When the American military presence in Iraq ended in December 2011, Washington and Baghdad claimed that Iraq was a stable, sustainable democracy. However, this appears questionable as Nuri al-Maliki, prime minister since 2006, has continued his quest to dominate the state and to use its power to break opposition to his rule. His systematic exclusion of key politicians from power underlines the failure of the 2010 elections to deliver representative government, and leaves the country vulnerable to heightened sectarian tension and a new civil war.
On 15 December 2011, United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta oversaw a ceremony at Baghdad International Airport to mark the departure of American forces more than eight years after the US-led invasion in March 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. The Status of Forces Agreement signed in 2008 dictated that all US troops had to leave the country by the end of 2011. This meant that from the start of 2012, Iraq once again exercised full national sovereignty.
Antony Blinken, US Vice President Joe Biden's national security adviser, said in March: 'Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous ... than at any time in recent history.' A superficial glance at recent Iraqi history would support his optimism. Since 2003, Iraq has successfully held three national elections, with power transferred from interim prime minister Ayad Allawi to Ibrahim al-Jaafari in 2005, and from him to Maliki in 2006. Maliki secured a second term in 2010, after March elections that produced no clear result. Extended but peaceful multi-party negotiations produced the Irbil Agreement of November 2010, a complex power-sharing deal which divided cabinet posts between the numerous parties that did well in the elections and placed constraints on Maliki's power.
However, evidence soon emerged to support a more pessimistic analysis. On the evening of Panetta's leaving ceremony, Iraqi troops and tanks under the command of Maliki's son Ahmed surrounded the homes of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. All three are leading members of the Iraqiyya coalition, which gained two more parliamentary seats than Maliki's State of Law Alliance in the elections. The troops placed the three under temporary house arrest. They then detained three of Hashimi's bodyguards, though the vice president was allowed to leave Baghdad for Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region.
After four days in detention the three bodyguards appeared on national television and confessed that Hashimi had paid them to carry out a series of assassinations and bomb attacks. Judges then issued an arrest warrant for Hashimi, also citing three more confessions from policemen in the northwestern town of Fallujah. These claimed that the vice president, Issawi and senior regional members of their party had set up and run a death squad, called 'Hamas of Iraq', in the town since 2005.
However, doubt was soon cast on the veracity of the confessions and their political motivation was highlighted. Those involved in torturing the bodyguards while in custody gave a detailed interview to Britain's Guardian newspaper, explaining how they had extracted the confessions and describing their contents as 'absurd'. On 15 March, credence was added to the accusations of torture when one of the bodyguards, Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi, died in custody. Government officials claimed he had suffered kidney failure but pictures of his corpse showed clear evidence of extended brutal treatment.
Several leading Iraqi politicians, all signatories of the Irbil Agreement, have since warned of what they see as Maliki's clear dictatorial ambitions. Mutlaq, the deputy prime minister, was sacked and banned from cabinet meetings after claiming that Maliki was 'worse than Saddam Hussein'. Allawi, former prime minister and leader of the Iraqiyya coalition, wrote in the Washington Times that 'the country is slipping back into the clutches of a dangerous new one-man rule, which inevitably will lead to full dictatorship.' Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, while on an official trip to Washington, told his hosts, 'Iraq is facing a serious crisis ... it's coming towards one-man rule.'