Event Summary: ‘Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance’


This is a summary of an event with Colonel Joel Rayburn, chaired by Robin Simcox, on 18th February 2015; it reflects the views expressed by the speakers and not those of The Henry Jackson Society or its staff.

On 18th February, Colonel Joel Rayburn, senior military fellow at the National Defense University and U.S. Army intelligence officer, spoke at The Henry Jackson Society about his book Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance. Colonel Rayburn’s book examines the Iraqi state, sectarian and secular factions and key political trends that have emerged in Iraq since 2003. He explained how the origins of the current situation in Iraq can be traced back to political and social forces that predate the US invasion of 2003. He emphasised that in order to end the war in Iraq and to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), larger political issues — that existed before the fall of the Saddam regime — need to be resolved.

Authoritarianism, Sectarianism, Shia Islamist Resistance

  • The consolidation of state power by the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa Party loyalists constituted the return to an authoritarian Iraqi state. When the Dawa Party returned to Iraq as a political party in 2003, they insinuated themselves into the institutions of government, developed their networks and grew from a weak junior partner in the Shia Islamist opposition coalition into a powerful ruling network.
  • Since 2003 there has been a trend towards a hardening of Iraq’s already existing sectarian and ethnic fractures into a rigid political order. Sunni, Shia and Arab Kurd rivalries now dominate every political question in Iraq, and they also enable ethnic extremist groups, sectarian extremist groups and terror networks to thrive.
  • Shia Islamist resistance movements play a large role in the life of the Iraqi Shia and in the sectarian conflict that are taking place inside Iraq and beyond its borders in the Arab Middle East. These Shia militant groups enjoy patronage from the Iranian regime. This means in addition to their own political place in Iraq, they’re able to pursue their aims while enjoying resources, open political support and freedom of movement.

Combating ISIS

  • ISIS is a meta-phenomenon of a much larger conflict in Iraq. It is fuelled by the fusion of Ba’ath and Sunni Islamists, the broader Sunni community’s response to the al-Maliki government’s authoritarianism, Shia supremacism, Kurdish maximalism and the Shia Islamist resistance. While these larger political issues remain unresolved, the war will continue inside Iraq.
  • ISIS poses a serious threat to Europe. It is very likely that they are intent on carrying out attacks in southern Europe.
  • A military defeat of ISIS without an accompanying political arrangement to resolve the larger political conflicts in Iraq would only lead to further spinoffs and successor groups.
  • If an alternative political arrangement to the Caliphate or political Islam could be agreed on, then there would be several hundred thousand military-aged males who could take up arms against ISIS. Currently, these people are caught in-between the government and jihadism.
  • US policy is very firmly committed to a campaign to try to defeat ISIS in Iraq, certainly as a military force.


  • US leaders in Baghdad were committed to remaining uninvolved in the political process during the 2010 elections. So when Nouri al-Maliki was able to engineer a return to power despite losing the election, the United States didn’t take an active role in trying to prevent it.
  • The outcome of the election was negative because it showed Iraqi voters that a party could lose an election but hold on to power. Further, it showed the Sunni community that their chosen party could win an election, and yet be blocked from power.
  • If moderate Iraqis from various sides can marginalise the extremist wings from other political factions, they can work out a compromise. However, the likes of the Iranian regime play a destabilising role and prevent Iraqi parties from reaching a compromise.
  • The groups that rely on a sectarian political constituency in Iraq view cross-sectarian groups as dangerous threats.

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