Christopher Hill and the Iraq War Legacy

Both of these arguments by Hill can easily be refuted. Firstly, the war was in fact winnable in the sense that a potential for peaceful sectarian coexistence in Iraq did exist. Hill’s strictures on Iraq’s sectarian history are complete nonsense. In the first place, Shiism did not really emerge as a fully-fledged sectarian movement until the tenth century, prior to which point the struggle had been primarily dynastic. And at any rate, sectarian relations in Iraq during Ottomans and monarchical days were largely peaceful if not entirely frictionless. Historically, far less blood has been spilt in sectarian conflict in Iraq than in Europe since the Reformation or indeed in the United States during the Civil War.

Secondly, regarding the Iraqi nationalism of Nuri al-Maliki, Hill fails to differentiate between the two different faces of Maliki. There is the nationalist face focused on the establishment of a strong centralised state in all of Iraq except Kurdistan, which came to the fore during the local elections in January 2009 and persisted for some months as Maliki explored potential alliances with Sunni leaders like Ahmad Abu Risha and Usama al-Nujayfi while at the same time refusing to have anything to do with fellow Shiites who wanted him to join their sectarian coalition. But there is also the second Maliki, who jumped on the de-Baathification bandwagon created by other Shiite parties before the March 2010 parliamentary elections and went on to win his second premiership on a purely sectarian platform with the Sadrists in a kingmaker role. By so doing, Maliki became the front figure of a political project that basically gives Iran all it wants in Iraq, i.e. a politics in which sectarian loyalties shape the agenda and the debate.

Crucially, it is the distinction between the two Malikis – and Hill’s failure to detect that distinction – that can shed light on how his own ambassadorship to Iraq affected the big questions about the prevalence of sectarianism and Iranian influences in the country.

When Hill arrived in Baghdad in April 2009, Maliki was still trying to act in a nationalist manner and did his utmost to marginalise fellow Shiites such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in several governorates. But later that spring, ISCI travelled to Iran, regrouped and joined the Sadrists in an attempt to bring Maliki back to the pan-Shiite fold. What Hill and the United States failed to do in this key period was to help Maliki find Sunni partners that could help him consolidate an anti-Iranian front. For example, the United States failed to use their leverage with the Saudis to prevent them from intervening against Maliki in his various alliance-building projects. Instead, it was widely reported that Saudi machinations in the summer of 2009 led to the abortion of a promising alliance bid involving Maliki, Abu Risha and Jawad al-Bulani, the secular interior minister. Similarly, during the autumn, US moves to keep the contentious Kirkuk issue off the agenda during the debate on the elections law meant that another promising avenue for rapprochement between Maliki and the Sunnis was closed off. Maliki, Sunnis and secularists tend to have identical views on Kirkuk, but US concerns about Kurdish reactions plus a desire to adhere to timelines at any cost had the side effect of strengthening sectarian fronts at a time when rapprochement was needed.

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