Less than 24 hours after the United States withdrew its final combat troops from Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the arrest of a Sunni vice president. He was a mustachioed, gray-haired man named Tariq al-Hashimi, who soon fled and was later convicted of murder in absentia and sentenced to death.
“Any leading Sunni politician seems now to be a target of this campaign by Maliki,” explained Reidar Visser, an expert on Iraqi politics, in an interview with the New York Times. “It seems that every Sunni Muslim or secularist is in danger of being labeled either a Baathist or a terrorist.”
The analysis proved prescient. Maliki, critic after critic says, has since shown himself to be a bullish and sectarian political player, one who has alienated or ousted many Kurds and Sunnis from his Shiite-dominated government — a move that contributed to the rise of the Islamic State insurgency.
And even after Mosul’s fall earlier this year, when such criticism intensified, Maliki didn’t temper such unrest with Sunni appointments, soothing words or conciliation. He doubled down. “In the face of unprecedented threats … Maliki has fallen back to using the sectarian playbook that might save his position but will certainly doom his country,” the Soufan Group, an intelligence think tank, said.
On Sunday, Maliki delivered a surprise speech. No, he wasn’t leaving power, though many suggest he should. He instead accused the country’s new president of violating the constitution, declaring he would file a legal complaint against him for declining to name Maliki as a candidate for a third term as prime minister.
“This attitude represents a coup on the constitution and the political process in a country that is governed by a democratic and federal system,” Maliki said. “The deliberate violation of the constitution by the president will have grave consequences on the unity, the sovereignty and the independence of Iraq and the entry of the political process into a dark tunnel.”
On Sunday night, the U.S. government announced it was done with Maliki, throwing its support behind President Fouad Massoum. “We reaffirm our support for a process to select a prime minister who can represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people by building a national consensus and governing in an inclusive manner,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said in a statement reported by The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris. “We reject any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process.”
So apparently concludes a relationship in which, as the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins said, “the United States invested so much of its hopes and resources.” But if the main objective of that relationship was to secure a stable Iraqi government rooted in sectarian diversity, it was a failure. After Hashimi’s arrest orders and subsequent death sentence, Maliki pursued a profoundly sectarian agenda.
Just months following Hashimi’s conviction, in December 2012, Maliki ordered the arrest of 10 bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi. Maliki then pushed back on criticism that he was targeting Sunnis. “Sunnis, Shiites and all the people must know that carrying out arrest warrants against suspects doesn’t mean targeting a specific sect,” he said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.
But the arrests and political maneuvering continued. He soon began wielding the laws of “de-Baathification.” Intended to blot out the lingering power structure of Saddam Hussein, the policy was “used to exclude Sunnis from government jobs and election ballots,” Filkins wrote.
The outcome divided a country that needs unity to repel a surging Islamic State, which made significant gains last week before being targeted by U.S. airstrikes. In Sunni-dominated provinces, where the militants captured most of their territory, residents fed up with Maliki have supported the Islamic State. And in Baghdad, many Sunnis expressed similar resentment, reported The Post’s Abigail Hauslohner.
Maliki has chosen political opportunism over Iraq’s salvation, critics allege. “What comes next will be important, but what is clear now, is that Maliki has failed,” wrote Samuel Morris, a research fellow with the Middle East Research Institute.
“Every move that al-Maliki has made in the last month has been the wrong one, if the aim is to decrease tension and increase the chances that Iraq maintains its current tenuous makeup,” reported the Soufan Group. “He has chosen sectarianism over nationalism.”
Indeed, last month, CNN reported that Maliki removed Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, further straining relations with the Kurds.
“Maliki could have been a historic figure,” Adil Abdul al-Mahdi, a former vice president of Iraq, told the New Yorker earlier this year. “The Shiites supported him; he had the support of the Sunnis and the Kurds. But he needed a real partnership. He needed to give some of his power to others…. We have a saying in Arabic: When you want everything, you lose everything.”