As the U.S. Leaves Iraq, Shiites Determined to Hold Power

Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq longer would have been unlikely to prevent the country's majority sect from dominating its fragile -- and decreasingly democratic -- institutions

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki / Reuter

It was merely hours after news broke about an arrest warrant for one of Iraq's vice presidents that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.--one of the Iraq war's biggest advocates on Capitol Hill--declared: I told you so.

"A deterioration of the kind we are now witnessing in Iraq was not unforeseen," McCain and fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement. "The U.S. government must do whatever it can to help Iraqis stabilize the situation."

Except on Tuesday, the U.S. government presided over a simple ceremony at Joint Base Andrews back in the U.S., casing the colors of the U.S. military command American soldiers took down only days ago from its headquarters in Baghdad. The last U.S. combat troops in Iraq followed suit, and now only those serving as military advisers remain in Iraq, along with diplomatic staff and their security.

As the U.S. trumpets the end of its military involvement in Iraq, its vital strategic interests in the region are more than ever entrenched in Shiite hands, and Washington will now need to navigate a new political reality where Shiites nix the veneer of negotiations, finally revealing they really don't intend to share power.

The United States needs to maintain its influence in Iraq--it is a major source of energy reserves, it's critical to the security of the southern Gulf, and it has an actual impact on the U.S. economy. But that challenge now rests with its diplomatic staff.

The week began with Iraq's Shiite-dominated government ordering the arrest of Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, on charges of running death squads that assassinated police officers and government officials. He has rejected the accusations. The New York Times quoted him saying: "The goal is clear, it is not more than political slander."

To American politicians like McCain, who has traveled to Iraq on numerous occasions, it was "a clear sign that the fragile political accommodation made possible by the [U.S. military] surge of 2007, which ended large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq, is now unraveling."

And yet, those signs were visible over a year ago, following elections in Iraq last March, and the political intransigence that continues to strangle progress.

Those elections failed to produce a ruling coalition. Power struggles between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, his Shiite opponents including cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and his Sunni opponents, ensured failure to agree on Cabinet positions. It also ensured failure to agree on a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq. Sadr's adamant refusal to entertain U.S. troops extending their stay beyond the agreement signed by former President George W. Bush would have cost Maliki his political livelihood.

Meanwhile, Maliki and Shiite opposition leader Ayad Allawi have been fighting over ministries and power for nearly two years now. "Both see the other as conspiring against them," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In a power play, Maliki refused to give Allawi's Iraqiya bloc the defense or interior ministries, and he now holds both positions himself. He continues to consolidate his control over the country's security forces. Arrests of opposition members over the past months, and intimidation that prompted a boycott by the Iraqiya coalition, are all part of the latest political crisis seizing the country.

Allawi echoed McCain's words in comments to Reuters. "The Americans have pulled out without completing the job they should have finished," he said. "We have warned them that we don't have a political process which is inclusive of all Iraqis, and we don't have a full-blown state in Iraq."

But a "full-blown state" in Iraq will be some time coming, and it may not come in a form readily palatable to Allawi and his allies, to the U.S., or even to Iran.

The violent Shiite-Sunni schism that upended any hope of stability following the U.S. invasion in 2003 was long overdue. Observers of Iraqi history point to the decades of persecution Shiites endured under Saddam Hussein's tyrannical leadership as seeds sown then making trouble today. But go back even earlier; Shiites were shut out of power under the Ottoman rule. When Iraq was barely a land with its own, brand new borders, Shiites had little say. King Faisal, transplanted from the deserts of a newly-created Saudi Arabia to rule a new country, wrote in 1932 of the claims of discrimination from Iraqi Shiite clerics:

"I do not want to justify the position of the ignorant mass of the Shi'a, and relay what I have heard thousands of times ... that taxes and death are the Shi'as' lot while the Sunni enjoy the privilege of office. What belongs to the Shi'a then? Even their religious occasions are not sanctioned."

And the Shiites have not forgotten. They have barely recovered from the betrayal by George H. W. Bush, who during the first Gulf War urged Shiites in Iraq's south to rebel against Saddam and his forces, only to be abandoned as U.S. forces jerked to a halt at the border with Kuwait.

In the early months of the U.S. invasion of 2003, Shiites were told by their leaders to stand firm in the face of constant deadly attacks by Sunni insurgents, not retaliate and wait, because the new Iraq belonged to them as the majority. Only after the February 2006 bombing of one of their most sacred shrines did the tit-for-tat killings spiral into outright civil war, ethnic exile for more than a million Iraqis, and a reshaping of Baghdad's demographic landscape.

Now, Baghdad is largely Shiite, its security forces likewise, Iraq's 18 provinces bent to receive funding and support from centralized control in Baghdad, whose government is led by a man determined to maintain Shiite power.

Throughout my years in Baghdad I heard a constant refrain: that Sunnis had enjoyed power for long enough, now it was the Shiites' turn, and they didn't want to share. It's something NBC correspondent Richard Engel also found in his most recent dispatch from Baghdad, titled "Post-US Iraq: Welcome to Shia-stan." Iraqi Shiites aren't shy about showing off their newfound power, he writes:

"Now there are direct flights here from Turkey, Sweden, Austria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries. There are no direct flights to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both Sunni states that have been critical of Iraq's Shiite government. ... But there are now on many days more than a dozen flights to Iran."

When asked if the invasion and occupation of Iraq was worth it, President Obama--who as a young state senator called it a "dumb war"--said history would be the judge.

Experts and politicians may argue about the effect of withdrawing U.S. troops sooner than some would have liked--although not as soon as many Iraqis would have preferred--but there's not yet any evidence to demonstrate that the political consequences would be any different. At the outset, the U.S. cobbled together Iraqi exiles and local leaders to be the initial council from which a government and political process would eventually spring. But it could not control the outcome--something British diplomats learned themselves the hard way nearly a hundred years ago.

British diplomat and spy Gertrude Bell wrote in March 1920:

It's a problem here how to get into touch with the Shias ... who can loose and bind with a word by authority which rests on an intimate acquaintance with accumulated knowledge entirely irrelevant to human affairs and worthless in any branch of human activity. There's a group of these worthies, bitterly pan-Islamic, anti-British ... chief among them are a family called Sadr, possibly more distinguished for religious learning than any other family in the whole Shia world.