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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March-April 2012, Pages 23, 71

Special Report

As Americans Leave Iraq, Political Tensions Increase

By Rachelle Marshall

altThe day after a bomb ripped through a billiards café in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Saidiya on Jan. 26, Iraqis walk past the site of the blast. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 15, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lowered the American flag at Baghdad airport and officially declared the end of the Iraq war. Two days earlier, President Barack Obama welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the White House and hailed the emergence of "a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic" nation, "a model for others who are aspiring to build a democracy." In a ceremony honoring returning soldiers, Obama noted that Iraq would now "be in the hands of the Iraqi people."

But behind the optimistic rhetoric was the harsh reality that the war had left Iraq's infrastructure in ruins, killed more than 100,000 Iraqis, and reduced millions to misery and destitution. Al Jazeera reported "an explosion of congenital abnormalities" among Iraqi newborns, resulting from the U.S. use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus shells.

The full costs paid by the Iraqi people for the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussain and subsequent war will never be known. We do know their suffering resulted in neither democracy nor peace. The Americans are leaving behind a "budding dictatorship," according to Human Rights Watch, with the country's Shi'i leadership "ruling by force and fear." The government is plagued by corruption and headed by an autocrat whose security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees.

As the time came for the departure of U.S. troops, Maliki's security forces began rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of his political rivals and local Sunni officials, charging them with being members of Saddam Hussain's Ba'athist party and accusing them of terrorism. Many of the detainees were in fact members of the Iraqiya party, a secular coalition headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Iraqiya won a majority of seats in the 2010 election for parliament, but Maliki maneuvered it into a power-sharing agreement with his Dawa party that left Maliki as prime minister.

He has since ignored that agreement and proceeded to concentrate power in his own hands, aided by his personal security forces, secret prisons and a judiciary that is virtually an extension of his office. He retained the post of interior minister for himself, and dismantled the institutions designed to promote clean elections and combat corruption. Maliki intensified his efforts to eliminate his political opponents as soon as he returned from Washington in December.

He immediately ordered the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who fled for sanctuary to the semi-autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Maliki then fired Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, and accused Iraq's highly respected finance minister, Rafe al-Essawi, of having ties to insurgents. (According to a Western official, Essawi "is the cleanest politician in Iraq.") The arrests of lower ranking Sunni officials are continuing, reminding many observers of Saddam Hussain's oppression of Shi'is.

"This is a coup," said an aide to Hashimi. "This is the new dictatorship." Mutlaq, the ousted deputy prime minister, charged that "Maliki is controlling everything. Through his police, his army, his security measures. Everyone is afraid."

The sweeping arrests of Sunnis in late fall and winter provoked a resurgence of violence between Shi'i and Sunnis. In the five weeks following Panetta's announcement that the Iraq war was over, 434 people were killed in a wave of bombings and assassinations that has since continued. In mid-January, 67 people were killed in a single day, and more than 200 wounded. Two weeks later, 64 pilgrims were killed while travelling to a shrine in Zubayr, a Sunni town inside a Shi'i province.

Meanwhile the government remains paralyzed. As the arrests of their members continued, the Iraqiya party walked out of parliament in protest, and the Shi'i-dominated cabinet responded by suspending them. After several weeks the Iraqiya members returned, but the controversy remained unresolved. The Obama administration is accordingly in a difficult position since, with all his faults, Maliki can still count on U.S. protection, and Washington is once again in the position of supporting a Middle East dictator.

At least two U.S. military bases remain in Iraq, along with 4,000 troops and thousands of private contractors. In addition to spending $1 billion a year to train Iraq's soldiers and police, Washington has agreed to sell the Iraq government $11 billion worth of arms, including tanks, cannons and F-16 fighter jets. "Washington took up the decision to build up Iraq as a counterweight to Iran," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. The danger is that Maliki will use the army to enhance his own control, since it consists mainly of former Shi'i militias, with sectarian rather than national allegiances.

If Maliki continues to suppress political opposition and concentrate power in his own hands, Obama may soon have to decide whether to uphold America's proclaimed commitment to democracy, or provide lethal weapons to the authoritarian ruler of a strategically located country with an abundant supply of oil.

But three prominent Iraqis recently warned that unless Maliki implements the year-old power-sharing agreement, integrates Sunnis into the army, and agrees to form a unity government, Iraq is doomed to civil war. In a Dec. 28 New York Times op-ed column, Allawi, Osama al-Nujaifi, speaker of the Iraq Parliament, and Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi urged Obama to make it clear to Maliki that to retain U.S. support he must abide by the power-sharing agreement and dismantle the undemocratic institutions he has created. The writers ask America "to help us build the Iraq of our dreams: a nationalist, liberal, secular country, with democratic institutions and a democratic culture."

In a Times column on Jan. 2, this one a broad-ranging commentary on the rapidly changing Middle East, Allawi argued that Iraq must resist being dragged into the U.S.-Iranian cold war or other regional struggles, but instead support free and fair elections, minority rights and the rule of law throughout the Middle East. Allawi's advice is equally valid for the Obama administration.


Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Mill Valley, CA. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, she writes frequently on the Middle East.

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