Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki Increasingly Authoritarian

Iraq’s prime minister may be using sectarianism to sideline his opponents.

The war in Iraq may be over but the political, economic and security conflicts that have defined the lives of ordinary Iraqis for years are still very much there. Even as defense secretary Leon Panetta visited Iraq to officially conclude the war and salute the sacrifices of America’s troops, Iraq remains on the edge of trouble — far from its grisly history of sectarian violence but close enough to fall back into its dark past at any moment.

The description may sound overly dramatic to some, particularly to the hundreds of thousands of American military families who have shouldered most of the difficulty and trauma over the last decade. Children traveling to school, after all, no longer trip upon dozens of bullet ridden and headless bodies on a daily basis on their way. Al Qaeda’s jihadist philosophy, gathering steam in Iraq only a short time ago, is nearly bankrupt in the country, as Iraq’s own Sunni community (with the help of the United States) pushed out terrorists from their neighborhoods.

The days when Americans opened up their newspapers and read headlines of multiple soldiers dying in a single ambush or roadside bomb are in the past, where those headlines belong. But the question of what America really accomplished in Iraq, besides the quick overthrow of a dictator during the first few weeks of the war, is still vibrant in the memories of many who have served in Iraq since the operation began. Others may in fact be wondering if the war was worth the cost in human lives, American and Iraqi, as well as trillions of dollars in spending.

The cutthroat circumstances defining Iraqi politics today are unfortunately putting more credence into that second guessing. A day after American soldiers completed their drawdown, Iraq’s politicians are fighting amongst themselves, both in the capital and in the surrounding provinces — nothing new but certainly more concerning given America’s departure.

The coalition government that took nine months to form after prodding from internal Iraqi forces and neighboring countries, much like Iraq itself, now stands at the point of dissolution. Iraqi Sunnis under the political umbrella of al-Iraqiya never truly got along or trusted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rather, Sunnis and independent parties were compelled to accept him, understanding that refusing to do so would result in their marginalization from the political process. But with the government’s recent Ba’athist arrest campaign spurring moves by Sunni provinces for semi-autonomy, the gap between the Shia-led government and the Sunni opposition (with the Kurds nervously watching) is getting wider than Washington had anticipated.

Maliki, who has run the country since its civil war days, may be attempting to expand his power base at the same time that American troops are leaving their bases, knowing that any reprisals from Washington would be limited.

The conclusion is not entirely unfounded, for Sunnis constantly complain of being marginalized from the Iraqi government’s top jobs, including the powerful army and police. Maliki’s refusal to accept any compromise candidate for the defense and interior ministries, despite numerous requests from his political opponents, is not making the job of promoting good and orderly governance any easier. Nor is Maliki’s stonewalling of a National Council for Strategic Policies, a committee that was supposed to provide Iraqiya head Ayad Allawi with an important advisory role on the country’s most urgent issues.

Combined, of all these factors add up to statements made just a couple of days ago by Iraqi leaders of Maliki autocratic streak, as well as warnings of Iraq “going toward a dictatorship.”

Is the United States listening to these dire alerts? If not, the tremendous investment that has been made could be placed at risk. The democracy promotion effort in Iraq would therefore be nothing but an embarrassing foreign policy failure.

Given Maliki’s past record of grabbing as much authority as he can — making promises to get everyone on board, only to renege on those promises months later — this nightmare scenario may not be a nightmare at all.

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