For years, U.S. officials have debated in meetings and in classified cables whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a uniter or a divider.
Now, events may have provided the answer.
President Barack Obama declined to endorse Maliki yesterday, saying that “the test is before him and other Iraqi leaders.” The Shiite leader has been told that his country’s Sunni and Kurd minorities must “feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process,” Obama said at a White House news conference.
The U.S. has invested heavily in Maliki over the years, looking for him to rise above his background as a leader of the Islamic Daawa Party -- going back to when the Shiite group was outlawed under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein -- to become a national authority capable of running an inclusive government. Now, the U.S. is signaling it’s open to a leadership change.
Iraq has been driven to its current state of turmoil by “a whole variety of actions by a variety of different Iraqi leaders, but first and foremost among them Prime Minister Maliki,” said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. Maliki’s consolidation of power, including purging Sunnis from the military and arbitrary actions favoring Shiites, alienated Iraqi minorities, he said.
Maliki first became prime minister following parliamentary elections in December 2005. The U.S., seeking stability and continuity, backed him for a second term after the 2010 elections in which a coalition led by rival Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite allied with Sunni factions, won more seats in parliament.
“The Obama administration backed a second Maliki term while demanding that Maliki form a government inclusive of Sunni leaders,” according to a May 2014 report on Iraq by the Congressional Research Service.
American uncertainty about Maliki’s intentions was captured in the title of a classified 2009 assessment from Ryan Crocker, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq at the time: “PM Maliki: Strengthening Center or Emerging Strongman?”
The report opted ultimately for optimism, saying “the answer lies closer” to the first description.
The report made public by WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group that publishes leaked documents on its website, said that Sunni and Kurdish politicians -- some calling Maliki a “new Saddam” -- see him as an “aspiring strongman bent on imposing a classic Arab autocracy.”
While Maliki’s thinking and actions “are undoubtedly informed by the Shi’a experience, he himself sees his conduct as national rather than sectarian-inspired,” Crocker wrote.
Crocker, who’s now dean of the George Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail messages yesterday, and the State Department said it declines to comment on documents purporting to contain classified information.
The U.S. continued to have many reasons for pause about Maliki. An embassy report in February 2010, also posted by WikiLeaks, said Maliki was removing Sunnis who were Defense or Interior ministry intelligence officers and replacing them with “Daawa party political officers who lack intelligence and related backgrounds.”
Maliki made similar moves against the judiciary, the central bank and other institutions with power.
He effectively blocked any agreement that would have the U.S. maintain a residual training and counterterrorism force in Iraq after December 2011. When the issue was first discussed late in President George W. Bush’s administration, Maliki didn’t want a deal, according to John Negroponte, who was deputy secretary of state at the time.
“Maliki didn’t want one because I think he felt it carried too much political freight for him inside his own country,” Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2004 to 2005, said in an interview June 13 for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt.”
As a result, Bush left the issue for the Obama administration to deal with, he said, and no accord was reached.
Maliki’s actions, particularly since U.S. ground troops left, have alarmed U.S. officials, even as they continued to offer many supportive remarks publicly.
Amid the departure of U.S. troops in December 2011, Maliki met with Obama at the White House, where the American president praised the Iraqi’s “leadership” at that “historic moment.”
At the end of 2011, the Iraqis “did have a pretty good basis for moving forward,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense and foreign policy analyst, who appeared with Pollack at a Brookings panel discussion
“We struggled very hard -- we put in a lot of money, a lot of American lives, a lot of high-level attention -- and I believe that the Iraqi political system writ large squandered the opportunity,” he said. “Now the blame within that is primarily Mr. Maliki.”
With U.S. influence reduced, Maliki stepped up his efforts to consolidate control and strengthen Shiite dominance. A week after Maliki met with Obama, the Iraqi government announced an arrest warrant against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a major Sunni figure, for allegedly ordering his security staff to commit acts of assassination.
Al-Hashimi fled to the autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq. An Iraqi court in September 2012 sentenced him to death in absentia on terrorism charges.
Such moves “cast doubt on President Obama’s assertion, marking the U.S. withdrawal, that Iraq is now ‘sovereign, stable, and self-reliant,’” according to the CRS report. In addition to cracking down on Sunni leaders, arresting some and curtailing patronage, Maliki purged Sunni military personnel and others in the U.S.-trained and equipped security services, prompting critics to refer to the forces as “Maliki’s militia,” according to Pollack.
By the time U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Baghdad in March 2013, officials were growing more concerned by Maliki’s actions, senior State Department officials said at the time. Kerry sought to press Maliki to hold talks with Sunni and Kurdish officials to end discord between the country’s sectarian groups.
Last November, when Maliki visited the White House, Obama publicly praised him for showing a “commitment” to ensuring an “inclusive and democratic” Iraq.
By contrast, Obama said yesterday that, especially over the last two years, there’s been a “sense among Sunnis that their interests were not being served.”
With Iraq sliding into a sectarian civil war, the issue for Obama and his foreign policy team is whether to try to prevent Maliki from keeping his post in a new government following April’s parliamentary elections in which his Shiite coalition won the most seats.
The New York Times reported that the U.S. was actively encouraging the Shiites, the majority group in Iraq, to replace Maliki. At least three other Shiite officials have emerged as possible successors, the Times reported yesterday from Baghdad.
It’s now too late for reconciliation under Maliki, said Samir Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2006 to 2012.
“My own view, as well as the view of many Sunni and Shia, is that this prime minister has done enough damage,” he said in an interview. “It’s time for him to go.”
That may be easier said than done, said Henri Barkey, a scholar on Iraq at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said this week.
Pushing Maliki aside wouldn’t be easy, Barkey said, since “everything we know of Maliki is that he is a very stubborn man who wants to stay on.”