When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 a friend of mine asked the question - was Iraq Iraq because Saddam was Saddam, or was Saddam Saddam because Iraq was Iraq. In other words, was it necessary to be a vicious tyrant to rule Iraq, or would Iraq be able to be run by a more moderate, more democratic, more pluralistic leader after Saddam Hussein was removed. It was the key question, of course. George W thought Saddam was the problem. My friend thought Iraq was the problem. It's looking like my friend was closer to the truth than George W was.
Dexter Filkins might be the best reporter on Iraq. He's been there since the beginning. He is on the ground, knows everybody, fearlessly puts himself in ridiculously dangerous situations, and tells us what is going on. He wrote a very interesting article in The New Yorker: "What We Left Behind." It's about 25 pages, but it is a fascinating history that reveals where Iraq is now, and who Maliki has been, and is becoming. Hint - tyrannical Shiite crushing Sunnis.
His main point is that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is becoming more and more dictatorial, less and less pluralistic, and has turned Iraq into a Shiite tyranny fully dedicated to the persecution, destruction, and oppression of the Sunni minority. Or, he is becoming the mirror image of Saddam Hussein, not as bad - yet - but perhaps on his way. Filkins doesn't say it that directly, but that's how it looks to me.
Maliki is looking to be re-elected April 30. Some fear that if he wins, he will never leave, rule for his lifetime, and pass the throne to his brutal son, Ahmed Maliki.
It was always a tough thing to do to establish a new government after Saddam. The CIA helped identify and raise Maliki to power. They thought he would be a Shiite who would be tough enough to defy Iran. He said all the right things about bringing Iraq together, but he had a lifelong history of being a Shiite soldier fighting Sunnis. In a nation of "super-duper" bad guys, he seems to be a more reasonable choice. Filkins says that Maliki fears that at any moment the Sunni Baath tyrants could return and once again crush the Shiites. Could be true, I suppose, but that mindset certainly doesn't lead toward a unified Iraq.
American officials in Iraq were apparently appalled at the low class hanging of Saddam, and saw it as a portent of an Iraq divided in religious wars going forward. It was Maliki's doing.
Plus the doings of Iran, of course, who are Shiite brothers pulling some powerful strings in Iraq. Iran's goals, according to Filkins were to bleed Americans and support the Shia in Iraq. Successful goals, it appears.
Obama also comes in for some serious criticism by Filkins and American diplomats for supporting Maliki at a point where we could have supported Alawi, the leader of Iraquya, a pro-western secular coalition. He writes:
"In parliamentary elections the previous March, Maliki's Shiite Islamist alliance, the State of Law, suffered an ebarrassing loss. The greatest share of the votes went to a secular, pro-Western coalition called Iraquya, led by Ayad Allawi, the persistent enemy of the Iranians. "These were election results we could only have dreamed of" a former American diplomat told me (Filkins). "The surge had worked. The war was winding down. And, for the first time in the history of the Arab world, a secular, Western-leaning alliance won a free and fair election.""
Obama didn't support Allawi because he thought the Shiites and the Iranians would oppose him. The deal that America brokered was to dump Allawi, get Sunni radical Sadr to back Maliki by giving Sadr control of "several government agencies", and take Jalal Talbabani as president, a man who is pro-Iranian, and to neutralize Iraqi intelligence. And, oh yes, America was to leave entirely after 2011. I suppose Obama thought that getting America out fast was a higher priority than worrying about Shiite oppression and Iranian control over Iraq. Campaign promises, you know.
The trouble with a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is that it leaves Iraq with nobody to act as brokers to conflicts, nobody is there for factions to talk to, nobody there to act as a brake on Maliki's war on the Sunnis. Diplomats in Iraq dissented from the deal and predicted that America was creating a dictator to fill the gap after they left.
One of the first things Maliki did after the American withdrawal was create a new office of Commander in Chief, giving him personal control over the military and police, according to Filkins.
Then Maliki purged the National Intelligence Service of Sunnis.
Amazingly, Maliki got their high court to give Maliki "exclusive right to draft legislation." No more pesky politicians getting in his way with dumb things like laws. Also, it is against the law to criticize the head of government, an old Sunni Saddam law resurrected for the new Shiite ruler.
Plus plenty of personal ties to Iran, proven by Iraqi support of Iranian flights into the Syrian civil war in support of the Shiites in that war. Maliki's defense of his actions in Syria is to say that this is what he must do to fight Al Qaeda.
And, of course, scores of billions of petro-dollars are corruptly going to Maliki and the new Shiite rulers.
Filkins makes a fundamental point about Maliki, Iraq, and the Middle East.
"When Maliki and the other exiles returned to Iraq in 2003, they quickly concluded that they couldn't establish an Islamic state, because the two sects had fundamental differences over the nature of Islam...faced with two options. One was to build a state that united the country's sects and religions around a democratic idea." But this was a forbidden idea in the minds of the fanatics. "The Islamists were left with only one option that would keep them as Iraq's leaders: to step away from the Islamist project, and go for the sectarian project".
So, the Americans leave and the Shiites take over, Saddam part two, this time a Shiite.
His final observation, from a diplomat, is:
"The whole point (in the Middle East) is that the leaders need to do political deals. We make them so strong that they no longer need to do political deals. So we undermine any chance at stability. It's destroying Iraq. We're strengthening the guy who is creating the problem." And without an American presence, America created a country that can't work without American presence to help them make deals. The only trusted middle man was us, according to Ambassador Crocker, and we aren't there anymore.
Why do we care? Why did we ever care? It was supposed to keep America and the West safe, but it looks to me like all our invasion really did was kill Saddam and put the formerly oppressed Shia in a place where they could oppress the Sunni. And, oh yes, ignite a Sunni/Shia civil and religious war that is engulfing the entire Middle East.
W started it, Americans got sick of it, Obama abandoned it. And I think all we seem to be learning is what my friend said in the beginning - Saddam was Saddam because Iraq is Iraq, and now Maliki is becoming Saddam-2?
I hope not.