One of Iraq’s top Sunni politicians on Tuesday accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of fomenting sectarian violence to limit the voices of Sunnis in upcoming elections, and he criticized the Obama administration for failing to do more for a country “destroyed” by the United States.
Without more deeply engaged guidance and pressure from Washington, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq said, Iraq’s slate of political leaders — including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — are at risk of leading the nation’s fledgling democracy toward an all-out sectarian meltdown and civil war.
Mr. Mutlaq said Iraq began veering toward dangerously divisive political territory during and after its parliamentary elections in 2010, when the Shiite-dominated coalition rose to power in Baghdad “because of pressure from Iran” and “because the U.S. did not act in a strong way.”
“I think you have a legal and moral responsibility to Iraq,” Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq told an audience in Washington at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “You came to remove the Saddam regime and in fact, instead of doing that, you destroyed a country, not only the regime.”
The remarks by Mr. Mutlaq, who spoke both publicly and in a private interview with The Washington Times — and who is likely to be the top Sunni challenger to Mr. al-Maliki in Iraq’s April elections — presented some sobering insight into the complexities of Iraq’s political landscape.
His remarks also dovetailed with assessments by a range of foreign policy analysts in Washington, several of whom argue that the al-Maliki government’s bare-knuckle posture toward Sunni political leaders has ramped up sectarian tensions.
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Human rights groups for years have criticized harsh security tactics employed by the Iraqi prime minister. Sunni political leaders accused him of acting as a dictator in 2011 when a warrant was issued suddenly for the arrest of the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.
Mr. al-Hashemi, who was accused of running secret execution squads, fled Baghdad and was sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court in 2012.
Some analysts say simmering Sunni anger toward Mr. al-Maliki over that case and others has fostered the resurgence of Sunni Muslim groups linked to al Qaeda. One such group recently seized control of key portions of Fallujah, a city in the nation’s western Anbar province.
Writing for the website of the Center for Strategic International Studies this week, veteran regional analyst Anthony Cordesman said it “is the Maliki threat that actually reinvigorated al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and gave the extremist group a toehold among some alienated and disenfranchised Iraqi Sunnis.”
Others say Mr. al-Maliki is acting as a kind of puppet for the neighboring Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, whose strategic operatives seek to gain as much power as possible over Sunni populations in the region. Longtime intelligence and national security columnist David Ignatius argued last week in The Washington Post that “Iran has waged a brilliant covert-action campaign that turned Maliki and Iraq into virtual clients of Tehran — and in the process alienated Sunnis and pushed them toward extremism.”
Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily, has dismissed such narratives, asserting during an interview last week with The Washington Times that Mr. al-Maliki is sensitive to the challenges of growing a national Iraqi identity that includes people from across sectarian lines.
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Despite the ambassador’s efforts, however, the overall notion that the al-Maliki government is at least in part to blame for Iraq’s woes appeared to dominate the message brought to Washington this week by Mr. Mutlaq — a reality that might best be explained by the fact that the deputy prime minister is expected to be the top Sunni challenger to Mr. al-Maliki when Iraq’s go to the polls in April.
“Cruelty and abuse and isolation can create a rich environment for extremism and al Qaeda specifically,” Mr. Mutlaq said during his public remarks Tuesday. “That’s why we’re seeing an al Qaeda problem in Iraq right now.”
Asked what he thought of the view by some in Washington that the al-Maliki government is a puppet of Tehran, Mr. Mutlaq pondered for a moment before responding: “Maybe the heart of the Iranians, not in the hands of the Iranians.”
But the deputy prime minister did suggest that Mr. al-Maliki has spent the past several years building up a security apparatus dangerously capable of containing Iraq’s Sunni population.
“The whole security [apparatus], the intelligence office, the Interior Ministry — you know there is interior minister, there is no defense minister, there is no real head of the intelligence office — all of these places are being run by some people who have not been voted on in the parliament,” he told The Times. “So they are being run by almost al-Maliki himself.”
Mr. Mutlaq suggested that the apparatus could be used to control the movement of the nation’s Sunnis as the election approaches. “If a curfew is imposed, it would be an attempt to marginalize some parts of the population so that they won’t be able to participate,” he said.
The deputy prime minister called on U.S. leaders to take a more active role in pushing Iraqi political leaders to avoid inciting sectarianism as elections approach and said the Obama administration should send aggressive election monitors to Iraq to ensure fairness in the political process.
“If there is a transparent and fair election, which until now I cannot see, I think there will be fair representation of the people and things will go in a proper way,” he said. “But if there will be a curfew and people are prevented from voting, and sectarian speech continues, the results will not be promising.”
Despite his concerns, he sought to strike a positive note about Iraq’s future. Asked whether there could be reconciliation between Mr. al-Maliki’s government and Sunni leaders in the nation, particularly tribal leaders in Anbar province, Mr. Mutlaq said: “It is possible, but it is difficult.”
“If he goes and delivers all the demands they want now through their demonstrations, why not?”