Iraq’s former prime minister is playing a critical, backroom role in undermining the Obama administration’s push for a more inclusive government in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, warning that Shiite hard-liner Nouri al-Maliki is still pulling the strings behind the scenes in a bid to return to power in the years ahead.
The White House and State Department have put their weight behind Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, seen as a more moderate Shiite politician compared with the uncooperative and sectarian Mr. al-Maliki. Mr. al-Abadi came to power last year on a promise to usher in a “Sunni Awakening 2.0” against the jihadi Islamic State group, reversing Mr. al-Maliki’s strong Shiite favoritism.
But little visible progress has been made toward that goal over the past year, in large part because of internal political resistance from Mr. al-Maliki, the top player in Iraq’s Shiite Islamic Dawa Party. Mr. al-Maliki remains a part of the government as vice president after the Obama administration pressured him to resign as prime minister in September.
At the time, administration officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, openly blamed Mr. al-Maliki for the rise in Iraq of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. They said Mr. al-Maliki’s aggressively pro-Shiite policies had alienated the minority Iraqi Sunni population and created fertile ground for the extremists to flourish.
Although many in Washington hoped Mr. al-Maliki would fade away, Khalid Mufriji, a Sunni who chairs the Iraqi parliament’s Committee on Regions and Provinces, said, “Maliki is still controlling a lot of the power.”
Mr. Mufriji said many Sunnis in parliament are eager to work with Mr. al-Abadi but believe the prime minister’s hands are tied. He said Mr. al-Maliki continues to hold significantly more influence over the coalition of Shiite parties that effectively control the government.
“Abadi cannot get out of the circle of what they decide,” Mr. Mufriji said in an interview with The Washington Times.
The Obama administration continues to publicly back Mr. al-Abadi. But in private, several high-level U.S. officials from the intelligence community and the administration echoed Mr. Mufriji’s assertions and voiced frustration that Mr. al-Maliki is trying to play the spoiler.
Those officials, who spoke anonymously with The Times, said a big part of the problem is that Mr. al-Maliki — not Mr. al-Abadi — holds the most sway over Shiite militias leading the fight against the Islamic State, despite a desire by many Sunni tribes in the nation to take up arms against the extremists. Iraq’s national army, all sides agree, has not performed well in direct engagements with Islamic State fighters.
The Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, came to the fore during Mr. al-Maliki’s tenure as prime minister, a reality that one U.S. official said “underscores his connections to the militias.”
The official suggested that Mr. al-Maliki also has considerably closer ties than Mr. al-Abadi to the Shiite government in Iran — precisely because of his influence over the militias and the Shiite political bloc in Baghdad. Mr. al-Maliki spent years in exile in Iran as a dissident fighting the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s.
“His legacy of pushing sectarian policies that favored Shia hard-liners lends him credence with those unhappy with Baghdad’s initiatives,” the official said.
The Obama administration’s posture is to avoid publicly criticizing Mr. al-Maliki’s influence — mostly because he may re-emerge as the most powerful Shiite candidate when Iraqis return to the polls in 2018. Speaking out against Mr. al-Maliki may make future relations more difficult.
White House critics argue that President Obama’s eagerness to reach a nuclear deal with Iran has prompted the administration to turn a blind eye to Iran’s meddling in Iraq — and to Mr. al-Maliki’s baleful influence on Baghdad’s political dynamic. Administration officials strongly reject these assertions.
It’s not clear what role Mr. al-Maliki has played in resisting Washington’s push for Iraq to create a national guard force that would arm and authorize Sunni tribal militias to fight the Islamic State. The Obama administration sees the guard force as the linchpin of its strategy for defeating the extremists.
After Mr. al-Maliki’s resignation last year, administration officials said forming the guard was an essential step toward re-creating the Sunni Awakening, in which Iraqi tribal militias took the fight to the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, from 2005 to 2007 in the nation’s heavily dominated Sunni regions, including Anbar province.
Mr. al-Abadi is reported to support legislation calling for the national guard force, but the effort has been stalled in parliament for months. That has opened the way for the Shiite militias, not local Sunni tribes, to take the lead in fighting the Islamic State on the ground deep inside Anbar. Many fear that will further widen Iraq’s sectarian divisions.
U.S. officials say the legislation is being held up by Shiite parliamentary forces aligned with Mr. al-Maliki and by a lack of unity among Iraqi Sunni politicians trying to recover from years of alienation during the former prime minister’s reign.
The wider landscape of Sunni politics in Iraq also remains fractured, making it difficult to present a single, constructive front for working with the al-Abadi government.
On a visit to Washington last week, the Sunni speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace that he is optimistic the legislation will come up for a vote next month. Mr. al-Jabouri said the national guard is essential to tamping down the threat of an all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq.
“If we arm the Shiite armed groups and the Sunni tribes, the fear is that once [the Islamic State] is ultimately eliminated, there will be a struggle in the future between those two sides,” he said. “Therefore, we must contain the situation in an official framework.”