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Iraq’s Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya
Iraq’s Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
An Accounting for the Uncounted
An Accounting for the Uncounted

Iraq’s Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya

The demise of Iraq’s Al-Iraqiya Alliance, at threat of marginalisation, would remove the country’s sole credible political representative of a very important community: the secular, non-sectarian middle class.

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Executive Summary

A key player in the political crisis currently unfolding in Baghdad is the Al-Iraqiya Alliance, a cross-confessional, predominantly Sunni, mostly secular coalition of parties that came together almost three years ago in an effort to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the March 2010 elections. It failed then, and its flailing efforts now, along with those of other parties, to unseat Maliki through a parliamentary no-confidence vote highlight Iraqiya’s waning power as a force that could limit the prime minister’s authority. They also show that what remains of the country’s secular middle class lacks an influential standard bearer to protect its interests and project a middle ground in the face of ongoing sectarian tensions that Syria’s civil war risks escalating. Finally, they underline the marginalisation of Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkomans by the Shiite-led government, further increasing the potential for violence.

It did not have to be this way. As recently as two years ago, when election results became known, Iraqiya showed promise as a secular alternative in an environment defined by ethno-sectarian politics. It was the only political alliance to attract both Shiite and especially Sunni voters. It campaigned on an expressly non-sectarian platform (arguing, for example, against the notion of federal Sunni and Shiite regions) as the representative of liberals and moderates. It won the largest number of seats, 91, against the 89 mustered by its main rival, Maliki’s State of Law list. Alone among major political alliances, Iraqiya claimed support throughout the country, having obtained twelve of its seats in Shiite-majority areas, when Maliki’s did not win a single one in predominantly Sunni governorates.

But Iraqiya overreached. In negotiations over government formation, its leader, Iyad Allawi, insisted on holding the prime minister’s position by virtue of heading the winning list. In response, Shiite parties that had fallen out with Maliki grew fearful that former Baathists would return to power and once again coalesced around him. Joining forces with Maliki, they managed to form the largest parliamentary bloc; the outgoing prime minister, who also gained support from both Iran and the U.S., held on to his position. In a striking reversal of fortune, Iraqiya lost its leverage. Some of its leaders rushed to accept senior positions in the new Maliki government even before other key planks of the power-sharing accord between Maliki, Allawi and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, known as the Erbil agreement, could be implemented.

The goal of the Erbil accord had been to limit the powers of the prime minister. It was not to be. Since taking office in December 2010, Maliki steadily has built up his power, making no concessions to his governing partners. He has retained control over the interior and defence ministries as well as of elite military brigades. As a result, Iraqiya has found itself marginalised in government, its leaders and members exposed to intimidation and arrest by security forces, often under the banner of de-Baathification and anti-terrorism. Having campaigned partially on the promise it would bring such practices to an end, Iraqiya proved itself powerless in the eyes of its supporters. Matters came close to breaking point in December 2011, as the last U.S. troops left the country, when Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, a senior Sunni leader, while declaring Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, another Sunni leader – both of them from Iraqiya – persona non grata for having referred to Maliki as a “dictator”.

In April 2012, tensions between Maliki and his governing partners escalated further. Joining forces, Iraqiya leaders, Barzani and other Kurdish leaders as well as some of Maliki’s Shiite rivals such as the powerful Sadrist movement, accused the prime minister of violating the Erbil agreement and amassing power by undemocratic and unconstitutional means. Their efforts ever since to hold a parliamentary no-confidence vote against Maliki have been hampered by internal divisions. The crisis is at a stalemate: Maliki hangs on to power, even enjoying a surge in popularity in Shiite areas; his rivals lack a viable strategy to unseat him until the next parliamentary elections, which should take place in 2014. This, they fear, leaves plenty of time for the prime minister to further consolidate his hold over the security forces and carry out further repression to achieve the kind of parliamentary majority in the next elections that has eluded him so far.

An emboldened prime minister, growing sectarian tensions and a deeply mistrustful opposition are a recipe for violent conflict, especially in light of troubling developments in neighbouring Syria. Iraqis across the divide express fears that a spiralling sectarian-tinged civil war in their neighbour could exacerbate tensions at home and usher the country into another round of sectarian conflict. In a separate report, Crisis Group has proposed some ways to mitigate the chances of such a scenario.

A key to understanding the political battle in Baghdad is to appreciate the extent to which it was avoidable. A series of ill-conceived steps has contributed to Iraqiya’s decline as a non-sectarian alliance bringing in a significant and otherwise underrepresented segment of the population. If the group hopes to survive the current phase and truly represent its constituency’s interests, it will have to engage in a serious internal reflection, in which it honestly assesses the strategies it has pursued, draws appropriate lessons and paves the way toward more democratic internal decision-making. If Iraqiya is to play a role in solving the dangerous political crisis, it first will have to overcome the crisis within that, over the past two years, has steadily been eroding its credibility.

As part of a new strategy it could:

  • develop a more formal internal decision-making process that would allow for dissenting views to be communicated openly and directly to senior leadership;
  • engage in a deliberate debate with its constituents on what they expect from the government and Iraqiya’s role in it, and whether they consider that the alliance has contributed to meeting those expectations. This could be done by requiring its parliament members to regularly return to their constituencies to engage with voters through organised forums, or by encouraging its provincial representatives to maintain steady ties with universities and professional associations so as to allow constituents to provide feedback on Iraqiya’s performance;
  • develop and publish a strategy document that would review in detail and objectively developments since March 2010, including its own performance, and that of its individual ministers and senior leaders, with recommendations on how it could improve;
  • review its relationship with other political alliances, including State of Law, the National Alliance and the Kurdistani Alliance, with a view to resolving differences and contributing to improving the state’s performance;
  • negotiate a countrywide political compromise with its counterparts, in which it would offer to abandon efforts by some of its members to establish federal regions in exchange for a more equitable security and human rights policy (including prohibiting arrests without just cause, ensuring that all detainees have access to adequate legal representation within 24 hours of their arrest, and allowing them to contact their relatives immediately upon their arrest) and more meaningful decentralisation (allowing governorates greater control over local investment and discrete issues such as education and transport).

Baghdad/Brussels, 31 July 2012

An Accounting for the Uncounted

Originally published in The Atlantic

The human cost of the war on ISIS has become too easy for Americans to ignore. We in the Obama administration helped shape that war.

Every now and again, an article is published about something you know you should know, but don't want to know.

“The Uncounted,”Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s groundbreaking piece about the civilians killed in the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State—and the considerable gap between their tally of such deaths and the numbers reported by the Pentagon—is one of them. We cannot speak to the precise data, but their New York Times Magazine piece, and the verified tragedy of the Razzo family at its center, are emblematic of a bigger story that unfortunately rings true.

Basim Razzo was a member of one of the oldest families in Mosul, and the article recounts the night he woke up to find his roof collapsed and home destroyed—the result of an American bomb. Though Razzo himself survived, the attack took from him his wife and daughter, and the story chronicles his investigation into why it occurred. He finds, to his horror, that his house was deliberately targeted; American drones had monitored it for three days before striking, apparently acting on outdated reports that it was an ISIS command center.  The drone footage failed to confirm those reports. It also failed to refute them. That, apparently, was sufficient for the U.S. military to proceed.

The Times story is one of faulty intelligence driving wrong-headed assumptions that decimate innocent lives and embitter survivors. It is a story about how a legal and bureaucratic fog can make it almost impossible for tragic mistakes to come to light, too often leaving instead a false sense of comfort that such mistakes never happened at all. And it is a story about a policy that warrants honest discussion, and change. We both worked with that policy up close. In the Obama White House, one of us was responsible for human rights, the other for coordinating the counter-ISIS campaign. In this respect, we were part of an administration that fell short.

At the outset, two points. First, painful lessons of the article aside, the U.S. military is staffed up and down its ranks with officers who care about and seek to protect innocent life. Likewise, President Obama and his senior National Security Council team were convinced of the moral and strategic importance of preserving civilian life in conflict, understood transparency as important to democratic accountability, and were committed to operating within the rule of law.

This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties.

Second, the Times article carries the unmistakable implication that things will get worse. The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Some answers are relatively straightforward because they have to do with them rather than with us: ISIS hid among civilians, used them as human shields, and did what it needed to do either to deter coalition airstrikes or ensure they would come at high cost. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS presents the well-known but difficult dilemma of how to deal with non-uniformed combatants. Exposing innocents to harm is at the core of their tactics, and exaggerating those harms to generate public outrage is at the front of their playbook.

How much tolerance is there for civilian casualties within legal limits?

Yet those explanations go only so far. War by its very nature presents wrenching choices, but those choices—some at the policy level, others at the operational one—need to be made, and all can have momentous implications for civilians. In making the critical decision to use military force, a government crosses a threshold into a zone where imprecision and uncertainty, both bearing on innocent people’s lives, will infect every level of decision making. How much tolerance is there for civilian casualties within legal limits? How does one identify a target? What standard of reliability should be applied to making such a determination? Once that decision is reached, what procedures are in place to verify it was correct, and to make amends and provide compensation if it was not?

What the Times story tells us is how in Iraq (but surely in other theaters as well) those imprecisions and uncertainties too often cost innocent people their lives, and then led their deaths to be unacknowledged. Broad criteria for who or what could be targeted were superimposed upon imperfect systems for identifying those targets, which were exacerbated by the opacity of after-action verification and reparation procedures. All of this was compounded by a natural tendency to give U.S. military operators the benefit of the doubt. So should a question arise about what actually happened, the Pentagon was unlikely to classify casualties as civilians absent a high level of certainty. Basim Razzo’s family was doubly victimized by this process, which both led them to be wrongly targeted and then made their devastating losses too easy to ignore.

Rather, the counter-ISIS campaign aims to degrade and defeat the organization as a whole, deeming its very existence a danger to America’s security.

The issue was aggravated by the type of struggle the United States has chosen to conduct in Iraq and Syria and in which, one can reasonably predict, it will again be engaged in the foreseeable future. This is not the kind of counterterrorism effort that focuses on targeting individuals deemed to present a direct and imminent threat to the United States, which is where Obama tried to guide U.S. actions in theaters away from hot battlefields, such as Somalia or Yemen. Rather, the counter-ISIS campaign aims to degrade and defeat the organization as a whole, deeming its very existence a danger to America’s security. There were civilian casualties and reports of undercounting in the former cases as well, of course. But the magnitude inevitably increased as the scope and goal of the battle expanded, and the strategic imperative of keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum receded.

Nor was this a typical counterinsurgency, for it didn’t entail the sizeable U.S. ground presence that was a hallmark of operations in Afghanistan or, earlier on, Iraq itself. Those operations produced better knowledge of the terrain, allowed direct engagement with communities, and enabled efforts—sometimes successful, sometimes not—to avoid alienating the local population. In Afghanistan in particular, senior commanders saw civilian protection and reparations as integral to the core mission and directed their troops to act accordingly. In contrast, in the counter-ISIS campaign, the U.S. part of the fighting chiefly relied on airpower, and much of the territory where strikes occurred was under ISIS control. It was neither fish nor fowl, but a hybrid: a counterinsurgency objective pursued by means of counterterrorism tactics.

Then, there is the issue of undercounting—documented not solely in the counter-ISIS campaign but in other theaters of operations as well. The Obama administration was not blind to the problem. It pressed for fuller and more regular casualty reporting, shared previously non-public statistics about its operations, probed press and NGO accounts, worked with field organizations to see if there might be creative mechanisms for paying amends in areas where the U.S. was absent, and helped craft a presidential order that memorialized what the government considered best practices when it came to review and amends procedures. One of us has written about the importance of these and related measures elsewhere, but both of us believe that these steps did not do enough.

The media and civil society play a critical role [...] but the U.S. government should be able to perform this sort of check on itself.

What might an overall better approach to civilian casualties look like? For starters, it could set in place standards that ensure we err more often on the side of caution in identifying targets and establish more realistic thresholds for acknowledging error. It could make available more information about who and what the U.S. considers targetable so that those standards can be fully discussed and debated. It could appoint and empower individuals within the Defense Department, on both the civilian and military sides, whose sole responsibility would be to reduce civilian casualties, make the assessment process more transparent, and facilitate prompt and adequate reparations whenever possible. And it could open up the post-strike assessment to outside eyes. This last idea is likely to be received as heresy inside the U.S. government. But it’s at least worth pondering whether someone from outside the chain of command—possibly from outside the executive branch altogether—should be able to check the Pentagon’s work, bringing the kind of perspective that only comes with distance. The media and civil society play a critical role—the Times story is a clear example—but the U.S. government should be able to perform this sort of check on itself.

All this matters and would help. But as long as the United States pursues counterterrorism through military means, civilian casualties inevitably will ensue. And so the discussion about how to reduce their number, while welcome, ought to involve a larger debate about the type of warfare America is waging and the technological advances that have allowed—even encouraged—it to be waged. Those advances have enabled more targeted airstrikes, often conducted by unmanned aircraft that are more precise and present fewer risks to U.S. personnel. Yet those same factors also lower the costs of warfare in the eyes of the U.S. public, and thus the threshold for military intervention in areas where we would be unwilling to deploy large numbers of ground troops. Consider this question: Had the fight against al-Qaeda or ISIS required the deployment of substantial U.S. ground troops, is it realistic to assume we would have been involved in so many theaters, for so many years, with so little prospect of bringing the conflict to a decisive end?  

It’s a treacherous trifecta: the promise of greater precision and certainty of fewer U.S. casualties; which leads to more frequent use of military force in more diverse theatres without a substantial U.S. ground presence; which entails diminished ability both to gather information about who is being targeted before a strike and assess what happened afterward. With the human costs of wars substantially shifted to the other side, it has become easier to initiate, perpetuate, and forget them.

And the debate about the number of civilian casualties also ought to involve the deeper question of why, some 17 years after 9/11, the United States remains as intensely engaged in a seemingly endless military campaign against ever-mutating affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS, with all its unintended, yet unavoidable, consequences. During George W. Bush’s presidency, many of us on the other side of the partisan divide decried his early reference to a “war on terror,” because terrorism defines a tactic, not an enemy; because military force is only a very partial way of addressing its root causes; and, yes, because the so-called collateral damage inflicted on civilians by the military campaign risked reproducing the very conditions on which terrorist groups thrive.

As critics, it turns out, we got it only half right. We stopped calling it a global war on terror. But in many respects we continued conducting the campaign as if it were one. We adjusted our methods but retained much of the substance, waging an ever-expanding war against an enemy whose affiliates kept proliferating. The paradox is that arguably no senior official in recent years has been as clear-eyed or as sober about the myths and realities of terrorism, its real and imaginary costs, and the dangers of overreacting to it, than was President Obama. That he too ultimately felt compelled to focus as he did on the military aspects of counterterrorism speaks to the threat posed by organizations that are at least partially engaged in plotting overseas operations, as well as to the difficult tradeoffs between taking greater care at the risk of moving more slowly, or being more aggressive at the risk of incurring higher human cost.   

It speaks volumes, too, about the state of American politics. Had Obama persisted in making an eminently rational case about the perils of hyping the terrorist threat, and had a terrorist attack on U.S. soil succeeded, he risked forfeiting the American people’s trust. Against a political backdrop that was partisan, polarized, demagogical, and prone to scapegoating outsiders, such an attack almost certainly would have prompted calls for retaliation of the most reckless and aggressive sort. And so he leaned on the side of preempting that risk. He took decisions that expedited the destruction of ISIS’s so-called caliphate. But, in so doing, he took another step toward becoming the commander in chief of an ill-defined battle against terrorists.

Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.

In an article one of us co-authored several months ago with Jon Finer, Secretary of State John Kerry’s former chief of staff, we recognized that force at times would be needed to confront terrorist groups while lamenting our excessive focus on, and over-militarization of, the effort; described the often hidden costs of a national obsession to which the Obama administration itself had partly succumbed; feared how far President Trump might go; and hoped for a necessary, albeit improbable, honest conversation about the real magnitude of the terrorist threat and how to deal with it.

That all remains true—and, given the direction taken by the Trump administration, even more so today than at that time. It’s also true that until this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.


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