x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Future of Iraq will not be built on empty words

Glossing over Iraq's challenges, as the leaders of Iraq and US seem intent on doing, will not make them vanish.

Barack Obama, the US president, and Nouri Al Maliki, Iraq's Prime Minister, each said what the other wanted to hear this week. But each man surely recognised the hollowness of his own words.

On Sunday, the eve of his visit to Washington, Mr Maliki used International Human Rights Day to boast of "unprecedented developments" in this field in Iraq, "particularly in the freedom of expression, party organisation, freedom of thought and press". Then on Monday, as the two leaders met, Mr Obama claimed that nine years after George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, the US was leaving behind a "sovereign, self-reliant and democratic" country.

If only. By accepting the other's claim, each leader made his own assertion easier to sell at home. But in fact, renewed sectarian bloodshed, political violence, and economic malaise all seem too likely after the last US combat troops leave Iraq this month.

Mr Maliki has tirelessly built up his personal power instead of healing his country's divisions, and has found a distressing level of support and guidance in Iran. By backing Syria's Bashar Al Assad, who so plainly scorns the idea of human rights, Mr Maliki testifies to his own dependence on Iran, which props up the bloody-handed Assad regime.

Mr Obama's position on Iraq illustrates vividly the cynical old diplomatic nostrum about how to escape a mistake: "Declare victory and go home." After those nine years, US voters have lost patience in pouring their sons and their dollars into Iraq. Relative calm in recent months has given Mr Obama half-plausible grounds for his brave words, but only the blindly optimistic believe Iraq has become a peaceful stable democracy.

Under Mr Maliki, power-sharing and compromise, so vital to true democracy, are barely given lip service. Human rights groups have grown progressively more critical of him, and ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds have only deepened. Mr Maliki's secret arrests of 600 former Baathists, in October and November, and the firing of 100 university professors, underscore his unwillingness to share power.

Iraqis will no doubt cheer the moment when the last US service member boards the plane and latches the door. But glossing over the challenges ahead will not see them vanish. Mr Obama and Mr Maliki had their reasons for saying what they said. Unfortunately candour was not one of them.