Post War Iraq's NYT article


Michael Kamber for The New York Times

Updated: Sept. 23, 2012

For most of the last decade, Iraq occupied center stage in the Arab world, as it was swiftly invaded by American forces in March 2003 before being wracked first by the insurgency that sprang up in opposition to the U.S. occupation and then by waves of sectarian killing that grew into something close to a civil war.

Since the bloodshed peaked in 2006, order was gradually restored, though violence remained high by any but wartime standards. The fairest elections in the country’s history in March 2010 led to the creation of a government of national unity, although its creation took eight months of political stalemate that played out mostly along sectarian lines, and the unity has proved more notional than real.

On Dec. 15, 2011, the American military formally ended its mission in Iraq, one that cost the lives of 4,487 service members, with another 32,226 wounded in action; more than one million service members served in Iraq during the course of the conflict. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the fighting that followed, although there are no firm estimates.

The closing ceremony in Baghdad sounded an uncertain trumpet for a war that was started to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction it did not have. It ended without the sizable, enduring American military presence for which many officers had hoped, and with the country facing a political crisis.

The end of America’s military involvement reflected the messy, sectarian state of Iraqi politics — both in terms of the political forces that led to America’s withdrawal and in the sectarian political strains that boiled over as soon as the last troops had left.

Vice President Sentenced to Death

The day after the American departure, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, broke decisively with the Sunnis the Americans had persuaded him to accept in his government. The government ordered the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the nation’s highest-ranking Sunni, on charges of commanding sectarian death squads responsible for hundreds of killings. Mr. Hashimi is currently in self-imposed exile in Turkey.

In September 2012, Mr. Hashimi was sentenced to death in absentia, hours after a wave of attacks — including suicide car bombings and militant raids in at least 10 cities — killed more than 50 people across the country. 

The sentencing of the former vice president could deepen an already intractable political crisis in Iraq among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, even as a spate of recent attacks has raised questions about the government’s ability to provide security nine months after the withdrawal of American troops. Since the withdrawal, concern has also been growing about Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has been accused of trying to plunge the country into a sectarian conflict.

Mr. Maliki’s government has been the target of attacks by opposition lawmakers in recent months. Lawmakers from the Sunni and Kurdish minorities have accused Mr. Maliki of seeking to monopolize power and have been seeking to force him from office through a vote of no confidence.

Administration’s Failed Efforts and Challenges

President Obama has pointed to the American troop withdrawal in 2011 as proof that he has fulfilled his promise to end the Iraq war. Winding down a conflict, however, entails far more than extracting troops.

In the case of Iraq, the American goal has been to leave a stable and representative government, avoid a power vacuum that neighboring states and terrorists could exploit and maintain sufficient influence so that Iraq would be a partner or, at a minimum, not an opponent in the Middle East.

But the Obama administration has fallen frustratingly short of some of those objectives.

The attempt by Mr. Obama and his senior aides to fashion an extraordinary power-sharing arrangement between Prime Minister Maliki and Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s former interim prime minister and Mr. Maliki’s rival, never materialized. Neither did an agreement that would have kept a small American force in Iraq to train the Iraqi military and patrol the country’s skies. A plan to use American civilians to train the Iraqi police has been severely cut back. The result is an Iraq that is less stable domestically and less reliable internationally than the United States had envisioned.

Without American forces to train and assist Iraqi commandos, the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq is still active in Iraq and is increasingly involved in Syria. With no American aircraft to patrol Iraqi airspace, Iraq has become a corridor for Iranian flights of military supplies to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, American officials say. It is also a potential avenue for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, something the White House is laboring to avoid.

Iraq and Iran and Syria

Under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, Iraq and Iran, the largest Shiite country, were mortal enemies. But they are far closer now that Iraq is run by its Shiite majority, as the Obama administration has learned to its frustration.

In July 2012, when President Obama announced that he was barring a Baghdad bank from any dealings with the American banking system, it was a rare acknowledgment of a delicate problem facing the administration in a country that American troops just left: for months, Iraq has been helping Iran skirt economic sanctions imposed on Tehran because of its nuclear program.

In September, officials spoke of Iraq’s decision to allow Iran to resume shipping military equipment through Iraqi airspace to support the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in his violent crackdown against mostly Sunni protesters.

Mr. Maliki appears to look at the potential fall of Mr. Assad as a development that might strengthen his Sunni Arab and Kurdish rivals in the region. Some states that are the most eager to see Mr. Assad go, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have poor relations with Mr. Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government.

Background: The Invasion of Iraq

Almost immediately after ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush began to press the case for an American-led invasion of Iraq. He cited the possibility that Saddam Hussein still sought nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in defiance of United Nations restrictions and sanctions. Mr. Bush and other senior American officials also sought to link Iraq to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Both claims have since been largely discredited, though some officials and analysts continue to argue otherwise, saying that Mr. Hussein’s Iraq posed a real and imminent threat to the region and to the United States.

In his State of the Union address in 2002 , Mr. Bush linked Iraq with Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil.'' In his 2003 address, Mr. Bush made it clear the United States would use force to disarm Mr. Hussein, despite the continuing work of United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, and despite growing international protests, even from some allies. A week later, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the administration’s case before the United Nations Security Council with photographs, intercepted messages and other props, including a vial that, he said, could hold enough anthrax to shut down the United States Senate.

The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003 — the early hours of March 20 in Iraq — when Mr. Bush ordered missiles fired at a bunker in Baghdad where he believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding. Within weeks, with a “coalition of the willing” and disputed legal authority, the United States quickly toppled Mr. Hussein’s government, despite fierce fighting by some paramilitary groups. The Iraqi leader himself reportedly narrowly avoided being killed in the war’s first air strikes. The Army’s Third Infantry Division entered Baghdad on April 5, seizing what was once called Saddam Hussein International Airport. On April 9, a statue of Mr. Hussein in Firdos Square was pulled down with the help of the Marines. That effectively sealed the capture of Baghdad, but began a new war.

Chaos and Insurgency

The fall of Iraq’s brutal, powerful dictator unleashed a wave of celebration, then chaos, looting, violence and ultimately insurgency. Rather than quickly return power to the Iraqis, including political and religious leaders returning from exile, the United States created an occupation authority that took steps widely blamed for alienating many Iraqis and igniting Sunni-led resistance. They included disbanding the Iraqi Army and purging members of the former ruling Baath Party from government and public life, both with long-ranging consequences. On May 1, 2003, Mr. Bush appeared on an American aircraft carrier that carried a banner declaring " Mission Accomplished,” a theatrical touch that even the president years later acknowledged sent the wrong message.

In the security and political vacuum that followed the invasion, violence erupted against the American-led occupation forces and against the United Nations headquarters, which was bombed in August 2003, killing the body’s special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 — the former leader was found unshaven and disheveled in a spider hole north of Baghdad — did nothing to halt the bloodshed. Nor did the formal transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people in June 2004, which took place a few months after the publication of photographs showing the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib had further fueled anger and anti-American sentiment.

In January 2005, the Americans orchestrated Iraq’s first multi-party elections in five decades, a moment symbolized by Iraqis waving fingers marked in purple ink after they voted. The elections for a Transitional National Assembly reversed the historic political domination of the Sunnis, who had largely boycotted the vote. A Shiite coalition supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric, won a plurality, and put Shiites in power, along with the Kurds. Saddam Hussein stood trial, remaining defiant and unrepentant as he faced charges of massacring Shiites in Dujail in 1982.

A new constitution followed by the end of the year, and new elections in January 2006 cemented the new balance of power, but also exposed simmering sectarian tensions, as many Sunnis boycotted. In February 2006, the bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of the most revered Shiite shrines, set off a convulsion of violence against both Sunnis and Shiites that amounted to a civil war. In Baghdad, it soon was not unusual for 30 bodies or more to be found on the streets every day, as Shiite death squads operated without hindrance and Sunnis retaliated. That steady toll was punctuated by spikes from bomb blasts, usually aimed at Shiites. Even more families fled, as neighborhoods and entire cities were ethnically cleansed. Ultimately, more than 2 million people were displaced in Iraq, and many of them are still abroad, unable or too afraid to return.

Arab and Kurdish tensions also ran high. In Mosul, a disputed city in the north, Sunni militants attacked Kurdish and Christian enclaves. The fate of Kirkuk, populated by Arabs, Kurds and smaller minority groups, remains disputed territory, punctured routinely by killings and bombings. After a political impasse that reflected the chaos in the country, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a little-known Shiite politician previously known as Jawad al-Maliki, became Iraq’s first permanent prime minister in April 2006.

At Home

The messy aftermath of a swift military victory made the war in Iraq increasingly unpopular at home, but not enough to derail Mr. Bush’s re-election in November 2004. Almost immediately afterwards, though, his approval rating dropped as the war dragged on. It never recovered. By 2006, Democrats regained control of Congress. Their victory rested in large part on the growing sentiment against the war, which rose with the toll of American deaths, which reached 3,000 by the end of the year, and its ever spiraling costs. Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death just before the Congressional elections, and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned the day after the vote, widely blamed for having mismanaged the war.

In the face of rising unpopularity and against the advice of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of prominent Americans, Mr. Bush ordered a large increase in American forces, then totaling roughly 130,000 troops.

The “surge,” as the increase became known, eventually raised the number of troops to more than 170,000. It coincided with a new counterinsurgency strategy that had been introduced by a new American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the flowering of a once-unlikely alliance with Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere. Moktada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric, whose followers in the Mahdi Army militia had been responsible for some of the worst brutality in Baghdad, declared a cease-fire in September. These factors came together in the fall of 2007 to produce a sharp decline in violence.

Political progress and ethnic reconciliation were halting, though, fueling calls by Democrats to begin a withdrawal of American forces, though they lacked sufficient votes in Congress to force one. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, an early opponent of the war, rose to prominence in the Democratic race for the nomination in large part by capitalizing on the war’s unpopularity. But by the time Mr. Obama defeated Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination in 2008 and then the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, Iraq hardly loomed as an issue as it once had, both because of the drop in violence there and because of the rising economic turmoil in the United States and later the world.

Bush Reaches for an Agreement

At the end of 2007, Mr. Bush and General Petraeus had succeeded in maintaining the level of American forces in Iraq above what it was before the “surge” began. Mr. Maliki’s government, increasingly confident of its growing military might, expanded operations against insurgents and other militants that had once been the exclusive fight of the Americans. The militias loyal to Mr. Sadr, who had gone into exile, were routed in a government-led offensive in southern Iraq, though significant assistance from American forces and firepower was needed for the Iraqis to succeed. By May, the offensive extended to Sadr City in Baghdad, a densely populated neighborhood that had been largely outside of the government’s control.

American and Iraqi officials spent most of 2008 negotiating a new security agreement to replace the United Nations mandate authorizing the presence of foreign troops. Negotiations proceeded haltingly for months, but Mr. Bush, who for years railed against those calling for timetables for withdrawal, agreed in July 2008 to a “general time horizon.”  That ultimately became a firm pledge to remove all American combat forces from Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and from the whole country by 2011. He also agreed to give Iraq significant control over combat operations, detentions of prisoners and even prosecutions of American soldiers for grave crimes, though with enough caveats to make charges unlikely.

Plans for Withdrawal

The American military returned control of military operations to Iraq’s military and police on Jan. 1, 2009. The American combat mission — Operation Iraqi Freedom, in the Pentagon’s argot — officially ended on Aug. 31, 2010.

President Obama marked the date with a prime-time address from the Oval Office, saying that the United States had met its responsibility to Iraq and that it was time to turn to pressing problems at home.

The mission’s name changed from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, and the 50,000 remaining transitional troops were scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.

At the end of June 2009, also in keeping with the security agreement, the vast majority of American troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities, garrisoning themselves on vast bases outside. Mr. Maliki declared June 30 a national holiday, positioning himself as a proud leader who ended the foreign occupation of Iraq. But Mr. Maliki’s fanfare about ending the occupation rang hollow for Iraqis who feared that their country’s security forces were not yet ready to stand alone. A series of catastrophic attacks in August, October, December and January 2010 — striking government ministries, universities, hotels — only heightened anxiety and suspicion among Iraqis.

Iraq’s Fractious Postwar Politics

Iraq’s latest parliamentary election was originally scheduled for December 2009, but was delayed for months by political bickering. A parliamentary commission with disputed legal standing disqualified more than 500 candidates on the grounds they were former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party or remained sympathetic to it.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, hoping to build on his success in the 2009 provincial elections, sought to form a broader, cross-sectarian coalition that would include Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups. Other parties followed suit, appealing for “national unity” in a country where it has rarely before existed, and only then a unity ruled by an iron hand.

They faced a formidable challenge from a coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who served as interim prime minister before the 2005 elections. Mr. Allawi’s alliance, called Iraqiya, drew broader support across the country’s sectarian lines.

The pre-election turmoil unfolded against a backdrop of violence and intimidation, and a steady withdrawal of American troops. On Feb. 12, 2010, the Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent group that included the remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, vowed to disrupt the elections. While the level of violence had plunged from the shocking carnage of 2006 and 2007, suicide bombers continued to attack, seemingly at will, plunging Baghdad into chaos on a regular basis and undercutting Mr. Maliki’s claims to have restored security. Political disputes between Arabs and Kurds in the north continued to fester, prompting the Americans to intervene. Mr. Maliki’s use of the military and security forces to settle political disputes also raised alarms, and put the Americans in the awkward middle.

Election Day in March 2010 was marked by violence that left at least 38 dead, but that did not dissuade voters from turning out in large numbers. The vote counting process proved to be more chaotic than expected, with accusations of fraud by leading parties, divisions among highly politicized electoral officials and chaos in disclosing the results.

The initial results showed the coalition led by Mr. Allawi taking a slim lead over the slate of Mr. Maliki. Mr. Allawi, although himself a Shiite, benefited from a surge in voting by Sunnis, many of whom boycotted earlier elections.

Mr. Maliki vigorously challenged the results, but Mr. Allawi’s narrow lead survived a recount. Mr. Maliki also forged an alliance between his coalition and the other major Shiite bloc, a move that cleared the way for a Shiite-dominated government for the next four years. Together they were only four votes short of a majority, leading many in Iraq to expect that a deal could be reached with Kurdish parties, once the Kurds extract new promises of expanded autonomy.

But as weeks dragged on, the Shiite alliance had not agreed on a candidate for prime minister, as many of its members strongly opposed giving Mr. Maliki a second term. The leader of one Shiite faction, Moktada al-Sadr, an anti-American cleric, even met with Mr. Allawi in an apparent effort to increase pressure on Mr. Maliki to step aside. American efforts to have the two men share power also failed to resolve the issue.

On Oct. 1, it was announced that Mr. Maliki’s party, State of Law, and another Shiite party with ties to Mr. Sadrshut out a third, the Iraqi National Alliance, and its contender, Adel Abdelmehdi, in negotiations within the Shiite bloc.

The Kurds, with 57 seats in the new 325-member Parliament, emerged as powerbrokers in the final talks, throwing their support behind Mr. Maliki in exchange for holding onto the presidency.

The Obama administration had for months urged Iraq’s quarreling factions to create a government that included all major ethnic and sectarian groups, lest the country descend into the chaos that consumed it in the worst years after the invasion of 2003.

Under the new pact, Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, remained as president, solidifying the role of Iraq’s Kurds. The government that would  oversee the withdrawal of American troops on paper looked much like the one that had governed in the previous four tumultuous years. But Mr. Allawi’s role in the new government was ill-defined.

Mr. Maliki was formally granted a second term on Dec. 21, when Parliament unanimously voted to accept the cabinet he had painstakingly assembled.

By the following summer, feuding between the two men had brought the government into a state of paralysis. Mr. Maliki and Mr. Allawi, who  refused to speak to each other, had not even been able to agree on choices for the two most important ministries, defense and interior.

Deadly attacks in August 2011 heightened political tensions as Mr. Maliki appointed a member of his governing coalition as acting defense minister. Sunni leaders criticized the appointment as reneging on the earlier political deal.

Widening Sectarian and Political Conflicts

Within days of the departure of the last American convoy, the country was in political turmoil that was extreme even by its own standards. The Shiite-dominated government issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi,one of the country’s most prominent Sunni leaders, accusing him of running a personal death squad that assassinated security officials and government bureaucrats. Mr. Hashimi denied the charges and accused Mr. Maliki’s government of using the country’s security forces to persecute political opponents, specifically Sunnis.

Almost as significant as what Mr. Hashimi said was where he said it: in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan. Because of the region’s autonomy, Mr. Maliki’s security forces cannot easily act on the warrant. Mr. Hashimi said he would not return to Baghdad, effectively making him an internal exile

The following day Mr. Maliki threatened to abandon the American-backed power sharing government created a year previously, and ward Kurdish leaders that there would be “problems’' if they did not hand over Mr. Hashimi.

On Dec. 26, 2011, a powerful political group led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr called for Parliament to be dissolved and early elections to be held, the first open challenge to Mr. Maliki from within his Shiite coalition. The move by the Sadr bloc is not enough to immediately bring down the Maliki government. But even the prospect of a new vote adds more uncertainty to Iraq’s fragile political landscape, possibly setting the country’s main factions — Shiites, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds — and its byzantine networks of political allies scrambling for turf, influence, money and votes.

Less than two weeks later, Mr. Maliki’s government indicated that it was welcoming an Iranian-backed militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, into Iraq’s political system. The Shiite-led government’s support for the militia, which had only just sworn off violence, opened new sectarian fault lines in Iraq’s political crisis while potentially empowering Iran at a moment of rising military and economic tensions between Tehran and Washington. It could also tilt the nation’s center of gravity closer to Iran.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq — the name translates as League of the Righteous — broke away from the militia commanded by Moktada al-Sadr. The American military has long maintained that the group, led by a former spokesman for Mr. Sadr, Qais al-Khazali, was trained and financed by Iran’s elite Quds Force — something that Iran denies.

One of the deadliest insurgent groups operating in Iraq, Asaib Ahl al-Haq bombed American military convoys and bases, assassinated dozens of Iraqi officials and tried to kidnap Americans even as the last soldiers withdrew. Military officials said the group was responsible for the last American combat death in Iraq, a November 2011 roadside bomb attack in Baghdad.

Thousands of other militants, both Sunni and Shiite, cut deals with the government to stop fighting, and few officials see a meaningful peace in Iraq that does not include reconciling with armed groups. Yet critics worry that Mr. Maliki, facing fierce challenges to his leadership from Sunnis and even his fellow Shiites, may be making a cynical and shortsighted play for Asaib’s support. They say Mr. Maliki may use the group’s credentials as Shiite resistance fighters to divide challengers in his own Shiite coalition and weaken Mr. Sadr’s powerful bloc, which draws its political lifeblood from the Shiite underclass.

By doing so, Iraq’s government could embolden a militia with an almost nonexistent track record of peace while potentially handing Tehran greater influence in a country where the United States spent billions of dollars and lost nearly 4,500 American soldiers in nearly nine years of war.

The Displacement of Iraq’s Kurdish Minority

In Iraq, near the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, large numbers of Kurds have been forced to flee their homes, often after being terrorized and threatened. Others have been pushed out over property disputes that can be traced to Saddam Hussein’s policy in the 1970s of expelling Kurds and resettling Arabs.

Though a court was set up to handle claims stemming from the Arabization policy, Kurds say that property records that would verify their ownership claims were destroyed. As a result, Arabs are reclaiming homes that were seized from Kurdish families in the Hussein years.

Whether by terrorism or judicial order, the continuing displacement of Iraq’s Kurdish minority lays bare the unfinished business of reconciliation in the wake of the American military’s withdrawal, and it is a symptom of the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the semiautonomous Kurdish government based in Erbil and the central government in Baghdad.

The schism, which is most immediately over sharing oil wealth but is more deeply about historical grievances and Kurdish aspirations for independence, raises serious questions about the future of a unified Iraq. The Kurds, unlike the Sunnis, have their own security forces, oil reserves, ports of entry and even their own de facto foreign policy, with envoys operating in other countries. This could eventually lead them to seek more independence from Baghdad.

In the latest chapter of a long-simmering dispute, Kurdish authorities have shut off their oil exports, claiming that Baghdad is behind on payments to oil companies working in the Kurdish region. Officials in Baghdad, angered by this and by Kurdistan’s oil deal with Exxon Mobil that bypasses the central government, in turn threatened to cut off billions of dollars that flow to Kurdistan from the Iraqi budget. Both sides have accused the other of smuggling oil and siphoning off profits.

A New Level of Insurgent Violence

After the American military withdrawal, a fierce string of attacks added a new level of violence to the political and sectarian feuds.

Assaults against Iraqi civilians and government officials swelled in late December 2011 and January 2012, as the country was gripped by a political crisis rooted in imbalances of power and festering conflicts between the Shiite prime minister and his largely Sunni and secular political opposition.

The crisis eased somewhat as opposition politicians ended their boycott of the Parliament and cabinet. But Iraq’s leaders have punted on deeper questions of how to share power, deliver services and divide control of disputed territories and oil resources, leaving plenty of room for insurgents to attempt to exploit a persistent sense of instability and dissatisfaction with the government.

Al Qaeda in Iraq: A Deadly Presence

Many of the attacks of late 2011 and early 2012 could be attributed to the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. The terrorist group, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Baghdad on Dec. 22, 2011. The explosions, which transformed the morning commute into a bloodbath, killed more than 63 people.

There were many more attacks during the next two months. Perhaps the most shocking occurred on Feb. 23, when insurgents unleashed a barrage of coordinated car bombings and small-arms attacks across the country, killing at least 55 people and wounding more than 200.

The worst of the violence was concentrated in Baghdad, where dozens of people were killed in explosions and fusillades of gunfire that transformed the morning commute into a landscape of carnage.

Although civilians suffered the worst casualties, most of the attacks were aimed at police officers, security convoys and other signposts of government authority. Bombs exploded outside a police station, a court, a political office and a local council building.

Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility.

Diplomatic Overture From Saudi Arabia

Moving to repair a long-fractured diplomatic relationship, Saudi Arabia named its first ambassador to Iraq in more than two decades, Iraq’s foreign minister announced in February 2012.

The Saudis did not, however, say they were reopening an embassy in Baghdad. Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, said in a Twitter posting that the Saudi ambassador to Jordan would serve as the new “nonresident” Iraqi envoy. He is Fahd al-Zaid.

Still, the Saudi move restored normal diplomatic relations between the oil-rich neighbors for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It may have also signaled Saudi Arabia’s desire for a stronger presence in Iraq to buttress against the influence of Iran, a longtime nemesis of the Saudi kingdom.

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq had been especially strained since the 2003 American invasion toppled Mr. Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government and ushered in a Shiite-led one which has cultivated closer relations with Iran and Iranian-supported political movements inside Iraq.

Despite Violence and Political Gridlock, Oil Output Soars

During a single week in June 2012, more than 150 Iraqis were killed and hundreds more were wounded in an escalation of sectarian violence that included the country’s deadliest day in nearly two years.

The government, meanwhile, remained paralyzed as Sunni and Kurdish rivals to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki pushed hard for his ouster, though diplomats and analysts said he seemed likely to weather the crisis.

Even so, Iraq’s crude oil production was soaring, providing a singular bright spot for the nation’s future and relief for global oil markets as the West tightened sanctions on Iranian exports.

The increased flow and vital port improvements produced a 20 percent jump in exports as of June 2012 to nearly 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, making Iraq one of the premier producers in OPEC for the first time in decades.

Energy analysts say that the Iraqi boom — coupled with increased production in Saudi Arabia and the near total recovery of Libya’s oil industry — should cushion oil markets from price spikes and give the international community additional leverage over Iran with Western sanctions that took effect in July 2012.

For Iraq, the resurgence of oil is vital to its postwar success. Oil provides more than 95 percent of the government’s revenues, has enabled the building of roads and the expansion of social services, and has greatly strengthened the Shiite-led government’s hand in this ethnically divided country.

Oil has also brought its share of pitfalls for the fledgling democracy, fostering corruption and patronage, and aggravating tensions with the Kurdish minority in the north over the division of profits, a festering issue that could end up fracturing the country.

The country’s improving oil fortunes are well timed to compensate for Iran’s declining oil output, which according to OPEC fell by 12 percent in the first three months of 2012 as India, China and other Asian nations have gradually cut purchases under pressure from the United States and Europe.

Iraq’s role in ameliorating the effects of Western sanctions in the oil market could create tensions with Iran, a strong backer and ally of the Iraqi government. But oil experts say exports are too valuable for Iraq to allow its relationship with Iran to impede production.

The recovery of Iraq’s oil industry after decades of wars, sanctions and neglect began in 2009 and 2010 as security improved and Baghdad signed a series of technical service contracts with foreign companies like Exxon Mobil, BP, China National Petroleum Corporation and ENI of Italy. The companies brought in modern seismic equipment and modern well recovery techniques to resuscitate old fields.

With U.S. Gone, Shiite Leader Seeks New Paths to Power

When Moktada al-Sadr, the populist Shiite leader and America’s most unyielding enemy in Iraq, returned to Iraq in 2011 after three years of self-imposed exile in Iran, he did so as a triumphant kingmaker whose actions proved decisive in ending months of electoral stalemate.

As of July 2012, with the United States military gone, he has emerged as something more prosaic: a mainstream political leader looking for new paths to secure the claims to power that his movement achieved through violent opposition to the American occupation.

The first thing he has done is come home once more. With none of the fanfare of his homecoming in January of last year — which was quickly followed by his return to Iran — Mr. Sadr says he is back in Iraq to stay, at least for now. He says he has temporarily put aside his religious studies in Iran, widely considered his patron, to attend to a political crisis over contests for power among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that has brought the government to a standstill, and to position his movement for the next elections.

Notably, Mr. Sadr has joined Sunnis and Kurds in calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite. He is also testing other cross-sectarian alliances by inviting Sunni and Christian candidates to run in provincial elections, scheduled for 2013, under the Sadrist banner. Together, these moves could help position him as a nationalist and help him shed the baggage of the past, when his militias were linked to some of the worst sectarian violence.

Yet Mr. Sadr risks alienating his base of devout Shiites in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Baghdad and rural areas of the south. Criticism can already be heard on the streets in Baghdad, and a poll conducted in April for the National Democratic Institute, which is financed by the American government, showed Mr. Sadr’s popularity slipping and Mr. Maliki’s rising.

Fearful of Qaeda, Iraq Resists Syrian Refugees

The wave of Arab unrest reached Iraq’s neighbor, Syria, in March 2011, when an uprising that began as a peaceful protest movement turned into an armed battle in response to overwhelming lethal force used by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, resulting in thousands of deaths.

By the summer of 2012, it became clear that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists were doing their best to hijack Syria’s revolution, with a growing success that has American officials publicly concerned, and Iraqi officials next door openly alarmed.

Alone among Syria’s Muslim neighbors, Iraq has been resistant to receiving refugees from the conflict, and was making those who did arrive anything but comfortable. Baghdad has been worried about the fighters of a newly resurgent Al Qaeda flowing both ways across the border, and about the Sunni opponents of the two governments making common cause.

The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, while officially neutral, has been supportive of Mr. Assad, whose ruling Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. 

Though Syrians have been fleeing the unrest in their country for months, Iraq did not open its borders to refugees until late July, after protests from the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. The Bukamal border crossing, near Qaim, is the most problematic one for Iraq, with the Syrian side now under the control of opposition forces.

Insurgent Attacks Steadily Increasing

Insurgent attacks have steadily increased in 2012, according to United Nations statistics. June 2012 was one of the deadliest months so far, with about 200 people, mostly civilian pilgrims, reported killed. American and Iraqi officials have argued that violence has been declining.

In late July, in a coordinated display intended to show they remain a viable force, Iraqi insurgents launched at least 37 separate attacks throughout the country, setting off car bombs, storming a military base, attacking policemen in their homes and ambushing checkpoints, Iraqi authorities said. At least 97 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in the single bloodiest day in 2012, according to local Iraqi officials.

The attacks, coming in the early days of Ramadan, the monthlong Muslim religious rite, were predicted a day earlier in an audio message attributed to the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakir Al Baghdadi, and posted on the group’s Web site. Mr. Baghdada vowed that a new offensive, which he called Breaking Down Walls, would begin soon.

In mid-August, a wave of attacks across Iraq killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 100, security and medical officials said.

The attacks, a series of car bombings, roadside bombings and armed assaults, killed army security officers, police officers and civilians in five provinces as well as in Baghdad.

The attacks came as Ramadan drew to a close. More than 200 people have been killed since Ramadan began on July 20 in most of the Arab world, an escalation of violence that followed Al Qaeda in Iraq’s vow to begin a new offensive.

On Aug. 19, an influential Sunni cleric, Sheik Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, was critically wounded and four of his bodyguards were killed when a bomb struck his convoy in Baghdad, according to Iraqi security officials. Mr. Sumaidaie is known for urging extremists within his own sect to work with the Shiite-led government; the attack highlighted the continuing dangers of taking such a position.

Nuri Kamal al-Maliki

Johan Spanner/Polaris, for The New York Times

Updated: Sept. 5, 2012

Nuri Kamal al-Maliki became prime minister of Iraq in 2006. He gained a second term in 2010, after nine months of political struggle following the inconclusive results of parliamentary elections. A dour, marginally popular figure, he assembled a unified government that was approved by Parliament in late December, only days before a constitutionally mandated deadline.

Mr. Maliki has made a striking transformation since he first took office as a compromise choice to become prime minister, a near nonentity acceptable to all Shiite parties because he threatened none of them. In 2011, as American involvement in his country came to an end, he was viewed as the country’s emerging sectarian strongman, whose aggressive actions have raised concerns both at home and in the West, where officials have long been uneasy with the prime minister’s authoritarian tendencies.

U.S. Withdrawal, Political Crisis

As United States forces prepared to leave, members of the Iraqiya coalition, which is supported by many Sunnis, walked out of Parliament, accusing Mr. Maliki of politically motivated arrests. Then, just one day after the last convoy of American troops rolled out of the country, the political crisis boiled over when Mr. Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, accusing him of running a personal death squad that assassinated security officials and government bureaucrats.

Mr. Hashimi denied the charges and fled to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region, effectively making him an internal exile.

The following day Mr. Maliki threatened to abandon the American-backed power sharing government created the year before, and warned Kurdish leaders that there would be “problems’' if they did not hand over Mr. Hashimi.

In response, a powerful political group led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr called for Parliament to be dissolved and early elections to be held, the first open challenge to Mr. Maliki from within his Shiite coalition.

Showing His Independence

In 2012, Mr. Maliki infuriated American officials with decisions that appeared to side with Iran’s Shiite rulers over the Obama administration.

In July 2012, when President Obama announced that he was barring a Baghdad bank from any dealings with the American banking system, it was a rare acknowledgment of a delicate problem facing the administration in a country that American troops just left: for months, Iraq has been helping Iran skirt economic sanctions imposed on Tehran because of its nuclear program.

In September, officials spoke of Iraq’s decision to allow Iran to resume shipping military equipment through Iraqi airspace to support the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in his violent crackdown against mostly Sunni protesters.

A Security-First Mentality

Mr. Maliki, whose bland public persona belies his mastery of Iraq’s zero-sum politics, will help decide if his nation preserves its fragile democracy or if it will return to one-man-one-party rule.

As an exile from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq who escaped a death warrant, Mr. Maliki has proven his ability to retain power. But he is also criticized for holding tight to a security-first mentality. And as a Shiite leader who some say owes his current position to Iran’s backing, he has not made clear if Washington, or Tehran, will wield more influence.


The dirt streets and the crumbling brick houses of Janajuh, Mr. Maliki’s home village, are a reminder of how far he has come. Mr. Maliki was born in 1950, the son of a government employee and the grandson of a former education minister during the monarchy. By the time he was an adolescent, he was bicycling along the gravel roads to Hindiya, the nearest town of any size, to go to school.

He joined the Dawa Party in college. At the time, the Islamist party, founded by an uncle of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, was already largely underground. Saddam Hussein saw its religious philosophy and predominantly Shiite membership as a threat. In 1979, shortly after he seized power, Mr. Hussein ordered the arrests of all Dawa Party members nationwide. In Mr. Maliki’s home district alone, at least 70 men were detained; most were never seen again.

Mr. Maliki was one of fewer than five who escaped. He took refuge in Syria, moved to Iran and then returned to Syria. While Shiite Islamist parties like Dawa are often accused of being close to Iran, Mr. Maliki saw the Iranians as neighbors but not always friends, his associates said. Dawa’s exiles were treated as “unwelcome guests” in Iran, said Sami Alaskary, a member of Parliament and a close friend of the prime minister.

Mr. Maliki did not return to Iraq until the American-led invasion of 2003.

Defeating Militias

Mr. Maliki’s signal achievement since he first won office in 2006 has been consolidating control of the security forces, reducing violence through a willingness to crack down on Shiite militias from strongholds in the southern city of Basra. The defeat of the militias demonstrated to Iraqis, particularly the Sunnis, that Mr. Maliki would evenly target all insurgent groups, regardless of sect, and bolstered his credentials as a nationalist.

As Iraq’s commander in chief, he sometimes micromanages the forces under his control. He pays informers out of his own pocket for intelligence and sometimes sends orders to commanders in the field by text message, officials say.

But in a country where political leaders regularly fly off to second homes in Jordan or London, Mr. Maliki often works through the night in his Baghdad offices and has a steel-trap memory for dates, names and conversations. His family — wife, four daughters and a son — all live in Iraq, while many leading politicians have moved their families abroad.

If he eschews a cult of personality like that built by Mr. Hussein, his close control over Iraq’s police and army and his influence over the country’s judicial system have drawn calls that Mr. Maliki is becoming too powerful.

His government has come under criticism from rights groups for running secret jails, widespread abuses inside Iraq’s detention system, and for jailing political adversaries, such as journalists and demonstrators calling for government reforms. Frequent raids in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and the arrest of 600 former Baathists in November 2011, raised new tensions in Iraq’s suspicious political atmosphere. They fanned fears that Mr. Maliki will use the threat of terrorism and unrest as a pretext to strike political foes.

Fear of a One-Party State

Mr. Maliki’s party, State of Law, finished a close second in the March 2010 parliamentary elections, finishing just behind a party led by Ayad Allawi. While both men are Shiites, Mr. Maliki’s base is in the Shiite south, while Mr.  Allawi drew support from the Sunni minority.

After months of stalemate, Moktada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, threw his support behind Mr. Maliki, leading to an agreement in November 2010 that allowed him to remain prime minister, while Mr. Allawi’s party gained a significant share of cabinet positions. Even after the deal was struck, working out the details dragged on, and it was not until mid-December that Mr. Allawi gave his grudging and conditional approval.

In the fall of 2011, negotiations to allow some American troops to remain after Dec. 31 failed. Mr. Maliki apparently tried to find a compromise; the government proposed inviting a force to stay on but denied its members immunity from prosecution, a position the United States rejected. On Dec. 15, the American military formally ended its mission in Iraq.

Mr. Maliki had been a little-known and relatively unimportant figure in 2006 when he became the country’s first permanent prime minister as a compromise after months of bickering within a Shiite coalition. He initially seemed weak and adrift amid the horrific sectarian fighting of that time, but eventually seized such firm control of power that even his former allies were long reluctant to give him a second term, fearing that State of Law will become the pillar of an essentially one-party state.

As protesters throughout the Arab world are challenging their authoritarian leaders in 2011, Iraqis, government officials and regional experts see increasing signs that Mr. Maliki is expanding his power, undermining the fragile democracy struggling to take hold.

In November 2011, Mr. Maliki’s government arrested more than 615 people after receiving a tip from the new interim leaders in Libya that former members of Saddam Hussein’s military and Baath Party were plotting a coup. Sunni leaders said the report had become a pretext for Mr. Maliki to round up political opponents.

Selection as Prime Minister

When Mr. Maliki was chosen as prime minister in April 2006, he was not a familiar figure to the general public, and he appeared stiff and nervous in his first press conference. He had served as a deputy leader in the Dawa Party and was picked only after months of wrangling in which Kurdish and Sunni officials combined to block the renomination of the interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Dawa leader.

Mr. Jaafari had earned a reputation as being indecisive, and had angered Kurdish and Sunni leaders by seeming to favor Shiite interests too much. Mr. Maliki’s reputation was as someone more direct and forceful, and he stressed during his initial appearance a determination not to favor his sect above others.

But the key votes in the caucus of Shiite parties that chose him to be Mr. Jaafari’s successor were cast by Mr. Sadr, who thereby thwarted the ambitions of his longtime rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the political party now known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Mr. Maliki was the first person to serve as prime minister on a non-interim basis since the American invasion in 2003. He took office in 2006 only after months of stalemate had failed to produce a candidate acceptable to Shiite factions and the Kurds.

As 2006 dragged bloodily on, American commanders expressed frustration with Mr. Maliki, saying that he appeared to be protecting the Mahdi Army and other militias. Mr. Maliki, for his part, lashed out at American attempts to force him to commit himself to a timetable for progress on an American-dictated set of benchmarks.

In January 2007, Mr. Maliki and Mr. Bush appeared to reach an understanding that allowed for the American president to proceed with an increase in combat troops, and American commanders reported less interference from the government. Over the course of the spring, Mr. Maliki weathered a boycott of his government by Mr. Sadr’s party, who protested his cooperation with the U.S., and open maneuvering by Mr. Hakim to form a new government in an alliance with Kurds and moderate Sunnis. Eventually, Mr. Maliki and Mr. Hakim appeared to reach an understanding, although one that has frayed regularly. 

Asserting His Power

If any single moment can be said to have been the turning point for Mr. Maliki, it was one that appeared at first to be a disaster: his decision in March 2008 to order the Iraqi army into Basra, the southern Shiite city that was a stronghold of Mr. Sadr, who had been Mr. Maliki’s biggest supporter before becoming an ardent foe. The assault, launched with no warning to the American military, faltered in embarrassing fashion, with many officers deserting in the face of fire from the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Mr. Sadr. Iran stepped in and brokered a cease-fire that appeared to be on Mr. Sadr’s terms. But in the weeks that followed the army took firm control of Basra.

Mr. Maliki followed up with an offensive to take control of Sadr City in Baghdad. Facing a determined Iraqi Army backed by American troops and air power, Mr. Sadr struck a deal that allowed the government forces to take control of what had been his state-within-a-state, handing Mr. Maliki the biggest victory of his term.

After that, Mr. Maliki consolidated his power by reshuffling military commanders and creating two handpicked military forces that report primarily to him as the commander in chief rather than to the Interior or Defense Ministries. He also created tribal councils across the country that are directly linked to his office, which critics feared were stalking-horses to extend the reach of the Dawa Party.

At the same time, Mr. Maliki struggled to meet milestones for progress on political reconciliation set out by the U.S. government. American officials, while still backing him in disputes with other parties, criticized his government as corrupt and inefficient. Mr. Maliki responded by asserting his independence, first by supporting a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops that was close to that advocated by Barack Obama as a presidential candidate, and then by forcing Mr. Bush to make significant concessions in return for a Status of Forces agreement that would allow U.S. forces to remain in the country after the end of 2008.

As the June 30, 2009, deadline for the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq’s cities approached, Mr. Maliki called the move a “great victory,” a repulsion of foreign occupiers he compared to the rebellion against British troops in 1920.

The anger at Mr. Maliki from the political class has been strong enough that he narrowly missed being voted out of office in December 2008 and in late 2007. He survived both efforts with American support, primarily because his opponents could not agree on a replacement.

The 2010 Campaign

Mr. Maliki, an outwardly dour man with a jowly face darkened by a perpetual shadow of a beard, made a simple case for re-election. “Today’s Iraq, dear brothers, is not the Iraq of 2005 or 2006” was how he put it at one rally in Baghdad, referring to the horrific sectarian bloodshed that very nearly devoured the country. It was both a boast of what his government has accomplished (with American help he rarely acknowledges) and a warning of what could return (when the Americans leave).

Mr. Maliki is neither a charismatic leader nor a polished campaigner, but in a country recently convulsed by chaos and carnage, his message and achievements have resonance, even among his critics.

He refashioned the Dawa party into a coalition he called State of Law, with a campaign that promised security and order, and played down his party’s Shiite religious roots. But his strategy of building a grand political coalition representing all of Iraq’s sects and ethnicities was co-opted by most of his challengers — with better success, arguably, in the case of a coalition led by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who assembled the strongest cadre of Sunni parties behind him.

As the incumbent, Mr. Maliki’s campaign was also hampered by the shortcomings of his government: the lack of development and jobs, grinding poverty, corruption and feeble services.

And the Kremlin-like opacity of his decision-making — his own evident paranoia, sharpened by years in exile during Saddam Hussein‘s rule — have made some of his decisions appear capricious and contradictory.

A Shiite-led vilification of the Baath Party, which resulted in the surprise disqualification of scores of candidates in February, prompted Mr. Maliki to intensify his own statements to rally the Shiite votes he needed, even as it alienated the Sunnis he had once hoped to win over by appealing to a national Iraqi identity.

When an appeals court initially reversed the disqualifications, Mr. Maliki denounced the ruling as illegal. Then two days later he reversed himself after meeting with the country’s top judge, in what was criticized as inappropriate interference.

Election and Aftermath

The nationwide parliamentary elections on March 7 went relatively smoothly, if smoothly can include a wave of violence meant to disrupt the vote, with 100 attacks in Baghdad alone. At least 38 people died, but the turnout was higher than expected. Sunnis who largely boycotted previous elections voted in force, and an intense competition for Shiite votes drove up participation in Baghdad and the south.

The results laid the ground work for a potentially sharp and divisive shift in power, with the coalition led by Mr. Allawi taking a slim lead, with 91 seats to Mr. Maliki’s 89. Old alliances appeared to fracture against a surge of dissident movements. Traditional Kurdish and Shiite Arab alliances were confronted with movements that contested their claims to leadership, in particular the followers of the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who fought the Americans twice in 2004. Sunni Arab voters were newly emboldened in an election in which they forcefully took part under the banner of a secular alliance.

In many ways, the vote solidified ethnic and sectarian divisions unleashed by the American-led invasion in 2003. Despite a conscious effort by most parties to appeal to nationalist sentiments, people still voted along the lines of identity. Those demarcations of Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab or Kurd have bedeviled attempts to solve the country’s most pressing issues, including borders disputed between Arabs and Kurds and the power of the federal government in a country still haunted by decades of dictatorship.

The results set off political turmoil and opened a period of maneuvering that lasted seven months.

Mr. Maliki has taken a more conciliatory stance since he formed a post-election alliance with another Shiite bloc, making it the largest coalition in Parliament. This made Mr. Allawi’s wafer-thin lead in seats over Mr. Maliki more symbolic than practical. But wrangling within the Shiite alliance went on for months, with no clear movement until Mr. Maliki’s endorsement by Mr. Sadr’s party at the start of October.

The November agreement by Mr. Allawi’s party to join a unity government was a significant a victory for Mr. Maliki, who has proven a forceful and wily politician, unwavering in his determination to remain in office. How Mr. Maliki manages the unwieldy alliance is a big question. Rivalries among the various factions, including a bitter historical opposition between Mr. Maliki and Mr. Sadr, remain barely below the surface.

In the end, negotiations over the allotment of government positions dragged on for weeks, with Parliament giving unanimous approval to the government, and to Mr. Maliki’s second term, on Dec. 21. Even then, some major cabinet positions had yet to be filled.

Maliki’s Expanded Power

Critics say that Mr. Maliki has expanded his reach over his country. A ruling in January 2011 by Iraq’s highest court — sought by Mr. Maliki — gave him control of once-independent agencies responsible for running the country’s central bank, conducting elections and investigating corruption. A month after that ruling, two leading human rights groups reported that forces that report directly to Mr. Maliki in violation of the country’s constitution were running secret jails where detainees had been tortured.

And in July 2010, Iraq’s high court ruled that members of Parliament no longer had the power to propose legislation. Instead, all new laws would have to be proposed by Mr. Maliki’s cabinet or the president and then passed to the Parliament for a vote. Political experts said they knew of no other parliamentary democracy that had such restrictions.

Mr. Maliki’s critics say that one legacy of the eight-year American occupation is a democratically elected leader from the country’s Shiite majority who has far more power than its Constitution intended. Critics said that the court ruling in January was a particularly damaging blow to the country’s voting process and feeble economy.

Fear has also extended to the central bank, where officials said they worried Mr. Maliki would now have the power to order the institution to print money to cover Iraq’s growing budget deficits. Such a move would weaken the value of Iraq’s anemic currency and lead to rapid inflation.

While not directly challenging Mr. Maliki’s rule, thousands took to the streets in February and March, sometimes violently, to protest the the government’s failure to provide electricity and jobs. Rights groups criticized the government for what they called a violent crackdown on those demonstrations.