After Nuri al-Maliki was elected prime minister in 2010, several months of wrangling ensued with the Sunni “Iraqiya” bloc, highlighted by a near last minute walkout. Eventually, Iraq’s top officials produced a power sharing agreement that was lauded by world leaders. These days, the 2010 “equal-share” bargain has effectively fallen apart, and without U.S. troops on Iraqi soil to leverage influence on al-Maliki, American officials find themselves in the awkward position of having only military hardware to negotiate with. That said, all indications are that the Obama administration will continue investing heavily in Iraq’s military without a second thought of withholding sales as punishment for al-Maliki’s political hardball. Here the U.S. draws an apparent line between political violence, as in Egypt’s case, where U.S. weapons sales are suspended, and power consolidation, as in Iraq’s case, where weapons sales are permitted. Double standard maybe, but it is important to take note how al-Maliki earned his reputation as a political hard baller, since it offers a good lesson in how to “stage your coup and have your weapons too.”
According to the 2010 agreement, al-Maliki, a Shi’i, returned to his post as prime minister, Jalal Talibani, a Kurd, returned as Iraq’s president, and Osama al-Nujeifi, a Sunni, was appointed as parliamentary speaker. Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni from the Iraqi Islamic Party, remained Iraq’s Vice President, and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’i, agreed to head a “national council on strategic policies.” It was a functional but fragile design. Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman told CNN at the time, “We reached a power-sharing deal, but it is like assembling a car with different parts and hoping it will work.” Shortly after U.S. troops withdrew from the country in December 2011, the chimeric Iraqi government began to unravel.
On December 15, 2011, Iraqi security forces attempted to arrest Vice President al-Hashimi on charges that he ran a “death squad” responsible for bombing attacks in Baghdad. Al-Hashimi fled to Kurdistan, and on December 21, three days after the last U.S. convoy left Iraq, Prime Minister al-Maliki went on television and threatened Kurdish authorities for harboring him. Also following the attempted arrest on al-Hashimi, all but four members of the Sunni Iraqiya party decided to boycott official government functions, provoking al-Maliki to threaten the dismissal of some of the 91 Iraqiya Sunnis in parliament. In his televised press conference on December 21, al-Maliki stated quite clearly: “If Iraqiya’s ministers do not show up at future sessions, we will appoint replacements.” In part due to U.S. pressure, the Iraqiya Sunnis agreed to end their boycott on January 30, 2012, but al-Maliki found another way to sideline them.
Since the critical impasse in December 2011, the Maliki government has indicted dozens of Sunni politicians and their bodyguards on terrorism charges. Among them are Rafi al-Issawi, then Iraq’s finance minister, and Ghdban al-Khazraji, the deputy governor of Diyala Province. In August 2012, Iraq’s communication minister, Mohammed Allawi, also a Sunni from the Iraqiya party, quit his post in response to what he called “irreconcilable meddling” from al-Maliki’s allies. On September 10, 2012, an Iraqi court sentenced Vice President al-Hashimi to death in absentia, a move that leaves the sitting Vice President of Iraq exiled in Turkey for the foreseeable future. And thus far in 2013, many Sunni politicians have simply left their posts, giving up on Iraqi security forces and their ability to stop a resurgence of violence racking the country. At nearly 7,000 so far this year, civilian deaths in 2013 are at their highest level in five years.
Underlying the discussion of power sharing challenges described above, the issue of U.S. weapons sales to the Iraqi government was the real elephant in the room during Obama’s meeting with al-Maliki. A bipartisan group of American officials sympathetic to the Iran-based “Mujahedee-e Khalq” (MEK) organization recently lobbied President Obama to prohibit the sale of weapons to al-Maliki, arguing that prime minister allowed (or even directed) an attack on MEK members at Camp Ashraf in September. But in spite of their strong disapproval of al-Maliki, the prime minister’s critics were not likely to persuade a presidential administration determined to sell Iraq weapons. Prior to the meeting on November 1, a spokesman for the National Security Council stated that “U.S. security assistance, and foreign military sales in particular, are tools that we use for building and shaping Iraq’s defense capabilities, and [w]ithholding security assistance may well serve to decrease our influence in Baghdad.” Consistently, the U.S. has already agreed to sell the Iraqis an air-defense system. And, according to Bloomberg, “they also want Apache attack helicopters and accelerated delivery of 36 F-16 fighter planes they have already bought.” Nothing suggests the Obama administration will stand in the way at this point.
As President Obama is making historic inroads to improving bilateral relations with Iran, keeping a predominantly Shi’i government in Iraq happy is also vital to that agenda. Hence, the U.S. is willing to give al-Maliki more leeway in establishing an inclusive democracy than that afforded General al-Sissi in Egypt. Although both are guilty of marginalizing their opponents, the U.S. seems more accepting of al-Maliki’s indiscretions, owing to the fact that Iraq makes for a stronger diplomatic partner in dealing with Iran and Syria than does Egypt. For now, then, the U.S. will tolerate al-Maliki and subsidize his nascent military as the prime minister has asked, all the while hoping it turns out to be a worthy investment.