Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq have exploited Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s antagonism toward Sunnis, fueling an escalating conflict, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Maliki “has turned out to be far less inclusive and more of a sectarian leader then we had hoped” after the U.S. “handed the Iraqis a golden opportunity in 2009, 2010,” Gates said today in an interview in New York. “Since then, he’s really been sort of antagonistic towards the Sunnis in a kind of unrelenting way.”
Gates, 70, who oversaw the U.S. war in Iraq before President Barack Obama withdrew the final American troops there at the end of 2011, said that it’s premature to conclude that Iraq has descended into a sectarian civil war.
Maliki “does have some political savvy and may be alarmed enough at what’s happening that maybe he’ll do some things differently in terms of outreach” to the Sunni minority, said Gates, who’s beginning a promotional tour for his memoir, “Duty.”
“So much of the violence we are seeing in Iraq, I think, is a re-energized al-Qaeda” seeking “to stoke this sectarian violence in Iraq and, frankly, turning that whole Anbar” province and “adjacent parts of Syria into an extremist enclave.”
News coverage of Gates’s book has turned largely on the former Pentagon chief and CIA director’s assessment that Obama ordered additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan even though he wasn’t confident of success there.
Obama on Gates
In his first public comments on the Gates memoir, Obama told reporters today in Washington that “during his tenure here, Secretary Gates was an outstanding secretary of defense, a good friend of mine and I’ll always be grateful for his service.”
In the book, Gates wrote that the failure to reach an agreement with Iraq to protect remaining U.S. troops from local prosecution, which resulted in their withdrawal, “was a regrettable turn of events for our future influence in Iraq and our strategic position in the region. And a win for Iran.”
“The country had largely been stabilized,” Gates said in the interview. “The security situation dramatically improved and at that point I felt, even as early as the middle of 2008, that my primary objective had been achieved.”
“We had achieved sufficient success in the security situation that I thought we could draw down and leave without our departure being seen as a defeat or a strategic setback,” Gates said.
Gates said Maliki’s decision in recent days to refrain from an all-out military assault on Fallujah was important because it showed restraint, “not just in a military sense of not attacking these places.”
It also demonstrated “more outreach to the Sunnis,” to “sort of reignite the notion for them that a unified Iraq, even if the Shia have the authority, is in their interest,” he said.
Other analysts have been less optimistic, saying that Maliki is unlikely to make significant concessions to his country’s Sunni minority and more likely to continue acting as a Shiite leader.