Saleh al-Mutlaq, a deputy prime minister of Iraq, arrived in Washington this week with a modest request for a president he says prematurely withdrew American forces from his country at the end of 2011. He is asking President Obama to provide observers for the national elections in Iraq scheduled for the end of April.
As far is it goes, election monitors are not a big ask for Iraqi politicians. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked for the United States to send advanced aircraft, attack helicopters and other munitions for his military. He is getting some hellfire missiles and surveillance drones now that al Qaeda has claimed dominion over the western Iraqi city of Fallujah.
But Mutlaq—who is his country’s second highest ranking Sunni Arab politician after Usama al-Nujayfi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament—would like the United States to try to save Iraq’s fraying political system before strengthening its army. “There is no single Iraqi who refuses to have a strong army,” he told the Daily Beast Monday. “But the strength of the army is not only measured by the weapons they carry. The strength of the army is also measured by its national unity.”
If the elections bring to power a new government that continues to represent the interests only of Shi’ite Arabs in the country, Mutlaq fears there will be another civil war. “There was a chance for Iraq and the Iraqis to run Iraq through a national patriotic project like Iraqiya,” Mutlaq said referring to the secular coalition of parties headed by Iyad Alawi, a former interim prime minister of Iraq with close ties to the U.S. government. Mutlaq said today supporters of Iraqiya were arrested and targeted by Maliki’s government.
With some resignation, Mutlak said Iran in the end became the main power broker that created the current government where Shi’ite and Kurdish parties have shared the most important posts and Iraqiya members have largely been left out. “Obama said he would withdraw from Iraq, but in a responsible way and I don’t believe his withdrawal was responsible. He left so many problems that he should have solved before he left.” Chief among those problems, Mutlaq said, was the failure of the Maliki government to try to share power with Sunni politicians.
Mutlaq said that since the last U.S. troops left Iraq, the Iraqi military has become more sectarian and its top officer corps is comprised primarily of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and not Sunni Arabs or other minorities. He said he intended to raise this issue in a scheduled meeting this week with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. “We want an Iraqi army to have advanced weapons,” he said. “But it should be the army that represents all Iraqis. The army should not be run by militias.”
Mutlaq is one of Iraq’s ultimate survivors. He lived there before 2003, unlike many other Iraqis who came back to the country after the U.S.-led invasion that year. His political rivals and some in U.S. intelligence have suspected him of having ties to Sunni insurgents over the years, but he has also received death threats from Sunni extremists. In 2010, Mutlaq was barred from standing for election himself on charges that he defended the Ba’ath party on the floor of parliament. Nonetheless, his own political party voted him in as deputy prime minister and he has been able to serve in this position since 2010.
While in Washington DC, Mutlaq is scheduled to meet with Sen. John McCain. On Monday Mutlaq delivered a speech in Arabic at the National Defense University. He is also scheduled to address the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Mutlaq said Monday that reports that al Qaeda had taken over Fallujah were overstated. “The people of Fallujah are in control of the city right now,” he said. “There is propaganda that says al Qaeda has dominated Fallujah, but this is not reality.” Mutlaq, who was born in Fallujah, acknowledged that al Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq had positions inside the city of his birth along with Baathist insurgents and peaceful demonstrators. But he said the crisis in the western Iraqi city was largely caused by the failure of Maliki to be a national leader and his government’s policies to enforce strict laws barring former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party from government service.
Mutlaq is hoping the upcoming elections will be a chance to form a new unity government that can bring the country together. “America has a moral obligation to ensure that the coming elections in Iraq are free and fair,” he said. Specifically he said the current Iraqi electoral commission will be loyal to Iraq’s political parties and will likely discount votes for political parties that have not provided the commissioners with appropriate patronage. “We would like to see the United States and the world and the non-governmental organizations, to send election monitors, to ensure through technology there will be no fraud.”