Contending the United States has "a legal and moral responsibility" to help Iraq overcome its slide into political sectarianism, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq said January 14 that the transfer of American weapons to the Iraqi Army to fight al-Qaida-linked militants occupying parts of the western province of Anbar will not succeed without a broader national reconciliation.
Mutlaq, the country's second highest-ranking Sunni politician, spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), which is hosting a series of leading Iraqi political figures to discuss the wave of large-scale sectarian violence ahead of national elections planned for April. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads a Shiite-dominated government coalition, appealed for greater American support in countering terrorism in remarks at USIP on October 31. Iraq is receiving U.S. missiles and surveillance drones and has also asked for Apache attack helicopters.
Nearly 9,000 Iraqi civilians and security forces died in attacks in 2013—levels not seen since the cycle of insurgent violence and reprisals of 2006-08—and with much of the new fighting taking on a Sunni-vs.-Shiite character, fears of an outright civil war are growing. The Institute has conducted a variety of peacebuilding efforts in Iraq through direct programs and grants since 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime.
"We need help from the United States and the rest of the countries in the West," Mutlaq said. But he cautioned, "Arming the Iraqi Army is important but having a national reconciliation is just as important….Weapons alone cannot do the job." Without elaborating, Mutlaq also said that some U.S.-supplied arms had been used against civilians.
"Sectarianism really is a danger threatening Iraq," said Mutlaq, who is also meeting with Obama administration officials and lawmakers on his visit to Washington. "It is the base for terrorism."
Mutlaq has been a deputy prime minister of Iraq since 2010 and served as the chief Sunni Arab negotiator for the postwar Iraqi Constitution. A candidate from the opposition Iraqiya List, Mutlaq issued a number of criticisms that reflect mounting anger among Iraq's minority Sunnis over what they see as deepening discrimination by the government and peaceful protesters facing mass arrests and harsh treatment at the hands of security forces. Oppositionists contend that Maliki has gathered political power around himself and allowed Iraq's security forces to act in concert with Shiite militias. U.S. officials and key congressmen have also urged Maliki to shift to a more inclusive approach and reach out to Sunni politicians.
Mutlaq suggested that the government response to peaceful demands for more representation, justice and services is pushing some Iraqis toward violence. "If justice is not going to be there, there will be violence throughout Iraq." He added, "Don't make those provinces to be incubators of al-Qaida….We need the people to fight terrorism." Sunni militants recently occupied parts of Fallujah, where many reportedly remain, in Anbar province. Mutlaq is from Fallujah.
He warned that if the upcoming national elections are not seen as transparent and fair and if voters in some areas are denied access to the polls for security reasons, "the results will not be promising" and an opportunity to help stabilize the country will be lost. He attributed most of Iraq's sectarianism to politicians attempting to attract support rather than a popular instinct among the country's people.
Mutlaq asked U.S. officials to more actively press Maliki for what he called "real democracy" and for reconciliation efforts. He remarked that while the United States had come to remove Saddam Hussein from power it had also "destroyed" the earlier unity of the country across sects and ethnicities. Though U.S. military forces left the country more than two years ago, the United States should now "stand for Iraq and help Iraq in such a moment," he said. "The external power is still needed to rearrange things."
Two members of Iraq's parliament, the Council of Representatives, also offered comments on Iraq's political fissures after Mutlaq's speech.
Ezzat al-Shahbander, an independent MP who has participated in back-channel conversations between Maliki's administration and Sunni figures during the recent turmoil, said that Iraqis "at the end of the day are not sectarian." However, he assigned some of the blame to unnamed Sunni leaders who "fail to distinguish themselves from terrorists."
Nada al-Jabouri, an MP with the Iraqiya List and founder of the nongovernmental Iraqi Women and Future Organization, urged Iraqi politicians to emphasize national unity. "The political blocs play an indirect role to increase violence through their political discourse," she said.