In a speech at Fort Bragg on December 14, 2011, President Barack Obama declared that the U.S. military would soon depart Iraq, ending one of the longest wars in American history. The United States, Obama said, would leave behind “a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” Four days later, the last U.S. military unit crossed from Iraq into Kuwait, and American armed forces transferred all their responsibilities to either the central government of Iraq, U.S. Central Command, or the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, completing the most complex handoff from military to civilian authorities in U.S. history.
The next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- who since 2006 had sought to enhance his personal interests and those of Shiite religious parties at the expense of Iraq’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs -- secured an arrest warrant for Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of supporting terrorism. A crisis erupted when Hashimi’s Sunni-dominated political bloc boycotted the national unity government that Obama had so recently touted as inclusive and responsive to the Iraqi people.
That same week, 17 explosions rocked Baghdad, killing at least 65 people and wounding more than 200; al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) later claimed responsibility. With Iranian encouragement, Maliki’s government began to systematically target Sunni elites on the basis of trumped-up charges of terrorism or alleged affiliation with the outlawed Baath Party. Sectarian violence soon erupted, and by May 2013, it had reached levels not seen since the waning days of the civil war that engulfed Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Meanwhile, Maliki firmed up his grip on the Iraqi intelligence and security forces, replacing competent Sunni and Kurdish officers whom he mistrusted with Shiites personally loyal to him. He refused to appoint permanent ministers for defense, the interior, and Iraq’s National Security Council, instead controlling those ministries himself through an extraconstitutional organization called the Office of the Commander in Chief.
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