Iraq: The gloves come off

The US has invested too much in Iraq to let Nouri al-Maliki tear the burgeoning democracy into pieces.

President Obama Holds News Conference With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki At The White House
Obama must engage positively with the increasingly authoritarian Nouri al-Maliki, yet also reach out to his opponents [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – I must confess I didn’t see it coming.

Yes, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has always shown autocratic tendencies, unsurprisingly given the traditional political role models with which Iraqis are working. And yes, he has long over-centralised security power in his own hands, maintaining personal control over the Interior, Defence and National Security Ministries and making the Baghdad Operations Command directly answerable to his personal office. But this, too, is not entirely unexpected, given the tenuousness of Iraqi internal security. 

And finally, yes, Abu Isra has been transparently uncomfortable in sharing any authority with the Iraqiyya bloc, the largest vote-getter in the last elections, and has essentially reneged on many of the elaborate power-sharing arrangements reached in the so-called Irbil accords, which facilitated formation of his government. But again, here too, Maliki has not been entirely outside his rights. He did, after all, form the most viable parliamentary coalition, giving him the right to form a government, and the vague provisions for an extraordinary National Security Council to be chaired by his chief political rival, and to which key domestic and national security policies were to be referred, were simply never realistic.

Now, however, only days after the final withdrawal of American troops, it is clear that al-Maliki has finally gone too far. His recent actions have served to strip the veneer of legitimacy from his past policies, and have revealed those past actions as the precursors to a naked power-grab. Beginning with the sudden and summary arrest of some 615 alleged Baathists, including many of Maliki’s political enemies and conducted while the final push to evacuate the last of the US troops was conveniently underway, the Iraqi prime minister has gone on to press politically-motivated terrorism charges against Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Islamist and a prominent member of Iraqiyya. At the same time, the Shia Maliki has moved to orchestrate a parliamentary no-confidence vote to oust Sunni deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, another prominent member of Iraqiyya, ostensibly over a personal slight. Other political opponents have awakened to find tanks around their homes.

The upshot is that Hashemi has now sought asylum in Iraqi Kurdistan, against whose leaders Maliki is now making vague threats. In the face of Iraqiyya’s predictable walkout from the Council of Representatives (CoR) and boycott of the cabinet, Maliki is threatening to replace its ministers with interim appointments lacking CoR approval. And in response to Sunni-majority Diyala province’s stated desire to seek protection from the current wave of politically-motivated arrests through formation of an autonomous region – which is permitted under the Iraqi constitution – the rogue prime minister vows to unleash “rivers of blood”.

Not for the faint-hearted

Democratic politics in Iraq is not for the faint-hearted, even in the best of times. But Nouri al-Maliki’s current moves are a qualitative departure from the past. He is not just seeking advantage over his political rivals, but to permanently discredit them and, in the process, threatens to disenfranchise a large part of Iraq’s population. He risks unravelling Iraq’s promising, if bumptious transition to genuine democracy, potentially plunging his country into renewed civil war in the bargain.

American observers are wringing their hands over these developments, bemoaning the US’ sharply decreased leverage, while US leaders attempt to employ what diplomatic suasion they can to calm the situation. Meanwhile, President Obama’s political detractors point to these startling reverses, along with a general upshot in violence, as yet more evidence of the American administration’s incompetence in failing to negotiate an extended mandate for US military forces in Iraq.

Infographic: US ends Iraq war chapter

All see the current risks to the US’ painful investment in Iraq posed by the end of the US military presence, whether they publicly hail the US departure as a victory, as the administration does, or denounce it as a failure. Seemingly none, however, perceive the real opportunities posed by the US’ new posture in Mesopotamia.

First, it should be acknowledged that the complaints of President Obama’s Republican critics are vapid. There was never any chance that an Iraqi parliament would approve an extension of the US military mandate, particularly if it included special immunities from Iraqi prosecution. These privileges may be routine elsewhere, but in Iraq, the US Army was still seen as an occupying force. Under these circumstances, no popularly-elected body in the world would have approved a standard US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and American leaders should have had wits enough to realise it. 

What Americans also fail to realise, however, is the extent to which the US departure not only symbolically liberates Iraq, but also liberates the US – and not just from the burden of maintaining a large force in harm’s way. Now that the US is no longer freighted with responsibility for Iraq’s security, it can begin to exert its influence in far more normal ways, and ones to which neither Iraqis nor Americans are accustomed. The US’ role in Iraq has changed; its habits of mind must now follow.

Iranian influence

US officials have long decried Iranian influence in Iraq, forgetting that such influence is inevitable, and subject to certain natural limits. Rather than complain about the Iranians, however, Americans would be well advised to emulate them.
What would this look like? Well, like the Iranians, the US should be willing to work on multiple tracks in Iraq, calibrating each to the same ultimate ends. While the US exercises its not inconsiderable diplomatic weight with various government and military players, with whom US forces have trained, fought, and bled, the US should also not hesitate to deal independently with Iraqi leaders and factions who are being progressively subjected to a tyranny of the majority under Prime Minister Maliki. Simultaneously, the US should set in place the networks required to provide them with such support as they may eventually need to resist suppression, potentially to include paramilitary support in the event the Shia-dominated security forces are deployed against them.

The US has invested far too much in Iraqi democracy… to let a smile be the sum total of its Iraq policy.

– Robert Grenier

I have long been among those who argue that the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf region have exaggerated the threat of Iran, and have been overly mistrustful of Iraq’s Shia-led government. Such mistrust, if heretofore overblown, can nonetheless be useful. One suspects that some regimes in the region might welcome the opportunity to provide a base for US influence in Iraq which they themselves cannot exert.

It is not clear whether the current administration is capable of pursuing such a policy, but if it were, US action could well have the effect of making the Iranians into objective allies in helping to reign in the excesses of a rampant Nouri al-Maliki. Faced with the potential alternative of a destabilised Iraq in which its enemies cultivate proxies to create problems for it, the Iranian government might well conclude, as it has in the past, that its interests are best served by a politically stable Iraq in which sympathetic Shias have a naturally preponderant political role.

I confess I didn’t see this crisis coming. I had thought Maliki is more clever than this. But now that it is here, the US must act.

The US can and must remain engaged with the Maliki-led government, particularly as there is no currently viable alternative in the wings. It should continue to treat Maliki, as President Obama did just a few weeks ago, with a smile, even as it selectively conditions its provision of aid, training and materiel, and reaches out unilaterally to his opponents. The US has invested far too much in Iraqi democracy, and has far too great a moral obligation to those Iraqi communities whom the Iraqi prime minister would oppress, to let a smile be the sum total of its Iraq policy. Maliki needs to know that there is something else behind the smile. Thus far, the Obama administration has treated Maliki with kid gloves. As with other would-be dictators in the region, it is time for the gloves to come off.

Robert L Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Centre (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan, before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.