Al-Ma­liki visit presents del­i­cate chal­lenge

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

He was an ob­scure com­pro­mise can­di­date when un­ex­pect­edly elected prime min­is­ter in 2006. Against all odds, Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki is still on the job, and holds a wor­ry­ing level of power in Iraq as he heads into a meet­ing Fri­day with Pres­i­dent Obama to dis­cuss the still-trou­bled state of his na­tion — a decade af­ter the U.S.-led mil­i­tary ac­tion that ousted dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein.

With Mr. Ma­liki ap­pear­ing poised to run for a third con­sec­u­tive term next year, an­a­lysts say the chal­lenge now fac­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is fig­ur­ing out how to aid Bagh­dad’s fight against a surg­ing al Qaeda threat, with­out in­ad­ver­tently bol­ster­ing Mr. Ma­liki’s own rise as the re­gion’s new­est strong­man.

But as 2013 has brought an av­er­age of 68 car bomb­ings a month in Iraq, the ad­min­is­tra­tion may have lit­tle choice, par­tic­u­larly as it grap­ples with what are ex­pected to be ex­plicit re­quests from Mr. Ma­liki for in­creased U.S. mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence sup­port two years af­ter U.S. mil­i­tary forces with­drew.

“What’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand is that the vi­o­lence is also re­lated to pol­i­tics in Iraq,” said Ahmed Ali, an an­a­lyst at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War, a con­ser­va­tive think tank.

While U.S. aid, in­clud­ing po­ten­tially drones and en­hanced in­tel­li­gence sup­port, may help in the fight against al Qaeda, it will likely come at the price of fur­ther­ing Mr. Ma­liki’s hold on power, said Mr. Ali. It is “im­per­a­tive,” he said, that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion cou­ple any an­nounce­ment of new aid with a firm as­ser­tion that Iraq’s “next elec­tions should be free and fair and that there should not be any po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion.”

Michael Knights, a Mid­dle East­ern mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity af­fairs at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, went a step fur­ther. “Sig­nal­ing that we’re go­ing to pro­vide ma­jor weapons pur­chases with no ap­par­ent con­di­tions will make Iraqis think that Ma­liki’s been given a blank check [from Wash­ing­ton] to run the coun­try,” he said in an in­ter­view.

At is­sue are ac­cu­sa­tions over the past three years that Mr. Ma­liki has emerged as a Shi­ite strong­man, us­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian tac­tics to muz­zle op­po­si­tion par­ties and ex­clude the coun­try’s Sunni Mus­lim mi­nor­ity from power. A re­port by Hu­man Rights Watch last year said that Mr. Ma­liki’s se­cu­rity forces were sup­press­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion and as­sem­bly, had beaten and de­tained anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers, and op­er­ated a se­cret prison where sus­pects were tor­tured.

“We don’t tend to men­tion any of this stuff when Ma­liki comes to town. We’re not bring­ing him over to hu­mil­i­ate him, we’re ob­vi­ously try­ing to build the re­la­tion­ship,” said Mr. Knights. “But be­hind the scenes at least, there should be some free and frank dis­cus­sions about the ex­ten­sions of ex­ec­u­tive power in Iraq, be­cause if Ma­liki wants to con­tinue get­ting our sup­port, he has to show that he can be trusted.”

The ex­tent to which the Iraqi prime min­is­ter is trusted is not en­tirely clear in Wash­ing­ton. A bi­par­ti­san group of law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Me­nen­dez, New Jersey Demo­crat, and Sen. John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, wrote Pres­i­dent Obama this week that Mr. Ma­liki’s “mis­man­age­ment of Iraqi pol­i­tics” is ac­tu­ally con­tribut­ing to the surge of al Qaeda-linked vi­o­lence.

“By too of­ten pur­su­ing a sec­tar­ian and au­thor­i­tar­ian agenda, Prime Min­is­ter Ma­liki and his al­lies are dis­en­fran­chis­ing Sunni Iraqis, marginal­iz­ing Kur­dish Iraqis, and alien­at­ing the many Shia Iraqis who have a demo­cratic, in­clu­sive and plu­ral­is­tic vi­sion for their coun­try,” the let­ter said.

Mr. Ma­liki, in a New York Times op-ed piece Wed­nes­day, pushed for “a deeper se­cu­rity re­la­tion­ship be­tween the United States and Iraq to com­bat ter­ror­ism,” writ­ing, “We ur­gently want to equip our own forces with weapons they need to fight ter­ror­ism, in­clud­ing he­li­copters and other mil­i­tary air­craft so that we can se­cure our bor­ders and pro­tect our peo­ple,” not­ing that the Iraqi mil­i­tary does not have a sin­gle jet fighter.

Mr. Ma­liki did not men­tion that the U.S. al­ready set in mo­tion a plan last sum­mer to sell Iraq roughly $4.3 bil­lion in mil­i­tary equip­ment — re­port­edly in­clud­ing he­li­copters and ground-to-air rock­ets.

A se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, who briefed re­porters on con­di­tion of anonymity Wed­nes­day, re­fused to “dis­cuss spe­cific equip­ment re­quests” made by the Iraqis, but added, “it’s not all about weapons.”

The pri­or­ity, the of­fi­cial said, is an “over­all strate­gic ap­proach” to fight­ing ter­ror­ism in Iraq, in­clud­ing gain­ing the sup­port of Sunni tribal lead­ers — in or­der to en­sure that the na­tion’s Sunni re­gions em­brace the gov­ern­ment, rather than se­cretly sup­port al Qaeda-style ex­trem­ists.

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