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U.S. policy on Iraq questioned as influence wanes, Maliki consolidates power

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BAGHDAD — On the face of it, Iraq’s first springtime since American troops withdrew in December is turning into the most peaceful and promising the country has witnessed in a decade, offering what U.S. and some Iraqi officials say amounts to a vindication of President Obama’s Iraq policy.

A feared collapse of order has not materialized. Although the group al-Qaeda in Iraq has continued to stage headline-grabbing attacks, they are diminishing in frequency and intensity. Oil is being pumped at record levels from the refurbished fields of the south. Iraq’s government has not rushed into the arms of Iran and, instead, has been wooing its Arab neighbors.

But the appearance of calm that has endured for four months has come at a price, many Iraqis say, in the form of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian behavior. Maliki, they say, has been moving steadily to consolidate his control over the country’s institutions and security forces with the apparent acquiescence of the Obama administration.

Since U.S. troops withdrew in December, Maliki has extended his reach to take on his political rivals, drawing accusations from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities that he is intent on establishing a dictatorship. An arrest warrant issued just days after the U.S. pullout for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi — the top Sunni official in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government — has been followed more recently by challenges to the autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdish region in the north, provoking threats by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to sever ties with Baghdad.

Sunnis and Kurds, angered by what they see as Maliki’s efforts to exclude them from power, accuse the United States of doing little or nothing to restrain his excesses or to press him to implement agreements under which he pledged to share power.

Although overall levels of violence have fallen, as measured by a record-low death toll of 112 in March, according to the Associated Press, Sunnis say they live in fear of the Maliki-controlled security forces. Dozens — some say hundreds — were detained in recent weeks in an effort to secure Baghdad ahead of an Arab League summit late last month, and many have not been released.

Disgruntled Sunnis say their sense of disenfranchisement has never been greater, and Kurds, too, cite increasing alienation from the central government, with worrying implications for the future of Iraq’s stability.

“They are not doing nothing, but they need to do more,” Alaa Mekki, a senior lawmaker with the mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc, said of the U.S. role in Iraq. “Their goal of a united, democratic Iraq is now under threat because of what we describe as the dictatorship attitude.”

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world despite recent cutbacks, still wields enormous influence, said Omar Mashhadani, a former spokesman for the Iraqi parliament.

“But they’re not using it,” he said. “They seem to be content with Maliki, and Maliki is careful not to do anything to affect their interests.”

Rift over Obama nominee

Sunni concerns have crystallized in recent weeks around Obama’s nomination of Brett McGurk, 38, a lawyer who has frequently advised the U.S. Embassy but is not a diplomat, to be the new ambassador to Iraq. As the chief adviser to Ambassador James F. Jeffrey and former ambassador Christopher R. Hill, McGurk is closely associated with the United States’ controversial 2010 decision to support Maliki’s candidacy as the better hope for future stability over that of Ayad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya bloc, which narrowly won the most seats in parliament.

Iraqiya has backtracked on a threat to boycott McGurk should he be confirmed, but Sunnis nonetheless say they would be deeply unhappy with an appointment that they suspect points to a likely continuation of unconditional U.S. support for Maliki.

“Some Iraqiya leaders feel that this choice represents a preference for some political directions inside Iraq,” said Mekki, the Iraqiya politician. “They feel that in previous years Brett should have supported the whole political process and not discriminated between some people and others.”

The U.S. Embassy has staunch­ly defended McGurk’s nomination, and former and current colleagues say he could be well placed to exert influence on Maliki because of the close relationship he forged with him during negotiations in 2008 on the Status of Forces Agreement and last year’s failed talks on extending the U.S. troop presence. Moreover, they say, Mc­Gurk was not the architect of the decision to back Maliki in 2010 and merely implemented a policy decided in Washington.

Maliki’s aides say they are happy with McGurk’s nomination and, more broadly, with a U.S. policy toward Iraq that they describe as far less intrusive than it was when American troops were present.

“All American interference in the internal situation of Iraq is over. They are not interfering at all,” said Khaled al-Asadi, a lawmaker with Maliki’s Dawa party who has close ties with the prime minister. Asadi described Iraq’s relationship with the United States as “better than ever.”

“They don’t put pressure on us; they only offer advice. And because they are friends, we listen to their advice,” he said. “Sometimes we take their advice, but only when it benefits our interest and it is positive.”

‘We’re hanging on’

Whether the United States could or should be doing more is in question. With the troops gone, U.S. influence has dwindled, and the Obama administration has further squandered leverage by not exploring the possibility of future agreements with the Iraqi government for U.S. military trainers and other advisers that would give muscle to the United States’ role, said Kenneth M. Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “We’ve surrendered so much of our influence,” he said.

U.S. officials in Baghdad won’t address directly the allegations that they favor Maliki, but they say the United States is exerting more influence than is recognized to ease the political tensions.

Jeffrey has met with Maliki more than a dozen times this year. Obama has weighed in on Iraq several times in the past two weeks, including a phone call to Maliki last week and an encounter with Barzani in Washington in which the president made it clear that the United States would not support a Kurdish bid for independence over its commitment to a unified Iraq.

“It’s a roller coaster ride, but we’re hanging on,” said an American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue of U.S. influence is considered sensitive. “The place is still holding together, and we have a role in that.”

Officials in Washington go further, describing Iraq as an unparalleled success story.

“Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous — and the United States more deeply engaged there — than at any time in recent history,” Antony Blinken, Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, told a forum in Washington last month.

But the tensions of the past few months call into question whether the U.S. support for Maliki will over time help stabilize Iraq, some analysts say.

“Maliki is heading towards an incredibly destructive dictatorship, and it looks to me as though the Obama administration is waving him across the finishing line,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics. “Meanwhile, the most likely outcomes, which are either dictatorship or civil war, would be catastrophic because Iraq sits between Iran and Syria.”

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