President Obama’s just-departed military adviser for Iraq says the administration has tried to pressure Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reconsider an arrest warrant on terror charges for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi that has inflamed tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and left U.S. officials worried that key players will abandon a political process that has sustained the country’s fragile peace for years.
“When we first started hearing rumors and then seeing evidence of this pending arrest warrant, the first thing we did was reach out to Maliki and the rest of the Iraqi leadership to convey our concern and make sure that everybody has to be careful right now,” Colin Kahl said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“Everybody has to be careful right now. You don’t want reactions that lead people to leave the political process,” said Kahl, who left his post Monday as the Pentagon’s senior adviser on Iraq just as the crisis was brewing.
The initial overtures were a return to the kind of hand holding the United States has done for years with Iraqi politicians since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Usually words from senior U.S. officials could cool down Iraq’s political crises, but this time Maliki did not listen and sent security forces to the Hashemi’s home and offices in Baghdad just as the last U.S. troops were leaving in Iraq.
Hashemi in a phone interview from the Kurdish city of Irbil told the Daily Beast Tuesday that he could not return to Baghdad because his offices and home were seized by security forces that had taken his files and computers. And he accused the Obama administration of failing to be more forceful to stop a political crisis that could explode into worse tensions.
“We are really disappointed and frustrated with the Americans, they have done zero in terms of these problems. I am not betting on them doing anything. They tell us they will try their best, but we think this means nothing,” he said.
On Tuesday, the White House acknowledged that Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Maliki and Council of Representatives Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi “to discuss the current political climate in Baghdad.”
“Everybody has to be careful right now. You don’t want reactions that lead people to leave the political process.”
Kahl said the message from the White House was that “all sides must be committed to the political and judicial process. We have conveyed to Maliki and others as they move forward there has to be complete transparency as it relates to charges and a complete commitment to the rule of law.”
While Iraqi television has run interviews with men who claim to be bodyguards to Hashemi claiming that he has ties to terrorists, Hashemi told The Daily Beast that he has not even seen the charges against him.
“Three of my brothers have been killed because of my participation in building a new Iraq, regardless of all I have done, I am now accused by the prime minister who says I have a link to terrorism, this is really unbelievable,” he said.
Asked if he believed Iraq could disintegrate into three countries—Sunni, Shiite and Kurdistan—as many analysts feared at the height of the Iraqi civil war in 2006, Hashemi said, “I hope not, but believe it or not, all options are in front of Iraqis.”
“The situation is really deteriorating, all possibilities now could happen. I hope this won’t happen. But if you ask my expectation, we have a gloomy picture,” Hashemi said.
But Kahl in his interview was not as pessimistic.
“I think there is a lot more resiliency in the Iraqi political process than people assume,” he said. “I do not think Iraq is some fragile place teetering on the brink of collapse. If we saw political defections from the political process and you saw people returning to large-scale violence, that would be bad though.”
Hashemi said Tuesday he is now supporting the moves of three Sunni provinces to declare their independence from Baghdad’s central government, reversing his earlier position. Hashemi was one of the last holdouts among major Sunni Arab politicians in Iraq for keeping a stronger central government despite the Shiite political majority in the country’s council of representatives.
In the last two weeks, provincial governments in Anbar, Diyala, and Salah ad Din have all said they would seek greater autonomy from the central government and pursue the kind of regional autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, that rules over the three Kurdish majority provinces in northern Iraq.
“I do feel sympathy about the people’s desires in these three provinces, and I understand why they have changed their minds,” he said. “They used to be close to the government system, now they want to be like the KRG.”
That provincial government is a nearly autonomous region in Iraq, issuing their own visas for passports and issuing their own contracts to develop oil fields in the Kurdistan region.
“There is a wide scale corruption and there is too much interference from Baghdad into the internal security of these provinces,” Hashemi said. “The constitution gives wide scale autonomy. People are fed up with the mismanagement and the wide scaled interference from Baghdad.”
Sterling Jensen, a research associate at the National Defense University and the main Arabic translator for the U.S. Army in Ramadi during the Anbar Awakening in 2006 and 2007, said he predicted “Iraq will definitely have some rough days ahead.”
Jensen was particularly concerned Sunni tribes that joined with the American military in 2007 and 2008 would be tempted to return to al Qaeda for protection. “There will be more of an appeal for Sunnis in Iraq to turn to al Qaeda for protection against the government unlike their fight against al Qaeda in 2006 and 2007.”
Nonetheless, Jensen said he thinks Iraq’s political leaders “will come up with a political solution.” He added however, “if they do not, Iraq is headed for civil war and a new base for al Qaeda.”