and democratic government that rejects sectarian tendencies and represents all parts of Iraqi society. The Western countries, in particular the United States and the European Union should stand with the Iraqi people in order to realize this goal and to avoid providing any further support for Maliki.
Western countries, especially the United States, Great Britain and other countries that played a key role in toppling Saddam Hussein, bear serious responsibility for the current situation. For the last eight years the United States has provided unilateral support to Maliki and has maintained silence about his atrocities against Iraqi citizens, particularly the Sunni population and other religious and ethnic minorities as well as foreign refugees.
The United States has also turned a blind eye to the increasing domination of the Iranian regime in Iraq, which has played a major role in creating the current crisis. The United States and Russia have been supplying Maliki with arms to help him suppress the popular uprising, on the false assumption that it is being led by ISIS and al-Qaida. This should come to an end immediately.
Developments in Iraq have dramatically affected the entire region. For example, if a national government, not dominated by Iran, were in place in Iraq, Bashar Assad would have fallen long ago. This crisis presents the West with its latest opportunity to reinvigorate its failed policy in the Middle East. As ironic as it may seem, Iraq is a good place to start. Washington effectively missed its opportunity to stabilize the country in the past, but an opportunity to do so has presented itself once again. Will Washington make the same mistake twice?
Struan Stevenson is a Conservative Euro member of parliament for Scotland and is president of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq.