Iraq’s Maliki Deserves Some Tough Love in Obama Meeting

More fighter planes and intelligence sharing won’t end Iraq’s violence. Maliki has to reach out to other sects.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Twenty-three months ago, Americans and Iraqis alike celebrated a milestone they had both long waited for: an end to a bloody and hard fought occupation. Iraq, at least when compared to its more violent days, was slowly stabilizing, with an Al Qaeda terrorist network struggling to sustain itself and a thriving oil sector pouring tens of billions of dollars into the country’s economy. President Barack Obama, who had considered the invasion of Iraq a “dumb war,” announced on national television that all America’s troops were coming home and that its involvement in the war was finally over.

Fast forward to today and it is clear that whatever hopes Iraqis had for a future have come apart at the seams.

An Al Qaeda affiliate that was nearly beaten through a combination of American special operations, gradual political reconciliation between Shia and Sunni Muslims and a grassroots anti-terrorism campaign across the Sunni provinces is once again tearing Iraqi families apart.

Over 7,000 Iraqis have been killed this year in ambushes, shootings, car and suicide bombings. More than 1,000 were killed last month alone. Despite the tens of billions of dollars that the United States and its coalition partners poured into Iraq’s security forces in the last ten years, they have been unable to stop a wave of violence that has killed an average of dozens of Iraqis per day.

Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s state visit to Washington DC on Friday could hardly come at a more pressing time. Maliki, a man who was originally put into the premier’s office as a compromise candidate, has managed to retain his seat through a combination of political acumen and a monopolization of the country’s institutions. He remains the nominal head of the Ministries of Defense and Interior and has used his influence to push Iraq’s evolving Federal Supreme Court to his side. It’s an evolution that Maliki’s political opponents, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish alike, regard as a workaround of the country’s constitution.

Maliki, then, could have a hard time convincing officials in the United States that he is the man who can save Iraq from the current scourge of terrorism and bring it back onto a peaceful and democratic footing. He has had an especially difficult time with members of Congress. Meetings with top Democrats and Republicans in the Senate did not go as well as he might have hoped. On Monday, a bipartisan group of six influential senator even wrote a letter to the White House criticizing Maliki’s governing style as autocratic and an incubator of the violence currently sweeping across his country.

Maliki is used to criticism but his actions over the past week underscore the fact that he understands that his credibility with the Americans is fast deteriorating. In addition to submitting an op-ed to The New York Times and delivering a speech to a prominent Washington think tank, Maliki met with a host of senior American officials, from congressional leaders and the secretary of defense to Vice President Joe Biden. In each meeting, Maliki delivered the same message: Iraq needs help to take the fight to a resurgent Al Qaeda.

The premier will be sure to stress the terrorism argument when he meets President Obama today. Greater intelligence sharing between American and Iraqi forces is the top item on his wish list but a close second is the speedy delivery of American fighter aircraft that the Iraqi government needs to patrol its airspace.

Before any of those requests can be met, President Obama must make clear to the Iraqi leader that a reliance on military force is only a partial solution to the terrorism problem. Ultimately, Maliki will need to demonstrate the type of political courage that he has failed to exhibit in the past — reaching out to Sunni politicians, rebuilding a constructive alliance with Sunni tribes and formulating a more tolerant and less poisonous political environment.