Just as US combat troops are completing their exit from Iraq, prime minister Nuri al-Maliki orders the arrest of the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi for allegedly ordering assassinations and terrorist attacks. This escalates a broader tendency of Maliki to go after Sunni politicians, and a decision by Iraqiya, Hashimi’s party, to boycott the parliament and the cabinet. Then yesterday there is a horrific round of car bombs and IEDs in Baghdad. It’s not clear exactly what group or groups are to blame, though the NYT mentions al Qaeda and Juan Cole refers to “Sunni Arab guerrilla groups.”
The most common interpretation of these events that I’ve seen goes like this: Maliki never liked the power-sharing arrangement negotiated with lots of US input about a year ago, and now that US troops are gone, this somehow makes it is easier or more possible from him to ditch the agreement and carry out his authoritarian designs.
Here is another, not mutually exclusive interpretation: The US army performed a lot of roles in Iraq over the last eight years, but one of the most important and least explicitly discussed was to function as a Republican Guard for the governments we helped set up. That is, US troops were a competent armed force that could be expected to respond aggressively to armed attempts to depose the regime, coups in particular.
Despite their exit, US troops could still come back to play this role if a high-level violent fight breaks out over control of the government. But there is much more uncertainty about whether “the police” would or could show up now than there was a few months ago.
Maliki realizes that there are a lot of armed Sunni groups (and Shiite groups as well) that see deposing him by force as a good thing if they think they might get away with it. Maybe he’s more paranoid than he should be, and it’s also puzzling that he is not doing more to try buy support from some subset of Sunni leaders. But with US combat troops gone it’s a situation ripe for realistic paranoia.