Exclusive: Iraqi Vice President: Maliki Is Becoming a New Saddam

An arrest warrant for Iraq's Sunni vice president just days after the U.S. troop withdrawal has sparked fears that the country may once again plunge into sectarian violence.

Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud-Pool/Getty Images
Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud-Pool/Getty Images

Shortly before a wave of 15 bombings ripped through Baghdad on Thursday morning, killing more than 60 people, Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi warned that a simultaneous political crisis in the country could spiral "beyond control." In an interview with Foreign Policy on Wednesday from Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region where the vice president has fled to evade an arrest warrant, Hashemi declared that the Iraqi political system is "drifting from building democracy to building an autocratic regime" — and implied that Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was becoming a new Saddam Hussein.

Earlier this week, Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, accused Hashemi, a Sunni, of running a hit squad targeting government officials during the height of sectarian strife in the country. In a press conference on Wednesday, Maliki went further, casting doubt on the sustainability of power-sharing in Iraq by threatening to replace the current unity government with a majority government if Hashemi’s largely Sunni Iraqiya bloc doesn’t end a boycott of parliament and the cabinet. The political crisis has sparked concern about sectarian violence returning to Iraq just days after the last U.S. troops withdrew from the country.

Hashemi has vehemently denied the charges against him, arguing that they are politically motivated and yet another effort by Maliki to consolidate power. When asked if Maliki has become a Saddam-like figure since assuming power in 2006, as fellow Iraqiya leaders Saleh al-Mutlak and Iyad Allawi have suggested, Hashemi noted that "many of Saddam’s behaviors are now being exercised by Maliki unfortunately." But he added that Saddam rebuilt Iraq in six months after the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War in the early 1990s. In contrast, under Maliki’s leadership, Hashemi pointed out, the consulting firm Mercer ranked Baghdad the worst city in the world in terms of quality of life.

And there’s no question in his mind that Maliki is to blame.

"Now everything is in his hands: the ministry of defense, the ministry of the interior, intelligence, national security," Hashemi claimed. He wants his case transferred to Kurdistan because he doesn’t think Iraq’s judicial system is independent. Instead of judiciary authorities responding to his appeal, the vice president notes, Maliki himself shot down the request during his press conference yesterday, calling instead for Kurdish officials to hand over Hashemi. "The judicial system is really in his pocket," Hashemi argued.

When asked if Maliki is also in Iran’s pocket, Hashemi responded that the prime minister "is very close to Iran" and that Iraqiya’s Allawi — not Maliki — would be prime minister now if not for the "interference of Iran." When Iraqi leaders agreed to a power-sharing deal last year, Hashemi said, "Iran actively supported Maliki, and we discovered in due course that the United States also supported Maliki. Whether this was a coincidence or deliberate or behind-the-scenes coordination I don’t know. But this is what happened."

Hashemi says he had a brief telephone conversation with U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey when the American diplomat cut short his holiday vacation and rushed back to Baghdad to help resolve the current standoff. "I asked him to do his best and try to reach some sort of compromises and try to accommodate this crisis," Hashemi explained. "He promised me to do his utmost and talk to Maliki." Hashemi says Ambassador Jeffrey also suggested that he would come and meet with the vice president in person, though this has yet to happen.

The vice president claimed that Maliki delayed his meeting with Jeffrey for two days and that he hasn’t "seen any tangible results" from U.S. mediation, which he said has amounted so far to mere "courtesy calls" to Iraqi leaders. "Maliki is very much adamant about running this country in a very bad and tough way, and there’s no way that we will reach any sort of solution in the foreseeable future," Hashemi argued.

The Obama administration is working behind the scenes to resolve the crisis, but there are few signs of success. CNN reports that CIA Director David Petraeus has met with Maliki, and Vice President Joe Biden has urged Iraqi leaders to work together to avoid sectarian strife. But Hashemi, who calls himself a "friend" of the United States, isn’t impressed with the U.S. response thus far. He wants a full-throated condemnation of what he sees as Maliki’s flaunting of democracy. "I am not asking the United States to interfere in my internal issues," he said. "But the United States is a partner in building democracy in Iraq. And they should continue their role until they are satisfied that Iraq is becoming a model of democracy in the Middle East."

In an editorial earlier this week, the Washington Post urged the Obama administration to inform Maliki that "an alliance cannot be maintained with an Iraqi government that pursues a sectarian agenda or seeks authoritarian power." Obama’s outgoing military adviser for Iraq told Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin Tuesday that U.S. officials have communicated to Iraqi leaders that "it’s imperative that the process moving forward happen with full transparency and within the rule of law."

To Hashemi, the U.S. administration’s rhetoric sounds out of touch with reality. He bristles when he hears claims like Obama’s declaration last week that "the enormous sacrifice by American troops and civilians as well as the courage of the Iraqi people" have produced "an Iraq that is self-governing, that is inclusive, and that has enormous potential." The problem is not that the United States left Iraq too early, he said, but rather that it left the country "with tremendous challenges." He thinks American leaders should admit they’ve left Iraq because of domestic pressure, not because they’ve achieved their mission:

What mission you have fulfilled? Have you turned Iraq to become a democratic symbol in the Middle East? Have you turned Iraq from an autocratic regime to a democratic regime? This has not happened. Have you turned Iraq from an unreliable judicial system to an independent judicial system? This has not happened. Have you turned Iraq from a corrupted system to an uncorrupted system? This has not happened. Have you turned Iraq from a non-independent country to an independent country with no interference from other countries? This has again not happened.

Although Hashemi recently expressed support for three Sunni provinces seeking greater autonomy, he says he hasn’t lost faith in the notion of a "central but fair government" for Iraq. He thinks that if all provinces became autonomous regions with their own governments, it could be a "recipe for splitting Iraq." But, he added, "If the government is being accused of wide-scale corruption, mismanagement, and complete failure, there are no options for these provinces but to copy the same style as" the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In other words, in prosecuting Hashemi, and angering the Sunni community in the process, Maliki may be sowing the seeds of Iraq’s dismemberment.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF