In Iraq, Looking at What’s Been Left Behind

To the degree that Iraq still figures in the American consciousness, it is largely through the narrow prism of how quickly the remaining U.S. troops will leave the country as the Obama administration winds down the war. But little attention is being paid to what kind of Iraq will be left behind. With the contours of that post-U.S. Iraq just beginning to emerge, Yochi Dreazen sets out to answer a fundamental question: after the deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, what, precisely, has been gained?

With U.S. policymakers focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraqi politicians, human-rights activists and journalists warn that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is quietly emerging as an autocrat willing to use force against his political opponents. Maliki’s Iraqi critics tell Dreazen that Maliki regularly arrests rivals and uses uniformed security personnel to raid the offices of the dwindling numbers of Iraqi journalists and NGOs willing to publicly criticize the premier’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Using their accounts and interviews with Maliki’s advisors and supporters, Dreazen will look at whether the U.S. has inadvertently created a “Saddam lite” in Maliki, a nominal ally.

Amid the political jockeying, meanwhile, a new battlefront is emerging in southern Iraq. Dreazen will travel to the oil-rich city of Basra for a first-hand look at the escalating Iranian effort to pressure Iraqi officials to look the other way when it comes to oil smuggling and to take marching orders from Tehran, rather than Baghdad. Southern Iraq is where the shadow war between the U.S. and Iran is raging most fiercely and where the question of what the new Iraq will look like – and how closely it will ally itself with Iran – will be decided.

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Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was once the great hope for democracy. Today, he looks more like Saddam-lite as the Iraqi government heads towards a dictatorship.