What went wrong in Iraq?
The government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has been dysfunctional for years. Al-Qaeda has made a swift comeback since it was repulsed and contained by US forces as a result of the surge that President Bush authorized in 2007. But the lack of a working political formula has damaged that country’s ability to achieve national reconciliation and evade being categorized as a failed state.
Al-Maliki’s visit to Washington this week was meant to reverse that terminal trend. But the Obama administration has failed to realize that Al-Maliki is part of the problem and can never be part of the solution. He was greeted in the White House but the atmosphere in Washington was hostile. US lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, signed a letter that blamed Al-Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics” for the “recent surge of violence.” They accused him of “pursuing a sectarian and authoritarian agenda.” The lawmakers said they were not compelled to approve Al-Maliki’s demands for US military hardware, including Black Hawk helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, drones, and other weapons, which he says he needs to fight Al-Qaeda. Both Obama and Al-Maliki failed to put their finger on the real problem behind Iraq’s instability: The refusal by the Iraqi strongman to share power and allow for an inclusive political process to kick-in. Supplying Baghdad with military hardware will not defeat Al-Qaeda in the absence of a genuine process aimed at achieving reconciliation.
Al-Maliki is not the only culprit. The Obama administration had a one-way strategy on Iraq when it took over in 2008, to execute a hasty plan to withdraw its forces and reach closure to a contentious, messy and costly war. To achieve this goal it had forsaken a parallel political path. It sided with Al-Maliki, who was a seen as strong leader, against moderate opponents in the aftermath of a controversial election. It watched on as Al-Maliki hunted down his political rivals and implemented a sectarian agenda. It looked the other way as he moved closer to Iran and alienated his country from its Arab neighbors. It did little to protest the government’s attack on free media and its attempts to undermine parliament and the judiciary. Even before Al-Qaeda became a problem for him, Al- Maliki’s self-serving policies had divided the country’s Shiite and alienated the Sunnis while encouraging the Kurds to sever ties with Baghdad.
In fact the US is as responsible for Iraq’s misfortunes as Al-Maliki. With his government now on the verge of collapse, he has come to Washington seeking help. In reality Al-Maliki is driven by his desire to maintain an ironclad hold on power and nothing else. His visit to the White House is an attempt to secure US support for him as he seeks a third term in office. It is shocking that the Obama administration has missed this opportunity to force Al-Maliki to commit to national reconciliation and to a new political process. Washington had failed to send a message of hope to Iraq’s beleaguered citizens.
The reality is that Al-Maliki believes he still has room to maneuver. He knows that Washington has its hands full with so many challenges in the Middle East including Syria, Iran and the peace process in Palestine. He knows that the Obama administration does not have the patience to engage Iraqis or the desire to be sucked back into the Iraqi morass. The solution to Iraq’s problems will have to come from the inside, through an open and inclusive political process, but the question is can Al-Maliki launch such a process? The answer is no. Instead of supplying his regime with military hardware, the US should have insisted on a major and immediate shift in Al-Maliki’s policies. That means he must redefine his relationship with Iran and Syria and offer the country’s Sunnis a genuine option to come back into the political fold.
The containment of Al-Qaeda in 2008 was not only the result of the American troop surge, but the success of US commanders in building what became known as the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province and others. Empowering Sunni tribal chiefs was instrumental in combating Al-Qaeda terrorists and other insurgents. Today those Sunni tribes feel marginalized and persecuted, as a result of Al- Maliki’s policies, and many young Sunnis have become radicalized.
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