John Kerry in Iraq to Push Prime Minister to Get His Act Together, ISIS Still Making Gains

Nouri al-Maliki hasn't formed a government since winning a third term in April.


As promised in a statement on Iraq delivered by President Obama last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad today to urge Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a government that could "meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people." Al-Maliki, who has been prime minister since 2006 and whose party won the most recent parliamentary elections in April, has yet to successfully form a third-term government.

In 2010, al-Maliki's party, the State of Law Coalition, finished second. A deal with Ayal Allawi, the leader of the first place finishers, al-Iraqiyya, saw al-Maliki return as prime minister. In 2011, in the wake of Arab Spring protests in the region, al-Maliki promised not to run for a third term. "Eight years is enough for him, in order to not convert to a dictatorship," his media advisor told the Associated Press. "This is the principle and the concept of democracy." The advisor also claimed al-Maliki would support a constitutional amendment to prevent any future prime ministers from serving more than two terms. Instead, a law to term limit prime ministers was passed by al-Maliki's opponents and ultimately rejected by the Iraqi Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Al-Maliki was right in 2011 to draw from the Arab Spring unrest (including protests in Iraq itself) the conclusion that he ought to relinquish power after his second term and allow for a successor to emerge from a democratic election. By 2013, Western media was asking whether massive anti-government protests held by Sunnis signaled the beginning of an Arab Spring in Iraq.

Today, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a jihadist group composed of several pre-existing Sunni extremist groups, claims a large swath of territory in both Iraq and Syria as the home of its self-proclaimed state, and it is making almost daily gains. ISIS took root in the region after the outbreak of Syria's civil war, a war that came in the wake of Syria's own Arab Spring, which targeted longtime dictator Bashar al-Assad.

This weekend, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told NBC's Meet the Press that he didn't blame the situation in Iraq on President Obama but that he did "blame the Iraq War on the chaos that is in the Middle East." Indeed, it is unlikely ISIS would be able to develop and operate the way it has in the region absent the chaos created by the Iraq War—the Islamic State in Iraq, one of ISIS' major predecessor organizations, was formed in 2006 in the midst of the Iraq War. Jihadists from that conflict were able to use their gained experience to escalate anti-government protests in Syria into a full-blown sectarian civil war. The subsequent unrest in Syria created the space for ISIS to become a militant group able to lay claim on much of the frontier on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Al-Maliki is to blame as well, despite appearing to understand that if he held on to power for too long, his country might face the kind of Arab Spring sentiments that led to civil wars in Libya and Syria and the deposition of a longtime dictator in Egypt. Nevertheless, he held on to power, and more. His government has been accused of a litany of human rights abuses, largely targeting the Sunni population, and those abuses have certainly provided the fodder for ISIS to build support among a portion of the population living in places now effectively under ISIS control.