In November 2010, the United States faced a painful dilemma in Iraq. The man Washington had picked from near-obscurity four years earlier to be Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had narrowly lost an election but was, with help from Iran, maneuvering to stay in power.
The clock was ticking as a U.S. troop drawdown gathered pace. American diplomats and Iraqi politicians cast about for alternatives to lead Iraq. But Iraqis had elected a hung parliament and there were no candidates with clear-cut support. Fearing chaos, Washington settled again on Maliki.
In a tense meeting in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, two U.S. diplomats sat down with Maliki, Kurdish chief Massoud Barzani, and Ayad Allawi, the politician whose bloc had won the most seats in the election and whose support was needed to finalize any deal. Earlier that day, U.S. President Barack Obama had phoned Allawi and pledged his support for a government that included all Iraq’s main sects.
In the meeting, tempers flared. Both Allawi and Maliki threatened to walk out, and Barzani at one point physically blocked Allawi from leaving the room, according to two people with first-hand knowledge of the meeting. The Americans encouraged them to set aside their differences. At last, the Iraqis agreed to a final deal, which was spelled out in a handwritten note.
The agreement finalized that day was the last real power-sharing accord Iraq had, and it failed almost immediately. Thanks to Maliki and his opponents' intransigence, the deal was never implemented and the country's sectarian divides widened. Maliki has governed more as a defender of the Shiites than as an inclusive national leader.
Now, as violent Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cement their hold over western Iraq, declare a caliphate, and threaten a new civil war, Washington has again demanded that Iraq's leaders form an inclusive government encompassing the country's minority Sunnis and Kurds.
But former officials and even some in the current Obama administration say that effort may also founder. Maliki had been expected to be named prime minister for a third term after his coalition won April elections, but as security deteriorates pressure is mounting even from within his Shiite power base for him to go. Even if he is pushed aside, Washington will likely struggle to exert much sway over the situation.
More than a dozen former and current diplomats say the relationship between Washington and Baghdad has been marred by repeated missteps by both Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Washington, the diplomats say, has been unwilling or unable to influence Iraqi politicians and in particular the man they helped bring to power.
While Maliki lost the 2010 elections, he emerged stronger, said Emma Sky, a British Middle East scholar who was a political adviser to U.S. General Raymond Odierno from 2007 to 2010. Maliki then "faced no consequences when he reneged on his commitments" to integrate Sunnis into the government, she said.
Ali Khedery, a long-serving adviser to multiple U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad, said he resigned after warning in an October 2010 memorandum that U.S. backing for Maliki's premiership would lead to dictatorship, renewed civil war, and Iranian hegemony in Iraq. Other U.S. and British officials who shared his view had left Baghdad by the fall of 2010, he said, but his memo reached top White House officials, who overruled him.
To be fair, Maliki took some early positive steps, including facilitating the U.S. surge and confronting Shiite militiamen in Basra, according to former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad. But his rule has proved increasingly divisive.
Maliki's office declined to comment for this story, citing the demands on his time from the war campaign and efforts to choose a new government. Maliki has long blamed his opponents for sabotaging him, and feels let down by Washington.
"There is a bitterness in Maliki's tone when he talks ... about the American role, even what is going on in D.C., with speeches in Congress and Obama's speech," longtime Maliki ally Sami Askari said about his mood in recent weeks. "He ... has no hope. He says we have to rely on ourselves."
To some officials, the painful arc of U.S.-Iraq relations speaks less about one man, Maliki, than it does about the limits of American military and political power to bring democracy or exert decisive influence in the Middle East. After decades of rule by autocrats, often supported by Washington, the region remains riven with rivalries and distrust. Despite the Arab Spring, a generation of politicians like Maliki are skeptical that political compromise can ever be reached or fair elections held.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad from 2010 to 2012, said the American effort to remake Iraq was never realistic or sustained enough to succeed. The Bush administration failed to explain to the U.S. public the scope of the effort needed and the Obama administration frittered away the limited influence it had, he said.
"This all operates on the assumption that we have the skill, the patience, the national interest, and the support from the American people to keep an occupation force in a country and to do long-term nation building a la Japan and Germany in an area that is far less fertile," Jeffrey said. "I challenge the underlying assumption that we could do this."
Robert Ford, who twice served as a senior American diplomat in Baghdad, said Washington was often impatient for Iraqi politicians "to finish their tiresome and long political negotiations." At the same time "you've got to give them time to work out compromises that are sustainable."
Obama, elected in 2008 on a platform to end the war, has visited Iraq just once as president. Having blessed Maliki's continuation in power, he completed Bush's plan to withdraw U.S. troops and quickly refocused attention elsewhere, ending the frequent video conferences Bush held with Maliki and handing the Iraq portfolio to Vice President Joe Biden. The White House declined repeated requests to discuss the U.S. relationship with Maliki.
Maliki, who has visited Washington twice in the last three years, has grown mistrustful of America's inconstancy. "I think he has a very hard time figuring us out, because we do a lot of things that don’t seem consistent to him. I think he finds us very frustrating, and very difficult to read," said Ken Pollack, a former White House and CIA official, and longtime Iraq specialist.
Pollack, who met Maliki in March and later briefed U.S. officials on his trip, said the Iraqi leader appeared obsessed with marginalizing his political opponents after April's national elections. He showed little interest in discussing reconciliation or economic development, Pollack said.
"We were trying as hard as we could to get him to talk about something other than a pogrom against his opponents," said Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution think tank. "He just wouldn't do it, no matter how much bait we gave him."
Maliki is no American creation. He spent years in exile as a member of a secretive Shiite dissident group known as the Dawa, eluding assassins from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party. But Washington did have a hand in the stern-faced 64-year-old premier's final ascent.
In 2006, as a Sunni insurgency raged, Iraq's then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, found himself untrusted by Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni leaders alike, as well as by Washington. Eager to bolster the U.S. public's belief in the war and Iraq's future, Bush officials turned to Maliki as a compromise candidate. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Baghdad on a surprise visit and met Maliki and other Iraqi leaders.