It was merely hours after news broke about an arrest warrant for one of Iraq’s vice presidents that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.—one of the Iraq war’s biggest advocates on Capitol Hill—declared: I told you so.
“A deterioration of the kind we are now witnessing in Iraq was not unforeseen,” McCain and fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement. “The U.S. government must do whatever it can to help Iraqis stabilize the situation.”
Except on Tuesday, the U.S. government presided over a simple ceremony at Joint Base Andrews back in the U.S., casing the colors of the U.S. military command American soldiers took down only days ago from its headquarters in Baghdad. The last U.S. combat troops in Iraq followed suit, and now only those serving as military advisers remain in Iraq, along with diplomatic staff and their security.
As the U.S. trumpets the end of its military involvement in Iraq, its vital strategic interests in the region are more than ever entrenched in Shiite hands, and Washington will now need to navigate a new political reality where Shiites nix the veneer of negotiations, finally revealing they really don’t intend to share power.
The United States needs to maintain its influence in Iraq—it is a major source of energy reserves, it’s critical to the security of the southern Gulf, and it has an actual impact on the U.S. economy. But that challenge now rests with its diplomatic staff.
The week began with Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government ordering the arrest of Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, on charges of running death squads that assassinated police officers and government officials. He has rejected the accusations. The New York Times quoted him saying: “The goal is clear, it is not more than political slander.”
To American politicians like McCain, who has traveled to Iraq on numerous occasions, it was “a clear sign that the fragile political accommodation made possible by the [U.S. military] surge of 2007, which ended large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq, is now unraveling.”
And yet, those signs were visible over a year ago, following elections in Iraq last March, and the political intransigence that continues to strangle progress.
Those elections failed to produce a ruling coalition. Power struggles between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, his Shiite opponents including cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and his Sunni opponents, ensured failure to agree on Cabinet positions. It also ensured failure to agree on a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq. Sadr’s adamant refusal to entertain U.S. troops extending their stay beyond the agreement signed by former President George W. Bush would have cost Maliki his political livelihood.
Meanwhile, Maliki and Shiite opposition leader Ayad Allawi have been fighting over ministries and power for nearly two years now. “Both see the other as conspiring against them,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In a power play, Maliki refused to give Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc the defense or interior ministries, and he now holds both positions himself. He continues to consolidate his control over the country’s security forces. Arrests of opposition members over the past months, and intimidation that prompted a boycott by the Iraqiya coalition, are all part of the latest political crisis seizing the country.
Allawi echoed McCain’s words in comments to Reuters. “The Americans have pulled out without completing the job they should have finished,” he said. “We have warned them that we don’t have a political process which is inclusive of all Iraqis, and we don’t have a full-blown state in Iraq.”
But a "full-blown state" in Iraq will be some time coming, and it may not come in a form readily palatable to Allawi and his allies, to the U.S., or even to Iran.
The violent Shiite-Sunni schism that upended any hope of stability following the U.S. invasion in 2003 was long overdue. Observers of Iraqi history point to the decades of persecution Shiites endured under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical leadership as seeds sown then making trouble today. But go back even earlier; Shiites were shut out of power under the Ottoman rule. When Iraq was barely a land with its own, brand new, borders, Shiites had little say. King Faisal, transplanted from the deserts of a newly-created Saudi Arabia to rule a new country, wrote in 1932 of the claims of discrimination from Iraqi Shiite clerics:
“I do not want to justify the position of the ignorant mass of the Shi’a, and relay what I have heard thousands of times … that taxes and death are the Shi’as' lot while the Sunni enjoy the privilege of office. What belongs to the Shi’a then? Even their religious occasions are not sanctioned.”
And the Shiites have not forgotten. They have barely recovered from the betrayal by George H. W. Bush, who during the first Gulf War urged Shiites in Iraq’s south to rebel against Saddam and his forces, only to be abandoned as U.S. forces jerked to a halt at the border with Kuwait.