ISIS is only one small part of a larger Sunni revolt in Iraq that sectarian groups have been preparing for years, according to Iraq’s exiled Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. And defeating ISIS won’t stop the greater battle.
“We shouldn’t look at this development of ISIS as apart from the uprising of the Arab Sunni provinces over two years,” Hashimi told The Daily Beast in an interview from Turkey, where he has been living since the government of Nouri al-Maliki purged him in 2012 by indicting him on murder charges, then convicting him in abstentia.
“The provinces have done a peaceful Sunni revolt against the oppression, the injustice, the inhuman conditions the Arab Sunnis have been suffering for years,” he said.
Hashimi referenced Iraqi army and police crackdowns in cities including Fallujah and Madain over the past year, part of the escalating Sunni-Shia tit-for-tat violent incidents that have plagued Iraq for over a year. In one April 2013 incident he mentioned, dozens of Sunnis were killed by Iraq security forces in the town of Hawijah during a peaceful protest.
“There is anger against Nouri al-Maliki and the behavior of the government over almost eight years so there was no other option other than to go into Sunni revolt.”
The sudden rise of ISIS in Iraq, especially their part in the takeover of Mosul last month, was a surprise to everyone, Hashimi said. But although there is some coordination between ISIS and the other Sunni groups fighting in northern Iraq, ISIS is not a core part of Sunni revolt, he said.
“I can assure you a widespread spectrum of groups participated in what happened in Mosul. The media is focusing on ISIS,” he said. “They are influential and empowered on the ground and they are participating in this armed revolution. But we shouldn’t be blamed for that.”
The Maliki government reneged on its promises to build an inclusive government with the Sunnis as soon as the American troops left Iraq, Hashimi said, and went after Sunni moderate leaders even though those leaders had led the Sunni awakening in 2008 that resulted in extremist groups leaving Iraq in the first place.
“We managed to clean up our territories, especially Anbar, and we put an end for a time to he extremists. But Nouri al-Maliki, instead of involving the Sunni moderates, he attacked them, starting with me,” said Hashimi. “There are two sides, the extremists and moderates. If you target the moderates, you intentionally create a vacuum that could be filled by the extremists and that’s exactly what happened.”
Both Shia and Sunni leaders, including Hashimi, stand accused of using violence to advance their political goals or personal agendas over the 11 tumultuous years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (One former U.S. ambassador to Iraq said there were ongoing questions during his tenure about whether Hashimi’s organization maintained links to Sunni terrorists.) Maliki is only the latest Iraqi leader in a long line of them to allegedly follow that path.
As former U.S. official in Iraq Ali Khedery wrote in The Washington Post, the U.S. policy during the crucial years following the 2008 Sunni awakening was to place faith in Maliki to build an inclusive system rather than use American influence to support other political actors.
Hashimi said that the Obama administration was repeating that mistake again by sending U.S. advisers and equipment to shore up the Iraqi military and considering U.S. military force against Sunnis inside Iraq. He urged the U.S. to stay out of the conflict.
“It’s a really annoying development. The U.S. is in the process of committing itself into another set of grave mistakes. Definitely we consider all this military support to Nouri al-Maliki an alliance with Iran against the Arab Sunnis,” he said. “Try to avoid any use of military means, try to be fair, try to diffuse the bomb by asking Nouri al-Maliki to immediately to establish a caretaker government. Try to be neutral at least.”
The international community should support a process by which all political stakeholders would be brought together to review the political process and devise a whole new formula for the sharing of power and resources in Iraq, Hashimi argued.
“The international community should step in and play a role in solving the real problems, dealing with the extremists is not enough,” he said.
And don’t expect another Anbar awakening this time around, Hashimi warned. The Sunni tribes still remember what happened last time and they are not going to make the same mistake of expelling the extremists and thereby leaving themselves vulnerable to Shiite forces.
“Nobody from the Arab Sunnis are ready to repeat the same experience of 2008, no way. But if we establish a real state in Baghdad, extremism will be over, I assure you.”
The U.S. had better also be concerned about the rise of Shia extremism in Iraq, Hashimi said, pointing to the growing ranks of the Shia militias supported by the Baghdad government inside Iraq.
In the end, the entrance of countries like Iraq, Russia, and Syria into the Iraq conflict is destabilizing and Iraq should turn to its strategic partner the U.S. for long-term security and stability, Hashimi said. But in order for that to happen, the U.S. will have to act decisively, aggressively, and on behalf of all the rights of all Iraqis, not just the Shia.
“The U.S. ethically is still in charge of our security, our stability and preventing interference from foreign countries, whether neighboring countries or far away countries, it is still the responsibility of the U.S.,” he said. “Transparency, human rights, no corruption, justice, no interference. All of these values have been talked about nicely but nobody has pressed the government on which have been achieved and which have failed. That is the role of the United States.”