The run-up to President Barack Obama's second inauguration triggered the usual landslide of puff pieces from mainstream media, some grading and others rounding up Obama's first-term achievements. Nearly all invariably listed the ending of Iraq's war as one of his foremost accomplishments; the tough-grading Washington Post counted as Iraq as one of few kept promises.
However the President himself glided over the country and its sister in the "War on Terror" on Sunday, simply announcing, "A decade of war is now ending."
More truth than meets the eye is captured in this short sentence. The outer core is utterly false, designed by the Obama administration to score political points with his Democratic base and conceal the fact that Iraq's war has yet to end. This tactic of simultaneous attention and distraction worked perfectly during his campaign, but the price has been extracted directly from U.S. policy in Iraq. As The Washington Post notes, "Since the drawdown, violence and political instability persist in Iraq." Only the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces is accurate, and Obama is technically correct when announcing the end of U.S. military involvement.
A long war is over for Americans - just not Iraqis.
How many lives have been lost since U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011 is subject to the competing estimates of government and media sources. They agree that multiple thousands of Iraqis have been killed, and many thousands more wounded, by an ongoing campaign of suicide bombings, IEDs and shootings. The last six months were particularly deadly; in October 2012, Washington's special inspector general to Iraq found that violence "during the last quarter rose to levels not seen for more than two years." 1,048 casualties were recorded in September, the highest total since 2010, and the proceeding months brought no respite. Iraq Body Count counted at least 230 fatalities in November and 250 in December, raising 2012's total to 4,557.
As bombings and shootings continue to plague the new year - striking from Mosul to Fallujah to Baghdad - a recent wave of attacks have underscored the multi-dimensional conflict facing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. Following Monday's shooting of a well-connected Turkmen, a suicide bomber infiltrated the man's funeral at the Sayid al-Khurmatu mosque in Tuz Khurmatu and detonated in the middle of a crowd. The death toll stands at 45 and could rise higher, pushing January's total above 250. Ali Hashem Oghlu, the deputy chief of the Iraqi Turkman Front and a provincial councillor in Salaheddin, was injured in the blast.
“We demand to have international forces to secure us, for the Turkmen and our areas,” Faid Alla, the head of a Turkmen tribe, announced from the carnage. “We are being targeted and our existence in Iraq is very dangerous and we are under genocide. The central government is doing nothing for us.”
In terms of U.S. policy, assigning responsibility for Iraq's ongoing breakdown of diplomacy and security extends back to the war's beginning. While the current period of instability was easy to predict - al-Qaeda's front announced its intention to go underground, reorganize and emerge after U.S. withdrawals - America as a whole lacked the credibility to stay when the Obama administration needed to rework a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq's government. Such a task was impossible from the start, given that al-Maliki lacked the votes to pass an extension through parliament, and any attempt to force an extension would perpetuate attacks on Americans and Iraqis.
Yet the Obama administration is to blame for mishandling al-Maliki, misleading the American people, instigating and then disengaging from Iraq's crisis.
Beyond Iraq's regular violence lies a greater source of instability, a dilemma encapsulated by the gathering protests against al-Maliki and the Obama administration's lackadaisical response. The heated protests of Sunni, Shia and Kurd represent a enormous amount of energy accumulated by their collective marginalization, and are fueled by long-standing grievances of political and economic marginalization. Iraq's opposition has also made costly errors during its attempts to outmaneuver al-Maliki. At the same time, U.S. involvement in the recent handling of these grievances has further contributed to Baghdad's political gridlock. Having lobbied for al-Maliki's second term during the 2010 Irbil Agreement, which stipulated leadership positions for several Sunni officials (including Iraqiya chairman Iyad Allawi), the Obama administration failed to hold al-Maliki accountable for reneging on the agreement's terms.
For starters al-Maliki has retained personal control the Interior and Defense Ministries, a luxury that foments the impression of his private militias and their sectarian targets. Allawi never received a position of national security. By the time that al-Maliki visited the White House in December 2011 to mark the withdraw of U.S. forces, Iraqiya was already knee-deep in a boycott of his cabinet when Obama welcomed him as "the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq." Obama's remarks were promptly dismissed by Sunni and Kurdish officials, including Vice Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and the ensuing fallout would produce more tremors between al-Maliki and his opponents.
The Obama administration largely ignored Iraq's crisis throughout 2012, breaking silence only when forced by the circumstances and rejecting personal responsibly. Except this policy, if it can be called such, cannot hide from the country's destabilization at the security and political levels. The two areas are interconnected: effective leadership by al-Maliki, not an extended deployment of U.S. troops, was the best medicine to reduce the country's violence. In the absence of representative and impartial leadership, al-Maliki's concentration of power and preoccupation with his opponents has encouraged al-Qaeda's attempts to divide Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
His sweeping arrest of the bodyguards serving Rafi al-Essawi, Iraq's Finance Minister, served as the catalyst for Iraq's ongoing wave of demonstrations.
The facts surrounding al-Essawi's case leave nothing to mystery. One of the most vocal opponents of al-Maliki's rule, the Finance Minister would join Allawi and Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi in authoring a New York Times hit-piece on the Premier. Wasting no time after his chief bodyguard was arrested for conspiring to murder Shiites, al-Essawi immediately called for mass protests and found a ready body in Iraq's diverse population. Although Sunnis would form the backbone of protests in Anbar province, Kurdish and Shia leaders quickly rallied to al-Essawi's defense as they picked up the banners of their own causes. Of course Sunni tribes have provided the sheer numbers needed to compliment the protesters' diversity.
This trend became evident at the end of December 2012 when the Dulaim tribe, Iraq's main Sunni body, joined the action and rallied its network to Samara. Haitham al-Haddad, head of the Ashraf tribe, now claims, "All the tribes of Samarra are participating. There are 25 tribes from Samarra, and 10 to 15 of their allied tribes."
Any easy way out of Iraq's crisis is a mirage - too many Iraqis hold al-Maliki personally responsible for their marginalization and low standard of living. Protesters have denounced the exploitation of anti-terror laws by al-Maliki’s Shia officials and demanded the release of thousands of political prisoners. Al-Maliki has started here to relieve pressure on his government, deploying Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani to apologize and release nearly 2,000 prisoners (half on bail). Problematically for him, protesters refuse to be appeased and have instead pressed forward, calling for the release of all Sunni political prisoners and the non-negotiable resignation of al-Maliki.
The positive sign is that Shia, Sunni and Kurd appear ready to cooperate under more responsive leadership, but al-Maliki can only be removed by a no-confidence vote and new elections. The chaos of this option is feared by both sides of the conflict, negating the possibility in the near future. What is needed from the Obama administration is more truthful and public diplomacy. Calls for dialogue and private U.S.-Turkish diplomacy has led nowhere since the proper environment hasn't been cultivated, and the administration's refusal to take ownership of its mistakes applies more friction to U.S. policy.
"Obviously, we’re concerned about increased political tensions inside Iraq," the State Department's Victoria Nuland told reporters on January 11th. "We have continually met with people on all sides, calling on them to exercise restraint, to respect the right of peaceful expression, to talk to each other, to engage in a broad national dialogue on the issues that divide them, and particularly that all parties ought to avoid any actions that subvert the rule of law or that provoke ethnic and sectarian tensions or risk undermining the significant progress that Iraq has made or the Iraqi constitution, which is obviously very carefully and delicately balanced. So we will continue the advocacy efforts in that direction that Ambassador Steve Beecroft makes every single day with Iraqis of all stripes."
These types of statements are half-aimed at Iraq's protesters, when in this case Washington must intervene directly; instead of "negotiating" with al-Maliki, his hands must be pulled off the Interior and Defense Ministries. The current arrangement violates the U.S.-mediated Irbil Agreement and poses an unconstitutional threat to Iraq's democracy, thereby leaving nothing to discuss with the opposition or foreign diplomats. From here al-Maliki's opponents may be able to be defang him, or else his resistance will provide further justification to oppose his rule.
Unfortunately the Obama administration remains unwilling to let go of its dictatorial partner or the myth that Iraq's has ended.