Iraqi opposition hires DC shop to make PM's power grab an election-year issue

Iraqi opposition groups have hired an American public relations firm to raise awareness of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's consolidation of power since U.S. troops left the country.

The Iraqiya List, a self-described secular coalition of parties that won parliamentary elections in Iraq two years ago, hopes to get Congress and the White House to refocus their attention on Iraq's political crisis ahead of the U.S. elections. The move could be an embarrassment for the White House, which has proclaimed the troop withdrawal from Iraq a success and largely moved on.


"We're not on the path that everyone envisioned in 2003 with the removal of Saddam Hussein," said Mark Alsalih, a senior adviser to the Iraqiya List based in the U.S. "There are a lot of dark clouds."

The latest crisis began within 24 hours of the U.S. withdrawal in December when al-Maliki, a Shiite, ordered the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on charges that he ran a terrorist hit squad. Al-Hashemi, a leader of the Iraqiya coalition now living in Turkey, denies the charges.

Iraqiya hired the Washington-based public relations shop Sanitas last week to help them get their message out but not lobby government officials. Alsalih said the coalition wants a fair trial for al-Hashemi and for al-Maliki to relinquish some of his powers — he's also acting minister of defense and interior — and abide by the power-sharing agreement that granted him a second term as prime minister.

"We'd like to raise awareness about the fact that Iraq is headed back toward a one man, one party rule,” he said. “And that's very disturbing for a country that's supposed to be moving toward a democracy.”

Republican hawks in Congress welcomed Iraqiya's efforts. They say the Obama administration's failure to reach an agreement with al-Maliki on keeping a residual force of 10,000 or 15,000 U.S. troops in the country has enabled al Qaeda and Iran to fill the vacuum.

"It's unraveling just as we predicted it would because the president wanted out of Iraq," said Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMark Kelly's campaign raises over M in days after launching Senate bid The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers wait for Trump's next move on border deal Mark Kelly launches Senate bid in Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I'm sorry that that prediction has come true."

The senator was dubious the deteriorating situation in Iraq will resonate with the U.S. public, however. "I hope that it will," McCain said. "But I'm not confident that it does."

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Memo: Trump and McCabe go to war Graham seeks new Rosenstein testimony after explosive McCabe interview Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE (R-S.C.), another lead critic of the U.S. withdrawal, told The Hill he was "very worried that Maliki is getting more authoritarian."

"Anytime the vice president of a country is on the run and he's claiming sectarian reprisal, that's not good," Graham said. "I think we're going to see more of this."

Graham predicted that the United States would start to care again if Iraq descends into chaos and al Qaeda reemerges.

"It's deteriorating, al Qaeda is on the rise, and it is my worst fears beginning to come true," Graham said.

The Obama administration did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House argued in December that it had no choice but to withdraw all troops from Iraq after al-Maliki's government refused to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution. Vice President Biden called the prime minister after al-Hashemi's arrest warrant was issued and emphasized the need for an “inclusive partnership government,” according to a White House transcript of the call.

The Iraqiya List wants the administration to do more, using al-Maliki's dependence on U.S. troop training and weapons sales as leverage.

“Iraq has fallen off the radar screen, and nobody [in the United States] wants to really take any decisive action during an election year,” Alsalih said. “However our view is we have a chance right now to get the U.S. to put some pressure and leverage to help us resolve these issues in Iraq so it doesn't turn into a completely chaotic situation.”

Otherwise, he warned, tensions could explode later in the year leaving the White House to deal with the fallout — regional instability, surging energy prices — right on the eve of the election. American credibility around the world, he added, would also take a hit with the United States getting accused of having “pretty much mucked up Iraq.”

“We feel that the U.S. government still has a lot of leverage with the Iraqi government,” Alsalih said. “And we are hopeful that they can work to help us broker a political solution that would put Iraq back on the path of the envisioned democracy and make it a shining example for the rest of the region.”