Seven Iraqi monitors allegedly deserted the Arab League’s mission in Syria this week, transcending the significance of their removal beyond Syria’s borders. As the League’s walls close around Bashar al-Assad’s regime at a glacial rate, Damascus has attempted to divide the League’s decision-making between its opponents and remaining allies. Among those still pushing for a mild political transition - U.S. ally and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Except al-Maliki has bigger things to worry about - his own grip on power.
Tasked with the duty of international awareness, Saleh al-Mutlaq recently passed along Iraqiya’s message to Washington through The Associated Press. Iraq’s Deputy premier also defended his response to President Barack Obama’s cordial meeting with al-Maliki, telling CNN that he was “shocked” to hear Obama praise him as a democratic partner. al-Mutlaq proceeded to caution the White House that al-Maliki’s political ambitions threaten Iraq’s security after the U.S. withdrawal.
“Why should I regret it?” he asked on Friday. “I only said the truth.”
al-Mutlaq then took another leap of truth. Predicting that Iraq could enter a new cycle of sectarian violence with al-Maliki at the top of Baghdad’s power struggle, or possibly experience a unified uprising against his government, al-Mutlaq warned, "The longer al-Maliki stays in power, the higher the possibility of a divided Iraq.” These statements form the latest wave of information directed at al-Maliki’s “sectarian autocracy”; a NYT op-ed from Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi, Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi reads like a manifesto on al-Maliki and U.S. policy.
The party currently rests in a suspended state, its ministers placed on leave by al-Maliki as they temporarily boycott his government. Securing a fair trial for Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi, who faces charges of funding a Sunni death squad, and protecting al-Mutlaq from a no-confidence motion represent urgent demands. More important, though, is reversing 2010’s failed power-sharing agreement, which left al-Maliki in control of the Interior and Defense Ministries. Allawi was never given a position of oversight as promised, resulting in accusations that al-Maliki is politicizing Iraq’s security and intelligence agencies.
These factors (and many interrelated affairs) have inflated the demand for a national conference above al-Hashemi’s individual case. With al-Mutlaq addressing the U.S. media, Iraqiya spokesman Haidar al-Mulla told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat that, "no national reconciliation meeting can take place in Iraq whilst Nouri al-Maliki is prime minister... Maliki does not want any conference that could potentially remove him from office to take place.”
al-Mutlaq and Iraqiya aren’t the only actors operating under this tense state. On Tuesday Turkish Prime Minister Turek Erdogan phoned al-Maliki to “voice his concern over Iraq's political stand-off,” drawing a sharp rebuke from his counterpart.
Contrary to the shining “opportunity” left by U.S. soldiers and diplomats, Iraqis find themselves swamped in foreboding reports and rumors, bombings and the all-encompassing fear of new conflict. The country is drifting through an uneasy “post-war” period, simultaneously experiencing the “end” and continuation of America’s occupation. Worse still, al-Maliki is conjuring visions of Saddam Hussein (to al-Mutlaq, a former Baathist, among others), breaching America’s last line of political defense against a misguided invasion. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis want to rebuild their lives in peace, but the country is in no position to extract itself from a perpetual state of warfare.
The Obama administration continues to misread Iraq’s public sphere as it loses control over the image of U.S. policy. With Deputy Secretary of State William Burns en route to Baghdad through Turkey, U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey defended al-Maliki several days ago by telling Reuters, "I believe that he is trying very hard to bridge the gaps that currently exist with his partners.” Asked about al-Mutlaq’s latest interview, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland responded, “We don’t think it’s helpful for Iraqi politicians to be hashing out their differences in the media. We’d much rather see them sit down together.”
Such statements render the White House guilty of going public in al-Maliki’s favor.
In one way Obama should be personally thankful for al-Hashemi’s warrant and his ensuing flight to Kurdish territory. Iraq’s ongoing crisis traces to deep sources, however al-Mutlaq’s original statements run directly to Obama’s praise for al-Maliki - a public display of strength. The politicized debate on America’s withdrawal is shielding him from more deserving criticism, mainly Washington’s near-unconditional support for al-Maliki. As Baghdad’s present conflict drags into its second month, the White House is still calling for “all parties to enter a dialogue” when no confidence has been established.
“What we are continuing to do,” Nuland tries to explain, “as we’ve said a number of times in the last few days, is to impress upon senior Iraqi politicians the importance of direct dialogue with each other to resolve their differences and to work towards a solution that represents the interests of all Iraqis for an inclusive government and that’s within the Iraqi constitution.”
al-Maliki’s confidence crisis has spilled across Iraq’s private and public layers, and ultimately into the international media. It cannot and should not be kept private. Nor would the Obama administration devote as much attention to the problem without Sunni officials going public. The reality is that Iraqiya feels exhausted of options to influence Iraq’s political process and distribute power away from al-Maliki. Party officials must also force al-Maliki into a national conference on favorable terms; the premier wants to decide the location and conditions on his terms. The administration seems to be glossing over these considerations, instead coddling al-Maliki and blocking any sources of provocation.
This approach tacitly admits that he will respond aggressively to challenges against his rule.
Nuland lacks the information to clarify whether U.S. officials will monitor or facilitate Iraq’s national dialogue, but this offer should be readily accepted if proposed. Due to understandable political impressions and the inexcusable distraction of Afghanistan, the Obama administration has shirked from involving itself too deeply in Iraq’s political affairs. The aftermath of 2010’s parliamentary election was initially abandoned before U.S. officials launched a belated (and ill-advised) push for al-Maliki’s coalition, and the administration continues to avoid Iraq’s crisis as it sells Obama’s withdrawal. So far Washington has produced minimal results with private pressure, keeping al-Maliki on the edge but failing to walk him back.
The hour for private diplomacy has expired. Now is the time to stick both hands into Baghdad - inaction will only prolong the crisis and keep Iraq in the headlines.
“We are glad that your brave soldiers have made it home for the holidays and we wish them peace and happiness,” writes Allawi. “But as Iraq once again teeters on the brink, we respectfully ask America’s leaders to understand that unconditional support for Mr. Maliki is pushing Iraq down the path to civil war.”
Removing al-Maliki from office obviously poses a greater risk to Iraq’s security and the influence retained through him. The administration must hope that Allawi’s party is attempting to leverage its dissatisfaction, starting with al-Maliki’s resignation and negotiating until receiving its allocated ministries (and various political terms). Yet moving against him, whether to back him down or remove him, will find support amongst Iraqiya, the Kurds and even anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who views al-Maliki as a personal enemy.
al-Mutlaq claimed, “The Kurds are getting more convinced that continuing to support the al-Maliki government is a mistake... and maybe boycotting Parliament is one of the ways to pressure the government to change.”
Other analysts speculate that the Kurds could exchange al-Hashimi for political concessions from al-Maliki, but President Jalal Talabani appears to be pursuing an alternative course: bring national attention and power to Kurdish territory. His chief of staff, Dr. Fuad Hussein, denied that al-Hashimi evaded his warrant, hinting that Baghdad wasn’t safe for a fair trial. Talabani added, "He does not disagree with attending court. All he asks... is to transfer the place of trial from Baghdad to Kirkuk and he is ready to go to court in Kirkuk. This is an Iraqi city which belongs to the central government."
Washington and Baghdad’s mutual dilemma doesn’t revolve around a lack of U.S. troops, whose presence would inflame popular grievances, force another government dispute, play into Iran’s narrative and embolden al-Maliki’s consolidation. Relying on U.S. troops to patch Iraq's long-standing issues completely ignores the theories of COIN and fourth-generation warfare (4GW), which demand a non-military emphasis. The real mistake is giving al-Maliki free reign to squeeze Iraqiya out of the highest levels of power, a consequential trend for all segments of Iraqi society. Limiting his power would undermine Iran’s influence and appease Riyadh - potentially salvaging U.S. influence - so Washington’s inaction comes as a modest surprise.
Iraqis don’t need another strongman to lead the country from war to democracy. They need a statesman.