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Maliki always had his own script – now he’s acting it out

The National (UAE)
May 09. 2009
Tony Karon
In the Washington of the US president George W Bush, "the other war" was shorthand for Afghanistan; today, however, Iraq has inherited the Cinderella title. That shift is not simply a product of the hysteria fuelled over the past two weeks of the Obama administration predicting an apocalyptic collapse of Pakistan and scaring Americans with the spectre of a nuclear-armed Taliban. No, the US President Barack Obama has always made it clear that he believed Iraq had been "the wrong war" and, taking office at a moment when he hoped Iraq was on course to an acceptable outcome, he immediately recast the battle against the Taliban and al Qa’eda in the "Afghanistan-Pakistan" theatre as America’s strategic priority.
Obama plans to increase the US troop commitment in Afghanistan to some 64,000 soldiers by the summer and he hopes to find those reinforcements by bringing home more of the 134,000 troops currently in Iraq. The new military budget sent to Congress by the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, for the first time seeks more money ($65 billion) for Afghanistan than it seeks for Iraq ($61 billion). "Af-Pak" as it is known, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the responsibility of a special envoy reporting directly to the president; the Iraq dossier is in the hands of a routine ambassador and a military commander reporting to Centcom chief Gen David Petraeus, whose top priority is the Af-Pak theatre.
Iraq, however, seems to stubbornly reject its demotion to second place on Washington’s list of strategic priorities. April was the unkindest month there in more than a year, with more than 300 people killed in a rising tide of political violence, much of it sectarian. That violence looks likely to intensify, even as US troops prepare to redeploy out of Iraq’s cities by the end of June, in line with a Status of Forces Agreement that will see them leave Iraq altogether by the end of 2011. The US may be growing anxious – alarmed even – at the deterioration that threatens in Iraq, but Washington’s ability to shape conditions on the ground is already limited, and likely to decline further. Just as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama Administration is forced in Iraq to rely on local leaders at odds with US strategy.
The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki was never Washington’s choice to lead Iraq, but he won out with the Shiite majority of an Iraqi electorate whose political preferences are closer to Tehran than to the US. And while he played the game of saying – and very occasionally doing – the things that Washington expected of him, Maliki has proven adept at building himself a power base independent of the US, principally by establishing the foundations of a traditional Arab strongman’s regime through the loyalties he has cultivated in a burgeoning military and mukhbarat. And he has never shown much enthusiasm for the political component of Washington’s Iraq pacification strategy – reconciling with the country’s Sunnis in the country’s former ruling class.
The US strategy for ending the Iraq war on favourable terms involved sending 30,000 extra troops, but more importantly, included an effort to neutralise the Sunni insurgency – initially by literally buying off thousands of insurgents and their immediate supporters through the Awakening movement. Paid salaries of $300 a month by the US, as many as 100,000 Sunni fighters were organised into local militias to drive al Qa’eda out of their neighbourhoods. Essentially, the Awakening strategy represented the Bush administration reversing the effects of its most catastrophic postwar mistake – disbanding the Iraqi army, leaving tens of thousands of men who had military training and access to weapons with every incentive to fight against the new order. At the same time, Washington expected Maliki to bring the Sunnis in from the cold by reversing many of the de-Baathification measures that had shut much of the country’s Sunni leadership and professional classes out of government by virtue of simply having been members of the former ruling party.
Maliki, however, not only declined to significantly reverse de-Baathification or to play ball in discreet negotiations brokered by the US with Baathist insurgent leaders in exile. He clearly viewed the Awakening as a potential threat to his own government and acted accordingly. Last month the US completed the transfer of responsibility for paying the Awakening fighters to the Iraqi government, which was also supposed to integrate 20,000 of them into the security forces and help the remainder to find jobs. But in many cases, Maliki’s government has simply not paid their salaries. Only around 5,000 Awakening members have been incorporated into the security forces, and the government has hunted down and arrested many key leaders of the Sunni movement. The Awakening fighters and their leaders feel that they have been betrayed by the US and have walked off the job, or even found their way back into the ranks of the active insurgency.
There should be little surprise, then, that these developments have coincided with a sharp uptick in violence in Iraq. Those developments, coupled with mounting Kurdish-Arab tension over the fate of areas such as Kirkuk, have prompted some US commanders to wonder out loud whether keeping to their redeployment and withdrawal timetable is a good idea. Maliki appears happy to have them around to help him hobble his foes – such as when US forces backed up their Iraqi proteges in a showdown with Baghdad-based Awakening fighters following the arrest of their leader, Adil al-Mashhadani. But the prime minister is less likely than ever to accept Washington’s political tutelage, and he made clear last week that the final deadline for US withdrawal will not be changed.
Despite its disruptive potential, the Sunni insurgency lacks the capacity to topple Maliki, and thus far his key Shiite rivals have refrained from reactivating their militias to exact sectarian revenge. "There’ll always be some sort of low-level insurgency in Iraq for the next five, 10, 15 years," the US commander in Iraq Gen Ray Odierno said on Friday. "The issue is, what is the level of that insurgency? And can Iraqis handle it with their own forces and their own government?" Maliki appears to be positioning himself as the strongman of a post-US Iraq, the future of which will look quite unlike what Washington had imagined. The sectarian tensions that have fuelled the country’s civil war appear unlikely to be resolved, and will continue to fuel conflict both within Iraq – and possibly throughout the region – for the foreseeable future.
Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst and blogs at
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