Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Nine years after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein and just a few months after the last U.S. soldier left Iraq, the country has become something close to a failed state. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.
The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.
Both Maliki and his rivals are responsible for the slow slide toward chaos, prisoners of their own history under Saddam. Iraq today is divided between once-persecuted Shiite religious parties, such as Maliki's Dawa Party, still hungry for revenge, and secular and Sunni parties that long for a less bloody version of Saddam's Baath Party, with its nationalist ideology and intolerance of religious and ethnic politics. Meanwhile, the Kurds maneuver gingerly around the divisions in Baghdad. Their priority is to preserve their near autonomy in northern Iraq and ward off the resurrection of a powerful central government that could one day besiege their cities and bombard their villages, as Baghdad did throughout the twentieth century.
All sides hold the others responsible for all the friends and family killed during the Saddam era and the civil war that followed the U.S. invasion. All of Iraq's political leaders seem to live by the maxim that no enemy can become a partner, just a temporary ally; betrayal lurks around every corner. Each politician grabs as much power as he can, and unchecked ambition, ego, and historical grudges lead them all to ignore the consequences of their behavior for Iraq's new institutions and its society.
Maliki's tactics closely echo the pattern laid down by his predecessors, from Iraq's post-Ottoman monarchs to its ﬁrst prime minister, Abdul Karim Kassem, to Saddam himself: put yourself ﬁrst, and guard power with a ruthless security apparatus. Maliki's opponents, including his secular rival Ayad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya Party, have given no indication they would act any differently. In the last year, Maliki has chipped away at safeguards for democracy, stocking the country's Human Rights Ministry with loyalists and using the state's anticorruption offices to target political enemies. Maliki's harassment and persecution of anyone deemed a threat to himself or his party has dramatically reduced freedom throughout Iraq. Most ominously for his country, and himself, Maliki, through his bullying and nepotistic rule, threatens to cause his own undoing and push Iraq back into civil war.
This was not the Iraq the United States envisioned as it planned its invasion less than a decade ago. After toppling Saddam in 2003, U.S. policy aimed to create a democratic state that enshrined civil liberties; national reconciliation; a fair, apolitical judiciary; and freedom of speech. However, this goal was jeopardized from day one of the U.S. occupation by a series of debilitating blunders: not sending enough U.S. forces to secure the country, dissolving the old Iraqi military, and allowing a draconian purge of Baath Party members from civilian ministries. It was only belatedly, in Iraq's darkest hour, that the Bush administration sent thousands more troops to stop the civil war that had erupted. During the "surge," in 2007, the United States forced the ruling Shiite religious parties to take steps toward making peace with the Sunnis, blocked blatantly political arrests, and worked to marginalize, if not jail, officials implicated in violence. The hope was that improved security would allow Iraq to reach stability and acquire the trappings of liberal governance.
Maliki and his colleagues are not the only ones to blame for the dashing of these hopes and the slide away from democracy. Since the last months of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama presidency, rather than concentrate on shoring up democratic principles, as it had during the surge, Washington has instead focused on securing its long-term strategic relationship with Baghdad, especially with the prime minister, so that it could more easily withdraw U.S. forces. In the process, the United States failed to capitalize on the gains of the U.S. troop surge -- the Iraqi people's renunciation of religious extremists and desire for normalcy -- thereby damaging the chances that a uniﬁed, nonsectarian government could emerge.
Washington's biggest mistake of recent years came in the summer of 2010, when the United States dropped the pretense of neutrality by backing Maliki for the post of prime minister over Allawi -- even though Allawi's party list had received more votes in the national elections held in March. U.S. officials argued that only a Shiite Islamist had the credibility and legitimacy to serve as prime minister and disparaged any alternative to Maliki. But by anointing Maliki, a devout Shiite who already had Iran's endorsement, the United States gave him the conﬁdence to avoid serious compromises with Allawi, a secular Shiite supported by the country's Sunnis.
In November 2010, Maliki and Allawi reached a power-sharing agreement, sponsored by the Kurdish government in Erbil and Washington, in which Maliki was supposed to relinquish his direct command of the security forces and his tight grip on the cabinet and most ministries. The agreement awarded the Defense Ministry to Iraqiya and appointed Allawi to head a new consultative policy body. U.S. officials bragged that they had outmaneuvered Iran and midwifed a nonsectarian government in Baghdad.
But Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal were implemented. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, the Obama administration's leading ﬁgure on Iraq policy, was largely absent from Iraq for nearly a year as the power-sharing arrangement unraveled. At the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, officials complained in private about Maliki's refusal to share power as he had promised, but they kept quiet in public, even as Maliki's military command stepped up its campaign of harassment and arrests of those considered rivals. When I was in Baghdad last June, I asked a U.S. diplomat why the embassy had said nothing about an ongoing crackdown against pro-democracy activists, including an incident in which Iraqi security agents had beaten protesters in broad daylight. He said that although U.S. officials had a "regular" dialogue with Maliki about human rights, Washington's "overriding focus and concern" was building a security relationship with the Iraqi government. But by turning a blind eye to Maliki's encroaching authoritarianism, U.S. officials allowed Iraq's political culture to disintegrate. (It was this disarray that also made it impossible for U.S. officials to get Iraq's leaders to push an immunity agreement through parliament so that a small number of U.S. troops could stay on after 2011.) Rather than help Iraq move forward, the United States allowed the country to drift back toward sectarianism and authoritarian rule.
The political situation in Baghdad hit a new low last December. The day after the last U.S. soldier left the country, Maliki suddenly called for the arrest of Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of running death squads. With this move, Maliki abandoned any lingering pretense that he was interested in national reconciliation and undermined the promises that he and U.S. President Barack Obama had made just days before in Washington, when they declared Iraq a stable democracy. Hashimi ﬂed to Kurdistan, and the country's political process was plunged into limbo. The crisis exposed the artiﬁcial, Potemkin-village-like nature of Iraq's democratic system and how swiftly the feuds among Iraq's national leaders could endanger the state.
No political ﬁgure, no matter how high ranking, now doubts Maliki's ability to harness the law and the state to his ambitions. Still, Maliki lacks the authority to eliminate all his enemies, by virtue of being enmeshed in a parliament-based system, which was imposed by the United States after 2003. But he will keep striving for absolute power, using fear, intimidation, and cronyism. The opposition will conspire against him and attempt to sabotage his policies, positive or negative, out of the desire to see him fail. But handicapped by their own divisions, they will never succeed in ousting him. This corrosive deadlock will only fan further disillusionment with the current order, sending the political system hurtling toward implosion. One of three outcomes -- all dangerous -- will likely result.
First, some speciﬁc event or series of events -- for example, the local and national elections expected in 2013 and 2014, respectively, or an escalation of the campaign of arrests against Maliki's foes -- could trigger violence involving Iraq's tribes, sects, ethnicities, and parties. Second, the ineffectual rule of the central government could lead Sunni and Shiite regional leaders to carve out their own autonomous zones, leaving Iraq a state in name only, a prospect that could also ignite bloodshed if Baghdad refuses to recognize those boundaries or the provinces begin to ﬁght over territory. Third, Shiite political ﬁgures and military officers could mount a coup, claiming the current government was endangering the country and declaring special rule for an emergency period. Repressive crackdowns would follow, triggering a cycle of retributive violence.
To save Iraq from these fates -- any one of which would prove disastrous and would mark a total defeat for the United States in terms of its aims for the country -- Washington must push Baghdad to honor the power-sharing agreements reached over a year ago and take concrete steps toward transparent governance, the rule of law, and national reconciliation. As much as Maliki will try to resist U.S. efforts to rein him in, he still believes that the United States can help him rebuild Iraq. He is caught between his grand ambition to attain affluence for his country, making Iraq an envy of nations, and his roots as an underground Islamic revolutionary. If he sees his abandonment by Washington as spelling the end to his rule or leading Iraq down the path of international isolation, as Saddam once led the country, he will be susceptible to pressure.
THE AFTERLIFE OF THE EMERALD CITY
To fully understand just how Iraq's current rulers work, it helps to visit the government in the Green Zone, 3.9 square miles of fortiﬁed territory in the heart of Baghdad. In the Saddam era, the neighborhood was called Karradat Mariam, after a local woman who cared for the poor. The district's homes, palaces, hotels, and monuments stood as garish displays of the Baath regime's wealth and pretensions. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, the U.S. military took control of the area and formalized its boundaries with blast walls and barbed wire. Then, in January 2009, when the United States ceded control over Iraqi security, Maliki became the lord of the Green Zone. Much like his U.S. predecessors, he spoke of opening the major highway that cuts through the restricted area to ease people's daily lives. But also like his U.S. predecessors, he was unable to keep his promise: the world outside proved too dangerous. Instead, Maliki's rule of the Green Zone became all-encompassing. Only those with the proper badges or escorted by someone with a government-issued Green Zone identiﬁcation card can enter. (Those badges have become a source of corruption: according to U.S. military officers and Iraqis living around the area, one can be had for $10,000.) The beggars, widows, and families with sick relatives who once made a pilgrimage to the gates of the parliament building in the Green Zone to beg lawmakers for help are now barred from entry.
Maliki has mimicked many of the hierarchical controls created during the U.S. occupation. His office splits Green Zone badges into the same color-coded ranks (blue for the highest level of access, orange and red for the lowest) as did the United States, and Maliki awards badges to buy inﬂuence and patronage, just as U.S. officials once did. During the years of U.S. control, the U.S. Army stationed military police and army units to police and defend the Green Zone. Maliki has his own version: in late 2008, he created the Baghdad Brigade, a special unit that guards the area's gates and patrols its private roads. The brigade, which operates outside the normal chain of command, is comprised of soldiers from the country's Shiite heartland sympathetic to Maliki and his Dawa Party. (The religious nature of the force is visible on holidays, when banners depicting Shiite icons hang from the Green Zone's entrances.)
Moreover, Maliki has made the management of his office a family affair, to the point where some high-ranking government officials now wonder, as they told me, whether they serve a family or a state. This has created an irony obvious to many Iraqis: at a time when the rest of the Arab world is rejecting family rule, Maliki has surrounded himself with his kin and others from his birthplace of Twaireej, a rural area south of Baghdad. His son Ahmed, who is deputy to the chief of staff and in charge of his father's personal security, is arguably the most powerful person in Maliki's office. He has gained particular notoriety for his consolidation of property in the Green Zone, which he has achieved by ordering the Baghdad Brigade to seize houses belonging to Iraqis and foreign contractors. These seizures have driven most Western companies out of the Green Zone. The Iraqi government does have legitimate reasons for wanting to ease out those Western ﬁrms that claimed land in the Green Zone after 2003. But such heavy-handed tactics -- and the fact that the seized property has largely remained under Ahmed's control -- have created the impression that Maliki's inner circle is mostly interested in enriching itself.
Maliki has also deployed his forces to intimidate and hamper his enemies. After the announcement of the arrest warrant against Hashimi in December, for example, Maliki deployed tanks outside the homes of Hashimi and other Iraqiya leaders; forces from the Baghdad Brigade required guests to present their credentials before going inside. He has dangled security as a carrot, awarding bodyguard battalions to allies while refusing to grant a similar request to a senior elected Sunni official whom he dislikes, despite the danger to his rival's life.
PALACES AND PRISONS
The greatest symbol of Maliki's strength in the Green Zone is a compound known as Camp Honor, the site of a bombed-out palatial meeting hall, built by Saddam in the 1990s, whose ceiling has a mural of Iraqi soldiers ﬁghting U.S. troops. The U.S. military turned it into a base, and then, in 2006, it became the headquarters for an Iraqi army division. Today, the unkempt grounds are home to the giant palace, overgrown weeds, prefabricated houses, and shipping containers.
Since 2009, Camp Honor has also been the site of the private detention center overseen by Maliki's military office, which supervises all security operations and whose authority supersedes that of the Interior and Defense Ministries. In an infamous case from October 2009, Iraqi counterterrorism and regular army units grabbed more than 430 Sunni men in Mosul on the orders of that office. The prisoners were ﬁrst held in Camp Honor and then transferred to a secret prison at Baghdad's Muthanna Air Base, where they were discovered in March 2010 by officials from the Human Rights Ministry. Looking to avoid a controversy so shortly after the national elections held earlier that month, Maliki agreed to shut down the Muthanna jail. But he refused to relinquish control of the Camp Honor detention facility despite having pledged to do so. A year later, a committee of Iraqi lawmakers toured the jail and threatened to expose its ﬁndings publicly; in response, the government announced Camp Honor's formal closure. Yet as Iraqi parliamentarians and other government officials told me, Camp Honor in fact remains open as a secret jail for prisoners captured by Maliki's elite forces.
There are alarming signs that those held there continue to be tortured to extract confessions; then, once the desired testimony is obtained, they are sent off to regular, legally recognized prisons. Last May, the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote a conﬁdential letter to Maliki demanding full access to the jail. (I obtained a copy through my work as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.) Based on interviews with former detainees at Camp Honor, the Red Cross claimed that it had uncovered evidence of systematic torture and gross mistreatment, including rape and electric shock to the genitals. It wrote that it had learned that Iraqi judges had been present during some of the torture sessions to extract confessions. The Red Cross also added that it knew of three other secret Green Zone jails connected to Camp Honor that remained active and hid detainees in case of any international or local inspections. When I asked about the letter, the Red Cross declined to comment.
Last December, I met a middle-aged Iraqi man, Abu Ibrahim (this was an assumed name; he feared for retribution from military units close to Maliki), who told me that he had been picked up by Iraqi counterterrorism soldiers in a raid on his Baghdad neighborhood a few months earlier. Soldiers burst into his house in the middle of the night. A masked informant identiﬁed him and his father as suspected terrorists. He said he was ﬁrst taken to the main airport in Baghdad, where he was well treated, thanks to the presence of U.S. forces. But once the counterterrorism troops drove him to the Green Zone, the treatment became rougher. For three days, he was brought to a cluster of trailers for interrogation, where he said he was chained to a bar and left to dangle until he passed out. The guards yelled, "Are you al Qaeda? Are you Baathist?" They later took him into a nearby trailer where a judge attached to the counterterrorism force was reviewing his ﬁle. The judge expressed doubts about the secret informant who had accused him of terrorism and ordered his release.
Another judge, however, refused to free his father, who had been a high-ranking officer in the Saddam-era army. Weeks after Abu Ibrahim was released, an intermediary told him that the secret informant would be willing to drop the allegations against his father in exchange for money. U.S. military officers and Iraqi human rights inspectors have uncovered a familiar pattern for those held in Iraqi jails: a security officer or an informant demands money for a detainee to be released, leading to protracted negotiations. But in the case of Abu Ibrahim's father, before any talks could take shape, the middleman disappeared. Now, Abu Ibrahim does not know if someone will ask him for money again or what will become of his father.
The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon, as any investigator from the Human Rights Ministry or any official from any other government office who is brave enough to try to probe the jails would face immediate persecution. Three investigators have already ﬂed the country, and those remaining are terriﬁed. One former Iraqi official who worked on human rights issues and left the country last year because he was afraid for his safety told me that Maliki and the Dawa Party were essentially free to carry out whatever they liked in their jails. "Everything is under their control," he said. "It's easy for them to accuse anyone and destroy him."
Endemic corruption within the army and the police not only contributes to such prisoner abuse but also feeds into broader, more systemic problems within Iraq's security apparatus. The culture of graft leads to crippling inefficiencies and dangerous gaps: commanders pad military payrolls with soldiers who do not exist, military officers and ministry officials receive kickbacks on contracts for everything from food supplies to defense equipment, and senior officials create skeleton companies to pilfer money from the Treasury.
The toxic brew of corruption undermines any hopes for reform and improved governance. Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was Iraq's vice president until he resigned last summer in protest over Maliki's bloated cabinet and the culture of entitlement among officials, told me that corruption is so pervasive that it is blocking the provision of basic services. For example, as he explained, "maﬁas" in business and the government make money off the lack of progress in the electricity sector through overpriced contracts and sales funneled to politically connected but inefficient ﬁrms.
No political party or faction is immune to the lure of easy money, fed by the state's lucrative oil revenues and the lax controls on how cash is spent. The loyalty of a lawmaker, cleric, commander, or tribal leader can be bought with houses, cars, and cash. A longtime Iraqi civil servant close to Maliki's Dawa Party explained to me how it works: political ﬁgures set up shell companies, helmed by a trusted businessperson or relative, that then bid to deliver goods or services to the government. The contracts, whether for building a sewage line or beautifying the Baghdad highway, are consistently overpriced, allowing the companies to divert revenues and assets to the foreign bank accounts of government officials. An electricity official told me that the Electricity Ministry regularly purchases equipment for its distribution department that is purportedly German but is in fact cheap Chinese or Iranian knockoffs; similarly, a state-employed pharmacist in Baghdad complained about the cheap medicine that the government imports with no concern for quality because officials get kickbacks from particular companies or importers.
This culture of corruption ﬁlters up to the highest levels of government: even Iraq's national budget is shrouded in mystery, with appropriations announced and spent with little transparency. Baghdad has spent more than $400 billion since 2004, but the government is only now preparing to release a ﬁnal account of its budgets from 2004 to 2009. Most of the cash spent will likely never be properly accounted for. In 2011, Baghdad reported that it did not know how much of the $25 billion that the central government had advanced to ministries, local governments, and state companies as of the middle of 2010 had actually been spent or if any excess funds could be returned.
Iraq's opaque ﬁnances create an atmosphere in which misdealings ﬂourish. High-level politicians and officials can quickly put a halt to any investigation into wrongdoing among their associates or underlings. In April 2009, for example, Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity launched an investigation into Abdul Falah al-Sudani, then the trade minister and a member of a branch of Maliki's Dawa Party, for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars in public funds. A month after a shootout in central Baghdad between his staff and investigators, Sudani tried to ﬂee the country and was brieﬂy jailed. But almost a year later, a judge dismissed the case against him.
Those who have worked in the state's anticorruption bodies are bleak about the future. They have been blocked too many times by the powerful and realize that their lives are in danger. Some have been killed. The head of the Commission on Public Integrity resigned in September, frustrated by his inability to pursue corruption charges against high officials. Maliki replaced him with someone considered to be more pliant and less likely to antagonize those in power. In Baghdad, I met with an anticorruption official who showed me a number of veiled threats he had received on his cell phone from the boss of a company suspected of funneling money to the Dawa Party. One text message read, "Is it acceptable some government ﬁgures would provoke you to be against us? Do you think a big company like ours would not know about this?" It went on to say, "We are requesting that God protects you." The official was worried for his safety. He now never leaves home without a bodyguard. "Committing murder in Iraq is casual," he said, "like drinking a morning cup of coffee."
Disenchantment with corruption and government dysfunction has spread to Basra, the oil-rich city in Iraq's Shiite south. It was here, with his 2008 campaign against the Shiite militias that were terrorizing ordinary Iraqis, where Maliki showed himself a bold leader willing to confront powerful Shiite armed groups even if it might cost him his job. Maliki's popularity soared; having saved the city from chaos, he was viewed as the best hope for security and development. But four years later, those hopes have largely been dashed: Basra is marked by open ponds brimming with sewage, sporadic electricity, and shantytowns made from looted sheet metal and bricks. Looking at the convoys of American and European oil workers driving across town and the two new luxury hotels that have opened in recent years, locals are sure that the money made from their oil ﬁelds is being whisked off to Baghdad.
Today, many local businesspeople and politicians believe that the creation of an autonomous region in the province of Basra is the only way to save it from poverty and the yoke of a corrupt elite in the capital. They are angry that Baghdad controls security and directs spending in the province, holding back funds from the local government in an effort to extend its dominance over the wealthy region. Last February, popular demonstrations in the province over poor services and official corruption forced the Dawa Party's choices for governor and chair of the provincial council to resign. (Protests have also forced the resignation of governors in two other Shiite provinces.) In late 2010, Basra's council voted in favor of a referendum on federalism, but the central government simply ignored the motion. Meanwhile, public anger in Basra and among Shiite communities across the country prompted the Iraqi Shiites' most revered spiritual guide, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose endorsement is readily sought by the Shiite political elite, to refuse all meetings with elected officials, including Maliki. Local politicians in Basra are sensitive to the popular mood, and even ﬁgures from Maliki's political slate feel they must assert their independence from Baghdad.
The new chair of the provincial council, Sabah al-Bazouni, who represents a branch of Maliki's Dawa Party, told me of Basra's woes: closed factories, electricity blackouts in the summer, miles of slums, dried-out irrigation canals. He wondered how the province that supplies 70 percent of the country's oil could be so poor. He said that Basra should be able to hold a referendum on greater autonomy, even over the objections of Maliki and the government in Baghdad.
If Basra does manage to become an autonomous region, Bazouni argues that the province should also gain the right to negotiate all future oil contracts in its territory, as well as manage its own port and borders and keep its own security forces. It would send back revenues to the Iraqi central government according to the national law, when it is ﬁnally passed, and whatever agreements Basra reached with Baghdad. The experiment could serve as a model for the capital's relationships with other restive regions, such as the two Sunni-led provinces currently also requesting independence. Of course, it could also cause splits, perhaps violent ones, within the country's Shiite majority. Those officials, such as Maliki, who advocate a strong national government could fall into conﬂict with their local counterparts who want greater power and control of Basra's lucrative resources. The temptation of being able to control a nearly autonomous region could also spark ﬁghting among the local branches of Shiite parties, each of which sees itself as the rightful ruler of the wealthy region. Indeed, it was such competition that drove Basra to lawlessness before Maliki's intervention in 2008. Basra's residents seem to recognize these dangers, yet because they view Baghdad as pilfering their wealth, they see no better option.
"THE RIGHTEOUS HAVE THEIR OPPONENTS"
Faced with the prospect of his Shiite base splintering, Maliki has taken to fanning public fears of Iraq's Sunni minority. He seems to think that if he can keep Iraq's Shiites afraid of the Sunnis, they will not dare break with him and risk jeopardizing Shiite dominance of the political process. Maliki has accordingly begun to emphasize the Sunni atrocities committed during the Saddam era and the recent civil war. "Any successful person has enemies; the righteous have their opponents. Moses has his pharaoh, and every Hussein has his Yazid," Maliki said in a speech on New Year's Day, referring to the caliph who massacred Imam Hussein and his followers in the seventh century, giving birth to the modern-day schism between Shiites and Sunnis.
Such a strategy marks a break from Maliki's rhetoric in 2008, when, in order to extend his writ, he used the national army to ﬁght Shiite militias and explored the idea of forming alliances with Sunni leaders. These relationships were abandoned in the raw politics of the 2010 national elections and the ensuing competition between Maliki and Allawi. In Maliki's subsequent bid to consolidate his power, he has come to rely more and more on fundamentalist Shiite parties. Since the elections, Maliki and his supporters have polarized the country's politics by trying to arrest Sunni politicians and announcing a series of foiled terrorist plots by Sunnis.
As a result, whereas two years ago many Sunnis viewed Maliki favorably, they now perceive him as an Iranian-backed despot out to destroy their community. According to former Sunni allies of Maliki, the Sunni community now fears that if Maliki hangs on to power, he will continue persecuting Sunnis with arbitrary arrests and intimidation campaigns. The Speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaiﬁ, a Sunni from the Iraqiya bloc, has warned that if Baghdad continues to carry out such hostile actions, the Sunni population will be forced to declare their own autonomous regions. Indeed, many Sunni leaders now champion self-rule, an idea they opposed in 2005, when it was legally enshrined in the constitution (an article that Maliki continues to ignore). At the time, Sunni leaders viewed federalism as a recipe for Iraq's destruction and loathed the Kurds for their autonomy in the north. Today, they see the way the Kurds have thrived as proof that the only way to get a fair distribution of Iraq's wealth and to protect themselves from Baghdad is by embracing a federalist Iraq.
Last October, after security forces from Baghdad arrested dozens of aging former Baathists in the Sunni-majority Salahuddin Province, Salahuddin became the ﬁrst Sunni region to call for a federal system. The recent history of Samarra, a strategically important city in Salahuddin and home to the sacred Askariya Mosque, provides a measure of the toll that Iraq's sectarian battles have taken on ordinary citizens. The city was once a model of the country's rich cross-cultural traditions, with its gold-domed mosque worshipped at by Shiites and tended by the city's majority Sunni population. But in 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq blew up the sanctuary, thereby igniting the country's civil war. The city's streets belonged to al Qaeda and its foot soldiers, who terrorized the local population. Now, six years later, the violence has subsided, and Shiite pilgrims are again traveling to pray in Samarra -- but the shrine remains walled off with giant cement barriers that make it look like a maximum-security prison. Samarra's Sunni residents, who once prayed by the shrine and celebrated their weddings there, largely keep their distance. Men stand idle in front of empty clothing shops and hotels that once catered to pilgrims but are now effectively sealed off from commerce. Even locals have stopped shopping in the city's center so as to avoid the national police who harass those who come too close to the shrine.
The more Baghdad imposes its will on Sunni areas, the greater the chances for wider sectarian unrest. With no plan to break the country's political stalemate, the only course left for all sides is brinkmanship, with escalating Sunni demands for freedom and Baghdad answering back with intimidation. Even the Iraqi Kurds are encouraging the Sunnis to push for self-rule: they believe that if the Sunnis, traditionally hostile to Kurdish ambitions, embraced federalism, it would legitimize their own privileges and prevent Baghdad from ever trying to encroach on their authority.
Federalism could indeed end up being an effective mechanism for the country's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to live together peacefully -- but for it to work, a process of authentic national reconciliation would have to come ﬁrst. Without shared decision-making in government, inclusive institutions, and trust and respect for the law, federalism would lead to the splintering of Iraq, turning the country into a proxy battleﬁeld between Iran and the Sunni Muslim world. In this scenario, Iraq would exist only in name, leaving a collection of territories often at war with one another and at the mercy of foreign powers. Civilians would be subjected to terrorist attacks, caught in the middle of the ensuing regional struggles for oil and water. The notion of Iraq as a modern nation-state would fade, relegated to the ranks of failed twentieth-century colonial experiments.
SALVAGING THE AMERICAN LEGACY
The only hope Iraq has of escaping a future of war or corrupt, authoritarian rule is for the United States and the international community to start pushing hard for power sharing and democracy. Since Iraq's 2010 elections, Washington has completely failed on this score. But U.S. officials must not stay silent in the face of illegal detentions and crackdowns on civil liberties; neither should they back away from the power-sharing agreements they helped sponsor for the sake of short-term political considerations. Even with U.S. soldiers gone from the country, the United States retains leverage over Iraq. It can and should, for example, threaten to keep Iraq locked in its so-called Chapter 7 status in the United Nations, which deprives Iraq of full sovereignty and requires it to make reparations payments to Kuwait. And it should warn Iraq that it will cancel the sale of U.S. ﬁghter jets, tanks, and surveillance equipment to the government unless it changes course. Iraq's leaders need to know that the international community has "redlines," and that secret prisons, the use of torture to extract confessions, and the harassment of democracy activists will not be tolerated. As for the danger of pushing Baghdad closer to Tehran, although Iran would gladly smother Iraq in a suffocating embrace, Iraq's own tortuous history of war with its neighbor means that Iraq will continue to seek a relationship with the West in part to counterbalance Tehran.
The local elections in 2013 and the national elections the year after will be a test of whether Iraq's leaders indeed believe in representative government or whether those in power now will try to hold on to it by any means necessary. Maliki is currently pursuing a number of officials on the electoral commission's staff with corruption investigations. And in January 2011, he won a court ruling that placed the commission under his authority, rather than under the parliament's. Whereas some Iraqi officials wonder if the next elections will be free and fair, several former U.S. military officers wonder if the elections will happen at all.
The United States must ensure that they do and that they are free and fair, and it must not countenance any democratic backsliding for the sake of political expediency. Confronting Maliki and his government on abuses and political arrests may strain relations, but ignoring such topics has only helped lead Iraq to its current, deeply troubled state. If Iraq slips into dictatorship or war, this will be the United States' legacy in the country. But Iraq should not be written off. With outside help, it could still manage to muddle through with an elected government that is somewhat accountable and somewhat representative. Such an outcome would go a long way toward redeeming the United States' disastrous misadventure there.
This article is part of the Foreign Affairs Iraq Retrospective.