The Bully in Baghdad

President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in November 2008, providing legal authority for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq until 2011. The agreement faced widespread opposition in Iraq, as many Iraqis saw it as legalizing and legitimizing the occupation of their country for another three years.

However, Maliki was able to overcome popular and parliamentary resistance to the agreement on two conditions. First, the SOFA would be subject to a national referendum held no later than the end of July 2009 and second, a series of amendments, known as the Political Reform Document, would be approved by parliament. The Reform Document addressed concerns about Maliki’s growing clout and authoritarian tendencies by calling for more equitable power sharing in the government and security forces.

Unfortunately, neither of these conditions was met by the deadline. The non-binding Reform Document has largely been ignored as Maliki continues to extend personal control over Iraq. The SOFA referendum has been postponed till January 2010, making its results inconsequential and marginalizing the voice of the Iraqi people.

Had the referendum been held on July 30, the SOFA would have been likely defeated, as most Iraqis resent the American occupation. If the SOFA was defeated, all American forces would have 12 months to leave Iraq, spoiling Obama’s slow withdrawal plans and leaving military planners the task of constructing an entirely new timetable for the American departure.

Although the Iraqi government cited financial and time constraints for the delay in holding the referendum, deeper analysis points to clever electioneering coupled with American pressure. If the referendum went ahead on schedule and the SOFA was rejected by the Iraqi people Maliki, a champion of the agreement, would surely suffer in the January elections, as his opponents would campaign on his desires to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for a lengthier stay. By postponing the referendum on the SOFA until national elections, its defeat can’t harm Maliki’s electoral chances.

Playing politics with the SOFA referendum is just the tip of the iceberg. Maliki has resorted to much dirtier tricks, reminiscent of Saddam-era Iraq, to ensure he wins the January election. Maliki’s actions to remain in power extend far beyond mere electioneering, using indefinite detentions and fear-mongering to ensure support. Scores of political rivals have been arrested on thin pretenses, while patronage and intimidation have been used to ensure loyalty at the ballot box.

In the chaos that came with the insurgency in Iraq, it has become all too easy to label and detain innocent individuals as insurgents for political reasons. Maliki and his inner circle have garnered disturbing control over Iraqi security forces, using them to crack down on political threats. In his capacity as commander-in-chief, Maliki has assumed direct command of two army units and the elite Baghdad Brigade. He is also using U.S.-trained Iraqi Special Forces and the counterterrorism taskforce, both of which report directly to him, to advance his personal agenda.

Furthermore, Maliki is able to directly appoint military leaders without parliamentary approval. Some are concerned that the military’s loyalty will be to Maliki, not Iraq. In addition to his command of military resources, Maliki controls his own intelligence service through the ministry of national security, run by a close ally.

Maliki is wielding his power to ensure support from local leaders, based on a system of fear and rewards. Some tribal leaders toe Maliki’s Dawa party line in fear of arrest and indefinite detention, while others have their support paid for through control of reconstruction funds and government appointments. Lured by positions of power and control of the purse strings, Maliki is effectively bribing his way to reelection.

Through his authoritarian policies, Maliki is creating a centralized state based on a patchwork of arrangements with local leaders. This is a very precarious policy with huge risks, as maintenance of these relationships depends on how local leaders see their future in Iraq. Things could change dramatically if a shift in power relations causes one or more groups to feel threatened or marginalized. If Maliki’s web of alliances were to break, Iraq could again be plunged into violent upheaval.

Since gaining public office, Maliki has used the instruments of power to broaden the scope of his authority and to ensure his political survival. To call the current operations of the government “power sharing” would be an insult to those outside the prime minister’s circles — those who bear the brunt of his abuse of power.

The Obama administration needs to address the growing deficit of democracy in Iraq. Yet, this will not be an easy proposition. As the White House tries to publicize American disengagement from Iraq, it does not want to be seen as meddling in Iraq’s internal politics. However, this should not prevent the administration from encouraging a more equitable power sharing arrangement.

After six years of violent occupation, the United States has an obligation to the Iraqi people. Standing by while Maliki destroys Iraq’s democratic prospects falls well short of our responsibility to the people of Iraq, and to the brave U.S. soldiers who put their lives on the line to provide the conditions for democratization.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Daniel Atzmon is a student at Wesleyan University and an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies.