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ALLAWI: Iraq’s slide toward renewed violence

Washington’s disengagement risks wasting years of sacrifice

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It has been nine years since U.S. forces removed a brutal tyrant in Iraq at a huge cost in lives and treasure, but already the country is slipping back into the clutches of a dangerous new one-man rule, which inevitably will lead to full dictatorship, and already it is dashing hopes for a prosperous, stable, federal and democratic Iraq. Exploiting the unconditional support of Tehran and the indifference of Washington, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has violated the constitution to consolidate his own power by using security and military forces to intimidate and oppress political rivals and, indeed, the general population, as manifested in his suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Iraq.

Mr. al-Maliki presides over an increasingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy characterized by corruption and brutality, relying on the compromised judiciary as a weapon against political opponents while concealing the crimes of his cronies. The government falls short of providing basic services, including clean water, electricity and decent health care; the unemployment rate among our frustrated youth is above 30 percent, making them easy recruits for terrorists and prey for gangs; the security situation is deteriorating day by day in spite of an increase in special security forces. Unfortunately, some of these forces turn out to be part of the problem, operating torture chambers tied directly to the prime minister himself, as widely reported by international human rights organizations.

Of even greater concern is the increasing number of attempts to quash or take over institutions that are supposed to be independent, such as the elections, integrity and communication commissions and, most recently, the Central Bank. These, among other disturbing acts, are chilling reminders of the governance pattern established by dictatorship. More recently, Mr. al-Maliki stepped up his rhetoric against the government of the Kurdistan region. This was partly on the heels of Mr. al-Maliki's unconstitutional moves to target Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq immediately after he returned from a trip to the United States. This, in turn, brought Iraqis to make wrongful inferences about Washington's role in this series of events, in contradiction to the original vision of the United States to build a democratic state in Iraq with civil liberties, national reconciliation, an independent and fair judiciary, and pluralistic political and media systems.

Washington's evident disengagement gave Mr. al-Maliki the confidence to move even closer to his objective of achieving absolute power by blatantly avoiding the implementation of the power-sharing Erbil Agreement sponsored by Masoud Barzani and the White House. Eventually, the political momentum behind the agreement dissolved, allowing the country to drift back into sectarianism and autocratic rule instead of moving forward with reconciliation and reconstruction. The resulting disastrous state of affairs is fanning increasing disillusionment among Iraqis about the role of the United States and its efforts to create a stable democracy in Iraq.

With no obvious effort by Washington as the patron of the Erbil Agreement to break the current deadlock, Iraq surely will plunge into violence among Iraq's sects, ethnic groups and even political parties. Meanwhile, letting the current unhealthy governance run amok will only exacerbate differences and encourage various other governing bodies to declare their own autonomous regions, as recently has been the case in Basra, Anbar, Salahuddin and Diala. This will result in multiple feuds between the central and regional governments on one hand, and among various religious sects and groups jockeying for power on the other hand, risking a repeat of the cycle of vengeful violence during the dark days of 2006-07. The fragmentation of Iraq and a return to sectarian violence will not just tear apart the fabric of Iraq, it will further destabilize an already restless region while undoubtedly inviting the unwanted intervention of neighboring countries, which already are competing for influence in Iraq.

Yet, it is possible to avoid this scenario. The United States must step up its efforts through the United Nations to put the political process back on track without delay by insisting on full implementation of the Erbil Agreement in order to establish transparency, the rule of law, national reconciliation, and respect for both the constitution and human rights. While it is up to the Iraqis to find a solution within the terms of our constitution, the United States has always been an important ally in Iraq's democratic transformation, which is yet incomplete. Today more than ever, America's support is an imperative if we want to avoid seeing Iraq fall back in the hands of one person and his party.

The White House still has considerable leverage on the al-Maliki government, and it should use such leverage to ensure that the huge sacrifices of the Iraqi and American peoples have not gone in vain. This is the only hope left for Iraq to escape what seems to be a sure march toward the fate of a failing state, which will be marred with wars, corruption and authoritarian rule, further fueling terrorism in an already unstable region. That would be an avoidable and tragic legacy to the U.S. role in the country, with disastrous consequences for the world.

Ayad Allawi is the former interim prime minister of Iraq.

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