President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki met Friday to discuss how their nations might “push back” against a recent spate of violence in Iraq by al Qaida.
Neither leader made any new announcements for U.S. commitments, but Obama pledged to continue counterterrorism support and help build an “inclusive” and “democratic” Iraq.
“Although Iraq's made significant progress in areas like oil production and a range of other reforms that have taken place, unfortunately al Quida has still been active and has grown more active recently,” the president said after the meeting. “We had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization.”
To those who oppose American military strikes in Syria, Maliki’s visit to Washington to seek more help for his fight against al Qaida’s resurgence might appear as a timely cautionary tale, a reminder of how a U.S. intervention can backfire and result in fragile states that are vulnerable to the Middle East’s darkest forces. In that respect, the lesson makes Obama’s reluctance to wade into Syria look prudent.
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Yet the trip also leaves his administration with a tricky dilemma. The U.S. occupation of Iraq laid the groundwork for what today is a vulnerable state in a volatile region, so should Washington send more aid to bolster the government or hold off in protest of Maliki’s heavy-handedness with dissidents and out of wariness over his ties to Iran and Syria?
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about whether Obama would be willing to offer Iraq additional aid, saying only that “continued assistance is necessary.”
“Targeted foreign assistance to Iraq remains an essential piece of our engagement, and it helps cement the United States’ enduring partnership with Iraq during this important period of transition,” Carney said. “Suggestions that we deny security assistance would only serve to undermine our relations with Iraq, decrease our influence and impede progress toward our long-term efforts in the region.”
Maliki engaged in a series of meetings this week in Washington, culminating in a two-hour talk Friday with Obama. The two leaders spoke about economic and regional issues, as well as nearby problems in Syria and Iran.
“We have a common vision about all the issues we discussed when it comes to diagnosing the return of terrorism and we talked about how to counter terrorism,” Maliki said. “We do know that the democratic experience in Iraq is nascent and fragile, but it was born very strong. And we need to continue enhancing it and consolidating it because democracy is very important. . . . Democracy needs to be strong, and we are going to strengthen it because it only will allow us to fight terrorism.”
Not only is Iraq once again consumed by violence – last month alone, more than 600 people died in terrorist attacks – but the country’s progress toward democracy has been stunted by Maliki’s cronyism, the government’s rampant corruption, institutionalized sectarianism and a perennially weak security apparatus, according to analysts who’ve closely monitored Iraq before and since the U.S. military withdrawal at the end of 2011.
Analysts describe a trillion-dollar democracy-building experiment, now a decade old, that so far has yielded another budding Arab strongman with ties to Iran and plans to seek a third and possibly even fourth term, according to the premier’s recent interviews. While he’s loyal to the conservative Shiite Muslim Islamist Dawa Party, analysts say, Maliki’s main problem is turning out to be his authoritarian, rather than sectarian, tendencies.
No wonder, then, that some U.S. lawmakers are hesitant about Maliki’s quest for more U.S. funding and partnership for counterterrorism tools. An influential group of senators sent a strongly worded letter to Obama this week, saying Maliki’s “mismanagement” had contributed to the spike in violence. Others have issued statements setting conditions for any increase in U.S. aid.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Maliki’s “style of governance has reopened sectarian divisions rather than united the Iraqi people” and that any expansion of U.S. assistance should be contingent on his keeping distance between Iraq and the Iranian and Syrian regimes.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he’d spoken to Maliki this week and urged him to “do more to reconcile with his political opponents on key issues in order to marginalize the terrorists and militants who threaten to draw Iraq into another deadly civil war by exploiting these disagreements.”
But some analysts say a primarily sectarian or ethnic reading of Iraqi politics is outdated and that Maliki’s power grab goes deeper than just trying to outmaneuver the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds.
Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk consultant who’s the editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a subscription newsletter that analyzes Baghdad politics, said Maliki was more moderate than most other prominent Shiite politicians when it came to dealing with Sunnis. Sowell said Sunnis were kept out of all sensitive security posts – as were any Shiite rivals Maliki didn’t trust – but that they had control of other ministries that Maliki left alone as long as they didn’t challenge his authority.
The result is less a government than a set of fiefdoms with little oversight or cohesion. If it eventually passes, electoral legislation that’s stuck in the Iraqi parliament will only help consolidate that setup by making it harder for smaller parties to emerge and make noise about state corruption or the performance of ministries.
“There’s not going to be any sort of fresh blood,” Sowell lamented.
Maliki, whose old election slogan was “state of law,” now makes arrest warrants for dissidents appear and vanish at will, Sowell said. He’s defied the constitution on several occasions, sidestepping its requirement for parliamentary approval of division commanders and refusing to appear before legislators for questioning.
He also turns a blind eye to deadly attacks on the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident group whose members are living in a camp in Iraq where they’ve repeatedly come under attack, most likely by pro-Iranian Shiite militants. The group’s aggressive lobbying and deep pockets have snagged it many high-profile supporters from the U.S. Congress and military.
Analysts are quick to point out that Maliki’s crackdown extends to his own sect. When protesters from a Shiite province recently sought to hold a peaceful demonstration about pensions, Maliki made sure they weren’t issued a permit and then had them locked up when they protested anyway, Sowell said.
“The problem is more that he just has no concept of legality, the rule of law,” he said.
In the prime minister’s only public appearance of the trip, a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Maliki said all the right things, even if they weren’t exactly true.
He affirmed a close U.S. partnership despite the disapproval of “others,” meaning Iran. He said he’d picked no side in the Syrian conflict, though he allows Iranian planes to use Iraqi airspace to deliver cargo to the Syrian regime and hasn’t taken steps to stop Shiite militiamen from crossing the border to help the regime. And he said Iraq didn’t have a problem between Sunnis and Shiites, a statement so ludicrous that it was instantly mocked across social media.
When he was asked whether he’d seek a third term, Maliki laughed, then said it would be up to the will of the Iraqi people.
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an essay published Friday that the U.S. should capitalize on Maliki’s visit, even if the substance appears lacking.
The goal, Cordesman wrote, would be to persuade the leader to move toward a more national government and to “ease his use of state terrorism and extremism” in dealing with opposition. That effort would come despite what Cordesman described as the “inherent dishonesty” in, essentially, helping an extremist combat extremism.
“The issue is not a war where Iran so far has been far more the victor than the U.S.; it is a future where any degree of growing Iraqi strength and independence from Iran is a vital strategic interest of the United States,” Cordesman wrote. “Iraq’s position is critical to the security of the Gulf and the Arab Gulf states, to the outcome in Syria, to easing the growing struggle between Sunni and Shiite, and Sunni moderates and Sunni extremists.”