Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nouri al-Maliki

Iraq’s Newest Insurgency

The latest alarming news from Iraq is that hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda terrorists have broken out of the Abu Ghraib prison–once used by Saddam Hussein, then by the U.S., now by the Iraqi government.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq–recently rebranded, after a merger with its Syrian affiliate, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–has already been displaying formidable capabilities, given that it now seems to set off a major explosion at least once a week. The raid to free imprisoned al-Qaeda members–which featured complex, military-style maneuvers–is a further sign of its strength. And of course with the aid of the newly released terrorists, al-Qaeda in Iraq will only get stronger still.

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The latest alarming news from Iraq is that hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda terrorists have broken out of the Abu Ghraib prison–once used by Saddam Hussein, then by the U.S., now by the Iraqi government.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq–recently rebranded, after a merger with its Syrian affiliate, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–has already been displaying formidable capabilities, given that it now seems to set off a major explosion at least once a week. The raid to free imprisoned al-Qaeda members–which featured complex, military-style maneuvers–is a further sign of its strength. And of course with the aid of the newly released terrorists, al-Qaeda in Iraq will only get stronger still.

While the prison breakout was the headline event, Reuters notes, almost in passing, “In the city of Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives behind a military convoy in the eastern Kokchali district, killing at least 22 soldiers and three passers-by.” That is another significant attack–what it signifies is that a full-blown Sunni insurgency is growing in northern Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Shiite extremist groups are beginning to fight back, just as they did in the dark days of 2006-2007 when Iraq was on the verge of all-out civil war. As Kim Kagan notes in the Weekly Standard, “Shia militias have mobilized in Iraq and have resumed extrajudicial killings in Baghdad, Diyala, and Hillah…. The militias are evidently reasserting their control of East Baghdad while projecting checkpoints into West Baghdad.” “Some of the militia activity,” she notes, “is occurring within sight of Iraqi Security Forces checkpoints,” which suggests that the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, “is either tolerating it or has lost control over the escalation.”

Maliki is responsible for this spiraling violence in other ways, as well, principally with his heavyhanded attempts to marginalize and prosecute Sunni politicians which is increasingly driving Sunnis to oppose the government via force of arms. A turning point, as Kagan notes, was “the January killing of several protesters in Fallujah and a deliberate military maneuver on the protest camp in Hawijah in April that left 200 casualties.”

The U.S., which has expended so much blood and treasure in Iraq, has been little more than a hand-wringing bystander to this worsening situation, our leverage severely limited by President Obama’s failure to reach an agreement that could have kept U.S. forces there past 2011. The U.S. can, as Kagan suggests, condition our arms deliveries on Maliki taking constructive steps to reach out to political adversaries, but Iraq is now rich enough–it is the second-largest oil producer in OPEC, behind only Saudi Arabia–that it can always replace U.S. weapons with others bought on the open market.

The fate of Iraq is not yet sealed, but its future does not look good. That is a precedent the administration should keep in mind as it openly flirts with the “zero-option” in Afghanistan–i.e., the removal of all U.S. forces after 2014. As the Iraq precedent should show, such a step would not “end” the war but worsen it.

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Looming Threat of Civil War in Iraq

The situation in Iraq continues to get grimmer and grimmer. Here is the latest: “A wave of car bombings and gunfire attacks hit cities in Iraq overnight and on Monday, killing at least 64 people and wounding more than 170, medical and security officials said.”

What is most alarming about this growth of violence is the intransigence increasingly displayed by both sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blaming “terrorist” politicians of Sunni persuasion for the attacks, while Sunnis once active in the Anbar Awakening are vowing to resist with force the presence of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province. It is difficult, if not yet impossible, to imagine some kind of negotiated solution. In all likelihood, the violence will get worse as al-Qaeda in Iraq stages a dismaying comeback from its near-defeat during the surge in 2007-2008.

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The situation in Iraq continues to get grimmer and grimmer. Here is the latest: “A wave of car bombings and gunfire attacks hit cities in Iraq overnight and on Monday, killing at least 64 people and wounding more than 170, medical and security officials said.”

What is most alarming about this growth of violence is the intransigence increasingly displayed by both sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blaming “terrorist” politicians of Sunni persuasion for the attacks, while Sunnis once active in the Anbar Awakening are vowing to resist with force the presence of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province. It is difficult, if not yet impossible, to imagine some kind of negotiated solution. In all likelihood, the violence will get worse as al-Qaeda in Iraq stages a dismaying comeback from its near-defeat during the surge in 2007-2008.

This is exactly the kind of scenario that advocates of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past 2014 warned about–with no honest broker in the middle, Shiite and Sunni extremists are on the verge of restarting the civil war that was extinguished during the surge at such great cost by American troops.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s pullback in Iraq has coincided with his unwillingness to do much of anything in Syria, raising the danger that the wars in the two countries will merge, involve other nations such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, and thus become a true regional conflagration. If we are not there yet, we are fast on the way to such a catastrophic outcome.

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CIA Plan Shows Mistake of Iraq Withdrawal

What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

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What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

Obama claimed that the pullout was necessary because Iraqi political leaders, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would not countenance an American role with immunity from prosecution. Does that mean that these CIA operatives are now subject to Iraqi criminal prosecution? One doubts it. Rather, one suspects that the Iraqis have granted the CIA a secret immunity deal, although if one exists it goes unmentioned in the Journal article.

But it is hard to imagine the CIA risking its operatives in such a quasi-public role without some legal protection. If in fact the Iraqis have granted such immunity to the CIA, it suggests they probably would have been willing to grant it to a limited contingent of military personnel as well–if only Obama had not made the onerous and unnecessary demand, opposed by his own negotiating team, that any immunity deal be approved by Iraq’s parliament.

Given the inability of the U.S. military to operate in Iraq, the CIA mission sounds like a reasonable stopgap, but almost surely there is a loss of capability in relying on the CIA rather than on seasoned American military organizations which built up long-term connections with their Iraqi counterparts and had more resources and expertise to devote to counterterrorism than an organization that is primarily devoted to the collection of intelligence. The CIA can make ample use of former military personnel–and perhaps some active-duty ones as well–but it simply is not as capable in carrying out this kind of mission as the U.S. Special Operations Command or other Defense Department organizations would be. Nor can the CIA presence, which is necessarily hidden and limited, provide the same kind of political clout to influence Maliki that the presence of uniformed military personnel could provide.

This is, in essence, a second-best solution–better than nothing but not as good as keeping an American military contingent after 2011 as America’s military commanders on the ground had argued for. Does President Obama now regret, one wonders, not trying harder to secure a Status of Forces Agreement?

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Maliki Should Not Appease Terror

February 2013 was a particularly bloody month in Iraq, with more than 200 killed and 500 wounded in terrorist attacks. When it comes to Iraq, the United States military has a sectarian problem: In the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the Pentagon often is more sectarian than Iraqis, and deeply biased against the Shi’ites. The reasons for this are multifold:

  • The Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
  • The 1983 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut.
  • Subsequent Hezbollah hostage-taking in Lebanon
  • CENTCOM deals almost exclusively with Sunni generals and Sunni royal families who don’t hesitate to badmouth Shi’ites at every possible opportunity.

Iranian malfeasance is real, but the Shi’ites are not all fifth columnists for Iran. Most Iraqis—including the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’ites—place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity. The whole reason Iran must sponsor militias in Iraq is to impose through force of arms what is not in Iraqi hearts and minds.

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February 2013 was a particularly bloody month in Iraq, with more than 200 killed and 500 wounded in terrorist attacks. When it comes to Iraq, the United States military has a sectarian problem: In the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the Pentagon often is more sectarian than Iraqis, and deeply biased against the Shi’ites. The reasons for this are multifold:

  • The Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
  • The 1983 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut.
  • Subsequent Hezbollah hostage-taking in Lebanon
  • CENTCOM deals almost exclusively with Sunni generals and Sunni royal families who don’t hesitate to badmouth Shi’ites at every possible opportunity.

Iranian malfeasance is real, but the Shi’ites are not all fifth columnists for Iran. Most Iraqis—including the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’ites—place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity. The whole reason Iran must sponsor militias in Iraq is to impose through force of arms what is not in Iraqi hearts and minds.

While it is easy to blame Maliki for precipitating sectarian crises by issuing an arrest warrant first for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and then several bodyguards employed by Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, the sectarian story breaks down when other details emerge: Few doubt Hashemi’s guilt, and several of the judges and the plaintiffs in the Issawi case were Sunni Arabs from al-Anbar. The Iraqi government has also taken on Shi’ite terrorists, like the Hezbollah-affiliated Jaysh al-Mukhtar.

The crisis is now coming to a head, with Issawi’s Friday resignation and calls for a general strike on Tuesday. To blame Maliki for the Iraqi government’s actions against Hashemi and Issawi, however, is dangerous. While it may be frustrating that Maliki simply does not meet the demands of some Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, it would set a horrendous precedent to accept a dynamic in which prominent Sunni politicians say “accept our agenda or face terrorism”: That’s not politics, it’s blackmail.

Nor are the Sunni protestors necessarily motivated by justice or a desire for a more perfect democracy. Youtube footage of Friday prayers in al-Anbar a week ago shows Sunni preachers threatening violence against not only the Iraqi government, but also against European and American interests. Nor are they shy about announcing ties to al-Qaeda.

The surge was a successful military strategy, but it was politically short-sighted. The base problem in Iraq remains that many Sunni Arabs refuse to accept that they are the minority in the country and will never have the same power that they did under the Baathists. There is simply no solution to the Iraqi situation that would put the Shi’ites back in the bottle. To try to disenfranchise the Shi’ites validates Iranian propaganda, which says that only the Islamic Republic defends the Shi’ites’ human rights.

The way forward is not to counsel Maliki and the Iraqi government to submit to blackmail or appease an al-Qaeda-affiliated fringe, but rather to:

  • Make clear to al-Anbar residents that there will be no concessions under fire.
  • Target terrorists and those inciting violence regardless of their sect.
  • Remove grievances by fighting sectarian discrimination in the ministries which leave Sunnis and other minorities feeling dispossessed and unable to make a living.
  • Counter Iranian influence by targeting Iranian-backed militias.
  • Establish guarantees and checks-and-balances to ensure transparent elections not only in al-Anbar and Baghdad but also in Erbil, and other cities susceptible to the dominance of local militias.

A strong, independent Iraq—capable of both empowering Shi’ites and standing up to Tehran—is not only in America’s interest, but it would also be a poison pill for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Criticizing the victims of terrorism should never be American policy, no matter what Saudi generals, Turkish ministers, or the American officers to whom they whisper may counsel.

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The Risk of Iraqi Civil War

It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Iraq was badly shaken by an incident that occurred Friday in Fallujah: security forces fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters, killing at least seven people. The people of Fallujah got their revenge by killing at least two soldiers and kidnapping three more. As press accounts note, mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” and they set fire to an army checkpoint.

This is, to put it mildly, a worrisome situation. Fallujah was one of the epicenters of Al Qaeda in Iraq and, more generally, of Sunni resistance to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Along with the rest of Anbar Province, it has been relatively peaceful since the “surge” of 2007-2008, when most Sunnis elected to join with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, but the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.

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It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Iraq was badly shaken by an incident that occurred Friday in Fallujah: security forces fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters, killing at least seven people. The people of Fallujah got their revenge by killing at least two soldiers and kidnapping three more. As press accounts note, mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” and they set fire to an army checkpoint.

This is, to put it mildly, a worrisome situation. Fallujah was one of the epicenters of Al Qaeda in Iraq and, more generally, of Sunni resistance to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Along with the rest of Anbar Province, it has been relatively peaceful since the “surge” of 2007-2008, when most Sunnis elected to join with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, but the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.

Unless Maliki does something concrete to placate Sunnis and convince them that he is not a Shiite sectarian, then the odds are that some incident–if not this one, then some future clash–could well set off a more general outbreak of civil war. And of course with U.S. troops entirely gone, there is no external stabilizing force. The Iraqis are on their own.

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Iraq Needs Early Elections

The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.

Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”

The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.

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The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.

Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”

The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should call his bluff. The time is right for early elections. President Jalal Talabani’s stroke—he is brain dead and dependent on life support according to doctors who have seen him in Germany, although Kurdish politicians will deny this publicly until they get their house in order—has thrown a wrench into already chaotic Iraqi politics.

Allawi and many of his supporters remain bitter that although his party came in first in the 2009 elections he was unable to stitch together a coalition. Allawi has spread a lot of money—much of it from unclear origins—along K Street and is the unabashed favorite of the U.S. military, Central Intelligence Agency, Jordanians and Turks. Spending money on lobbyists and media abroad, however, may win hearts and minds in Washington, London, and Ankara, but does not do much for ordinary Iraqis. The majority of Iraqis—perhaps 65 or 70 percent now—are Shi’ites and while they may not all care for Maliki, they utterly reject neo-Baathism or their own subordination to sectarian Sunni parties. Until the good men and women of Al-Anbar and Tikrit recognize that they will never have the numbers to restore their domination of Iraq, they will never accept freely-elected governments. Rather than convince them of the need to integrate into Iraqi society, General David Petraeus’s policies of co-option and appeasement may have achieved his short-term military goals, but politically, they increased the Fallujans and Tikritis sense of entitlement and promised a reckoning down the road.

For all that his opponents unfairly depict him as an authoritarian dictator, the incredibly close 2009 elections, meanwhile, continue to paralyze Iraqi politics. The only way through the impasse will be to hold parliamentary elections alongside the provincial elections already scheduled for April 2013. While Iraq will have to overcome Kurdish reticence to hold elections (Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to hold the 2009 provincial elections, let alone prepare for the 2013 round), the results will probably be good for everyone. Not only will they confirm the hemorrhaging of Muqtada al-Sadr’s grassroots support as his followers conclude that he is a shameful opportunist willing to sacrifice their interests to those of Masud Barzani and former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, but Ayad Allawi will also likely see that he is not as popular as his foreign paymasters whisper in his ear. Most importantly, those who wish to return to the dark days of Saddam or, alternately, transform Iraq into a safe-haven for al-Qaeda will learn that the Iraqi people have had enough war and enough violence and would like the opportunity to rebuild, be it in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Ramadi, or Tuz Khurmatu.

It is the nature of Iraqi politics to call whoever is in power an “authoritarian” and warn ominously that he wishes to be a “new Saddam.” Especially if their words were true, then there is no better call than to demand the prime minister submit himself to free and fair elections as well. Let us hope that April 2013 will mark a new beginning in Iraq, as Iraqis again head to the polls observed by teams from the United States, Iran, Turkey, the Arab League, among others.

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Don’t Let Anti-Shi’ite Bias Play into Al-Qaeda’s Hands

Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”

It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.

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Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”

It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.

Let’s look at the case of Issawi’s guards: First of all, before the Iraqi government’s actions, there were 22 cases leveled against Issawi’s guards by Sunni Arabs. Perhaps Maliki waited as long as he did because he understood that he would face sectarian blowback. When the judiciary, 10 Sunni judges, reportedly signed off on the warrants against Issawi’s guards, Maliki had no authority to quash the judiciary’s orders. That said, Maliki yesterday released an official response to the protestors, offering to compromise where to do so would not violate the constitution.

Now, I do not agree with many of Maliki’s policies, but it is wrong to tar Iraqi Shi’ites with being Iranian dupes. Distrust between Arab Shi’ites and Iranian Shi’ites is centuries deep. Every Iraqi politician—Kurdish, Arab, or otherwise—will have some contact with Iran. Many would have preferred balance between the United States and Iran, but the U.S. withdrawal undercut Baghdad’s ability to resist many of Iran’s more overbearing demands. Liberal Iraqi intellectual Mustafa al-Kadhimy’s article today in Al-Monitor is very much worth reading on the topic.

Undercutting Maliki—or any other leader who happens to be Shi’ite—won’t resolve the issue; it will only sow the seeds of chaos and create a self-fulfilling prophecy: As ordinary Iraqi Shi’ites see not only sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the United States work to undercut a Shi’ite prime minister and embrace Sunni officials who, like former Vice President Tariq Hashemi or Issawi’s bodyguards, were likely complicit in terror, they may feel they have no choice but to accept Iran’s embrace. Iranian propaganda often depicts the Islamic Republic as the defender of Shi’ism worldwide, even though many if not most ordinary Shi’ites want little to do with the Iranian government’s interpretation of Shi’ism, Mahdism, and the interplay of religious and political leadership.

The surge was an important military strategy and it achieved important military aims. It was not a political strategy, however: It traded short-term stabilization for long-term instability. Iraq is now paying the price. The major problem with the surge was to convince some reticent Sunni politicians that they need not cooperate within a new order in which, by sheer dint of numbers, they would no longer dominate Iraq. Perhaps Maliki might have done more to integrate Sunnis empowered by the Americans, albeit often they were in extra-constitutional bodies. The sooner some Iraqi Sunni politicians recognize that there will not be some grand “do-over” that redraws Iraq’s political developments over the last decade from scratch, the quicker peace will come to Iraq. To turn a blind eye to Sunni violence and then bash Maliki for moving against it is counterproductive, even more so at a time when Syrian Sunni extremists threaten to export terrorism once again into Iraq.

If the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Sunni activists feel that Maliki is unfairly targeting the Sunni community, they should demonstrate that the judiciary is ignoring their cases, the executive is ignoring the judiciary, or that Shi’ite politicians (e.g. Muqtada al-Sadr’s gang) are getting a free pass. If Iraqis do not like Maliki, they should find an alternative candidate and pressure for transparent, free and fair elections. What they should not do is simply bash an Iraqi government which appears a lot less sectarian in its functioning than the sometimes cartoonish images of it projected by its adversaries would suggest.

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Maliki’s Dangerous Partisan Vendetta

Large, noisy demonstrations have flared across Anbar Province in recent days to protest what is widely perceived to be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s witch-hunt against Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki’s security force raided Issawi’s compound and arrested 10 of his bodyguards–following the same M.O. that led last year to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi being convicted of murder in absentia after his bodyguards were allegedly tortured. (Hashemi has fled to Turkey.)

Maliki insists the security forces are simply following the law and investigating credible allegations that Issawi, like Hashemi, has been involved in terrorism. As it happens, a friend has provided me with a letter that General Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote to Maliki in 2010. The letter (which is in Arabic) says that U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly investigated the charges against Issawi and found them to be uncorroborated. In the murky world of Iraqi politics, where courts are corrupt and government agencies often sectarian, this is about as convincing an exoneration as Issawi could get–coming as it did at a time when the U.S. still had a substantial military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, something that is no longer the case.

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Large, noisy demonstrations have flared across Anbar Province in recent days to protest what is widely perceived to be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s witch-hunt against Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki’s security force raided Issawi’s compound and arrested 10 of his bodyguards–following the same M.O. that led last year to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi being convicted of murder in absentia after his bodyguards were allegedly tortured. (Hashemi has fled to Turkey.)

Maliki insists the security forces are simply following the law and investigating credible allegations that Issawi, like Hashemi, has been involved in terrorism. As it happens, a friend has provided me with a letter that General Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote to Maliki in 2010. The letter (which is in Arabic) says that U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly investigated the charges against Issawi and found them to be uncorroborated. In the murky world of Iraqi politics, where courts are corrupt and government agencies often sectarian, this is about as convincing an exoneration as Issawi could get–coming as it did at a time when the U.S. still had a substantial military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, something that is no longer the case.

The letter exposes what is already obvious–that this is not a legitimate criminal inquiry but a partisan vendetta that is being pursued by the Shiite prime minister against his Sunni opponents. Given the way that Issawi has been able to turn out large crowds on his behalf, it is obvious that Maliki is playing with fire. If he keeps on this path, Sunnis are likely to protest not just with demonstrations but with bombs and bullets.

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Arab-Kurd Tensions Flare in U.S. Absence

A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:

When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.

Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.

In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.

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A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:

When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.

Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.

In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.

Prior to December 2011, such a dispute would have been mediated by U.S. troops positioned on both sides of the disputed Green Line dividing Kurdish territory from Iraq proper. American troops were even running joint patrols with the Iraqi army and the peshmerga in a confidence-building measure. But now the American buffer has been removed and tensions are predictably flaring.

Odds are that the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, wily survivors both, will step back from the brink. But you never know–they could miscalculate and, amid surging emotions on both sides, an actual war could break out. Certainly the odds of such a dangerous outcome have been appreciably increased by the White House’s irresponsible failure to secure an extension of the Status of Forces Agreement keeping U.S. troops in Iraq.

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Don’t Just Worry About Iranian Influence in Iraq

Within the United States, conventional wisdom relates that Iraq is now a puppet of Iran. There is real reason for concern, and I won’t be one that will downplay Iranian attempts to influence, if not dominate, Iraq. That said, Iraqi Shi’ites are traditionally not pro-Iranian; they are pro-Iraqi. After all, during the Iran-Iraq War, the bulk of Iraqi conscripts on the front line hailed not from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and its Sunni environs, but rather from Baghdad and the largely Shi’ite towns and villages of Iraq’s south. They fought against the Shi’ite brethren because they saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first, not Persians.

That said, Iranian influence is on the increase. Iran’s true Achilles’ heel is Shi’ism. Because the supreme leader claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on earth, with ultimate political and religious authority, the theologically independent ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, undercut his authority whenever they contradict him. Iran will never tolerate the rise of an ayatollah to the political leadership in Iraq because that would pose a threat to the supreme leader. However, the Iranians will try to dominate Iraq to ensure that Iranian strategic interests remain paramount. Certainly, it need not have been this way: Had the United States retained a presence in Iraq, even if a limited number of forces simply kicked their heels in isolated bases, their presence would have enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to better resist Iranian demands. For many Middle Eastern countries, diplomacy is about balance. Iran will ratchet up its pressure and perhaps its presence in Iraq as its grasp on Syria falters. Iraqis worry openly that they will become Iran’s new frontline.

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Within the United States, conventional wisdom relates that Iraq is now a puppet of Iran. There is real reason for concern, and I won’t be one that will downplay Iranian attempts to influence, if not dominate, Iraq. That said, Iraqi Shi’ites are traditionally not pro-Iranian; they are pro-Iraqi. After all, during the Iran-Iraq War, the bulk of Iraqi conscripts on the front line hailed not from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and its Sunni environs, but rather from Baghdad and the largely Shi’ite towns and villages of Iraq’s south. They fought against the Shi’ite brethren because they saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first, not Persians.

That said, Iranian influence is on the increase. Iran’s true Achilles’ heel is Shi’ism. Because the supreme leader claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on earth, with ultimate political and religious authority, the theologically independent ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, undercut his authority whenever they contradict him. Iran will never tolerate the rise of an ayatollah to the political leadership in Iraq because that would pose a threat to the supreme leader. However, the Iranians will try to dominate Iraq to ensure that Iranian strategic interests remain paramount. Certainly, it need not have been this way: Had the United States retained a presence in Iraq, even if a limited number of forces simply kicked their heels in isolated bases, their presence would have enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to better resist Iranian demands. For many Middle Eastern countries, diplomacy is about balance. Iran will ratchet up its pressure and perhaps its presence in Iraq as its grasp on Syria falters. Iraqis worry openly that they will become Iran’s new frontline.

While Washington should certainly do what it can to constrain Iranian influence in Iraq, it would be a mistake to focus only on Iran. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s whirlwind trip to Russia and the announcement of a multibillion-dollar arms purchase should underline this point. True, Maliki can say that he sought first to purchase weapons from the United States, but Kurdish opposition (the Kurds believe Maliki might use the weapons against them) slow-rolled the deal and convinced Maliki to look elsewhere. That said, the Iraqi government is not simply reaching out to Iran as a last resort. Throughout the Baathist period, Iraq cultivated close relations with the Soviet Union. Many Iraqis studied in the Soviet Union and the East Bloc. Many have residual ties to Russians and feel comfortable doing business the Russian way. Russians tend not to worry about niceties such as transparency or human rights, and that works just fine for some Iraqis.

It’s not just Russia and Iran which are making plays for the Iraqi market. China is a growing presence. In 2010, the United States was Iraq’s fifth largest source of imports, but was still Iraq’s No. 1 trade partner. While I do not have access to the most recent statistics, Iraqi politicians have said that the United States might now be number four or five, after Iran, Russia, Turkey, and China. The Chinese have been quite aggressive. In the scandal/power play which led to the resignation of the minister of trade, Muhammad Allawi, one factor was a Maliki ally in the ministry whom some government officials say is on the payroll of the Chinese telecommunication firm Huawei. According to their accusations, the woman in question—who clashed repeatedly with Muhammad Allawi—would repeatedly undercut efforts by American businesses to work more in Iraq in order to privilege Huawei. The problem is not just in central Iraq. In the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymani, Huawei sports a fancy new store. While the Kurdish ruling families’ notorious corruption has stymied some American investment, again, the Chinese are not so particular.

American officials are right to worry about Iranian influence. Focusing exclusively on the Iranian threat to the neglect of others, however, will be counterproductive. Saddam’s ouster was about resolving a threat to U.S. national security, and the efforts to offer Iraqis a future beyond dictatorship was the right move. Let us hope, however, that White House neglect will not mean that Iraq slides further into an Iranian-Russian-Chinese economic axis, not even a year after the departure of the last American troops.

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In Iraq, No Signs Can Be Good Signs

I’m currently in Baghdad catching up with old friends. I am not here with U.S. sponsorship and so am not trapped behind embassy walls or surrounded by a phalanx of security. Over the next few days, I’ll offer some observations both good and bad. Baghdad is definitely a mixed bag. But first, a positive sign:

Many American writers, including some friends and colleagues, describe Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a burgeoning dictator. They accuse him of making a power play upon the departure of U.S. troops, and some also suggest his administration to be somehow illegitimate because he did not win as many votes as Ayad Allawi. Such criticisms are unfair: It is a simple fact that it was Maliki and not Allawi who managed to cobble together a coalition. Broad coalition governments never work. If Governor Romney defeats President Obama, I would not expect him to keep Joe Biden on or appoint Sen. John Kerry to be his Secretary of State. Nor, for that matter, would I expect a second term Obama administration to put Paul Ryan in change of the budget. The test of Maliki’s commitment to democracy will be in both rule-of-law and allowing free-and-fair elections.

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I’m currently in Baghdad catching up with old friends. I am not here with U.S. sponsorship and so am not trapped behind embassy walls or surrounded by a phalanx of security. Over the next few days, I’ll offer some observations both good and bad. Baghdad is definitely a mixed bag. But first, a positive sign:

Many American writers, including some friends and colleagues, describe Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a burgeoning dictator. They accuse him of making a power play upon the departure of U.S. troops, and some also suggest his administration to be somehow illegitimate because he did not win as many votes as Ayad Allawi. Such criticisms are unfair: It is a simple fact that it was Maliki and not Allawi who managed to cobble together a coalition. Broad coalition governments never work. If Governor Romney defeats President Obama, I would not expect him to keep Joe Biden on or appoint Sen. John Kerry to be his Secretary of State. Nor, for that matter, would I expect a second term Obama administration to put Paul Ryan in change of the budget. The test of Maliki’s commitment to democracy will be in both rule-of-law and allowing free-and-fair elections.

Frankly, whatever Americans may think, Maliki’s popularity is growing. Iraqis are tired of senseless political violence and, generally, applaud the death sentence—issued in absentia—against former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi. They note that the judges hearing the case came from a variety of political trends, and most Iraqis—including some supportive of Ayad Allawi—acknowledge al-Hashemi’s guilt. True, Hashemi is far from alone in supporting death squads and sponsoring terror, but the proper response to this is not to argue for suspending the sentence or amnesty, but rather to seek justice against Muqtada al-Sadr, Mansour Barzani, and others whom many Iraqis accuse of similar offenses. Muqtada al-Sadr made a fateful error in the Al-Hashemi dispute by backing the Kurds and Allawi against Maliki. Muqtada showed himself more interested in personal power than justice, and many Iraqis now laugh at his claim to be the protector of oppressed Shi’ites. His influence is declining.

Another positive sign is the lack of signs: I’ve lived in or traveled through many dictatorships: Syria, Iran, Hezbollah-controlled areas in southern Lebanon, for example. Pictures of dictators plaster walls, streets, and schools. Not so in Iraq. The pictures of Saddam are gone. For all the talk about Maliki being a dictator, he has not plastered his photo about town. There are no statues of Maliki. He shows no sign of developing a personality cult. While various Iraqi television channels will cover Iraqi politics, they do not always prioritize Maliki and they certainly do not all sing his praises. The same cannot be said for Masud Barzani, whom some U.S. officials consider more democratic. As soon as Saddam’s pictures came down in Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani’s went up. Those who criticize him and his dictatorial ways often end up dead or in prison.

(While Maliki’s picture is absent across Baghdad, the same is not true for some Shi’ite religious leaders and I’ve spotted one sizable portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, though he’s not the most popular figure here either).

Iraq is a complicated place. The government is staking out positions, some positive and some negative. I certainly worry as much as others about Iranian influence, but not every Shi’ite backs Iran. Maliki must walk a tightrope, both domestically and internationally. Two things are certain: To label Maliki a dictator would be unfair, and to openly push for his removal—as the Turks and Saudis do for largely sectarian reasons—will backfire.

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In Trying to End One Iraq War, Did Obama Restart Another?

It is surely no coincidence that on Sunday an Iraqi court sentenced to death Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, and on the same day Sunni militants unleashed a series of attacks across Iraq, many of them aimed at Shiites, which killed some 100 people. Not that the bombings were planned in response to Hashemi’s sentencing in absentia–such coordinated strikes have to be arranged well in advance. But the attacks are symptomatic of how Iraq is starting to unravel: Prime Minister Maliki is seen as a Shiite militant who is persecuting Sunnis and Sunni extremists are responding with their trademark terrorist attacks.

It is quite possible that Hashemi is guilty of the killings attributed to him–but then similar charges could be lodged against many senior Shiite political figures. Too many Iraqi politicos to count have blood on their hands from the dark days of Iraq’s civil war, which finally petered out in 2008–at least temporarily. The fact that the courts, which are widely viewed as beholden to Maliki and not in any credible way independent, have gone after Hashemi is widely seem as a political vendetta–not as justice being done. The evidence against Hashemi, moreover, appears to have come from the torture of his bodyguards.

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It is surely no coincidence that on Sunday an Iraqi court sentenced to death Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, and on the same day Sunni militants unleashed a series of attacks across Iraq, many of them aimed at Shiites, which killed some 100 people. Not that the bombings were planned in response to Hashemi’s sentencing in absentia–such coordinated strikes have to be arranged well in advance. But the attacks are symptomatic of how Iraq is starting to unravel: Prime Minister Maliki is seen as a Shiite militant who is persecuting Sunnis and Sunni extremists are responding with their trademark terrorist attacks.

It is quite possible that Hashemi is guilty of the killings attributed to him–but then similar charges could be lodged against many senior Shiite political figures. Too many Iraqi politicos to count have blood on their hands from the dark days of Iraq’s civil war, which finally petered out in 2008–at least temporarily. The fact that the courts, which are widely viewed as beholden to Maliki and not in any credible way independent, have gone after Hashemi is widely seem as a political vendetta–not as justice being done. The evidence against Hashemi, moreover, appears to have come from the torture of his bodyguards.

All of this is deeply disturbing because it threatens to throw off the delicate balance that Iraqi politics achieved after the success of the surge. By 2009 Al Qaeda in Iraq had been effectively defeated and Iraq had an excellent chance to emerge as an enduring democracy. Now that chance is being squandered because of Maliki’s short-sightedness–and because the Obama administration has totally given up trying to play any meaningful role in Iraq’s future. Not only do we not have any more troops in Iraq; we don’t even have an ambassador.

Iraq is only mentioned by the president in the context of “I ended the war.” On the contrary, it appears more accurate to say that Obama, with his failure to renew the mandate of U.S. troops, may have restarted a war that had been effectively ended after the sacrifice of the lives of 4,486 U.S. service personnel. Voters may not care now, but if the situation continues to worsen it will be a major blot on Obama’s historical legacy, something that he appears not to realize at the moment. More significantly, it will be a dangerous blow against U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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Maliki Bests Erdoğan, Barzani

On December 19, 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi alleging that al-Hashemi had planned a wave of bomb attacks and had directed the assassination of Shi’ite opposition. The move unleashed a furious wave of political maneuvering, not only in Baghdad and Erbil, but also amongst Iraq’s neighbors, most notably Turkey. Interpol subsequently upheld the warrant against al-Hashemi, whose trial is ongoing even as Hashemi remains a fugitive. Almost nine months on, it’s clear that Maliki has come out the winner. Hashemi and his allies—Masud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—miscalculated and face a growing perception respectively of weakness and fallibility among their home constituencies.

Erdoğan and Barzani’s embrace of al-Hashemi was a cynical and sectarian strategy. While Turkish diplomats still insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that Erdoğan harbors no ill-will toward Jews and Christians, Shi’ite and Shi’ite offshoot sects are another issue. Often, strict adherents to any religion exhibit more tolerance toward those of other religions than they do toward those whom they consider deviating from their own. Simply put, Erdoğan dislikes Turkey’s Alevis. Upon winning his first national elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included not a single Alevi parliamentarian. He has since unleashed a campaign of discrimination, refusing to recognize Alevi places of worship, in some cases even threatening to tear them down. Alevis complain he is imposing Sunni religious education teachers upon their children. Like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, Erdoğan will never accept a Shi’ite-led Iraq.

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On December 19, 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi alleging that al-Hashemi had planned a wave of bomb attacks and had directed the assassination of Shi’ite opposition. The move unleashed a furious wave of political maneuvering, not only in Baghdad and Erbil, but also amongst Iraq’s neighbors, most notably Turkey. Interpol subsequently upheld the warrant against al-Hashemi, whose trial is ongoing even as Hashemi remains a fugitive. Almost nine months on, it’s clear that Maliki has come out the winner. Hashemi and his allies—Masud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—miscalculated and face a growing perception respectively of weakness and fallibility among their home constituencies.

Erdoğan and Barzani’s embrace of al-Hashemi was a cynical and sectarian strategy. While Turkish diplomats still insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that Erdoğan harbors no ill-will toward Jews and Christians, Shi’ite and Shi’ite offshoot sects are another issue. Often, strict adherents to any religion exhibit more tolerance toward those of other religions than they do toward those whom they consider deviating from their own. Simply put, Erdoğan dislikes Turkey’s Alevis. Upon winning his first national elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included not a single Alevi parliamentarian. He has since unleashed a campaign of discrimination, refusing to recognize Alevi places of worship, in some cases even threatening to tear them down. Alevis complain he is imposing Sunni religious education teachers upon their children. Like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, Erdoğan will never accept a Shi’ite-led Iraq.

To date, Turkey and many Persian Gulf Arabs espouse a “do-over” strategy toward Iraq, which would see the restoration of a Sunni Arab dictatorship over both Kurds and Shi’ites “by an Iraqi nationalist general who doesn’t have blood on his hands.” Many of these countries—and the Iraqi politicians they help sponsor—have been willing on one hand to castigate Maliki as a sectarian dictator and on the other sponsor terrorism and violence directed toward Maliki and the larger Shi’ite community, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Masud Barzani’s game is different. While Barzani has talked a good game against Baathists, he never hesitates to embrace them to bolster his popularity or pocketbook. Hence, in 1996, Barzani invited Saddam’s Republican Guard into Erbil to help push out rival Jalal Talabani (and the Arab opposition to Saddam). This is only the most famous example. The fact that Hashemi openly has sympathized with Baathists and sought to return many of the worst offenders to power is immaterial for Masud.  Barzani’s rivalry with Maliki comes down to oil revenue and disputed territories. By embracing Maliki’s rival, Barzani hoped to manufacture Maliki’s collapse and manufacture a deal which would benefit Barzani’s own oil claims. Into the mix, he sought to rally his own people with nationalist rhetoric, promising to defeat Baghdad and even hinting that he would declare Kurdish independence. Now, months later, oil companies waiver on Kurdish deals, Barzani’s promises ring empty, and he must negotiate with Maliki as a chastised politician. Masud might have pretensions to be a strongman, but he is increasingly ridiculed even in regional capital Erbil as “Balon Barzani” because he is full of hot air.

Maliki’s victory can be good for Iraq. Certainly, Max Boot and others are right that the United States should be wary of Iranian encroachments into Iraq. But it is absolutely wrong to suggest that all Shi’ites are fifth columnists. Most Iraqi Arabs are Iraqi nationalists, regardless of their sectarian preference. The growth of Iranian influence is a direct result of America’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, which has denied Maliki and other Shi’ite leaders the ability to preserve Iraqi interests by playing America and Iran off each other. As for Hashemi and his allies—including Ayad Allawi, a man revered in U.S. military circles but respected less in Iraq because of his reputation for laziness and overreliance on outside powers—the alternative they provide is potentially as deleterious. After all, Hashemi’s sympathy toward al-Qaeda is as dangerous for the United States as Baghdad’s flirtation with Iran.

With Maliki emerging victorious from his power struggle, it would behoove the United States to support him as he tries to restore order in Iraq, castigating him when his policies violate the norms of good governance and human rights, and assisting any efforts to drive a wedge between Iraq on one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other. As for his foreign critics, rather than try to subvert the only political leader who managed to cobble together a coalition after elections, they might better expend their energy ensuring that Iraq’s next elections are as transparent as possible, so whomever hold the premiership will forever remain accountable to ordinary Iraqis.

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U.S. Errors Boosted Iran’s Meddling in Iraq

The front-page New York Times story today on the role that Iraqi financial instituions are playing in helping Iran to evade sanctions may well be taken by opponents of the decision to invade Iraq as vindication of one of their core arguments: namely, that Saddam Hussein was a vital bulwark against Iranian power and that toppling him would only increase Iranian influence in Iraq.

How much of a bulwark Saddam actually was is debatable: The Iranian Revolution spread its influence for decades to Lebanon and Syria, among other places, all the while Saddam was still in power. That Iran has managed to increase its influence in Iraq since 2003 is incontestable, however. To some extent, Iranian influence in a neighboring state is inevitable. The situation has gotten worse, however, because of a series of bad policy choices made in Washington.

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The front-page New York Times story today on the role that Iraqi financial instituions are playing in helping Iran to evade sanctions may well be taken by opponents of the decision to invade Iraq as vindication of one of their core arguments: namely, that Saddam Hussein was a vital bulwark against Iranian power and that toppling him would only increase Iranian influence in Iraq.

How much of a bulwark Saddam actually was is debatable: The Iranian Revolution spread its influence for decades to Lebanon and Syria, among other places, all the while Saddam was still in power. That Iran has managed to increase its influence in Iraq since 2003 is incontestable, however. To some extent, Iranian influence in a neighboring state is inevitable. The situation has gotten worse, however, because of a series of bad policy choices made in Washington.

First and foremost was President George W. Bush’s failure to establish a modicum of stability in Iraq after 2003; the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force was able to fill some of the resulting vacuum by funding a host of Shiite politicians and militias (and even some Sunnis). But Bush, to his credit, made up, at least to a large extent, for his initial blunders with the success of the surge in 2007-2008–which not only curbed the power of sectarian terrorist groups such as Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdist Army but also of Sadr’s Iranian backers. Indeed, under the leadership of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. mounted a sophisticated campaign to expose and curb the influence of the Quds Force.

A great deal of that success has been undone, alas, by two bad decisions made by President Obama: First the decision to back a coalition headed by Nouri al Maliki in forming a government even after Maliki finished second in the 2010 election. If the U.S. had gone all out to support the winning slate, led by Ayad Allawi, the result might well have been a government in Baghdad far less amenable to Iranian influence than the current one.

This initial mistake was made much worse by Obama’s failure to negotiate an accord to allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011. With the U.S. military presence gone, and our intelligence and diplomatic presence much reduced, our ability to track and counter Iranian machinations has declined alarmingly. Thus Iraq is now becoming aligned with Iran on a host of issues, helping the Iranians not only to defy sanctions but also to support the Assad regime in Damascus.

This is not to say that Iraq is a puppet of Iran; even Iraqi Shiites maintain a healthy distrust of their Persian neighbors. But it does mean that Iran will exercise substantial influence–more than it would if the U.S. were still maintaining a robust presence in Iraq that could serve as a hedge against Iranian meddling.

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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.

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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.

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It’s Not Maliki Pushing Iraq into Civil War

Max Boot pushes back on my post and suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s recent actions consolidating power risk are pushing Iraq into a civil war. I certainly worry about instability in Iraq, but it is wrong to suggest that Maliki’s attempts to govern would be the cause.

First, it’s important to define where we agree: Both of us see the U.S. withdrawal as costly. It undercut U.S. leverage, and privileged Iran. Both of us are deeply suspicious of Iran. I make no secret of my belief that the United States should do nothing that throws a lifeline to Tehran and, indeed, should do everything possible to undermine the Iranian regime. That said, while I understand that Max’s view is conventional wisdom in many U.S. military circles, I am as unconvinced about Max’s argument as he is about mine.

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Max Boot pushes back on my post and suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s recent actions consolidating power risk are pushing Iraq into a civil war. I certainly worry about instability in Iraq, but it is wrong to suggest that Maliki’s attempts to govern would be the cause.

First, it’s important to define where we agree: Both of us see the U.S. withdrawal as costly. It undercut U.S. leverage, and privileged Iran. Both of us are deeply suspicious of Iran. I make no secret of my belief that the United States should do nothing that throws a lifeline to Tehran and, indeed, should do everything possible to undermine the Iranian regime. That said, while I understand that Max’s view is conventional wisdom in many U.S. military circles, I am as unconvinced about Max’s argument as he is about mine.

Max sees sectarian motives underlying Maliki’s actions against both Tariq al-Hashimi and Saleh Mutlaq; I see merit behind the charges on Hashimi, against whom INTERPOL recently issued a “red notice” at the Iraqi government’s request. Mutlaq is more sympathetic to Baathism—and Sunni Arab supremicism—and laments that the privileges Sunni Arabs assumed in the years before 2003 are gone, and would not think twice about a coup in Iraq if he could. To force Maliki to embrace Mutlaq would be akin to demanding Obama make room for David Duke.

Max suggests that selectively pursuing charges against Hashimi but not against Shi’ite firebrand Moqtada al Sadr exposes the sectarian nature of the charges. I would note, however, that Sadr hardly remains on Maliki’s side and, indeed, represents one of the Shi’ite factions which Maliki also battles. Indeed, one of the unanswered questions regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom is who in the Bush administration made the decision to shield Sadr from the justice which U.S. forces were prepared to serve.

With regard to Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Shi’ite who was responsible for the murder of five U.S. soldiers in 2007, Max and I agree he should not go free. A few points, however: While the article Max cites says he is not yet released from prison, there is an open question about whether the United States turned over the evidence the Iraqi court required. If, by ignoring the Iraqi court’s request, we made it easy for the court to release him on a technicality, then heads should roll in the White House, at Langley, or in the Pentagon. Regardless, it is inane that we released such a man from our custody in the first place. We should not be surprised that Iraqi courts are more likely to prioritize cases involving Iraqi victims than U.S. soldiers. If there was ever a case, however, for extraordinary rendition—or targeted assassination—Daqduq is it. If the Iraqi government releases Daqduq, it would be unfortunate if he takes more than a dozen steps before he is enveloped by pink mist.

There is a tendency among Hashimi, Mutlaq, and others to warn darkly of a return to civil war if their demands are not met. Legitimizing such blackmail will only lead to more violence. If Hashimi and Mutlaq’s forces wished, they could urge votes of no confidence in the government as Mutlaq himself has threatened. It is far easier to win a vote of no confidence under the Iraqi system than form a government, but Ayad Allawi, Hashimi’s supporters, and Mutlaq know they cannot do either, and so they threaten violence and come crying to the Saudis, Jordanians, and Americans. Suggesting that Maliki is pursuing a sectarian agenda but that Hashimi and Mutlaq’s actions are somehow noble is backward.

Undo sympathy toward Hashimi and Mutlaq replicates the mistakes of 2004, when General Petraeus sought not only to forcibly integrate but also empower unrepentant Baathists and Sunni Islamists in Mosul, only to have them betray U.S. forces and the Iraqi government and cast their lot with the insurgency. Validating men like Hashimi and Mutlaq will do more to undercut reconciliation and set Iraq down the path toward civil war than anything Maliki has done. I have yet to meet a politician from al-Anbar who will not quietly argue that there should be some sort of “do over” and that empowering a Sunni Iraqi general “without blood on his hands” is the best way forward. None has ever been able to name such a general from outside their immediate family or clan, however. Max points out that regional Arab papers publishing articles such as this shape perceptions, but the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and Qataris are unapologetic about their sectarian perspective and work overtime to delegitimize the Iraqi government on purely sectarian grounds. Nothing Maliki can do will change their perspective, and he is correct to understand that making undo concessions to Saudi Arabia is never wise.

The Shi’ites are the majority in Iraq; it is not sectarian for one Shi’ite or another to run Iraq. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the Iraqi Shi’ites are necessarily pro-Iranian. After all, during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, it wasn’t the privileged sons of Tikrit who manned the trenches against the Iranian army, but rather the Iraqi Shi’ite conscripts. They hated Saddam, but fought for Iraq against the Iranian hordes. When I was last in Najaf about a year and a half ago, I was fortunate to have separate audiences with three of the Grand Ayatollahs resident there. Each made reference to the elder Bush administration’s 1991 “abandonment” of the Iraqi Shi’ite uprising and how the United States appeared to be replicating those mistakes. When we empower Baathists or abandon the Shi’ites, we simply drive them into Iran’s embrace. Indeed, this is the tragedy of President Obama’s abandonment of Iraq: Maliki preserved independence of action by complaining to the Iranians about American red lines and vice versa. By leaving Iraq completely, Obama has undercut Maliki’s ability to resist Iranian pressure.

So where should we go from here? Rather than handicap Maliki’s ability to govern, we should focus U.S. policy on ensuring that his government holds itself accountable to the Iraqi electorate in 2014, as scheduled. Perhaps if Allawi and Mutlaq spent more time campaigning inside Iraq as they do in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, London, and on K Street, Iraqis would view them a bit more sympathetically.

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Will Maliki Push Iraq Back into Civil War?

I commend Michael Rubin for challenging conventional wisdom about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq. He argues that what we are seeing is a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming sings of incipient authoritarianism. While I am intrigued by his argument, I am not convinced.

It is hard to see anything but sectarian motives in the criminal charges filed against Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, and Maliki’s attempt to remove from office Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, for, ironically, criticizing Maliki for his dictatorial tendencies. There are widespread reports that Hashemi’s bodyguards implicated him after having been subjected to torture by security forces.  Read More

I commend Michael Rubin for challenging conventional wisdom about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq. He argues that what we are seeing is a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming sings of incipient authoritarianism. While I am intrigued by his argument, I am not convinced.

It is hard to see anything but sectarian motives in the criminal charges filed against Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, and Maliki’s attempt to remove from office Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, for, ironically, criticizing Maliki for his dictatorial tendencies. There are widespread reports that Hashemi’s bodyguards implicated him after having been subjected to torture by security forces. 

Michael suggests that Hashemi may well be guilty of the charges against him which involve various abuses committed by his bodyguards. But such charges could be filed against the bodyguards of any prominent political figure in Iraq; almost all of them were guilty of excesses of one sort or another during Iraq’s dark years (2003-2008). It is hardly credible to prosecute Hashemi now while not filing any charges against, say, Moqtada al Sadr, a Shi’ite firebrand whose followers were responsible for mass atrocities. Or to file charges against Hashemi while releasing from prison Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hezbollah commander (and hence a Shi’ite) who was responsible for the murder of five U.S. soldiers in 2007.

All of this looks like Maliki is carrying out a personal and sectarian agenda, backed by Iranian agents, to consolidate power through his Shi’ite cronies while freezing out opposing Shi’ite factions, Sunnis, and Kurds. Michael may disagree, but it ultimately doesn’t matter how things look to outsiders like us. What counts far more is that Sunnis in Iraq–and outside of it see this, with considerable evidence, as an affront to their dignity and freedom and possibly a threat to their lives. Sunnis will not allow themselves to be pushed around indefinitely; Maliki has gotten away with his moves so far, in part because of the disunity of the opposition, but sooner or later he may go too far and push Iraq back into a civil war.

That is precisely why some of us wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–to act as a check on the tendencies of all factions in Iraq to go too far and trigger a devastating backlash. With our troops now gone we have far less leverage to affect the situation, but we must still use what influence we have to convince Maliki to pursue a more moderate course and not run roughshod over Iraq’s fragile democratic institutions.

 

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Don’t Confuse Power Consolidation with Dictatorship in Iraq

Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.

The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.

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Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.

The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.

Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The constitutional system the Americans helped craft has given him a cabinet akin to an American one in which Karl Rove would work aside Al Sharpton, and Doug Feith and Samantha Power share a cubicle. To accuse Maliki of being a dictator for consolidating power and trying to implement an agenda is like accusing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama of doing the same.

So what has Maliki done? Maliki, like Allawi and As-Sadr, created a shadow circle of advisers to whom he turns to craft policy; the ministers generally just collect their pensions. True, he has moved to arrest other Iraqi politicians like Tareq al-Hashemi. But, just because Maliki targeted Hashemi doesn’t mean that Hashemi wasn’t guilty. INTERPOL certainly believed the evidence against Hashemi as, frankly, do even many of Hashemi’s supporters.

Maliki successfully did what Allawi was unable to: form a government. Maliki is far from perfect and, like many other Iraqi candidates, has a serious corruption problem within his government. Allawi is the sour grapes candidate, however, and spreads money—mysteriously donated to him by Jordanians, Saudis, and others outside Iraq— around Washington and Europe to sow uncertainty. That Masud Barzani calls Maliki a dictator is risible, as Barzani remains the most autocratic figure in Iraq, basically Saddam without the mustache. That’s another story, however.

Now it’s time for Maliki to sink or swim. He should have his chance to succeed, and then he should be held accountable to the voters. The proper position of the United States would be to ensure the sanctity of the elections, the timing of which should be set in stone.

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Not Too Late for Active Role in Iraq

If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.

The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.

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If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.

The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.

How did we get to this bleak point? Parker is right to point the finger at the U.S. for failing “to capitalize on the gains of the U.S. troop surge.” Specifically, Parker points to a key error made by the Obama administration in the summer of 2010, “when the United States dropped the pretense of neutrality by backing Maliki for the post of prime minister over [Ayad] Allawi–even though Allawi’s party list had received more votes in the national elections held in March.” That gave Maliki the confidence to run roughshod over other political factions, especially the Sunnis, and yet “Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal [struck between Maliki and Allawi] was implemented. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, the Obama administration’s leading figure on Iraq policy, was largely absent from Iraq for nearly a year as the power-sharing arrangement unraveled.”

I would argue that these cardinal errors were compounded by Obama and Biden’s unwillingness to go to the mat to ensure a continuing presence of U.S. troops after 2011. Their departure, after the premature breakdown of negotiations with Maliki, has given the prime minister an even freer hand which he has used to accumulate even more power, setting the conditions for a potentially lethal Sunni backlash. I believe that this  abandonment of Iraq could turn out to be one of the biggest blots on the administration’s record–to be exceeded only, perhaps, if the president goes on to similarly abandon Afghanistan.

But even now it is not too late for the U.S. to take a more active role in Iraq. As Parker notes, even without a continuing troop presence, the U.S. still retains some leverage from continuing weapons sales (which could be interrupted) and other levers at our disposal. It is high time the administration used whatever influence it still possess so as to avoid the worst.

 

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Iraqi Clerics May Issue Fatwa — Against Sectarian Violence

This is a promising development. A gathering of Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Christian leaders met in Copenhagen today to discuss whether to issue a religious decree condemning the recent tide of violence against Christians, AFP is reporting:

“I hope that we will be able to produce a joint Shiite-Sunni fatwa (religious decree) against violence towards Christians,” said Canon Andrew White, head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad.

“There is a total unity between the Muslims and Christians: we need to do something radical,” White told AFP on the sidelines of the three-day closed-door meeting that began Wednesday.

The emergency summit at a heavily guarded Copenhagen hotel, organised by FRRME and the Danish foreign ministry, comes on the heels of a string of attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as in neighbouring countries.

It is time “to think seriously about steps that need to be taken to protect all the minority communities,” White insisted.

And it looks like the summit has drawn some influential participants, including Sheikh Abdul Latif Humayem (a top Sunni adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), Shiite leader Sheik Abduhaeem al-Zubairi (the representative for Iraq’s Assyrian community), and Archbishop Avak Asadourian (leader of Iraq’s Christian Council).

“This group of leaders has the power and influence to negotiate on behalf of the people they represent, to deny legitimacy to the use of violence and to call authoritatively for reconciliation and peaceful solutions,” Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen told the AFP.

It’s interesting that Iraqi leaders are using their own cultural mechanisms to push the liberal idea of religious tolerance. At a time when there’s been a lot of negativity about the influence of Iran over the Iraqi government, this is a good sign for those who remain optimistic about the future of democracy in Iraq.

This is a promising development. A gathering of Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Christian leaders met in Copenhagen today to discuss whether to issue a religious decree condemning the recent tide of violence against Christians, AFP is reporting:

“I hope that we will be able to produce a joint Shiite-Sunni fatwa (religious decree) against violence towards Christians,” said Canon Andrew White, head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad.

“There is a total unity between the Muslims and Christians: we need to do something radical,” White told AFP on the sidelines of the three-day closed-door meeting that began Wednesday.

The emergency summit at a heavily guarded Copenhagen hotel, organised by FRRME and the Danish foreign ministry, comes on the heels of a string of attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as in neighbouring countries.

It is time “to think seriously about steps that need to be taken to protect all the minority communities,” White insisted.

And it looks like the summit has drawn some influential participants, including Sheikh Abdul Latif Humayem (a top Sunni adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), Shiite leader Sheik Abduhaeem al-Zubairi (the representative for Iraq’s Assyrian community), and Archbishop Avak Asadourian (leader of Iraq’s Christian Council).

“This group of leaders has the power and influence to negotiate on behalf of the people they represent, to deny legitimacy to the use of violence and to call authoritatively for reconciliation and peaceful solutions,” Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen told the AFP.

It’s interesting that Iraqi leaders are using their own cultural mechanisms to push the liberal idea of religious tolerance. At a time when there’s been a lot of negativity about the influence of Iran over the Iraqi government, this is a good sign for those who remain optimistic about the future of democracy in Iraq.

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