- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2012

A dramatic uptick in violence and political instability in Iraq have raised fears that Baghdad once again is tilting toward civil war.

A half-year after the U.S. military left Iraq, the war-weary country is beset by violence as insurgents take advantage of the power struggles between the country’s ethnic and sectarian factions.

“Iraqis are living in real tragedy every day. It is unfair to just leave the Iraqis facing such difficult circumstances,” Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times.

June was Iraq’s second-deadliest month since U.S. troops pulled out Dec. 18, 2011, and a major bombing or shooting rampage occurs about twice a week. Many target Shiite pilgrims and carry the hallmarks of al Qaeda — although some Iraqis said they think other factions are responsible.

Clashes in neighboring Syria and lethal attacks by the Sunni-led opposition to President Bashar Assad’s regime are emboldening Iraqi Sunnis to attack government targets, exacerbating sectarian tensions in a “spillover” effect, regional analysts say.

“It’s quite remarkable to me that everyone is so concerned about Syria and the spillover that could take place with a Syrian civil war, but an Iraqi civil war would be worse,” said Ken Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Iraq is an oil producer and is in the midst of one of the most important regions. The spillover could affect Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Pollack said. “All the things that make us concerned about Syria ought to go double for Iraq.”

‘In election mode’

Mr. al-Hashemi, his country’s highest-ranking Sunni, bemoaned a lack of U.S. leadership in Iraq — and growing Iranian influence — as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, maneuvers to consolidate power.

“I know [the Obama administration is] in election mode, but the American administration missed a golden opportunity,” Mr. al-Hashemi said in the telephone interview. “They just left Iraq facing tremendous challenges.”

The Iraqi vice president reportedly is hiding in Turkey to avoid arrest on terrorism charges in Iraq, where he is being tried in absentia. He vehemently denies the charges, saying they were trumped up by Mr. al-Maliki in his bid to seize more power.

Mr. al-Hashemi has given a series of recent interviews promoting a no-confidence vote on Mr. al-Maliki and calling on U.S. officials to exert more pressure on the Iraqi leader to abide by agreements brokered in 2010 that paved the way for forming Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition government.

Meanwhile, Mr. al-Maliki has responded to political infighting by threatening to call for early elections that would dissolve parliament, betting that he would win and consolidate his hold on power. Those moves are aggravating tensions with U.S. officials concerned that the Iraqi premier is violating power-sharing agreements and allying himself too closely with Tehran.

Last week, a reporter asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland whether the relationship between Mr. al-Maliki and the United States “is really quite tense these days.”

“We continue to have the same kind of dialogue that we’ve had all along,” Ms. Nuland said. “We maintain an open channel not only with the prime minister, but with all the major political figures in Iraq, and we use those challenges to encourage them, among other things, to work well together and to settle their political differences through constitutional processes.”

While violence in Iraq tends to increase in the summer months and appears far from a full-blown war, any country’s descent into civil war is difficult to predict and often happens suddenly in reaction to a particularly violent or symbolic attack, Mr. Pollack said.

“The one concern the [Obama] administration has is if Iraq really tanks in the run-up to the [U.S.] election, then the decision to withdraw troops will be seen as a mistake,” he said.

Time for pressure

Iraq analysts argue that it’s high time for the Obama administration to step up its effort and exert pressure on Mr. al-Maliki.

U.S. options are limited, but some say the administration should threaten to withhold assistance, including the shipment of military aircraft Iraq recently ordered, if Mr. al-Maliki doesn’t back down.

Kimberly Kagan, founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War, has suggested that Mr. Obama invite Mr. al-Maliki and his Sunni and Kurdish counterparts to a summit “somewhere in the West to hash this out.”

“If not, we will no doubt be treated to yet another series of visits by Iraqi leaders to Tehran as the Iranians again demonstrate their willingness to engage where Americans withdraw,” she wrote in a recent piece posted on the institute’s website.

Others say Mr. al-Maliki’s consolidation of power was inevitable, simply the result of one political faction gaining power over another, and the influence of Iran, Iraq’s northern neighbor, is impossible to avoid.

Iraq is certainly one of those cases in which the winner, Maliki, tends to abuse the losers,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They may have coalitions of convenience. No Iraqi politician can avoid dealing with Iran. We compete for Iran just as do the southern Gulf states for influence in Iraq.”

As far as the Obama administration’s ability to convene the sectarian factions for a meeting, Mr. Cordesman did not mince words. “Are you familiar with the phrase ‘snowball in hell?’ ” he said when asked about the prospect of such a gathering.

Mr. Pollack urged U.S. officials to exploit Iraqis’ interest in American public opinion polls.

Right after the military’s withdrawal, he said, U.S. officials should have been opposing Mr. al-Maliki’s power grabs and voicing a more prominent set of internal Iraqi domestic infrastructure goals in areas such as agriculture, education and reconstruction.

“Naming and shaming seems to matter a lot to Maliki and the Iraqi parliament,” Mr. Pollack said. “This is the perfect opportunity for us to urge al-Maliki to start reaching out and making concessions and trying to seek compromise.”

Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a 30-year Army veteran who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia and is now a senior adviser at the National Security Network, said the U.S. had little choice but to pull out its troops because Iraq’s government no longer wanted them there.

But he said the Obama administration could do a much better job in laying out a firm “carrot-and-stick” approach to dealing with the aftermath of the U.S. pullout. As soon as possible, and well before the November election, he would like to see the administration set goals to help give Mr. al-Maliki the incentive to reach out to opposing factions.

It could consist mainly of U.S. expertise and training — not monetary assistance, he said.

“You would need somebody of a [Richard C.] Holbrooke status or of Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton’s stature to personally pull this thing together,” he said. “So far, I am not seeing that level of organization and planning.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.