RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Calls for Iraq's prime minister to resign are growing louder - the latest from Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in the north of that country. The powerful president of the region is calling Nouri al-Maliki a Shiite dictator and the Kurds plan to boycott Iraq's parliament when it meets on Sunday to try to form a new government. Maliki insists he will stay in power, which is why we turn to Ali Khedery. He's an Iraqi-American who was a senior advisor to U.S. officials in Baghdad for seven years and once considered Maliki a friend.
ALI KHEDERY: In 2003, when I arrived in Iraq in the wake of the invasion, it was my job to liaison on behalf of the United States government with all of the Iraqi leadership. They called me whenever they needed something - when they needed a house in the Green Zone or when they needed cell phones. And so that's how I got to know all of them personally.
MONTAGNE: Khedery is now a business consultant in Dubai. He recently had an opinion piece in the Washington Post called "Why We Stuck with Maliki and Lost Iraq." He says there was a reason that the U.S. backed Maliki despite the fact that he was a leader of the Dawa party which was fervently Shia.
KHEDERY: When the United States blew away Saddam what came after him were all of the opposition parties. And Maliki and his Dawa party were nothing out of the ordinary in the new Iraq. In 2006 after the elections, there were no good options for the United States in terms of whom it should back to be prime minister. And my colleagues and I believe that Maliki was the least worst option.
MONTAGNE: Ali Khedery's view of Nouri al-Maliki in the role of prime minister changed over time.
KHEDERY: So let's grade him year-by-year. The first year that he took power in 2006, I would give him a C+. He had never run a large organization before, and he was doing the best he could while the country was in civil war. And from 2007 to 2008 - that's when the violence went down 90 percent. So I would've given him an A. By 2009, however, the American pressure on Maliki to behave was reduced dramatically. Then Maliki's real sectarian, dictatorial tendencies began to show. And then since he returned to power in 2010, I would absolutely give him an F because he has driven the country toward civil war in an attempt to consolidate power a la Saddam or Stalin.
MONTAGNE: So that was a turning point - now this is 2010.
MONTAGNE: And an election where Maliki ended up being prime minister - you're saying it could've gone another way.
KHEDERY: Right. So what happened was former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's coalition, Iraqiya, won 91 seats in the parliament and Maliki's won 89. So what should've happened was the United States, in my opinion, should have backed the constitutional process, respected Ayad Allawi's winning coalition as opposed to picking favorites and anointing Maliki for a second term because, as I warned the White House then, what we were doing by backing Maliki for a second term, even though we knew his Iranian sponsors were behind the formation of Maliki's cabinet - if we continued down that path, I said that Maliki would become a sectarian dictator, which would lead to a second Iraqi civil war, which would likely lead to a regional war. And that's exactly, unfortunately, what we're seeing today.
MONTAGNE: Why, as you understand it, did the Obama administration in 2010 not seize that moment to move on to somebody else?
KHEDERY: There was a profound belief among some senior officials in the administration that Maliki was misunderstood - that he was, in fact, not sectarian. They denied that he had close ties with Iran and was influenced by them. You know, respectfully, there was sort of a policy of willful dilution and denial of reality and that is only worth to severely harm American national security interests because there is no doubt we have been strategically defeated in Iraq and probably across the broader Middle East because of our missteps. And we will pay for those mistakes for a very long time to come.
MONTAGNE: Well, finally, just what about Iraq itself? - what is possible that could happen now that would turn this around?
KHEDERY: What is possible, but highly unlikely, is that the Iraqi leaders, for the first time in my experience over the past decade - that they would do the right thing for their country as opposed to themselves and their political parties - that they would form immediately, in the coming days or weeks, a national unity government that would fairly and equitably represent all of the major communities - that, you know, the corruption levels, which are astronomical in Iraq, would be reduced and that they would finally lead this very wealthy, very historic, country forward. But, frankly, that's never going to happen.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
KHEDERY: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Ali Khedery was the longest continuously serving American official in Baghdad. His op-ed in the Washington Post is "Why We Stuck with Maliki and Lost Iraq." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.