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U.S. Must Use Leverage Against Maliki

Michael Rubin and I have been disagreeing about the nature of Iraq’s government and specifically about Prime Minister Maliki: Is he a well-intentioned leader who is trying, in all good faith, to increase the power of the central government in Baghdad so as to govern the country effectively, or is he a budding dictator who is trying to establish a sectarian Shi’ite regime with the aid of Iranian agents? I wish the answer were the former but I fear, alas, that it is the latter. More evidence of his alarming tendencies comes from Human Rights Watch, which can hardly be accused of being a Sunni mouthpiece. Its latest report finds:

Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone, based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.

Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held.

That certainly doesn’t sound like the actions of a prime minister interested in upholding the rule of law or in establishing a sound basis for Iraqi democracy. The tragedy is that, in the days when there were still U.S. troops in Iraq, the U.S. commanding general undoubtedly would have gone along with the U.S. ambassador to Maliki’s office and read him the riot act over such egregious misconduct. Similar Iraqi torture operations had been uncovered in the past and disbanded under American pressure.

With our troops gone, we have now lost a good deal of leverage to influence the actions of the Iraqi government. We must use what leverage we still have–Iraq is counting on arms sales from the U.S. to deliver F-16s and other valuable systems–to try to keep Maliki in check. But it won’t be easy. It may not even be possible. For all our disagreements about Maliki, Michael and I at least agree that withdrawing American troops entirely was a mistake, and one for which we–and the long-suffering people of Iraq–are likely to pay a steep price.