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Does Maliki Want to Become Unchallenged Ruler of Iraq?

December 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The last U.S. convoy had hardly crossed into Kuwait on Sunday when Iraq was thrust into new and potentially dangerous political turmoil. Judy Woodruff discusses the country's latest political crisis with the Naval Postgraduate School's Abbas Kadhim and Feisal Istrabadi of Indiana University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now two assessments from Iraqi-Americans of the growing political turmoil in Iraq. Feisal Istrabadi was Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations and is now a visiting law professor at Indiana University. Abbas Kadhim is an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has written extensively about Iraqi Shia Muslims.

We thank you both for being with us.

And I will start with you, Feisal Istrabadi.

What is going on right now between the prime minister and the vice president?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, former deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations: Well, I think what Iraqis are in store for is an attempt by Maliki to establish that he is the sort of unchallenged ruler of Iraq. At least, I fear that that’s what’s going on.

Last week, remember that Vice President Hashemi belongs to the Iraqiya political coalition headed by the former Prime Minister Allawi. Last week, you started having tanks show up on the streets of Baghdad in front of the houses of people like Allawi who are outspoken critics of the prime minister.

And then, in the last 24 or 36 hours, you have seen this developing story of a warrant to arrest the sitting vice president of Iraq on terrorism charges. It is, I think, a very dangerous game that the prime minister is playing. And it can indeed result in ripping apart the country along confessional grounds yet again after 2006 and 2007, when we fought what was a de facto civil war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Abbas Kadhim, is it a potentially dangerous game with the prime minister, al-Maliki, trying to consolidate his position?

ABBAS KADHIM, Naval Postgraduate School: It is always a dangerous game in Iraq in the past years.

I normally don’t make a policy for myself to disagree with my friend Feisal Istrabadi, but I might look at it from a probably slightly different way. I think that Maliki is not much trying to be the unchallenged ruler of Iraq, but more trying to become a stronger prime minister or a strong prime minister in Iraq, which what Iraq needs right now, because the most challenging months probably for Iraq are the months following the official withdrawal of the United States.

And Maliki’s responsibilities are huge. I think that, of course, doesn’t justify any extrajudicial actions or something that is not constitutional, but more (AUDIO GAP)

JUDY WOODRUFF: We may have lost — he’s back.

ABBAS KADHIM: . . . his nephew, who used to be the minister of culture, was accused of terrorism. And, in fact, he’s a fugitive right now.

There is more to it than just making a charge against a person as important as Tariq al-Hashemi. But I think we have to wait and see what evidence will be presented. I have a lot of faith in the Iraqi judiciary, and I think they will sort it out very well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m sorry about that. The video slipped away there just a moment, but it came back.

Back to you, Feisal Istrabadi.

Could it be with what Mr. Kadhim is saying, just a temporary move on the part of Prime Minister Maliki to be stronger, now that the American troops have left?

 FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, let me start with the proposition that what Iraq needs is a strong leader.

With all respect to my very good friend, I think that what we need are rulers in Iraq who are dedicated to the principles of constitutional democracy. Their strength lies not in the elimination or in the harassment of political adversaries, but, on the contrary, in encouraging constitutional discourse.

What has been happening in Iraq in the last 24 hours cannot be seen in isolation. For the past 12 months, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused to appoint a permanent minister of defense. That was supposed to be one of the portfolios that went to the Iraqiya coalition. They have nominated six people for that position. Each one of them has been rejected.

He has appointed a member of his own coalition, the prime minister’s own coalition, as acting minister of defense. He is acting as minister of the interior. And one of his cronies is acting minister of state for national security.

He has cashiered career officers and appointed cronies to senior officer positions in the armed and security forces in Iraq. In other words, the prime minister has under his control as we speak all the instrumentalities of state security in Iraq.

I’ll remind your viewers that, in the early 1970s, this is precisely how Saddam Hussein came to power at the time. What we — I think Iraqis, with our history, we have to be overly cautious when we see similar actions occur as have occurred in our relatively recent past.

Strength in the new Iraq must be through constitutional democracy, and not through harassment and intimidation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back to Abbas Kadhim.

Why shouldn’t we see these actions by Prime Minister Maliki as something that is concerning, that does maybe hearken back to the methods of Saddam Hussein?

ABBAS KADHIM: It is concerning, of course.

But I do not believe that the comparison with Saddam Hussein is valid. Maliki’s own deputy Saleh al-Mutlaq the other day said that Maliki is the worst dictator in Iraq’s history. And that’s, I think, not an insult to Maliki more than it’s an insult to anybody in Iraq with an I.Q. above zero.

Maliki is not a dictator in the way Saddam Hussein is. The situation in Iraq is not the situation in Iraq in 1979, when Saddam Hussein began to purge others and then take control for himself and his family. The parallel is way far off.

But I do agree with Feisal that, yes, there are measures that are causing concern, and they should cause concern. The constitution in Iraq should be followed. But, also, it should be followed by everybody. I mean, this is the problem with the setting in Iraq. All of the political process that has been going on in Iraq is not constitutional, as Feisal knows. It is extra-constitutional.

Iraq is running according to the Erbil agreement, where they got together and then divided the political pie away from the constitution and away from the results of the elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me. . .

ABBAS KADHIM: So, we are having a consensus among Iraqi politicians not to follow the constitution. They admitted many times in official settings, including the first session in the Iraqi parliament, that they the constitution, and they continue to do so. So, yes, I think it is causing concern, but I would not go far as causing — making a parallel or comparing it to Saddam Hussein. It is really outrageous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alright, we have less than a minute left. I’m sorry.

So, I just want to come back quickly to each of you to ask you how you see — what will influence events going forward, very quickly, Feisal Istrabadi?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, the — let us remember even Saddam Hussein wasn’t — in 1970 wasn’t the Saddam Hussein of 1979.

The United States has tremendous leverage. It should seriously concern whether it is wise to go forward, for instance, with armed sales to Iraq under these circumstances, when sectarian violence threatens again. And it should look very seriously at the economic incentives that it has to bring the government to a more democratic and constitutional means.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reconsider sending arms and other kinds of aid.

And just quickly to Abbas Kadhim.

What can influence events? What can or could the U.S. do?

ABBAS KADHIM: Well, the United States has not much influence. In fact, the last chance for having real influence was in the end of June of 2004.

After that, we have — and I said that many times in different settings. What happens in Iraq right now is the results of the influence of regional powers. I think the keys are in Iran and in Saudi Arabia pretty much, rather than the United States.

And for us, we try to use diplomatic means, if possible, to probably create some mutual understanding among Iraqis. But I don’t think the United States has much power or influence in Iraq in the same sense the regional powers do have influence in Iraq over the different factions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will leave it there.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

ABBAS KADHIM: Thank you.