Maliki Doubles Down On Sectarianism

Forty-four Sunni prisoners were killed in Baquba yesterday, quite possibly by Shiite militias fighting on behalf of the Baghdad government:

Iraq’s military spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassim al-Moussawi, told reporters that the men were killed when the police station where they were being held was shelled by the Sunni militants. However, three local policemen told the Associated Press that Shiite militiamen shot the detainees, who were suspected of having ties to ISIS, as the militants tried to free them. Meanwhile, a “police source” from Baquba told the New York Times that the prisoners were executed by the police when ISIS attacked. “Those people were detainees who were arrested in accordance with Article 4 terrorism offenses,” he said. “They were killed inside the jail by the policemen before they withdrew from the station last night.” Officials from the morgue in Baquba told both the Times and the AP that most of the dead prisoners had bullet wounds in their heads and chests.

This wouldn’t be surprising, considering that Maliki appears to show little interest in making nice with Sunnis or Kurds, despite warnings from both Washington and Tehran that he’d better do so and quickly (NYT):

President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not provide military support unless Mr. Maliki engineers a drastic change in policy, reaching out to Sunnis and Kurds in a show of national unity against the Sunni militants, whose shock troops are the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Without that, analysts say, the country is at risk of a renewed sectarian war in which Baghdad could lose control over nearly a third of the country for the foreseeable future. But Mr. Maliki is showing few signs of changing his ways.

Just as he did in a similar, though not nearly as threatening, crisis in 2008 in Basra, he is pinning his hopes on the military option. He is determined to use the Shiite fighters he trusts to stabilize the country and, he hopes, rout the Sunni insurgents and reimpose the government’s control over its territory.

Mataconis comments that this is the “worst way possible” of responding to the crisis:

The way forward from here is unclear. Even if al-Maliki did enact the reforms that Obama and others are suggesting, it’s not clear that it would be enough to make up for years of what Sunnis and Kurds view as repression. It’s going to take a lot more than just appointing a few Sunnis to the Cabinet to make up for what has happened in the past, for example. At the moment, though, it doesn’t seem as though al-Maliki is at all interested in political reform in Iraq. Reports are indicating that he and his advisers have taken to wearing military uniforms and rallying the Shiites against what is seen as impending attack on Baghdad. This morning on MSNBC, Richard Engel suggested that al-Maliki may end up responding to the uprising in Iraq in a manner similar to the way that Bashar Assad responded to the uprising in Syria in 2011. If that happens, then we’d be facing the possibility of an Iraq headed into ethnic civil war on a scope that would make Syria look like a picnic. At that point, we may have no choice but to respond.

Frederic Wehrey argues that fanning sectarianism only helps ISIS remain cohesive, when by rights it ought to collapse under the weight of its own extremism:

Already, fissures are developing over its uncompromising vision and imposition of sharia law. For every Tweet of trash collection, vaccinations, and children’s toy drives, there are corresponding images of mass executions, crucifixions, and beheadings. Add to this is its longstanding policy of extortion. And its recent killings of captured Iraqi soldiers countermands injunctions by its Sunni tribal allies, such as the emir of the Dulaym, to spare the security forces for their “brave decision” to surrender. A leader of one of its Baathist allies in Mosul recently accused it of being made up of “barbarians.” Tensions could also develop between its Syrian cohort and its overstretched Iraqi branch, which has swelled in the recent campaign, about goals and priorities.

But one thing is sure to make ISIS consolidate and flourish: a slide to sectarian war, spurred by a heavy-handed response by al-Maliki’s army and its allied Shiite militias. The tribes, ex-Saddamists, and other aggrieved Sunnis will endure its draconian mores if they see in it a useful umbrella in an existential fight for their people’s survival. Like Zarqawi, this is precisely what ISIS is aiming for by killing Shiites.

Previous Dish on the sectarian dimension of the Iraq crisis here.