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Archive for the ‘US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues’ Category

What Went Wrong in Iraq: The Khedery Version

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 6 July 2014 23:09

It’s going to be cited a lot, so it’s worth taking a closer look at a quite lengthy opinion piece on US policy towards Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that recently appeared in The Washington Post.

The article is signed by Ali Khedery, one of the most prominent Americans of Iraqi origins to have served the United States government in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. Until now, Khedery’s role has been largely unknown outside policy-making circles, but his assertion that he at times became “the Iraqi leader’s go-to guy for just about everything” seems credible enough, especially given his Arabic language skills, which by his own admission formed something of a rarity and an exception among high-level US decision-makers in Iraq during the years of the Bush administration. Khedery also had particularly close ties to Maliki, described as going back before Maliki’s emergence as premier in 2006, and involving for example a prominent and personal role during Maliki’s visit to London in 2009 for purposes of urgent medical treatment.

Some valuable empirical information is certainly provided in the Khedery piece. We learn that not only did Maliki have the habit of working 16 hours a day during his early days as premier. Until 2009, apparently, leading US officials Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus reportedly were together with him for several hours “virtually every day”, strengthening the impression of a period of American tutelage during long periods of Maliki’s first term. Also, there is credible information in the Khedery piece about the key circles of American support for Maliki – consisting chiefly of Ambassador  Chris Hill and Brett McGurk of the NSC, but also, crucially, at a key juncture in September 2010, of Vice President Joe Biden.  Biden reportedly at one point in 2010 betted his vice presidency that Maliki was going to extend a US-Iraqi agreement that would have enabled American soldiers to stay in Iraq beyond 2011! Also, regarding the continuing debate over how the US ended up with Maliki as PM in the first place (i.e. in 2006), there is some new information that appears to differ slightly from what was revealed by Dexter Filkins in another recent review of US policy in Iraq: According to Filkins, it was an unnamed, Arabic-speaking CIA official who promoted Maliki’s candidature. According to Khedery it was himself and Jeffrey Beals, also both Arabic-speaking but in most sources referred to as political officers at the State Department rather than CIA. Unless one of them was indeed CIA there is some discordance between the two narratives.

However, other parts of the piece by Khedery are clearly misleading even when it comes to events that are well documented in open sources. This contributes to  a sense of distrust regarding the overall reliability of the piece, and certainly raises questions about whether we can rely on Khedery as a key informant for events where the available source base may be limited.

Most of the more problematic comments by Khedery seem guided by a master narrative of Maliki, bad; Ayad Allawi (of the secular Iraqiyya) and Adel Abd al-Mahdi (of the Shiite Islamist ISCI), good. For example, regarding the extensive use of de-Baathification for political purposes prior to the March 2010 general election, Khedery writes: “He [Maliki] coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections”. This description of what happened comes across as disingenuous. For starters, the resuscitation of the de-Baathification issue in early 2010 was clearly driven by Maliki’s Shiite enemies who, with considerable Iranian assistance,  had tried in vain to enlist him for their sectarian alliance during the previous summer. Among the newspapers that jumped on the de-Baathification propaganda bandwagon was the very Al-Adala, personally owned by Khedary’s progressive darling, Adel abd al-Mahdi. On the other hand, for his part, Maliki fought hard battles to retain his own candidates on the electoral ballots following attempts by de-Baathification hardliners to exclude them as late as days ahead of the March 2010 election. It was not really until after the elections that Maliki systematically tried to employ dirty tricks to change the result, as seen first and foremost in the attempt to disqualify seat winners after the result had been announced.

A second major theme where Khedery is tendentious concerns the ruling of the Iraqi supreme court  from May 2010 that deemed post-election bloc coalescence (with a view to forming the next government following elections) a legitimate exercise under the Iraqi constitution. Many Americans have tried to portray this ruling as some kind of Maliki coup, but closer inspection of the relevant constitutional background materials suggests that the ruling was quite objective in addressing the limited constitutional ambiguity that existed. Many rulings of the Iraqi supreme court can be seen as politicized (perhaps more clearly so from 2011 and onwards), but the ‘largest bloc” definition ruling just isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, Khedery goes on to generalize from this ruling to a greater theme of “safeguarding the Iraqi constitution” from what is seen as constant encroachments by Maliki. Suffice to say in this context that, back in 2010, the only part of the government formation deal that was truly in conflict with the Iraqi constitution was the American-sponsored idea of a strategic policy council, created to accommodate another of Khederys’s friends – Ayyad Allawi.

The overly crude characterizations of the workings of the Iraqi judiciary continue in Khedery’s description of Maliki’s second term. Here, there is arguably more to pick on, but instead of focusing on some of the bluntest examples of judicial overreach that exist (such as the ruling on the independent commissions in January 2011) Khedery writes, “he [Maliki] did not abide by a law imposing term limits, again calling upon kangaroo courts to issue a favorable ruling.” In fact the veto of the term limits law was perfectly predictable with reference to past rulings of the Iraqi supreme court, which have consistently stressed the constitutional articles that say full legislative projects must go to parliament from the cabinet and/or president before they can be voted upon. One can agree or disagree with that orthodox reading of the Iraqi constitution, but in itself it is nothing new and the court was merely repeating itself rather than responding to some sort of Maliki concoction authored as an ad hoc measure after the law on term limits appeared.

Yet another theme that seemed biased in Khedery’s account concerns Sunni-secular representation in the Maliki government that was eventually formed in December 2010. Khedery describes this as “impressive sounding posts with little authority”. Well, those posts included some rather weighty ministries such as finance! In order to make sense of his own narrative, Khedery then conveniently flashes forward to the threatened arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi right after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, and then jumps further to the targeting of Rafi al-Eisawi, the finance minister, in late 2012. Between those events, however, there were junctures where things could have gone very differently in Iraqi politics if the US government had had the acumen to act in a more balanced way – between unlimited support for Maliki on the one hand and unrestrained kowtowing to the most radical voices among his enemies on the other.

Then, as if there is a need to amplify his story beyond empirical facts – and as if he doesn’t himself fully trust the persuasiveness of his own narrative – Khedery brings in some rather dubious expert witnesses whose presence in the story actually has the net effect of reducing Khedery’s own credibility as an objective chronicler. First, Khedery finds reason to mention the fact that  “one stunned executive [apparently of the Council on Foreign Relations], the father of an American Marine, turned to me and asked, American troops are dying to keep that son of a b—- [Maliki] in power”? No, Khedery, one does not acquire some sort of higher monopoly on truth by fathering an American marine, although that kind of belief is not entirely unknown in the US. It would probably be no more difficult to find hundreds of executives with children serving in the US army who would be ready to use exactly the same kind of colourful language that was used about Maliki with reference to President Bush, Obama, or both! To make matters even worse, Khedery goes on to cite none other than Muqtada al-Sadr for his labelling of Maliki as a “tyrant”. And that was meant to buttress Khedery’s own argument along similar lines! Well, if Muqtada, the great democrat, says so, well surely it has to be true?

Things like these make it more difficult to evaluate other aspects of the Khedery piece that are not well known from previous accounts. What, for example, are we to make about allegations about Maliki’s supposed desire to flatten whole parts of Basra (“urging American airstrikes to level entire city blocks”) during the Charge of the Knights operations against the Sadrists in early 2008?

Generally speaking, Khedery paints a mostly positive or sympathetic picture of Maliki until Khedery himself left Baghdad in February 2009. However, when Khedery returned to Iraq on a special mission during the frenzy of government formation in autumn 2010, he had clearly changed his mind about Maliki and had only bad things to say about him. Instead, for this period, Khedery drums up a rosy image of Iraqiyya headed by Ayyad Allawi (“a moderate, pro-Western coalition encompassing all of Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups”). Apparently Khedery himself played a leading role in the attempt to make Abd al-Mahdi of the Shiite Islamist ISCI the PM candidate of Iraqiyya, as well as a bid to obtain approval from the highest clergy in Najaf for this kind of “nationalist alternative” (very secular indeed, that turn to Najaf).

Intriguingly, though, Khedery does not specify any single juncture or decisive event that made him change his mind about Maliki so radically. There is, however, a crucial little detail in his biography in the introduction that cannot and should not escape notice. Today, Khedery is “chairman and chief executive of the Dubai-based Dragoman Partners… In 2011, as an Executive with Exxon-Mobil, he negotiated the company’s entry into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq”. Now, that was quick: Khedery’s embrace of some of the most separatist forces among the Iraqi Kurds apparently materialized only months after his own resignation from US government service in Iraq in December 2010. A bit Kurdish  separatism, courting the Shiite clergy in Najaf, promoting secularists cum Islamists: Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised about inconsistencies like these since Khedery already told us that the 11 September 2001 terror attacks played a key role in making him enlist for government service in Iraq, which in actual fact had nothing to do with those attacks?

The alternation between (and sometimes combination of) support for the Iraqi central government and Kurdish separatism is of course nothing new in American approaches to Iraq. In the past, the Obama administration supported Maliki as a leadership personality but never embraced his idea of a political-majority government, thereby contributing to an uneasy end result which at times looked paranoid and sectarian instead of stable and national. In the current political crisis, one can certainly get the impression that Washington is arming all sides at the same time: Nujayfi and Barzani feel boldened by frequent telephone calls from VP Biden, whereas Maliki undeniably gets empowered by US military assistance, regardless of exactly what the packaging says.  Exactly like Khedery, the Obama administration  employs a contradictive approach to Iraq based on unhelpful caricatures of the key Iraqi players. Until the underlying methodological issues here are sorted out, these contradictions are likely to persist, with unsatisfactory results accompanying any attempt by the United States to exercise political influence in Iraq.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 11 Comments »

Nuri the Terrible and George W. the Clueless: American Portraits and Self-Portraits in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 24 April 2014 23:55

It is great to finally see something of a revival of the genre of Americans commenting on Iraqi affairs. The first years since the withdrawal in 2011 were characterised by an apparent urge to forget as much as possible, but the upcoming 30 April parliament elections in Iraq – the first democratic contest in the post-2003 era to be carried out without any form of direct American supervision – has also inspired a good deal of fresh commentary on Iraq by American writers.

Among the more prominent pieces in this wave of Iraq writings is an article titled “What We Left Behind” by Dexter Filkins that has just been published in The New Yorker.

Filkins might as well have named his piece “Who We Left Behind”, because this is mostly about the personality of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. As such, it is an important contribution in many ways. Filkins patches together many useful and sometimes previously unpublished anecdotes that contribute to a fuller picture of Maliki than seen in English previously. Among them are the story of an alleged conversation between Maliki and US diplomat Zad Khalilzad that supposedly was decisive in the emergence of Maliki as the premier candidate of the Shiite bloc in 2006; Maliki’s admiration for General Qasem (the coup leader of 1958) as conveyed in private conversation with former US ambassador Ryan Crocker; vivid portrayals of exchanges between Maliki and Crocker at the time of Maliki’s Charge of the Knights operation in Basra in 2008; comments by Maliki on his relations with some of the key Iranian operators in Iraq, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; as well as Maliki’s take on accusations directed at his own son Ahmed, who is often accused of building a powerbase for himself. There is also some fascinating detail on the new social geography of the Green Zone, where notorious anti-American figures like Qays al-Khazali of the pro-Iranian Asaeb Ahl al-Haqq now live in sumptuous surroundings.

Here are important insights in US policy-making and thinking, too. There is a priceless snapshot of a conversation between Brett McGurk (at the time at the NSA) and President George W. Bush concerning a map of the Basra battlespace at the time of Maliki’s operations against the Sadrists in 2008. There are details about frustration in the US embassy in Baghdad following the settlement of the second Maliki term basically at the behest of Iran in autumn 2010, with at least one high-ranking official reportedly resigning because of the perceived stand-down in the face of Iranian hegemony. And there are glimpses of the frustration felt by US diplomats during the course of 2011, when possibilities for negotiations about a prolonged, reduced US troop presence in Iraq evidently existed but when the White House simply just couldn’t make up its mind. Perhaps most fascinating, though, are comments by Lieutenant Michael Barbero which reveal that at least until January 2011, the US allegedly threatened Maliki with military resistance if he moved towards the disputed areas with the Kurds. Barbero apparently wished that US troops should continue to serve in this kind of peacekeeping role in infinity.

However, despite the impressive list of people interviewed for the Filkins article, there are also aspects of it that inspire distrust. For starters, in his introduction, Filkins finds it noteworthy that a “long-time associate” of Maliki maintains that the Iraqi PM “never smiles”. This assertion can be easily falsified by a simple Google Image search, and one assumes the longstanding Maliki associate is talking to Filkins because he is not any longer such a close associate and that maybe that, in turn, may explain the perceived absence of smiles.

And there are inaccuracies relating to far more important matters than body language here. In his description of the 2010 government formation process, Filkins asserts that the Iraqi federal supreme court ruling that formally enabled post-election coalition forming “directly contradicted the Iraqi constitution”. This is just untrue. The problem is that the Iraqi constitution is mute when it comes to the relationship between electoral lists and parliamentary blocs. It just says the biggest parliamentary bloc will nominate the premier, and the supreme court simply repeated that sentence, with the addition that pre-election and post-election formation should be considered on an equal footing. Filkins refers to minutes from the constitutional negotiations, but the only thing that has been published by Maliki’s critics from those negotiations is in fact inconclusive as regards the intent of the framers on government formation.

Also other comments on legal affairs sow doubts about the overall reliability of the article. Filkins claimed that Maliki has “secured a decision from the Iraqi High Court that gave him the exclusive right to draft legislation”. Again, this is incorrect. What the supreme court has done, since before 2010, is to assert an orthodox interpretation of the Iraqi constitution which stipulates that legislation can be introduced by cabinet or the president. In other words, the Iraqi constitution does not seem to give the Iraqi parliament the right to initiate legislation on its own without going through cabinet. This is unusual in comparative perspective but nor unheard of, and in any case the ruling certainly did not bestow any particular privileges upon Maliki personally with respect to legislative powers.

Beyond the general leitmotif of Maliki as a horrible autocrat, Filkins also portrays him as the diehard enemy of Sunni Arabs, as a community. Following the standoff at the Ramadi protest camp in 2013, Filkins claims that “the rest of Sunni Iraq erupted”. Whatever security can be found in Baghdad is attributed to the physical separation between the two sects after sectarian displacement in 2005-2007. Filkins repeatedly cites American favourite Adel Abd al-Mahdi for his criticism of Maliki’s alleged wholesale marginalization of Sunnis and Kurds. At one point Filkins claims that Maliki “set out to banish every trace of Sunni influence from the bureaucracy”.

What is lacking in this account is some mention of key Sunnis that Maliki continues to rely on. Just to take one example, some quite substantial “trace of Sunni influence” remains at the federal supreme court, where several Sunni judges continue to shape the rulings of the court. And what about key provincial officials in Anbar and Salahaddin with whom Maliki continues to cooperate? These are people that appear to be more eager to work with Shiite-dominated Baghdad than submerge themselves in the radical Islamism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Inevitably, when Filkins cannot get basic legal details right, questions emerge as to whether we can fully believe him with respect to all the other, less easily verifiable information about Maliki that he presents as facts. He paints and paints, and he asks other, mostly American, painters about their opinions. In the end, Filkins’ piece of art comes across as a self-portrait of Americans in Iraq, rather than a naturalistic image of Iraq itself.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 2 Comments »

Chuck Hagel, Iraq and Obama’s Easy-Listening Foreign Policy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 31 January 2013 5:38

There has been no lack of critical voices regarding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as US defence secretary. Protests against the nomination range from accusations of homophobia to suggestions he is “soft” on Iran and lacks “commitment” to Israel.

One argument against Hagel that is never going to be used in the hearings on Capitol Hill today but is nonetheless worth mentioning concerns his views on Iraq, particularly as expressed during the debate about the Bush policy of a “surge” of US forces in early 2007. Some will perhaps make use of those remarks to argue that Hagel was against the “successful” surge of US forces. That view to some extent exaggerates the significance of the surge as an independent factor behind the reasonable political climate that briefly prevailed in Iraq between April 2008 and April 2009, and is not really a meaningful argument against Hagel’s candidacy. But there is another, deeper argument relating to Hagel’s epistemology of Iraqi politics that came to the fore in those heated debates in early 2007. In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on 12 January 2007, Hagel contended that,  “we are in a civil war. This is sectarian violence out of control, Iraqi on Iraqi. Worse, it is inter-sectarian [sic] violence, Shia killing Shia”.

HagelSenateForeignRelations12Jan2007a

Hagel probably said, or meant to say,  “intra-sectarian”. In any case, his point was very clear: There is supposedly a natural state of affairs in Iraqi politics, consisting of endless sectarian conflict. Sunnis killing Shiites would have been “natural” to Hagel. When Shiites began killing Shiites, it meant the situation was “worse”, unnatural and out of control.

This little piece of simplistic Iraq epistemology may perhaps come across as innocuous to the majority of American commenters on Middle Eastern affairs. Indeed, there is nothing terribly unique in what Hagel says, even though he is pitching the message in a more clear-cut manner than most others. Many US analysts prefer to see Iraq as an eternal battleground of Shiites and Sunnis, supposedly going back many centuries in time.

And today, of course, some will no doubt claim that the current situation in Iraq and the region proves Hagel was right in 2007. Aren’t Shiites fighting Sunnis more than ever, aren’t Sunnis demanding their own federal region in Iraq, and isn’t there even a clear-cut regional dimension since Turkey (the successor to the Ottoman Empire) is sponsoring Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, and Iran (the successor to the Safavids) is doing the same with regard to Iraqi Shiites and Syrian Alawites?

The point is, though, that this situation today does not reflect a unilinear, steady deterioration of affairs in Iraq from the time Hagel made his statement in 2007 until today. Following that period, thanks both to the surge and the growing rejection by many Iraqi politicians of parts of the hastily crafted 2005 constitution, a more moderate political climate dominated in 2008 and during the 2009 local elections. Crucially, after a sectarian climate had prevailed during the civil-war like conditions of 2006 and 2007, the atmosphere of Iraqi politics improved sufficiently during 2008 to encourage Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to run on a separate electoral ticket in the local elections in January 2009, quite despite the expressed desire for Iran to see greater Shiite sectarian unity.

Prior to the parliamentary elections of 2010, Maliki tried the same thing. But when the new Obama administration initiated ouvertures to Iran in spring 2009, Iran reciprocated by asserting itself even more strongly in Iraqi politics, propelling de-Baathification to the top of the agenda and gradually focing Maliki back to sectarian unity. Symptomatically, in the upcoming Iraq local elections on 20 April 2013, unlike in 2009, Maliki will run a big Shiite sectarian coalition in most provinces and all-Shiite coalitions in areas with Shiite minorities, entirely in accordance with Iranian preferences for unified Shiite coalitions.

The Obama administration, with numerous people sharing Hagel’s epistemology, probably even didn’t see that sectarian turn as a true anomaly. This of course is not to suggest that US influence in Iraq before 2009 was singularly virtuous or that the micro-managing of the Bush administration rested upon superior epistemological bases. But it did mean a multipolar environment for the Iraqi Shiites which has virtually disappeared during the Obama administration. Today, Iran seems to be the only game in town – and Obama seems to think that is a natural state of affairs.

Perhaps Obama also sees some sort of potential in an Iran-dominated Iraq? It is very hard to avoid wondering whether the current acquiescence in face of rising sectarianism in Iraq actually constitutes something of a dangling carrot in front of Iran, not unlike the Arab-press conspiracy theory of concessions to Iran in Iraq in exchange for a deal on the Iranian nuclear file. These days, American oil in Iraq, including Chevron where Hagel serves happens to serve on the board of directors, seems to be migrating northwards to the Kurdish areas of Iraq that are under Turkish influence.

Hagel

Obviously, rapprochement with Iran, with which Hagel is associated as part of a greater effort to disentangle the US from the Middle East, is in itself not a bad thing. But it should still be possible to criticize the precise nature of such movements. To use Iraq as a bargaining chip with Iran is simply just a lot more ahistorical than Obama realizes, and as a consequence, perhaps less sustainable over time. Historically, despite the cooperation between Iran and Iraqi Islamist parties since the 1980s, Iraqi Shiites have tended to resist Iranian domination. The difference is that whereas Hagel and his friends posit sectarianism as an eternally dominant theme of Iraqi politics, Iraqi history shows a far more spasmodic pattern in which the significance of sectarianism has often receded in the absence of foreign intervention or regional instabilities. There was not much in the way of sectarian violence during the several centuries of Ottoman rule, or during the Iraqi monarchy period.

Is it advisable to induce pan-Shiite tendencies in Iraq just for the sake of epistemological simplicity? So far, without moving on the nuclear issue, Iran has only taken the opportunity to strengthen its hold over Iraq and Syria. Approaching the Syrian crisis with Hagelian worldview, in turn, illustrates how the act of colouring whole areas and even countries sectarian inevitably means caving into the most radical sectarian forces in the region. Syria, in the eyes of Hagel, is presumably as “Sunni” as Iraq is “Shiite”. In this simplistic view, all Sunnis of Syria staunchly oppose Assad and only Alawites (and maybe Christians) support him. Of course, exactly like in Iraq, history is more complex. Anyone who is familiar with Syrian history knows that “Sunni” Aleppo may well have different dynamics from “Sunni” Damascus. In fact, if Syrian politics could be reduced to a sectarian battle, Damascus would probably have fallen long time ago.

It is simplistic approaches to Middle Eastern sectarian dynamics like those of Chuck Hagel that help bring about a situation where the West is fighting Al-Qaeda in Mali and is tacitly supporting them in Syria. And Hagel will join an increasing number of people with similar simplistic, easy-listening approaches to the Middle East in the Obama administration. Alongside Chuck “It Is Natural for Sunnis to Kill Shiites” Hagel at defence, we will have John “They Have Been Fighting Each Other for Centuries” Kerry as secretary of state, and Joe “My Guess Is It Will Be Three States” Biden as vice president. With policy-makers like these, there may unfortunately be a whole lot of Benghazis to come.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 11 Comments »

A Smart Move by Maliki? Evoking the Stability Argument on KRG Foreign Oil Deals

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 21 June 2012 13:06

In an interesting move, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has asked President Barack Obama to intervene to stop Exxon Mobil activities in areas of Iraq controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

Few details of the correspondence are known. The White House has officially acknowledged receipt of the letter from Maliki but has made no elaborate comment except saying it will reply in due course. A few comments on the letter by a Maliki adviser have been published by Reuters.

There is one interesting snippet of information in the reports that have emerged so far: Maliki is evoking Iraq’s “political stability” as an argument against Exxon’s operations in Kurdistan. As is well known, the conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds on oil concerns above all the right to sign deal with foreign companies generally. Additionally, some of the Exxon deals with the Kurds affect areas that are not only disputed between the KRG and Baghdad but even include territories that may well revert to the central government in a final border settlement.

The United States already has a series of executive orders in force relating to the stability of Iraq, though most of them target support for terrorism more specifically. Given Maliki’s choice of language, though, it is not inconceivable that he has in mind a logic similar to that embodied in a recent presidential executive order against US citizens threatening the stability of Yemen. That order contains deliberately vague language and could in theory apply to everything from Al-Qaeda to Aden separatism.

At any rate, by choosing the stability focus, Maliki is also addressing a latent contradiction in US policy on Iraq that is rarely addressed by the Americans themselves: Their continued support for Kurdish leaders with declared separatist agendas despite an official US desideratum of a unified Iraq within its sovereign borders.  The fact is that the United States (and many European nations) are treating Kurdish leader Masud Barzani pretty much as a head of state, with privileges during state visits etc. that few  other heads of federal entities worldwide can expect. This is precisely the sort of schizophrenic behaviour that has helped create unmanageable formulas for Iraqi governance like the Erbil agreement. It would be more honest of these players to make up their minds and either support full Kurdish independence or encourage policies that would provide for meaningful integration of the Kurdish region in an Iraqi federation.

Whether Washington will actually use this opportunity to rethink its Iraq policy remains to be seen. It is perhaps somewhat unrealistic given the presence of an able Kurdish lobby in DC that helped create the current contradictive policy in the first place. At the very least, though, Maliki will likely score some domestic points on the issue, of the same kind that recently endeared him to Sunni and secularist figures unhappy with how parts of the Iraqiyya leadership are cooperating with the Kurds, including in relation to Exxon Mobil in Nineveh.

Whether such support for Maliki’s KRG policy is sufficient to prevent any concerted action against him when the Iraqi parliament reconvenes on Saturday is still unclear. Already, some of Maliki’s enemies are accusing him of manipulating the security environment around parliament  with a view to intimidating political opponents (in particular this applies to the recent removal of the concrete barriers surrounding the national assembly). An unremarkable agenda for Saturday’s session appeared on the parliament website yesterday only to be removed again today. Parliament speaker Nujayfi now says he expects a request for a questioning of Maliki within two to three days, whereas Iraqi state television has indicated a forthcoming request for Maliki himself for an emergency session – possibly a pre-emptive move.

At any rate, with President Jalal Talabani having apparently abandoned the project of a presidential call for a no confidence vote, the conflict surrounding Maliki’s premiership is now likely to become a more long-drawn affair.

Posted in Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Oil in Iraq, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 37 Comments »

The United States Taking the Backseat in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 7 June 2012 16:34

It hasn’t quite received the media attention it deserves: During the midst of the current political crisis in Iraq, the top US diplomat in Iraq, Ambassador James Jeffrey – a recurrent figure in many conspiracy theories about elaborate US schemes for dividing and ruling the region – must have sneaked out the back door.  Already, the Wall Street Journal is making interviews with him referring to his “past” tenure in Iraq, and this week, despite the climax of the moves to unseat Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Ibrahim al-Jaafari met with a chargé d’affaires from the biggest US embassy in the world.

Wait. Wasn’t Vice President Joe Biden, the Iraq czar of the Obama administration, supposed to show up in Baghdad instead this week? Well, that was what the rumours said but we’re at the end of the working week in Iraq and still no Joe in Baghdad. It seems the Iraqis – not without some sort of loud cheering from the Turks and the Iranians – will be sorting this one out themselves.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Brett McGurk, the next US ambassador in Iraq, was still in Washington in a Senate confirmation hearing answering rather lame question about oil production, Sunnis and Shiites and militant groups. It is however noteworthy that McGurk – who has been so strongly associated with US backing of Maliki that Iraqiyya promptly declared they would have nothing to do with him upon his nomination – was at pains to express an evenhanded approach to Iraqi politics. If a new PM were in place tomorrow, McGurk would deal with him as with Maliki. “Political agreements” [meaning Erbil] would be respected alongside the constitution. And McGurk went even further than that. Apparently reflecting the success of a strong Kurdish lobby in DC, he declared his desire to visit Kurdistan “every week” of his tenure if confirmed. That is a lot of travelling for a high-value US target in Iraq!

Of course, Ambassador Jeffrey must have left on or around 1 June, when his tenure was supposed to end anyway. Be that as it may, the net effect of all of this may be that the United States will have only a limited role in the question of whether Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will go or not. Right now, it actually seems an intra-Kurdish struggle with some considerable Iranian pressure on President Jalal Talabani is the main factor behind the delay of the introduction of a non-confidence vote against Maliki in the Iraqi parliament.

Some will no doubt see this kind of limited US involvement as a desirable process of disengagement. That would be a fair interpretation had it not been for the very glaring and physical image of the mega embassy of the Americans in Baghdad – the remnant of an altogether different vision of hands-on US involvement. (The Jeffrey remarks to the WSJ came in a story on the unexpected downsizing of the CIA presence in Iraq.)

It would be fair to talk about successful disengagement had it also not been for the fact that what remains of US fingers in Iraq seem to be working at counter-purpose. In the embassy as well as in the US Senate, discussion is still about Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds and the implementation of the Arbil agreement. There is complete failure to realize that all of this replicates the Iranian conceptual model of an ethno-sectarian Iraq and ultimately will serve to strengthen Iranian influence – or to partition the country into Iranian and Turkish zones of influence.

One result of recent developments in Iraq is that Sadrist criticism of Maliki has put pressure on Maliki to fix his relations with some other Shiite partners with whom relations had soured in recent years, such as ISCI, Badr and Fadila. It has also meant creating links to rather unsavoury circles in the former Sadrist militia Asaib Ahl al-Haqq. All of this plays into the hands of Iran.

Conversely, there is one recent development that might have the potential to solidify Iraqi independence versus the regional environment: The recent alliance between Maliki and Sunnis from the disputed territories in northern Iraq. Typically, this very significant trend for anyone who believes in an independent Iraq was never mentioned in the US Senate hearing on the next American ambassador to Iraq.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 48 Comments »

The State of the Union and the Iraqi Enfant Terrible

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 25 January 2012 18:16

White House speechwriters must be thoroughly annoyed with Iraq these days.

Last month, barely had the dust settled after the departing US forces and jubilant ceremonies in Washington before Iraqi politicians began escalating their political antagonisms to levels not seen since 2006. Even though the whole thing is somehow still hanging together, the signs of warning are arguably more numerous than for many years.

Yesterday, just hours before President Barack Obama was to deliver his State of the Union address, Iraq blew up in his face again. Close to the capital Baghdad, Mulla Nazam al-Jibburi was killed by a gang of gunmen. Jibburi was a prominent defector from Al-Qaeda who had helped build the largely Sunni “Sahwa” movement in support of the Iraqi government.

This was not quite in harmony with the message of Obama’s address. Hours later he told us, “Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies.  From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.”

Because, in Iraq there are no Al-Qaeda anymore, right? Except that they may well have been the ones who opted to assassinate Jibburi just hours before President Obama’s speech.

The problems in the State of the Union address as far as it related to the Middle East don’t stop there. How about Iran? Again, according to Obama, “Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one.  The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.”

Are we so sure that Obama’s policies in the region have consistently weakened Iran? Is it not the case that after failed US diplomacy in 2010, Nuri al-Maliki was forced to rely on sectarianism to clinch his second premier term in ways that at least temporarily increased Iranian leverage in Iraq? Is not the resultant maintenance and reinforcement of the Tehran–Damascus axis part of what makes Iran able to resist other manoeuvres by the international community?

Or maybe US policies towards Iran have different goals:

“Let there be no doubt:  America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”

So, no nasty nukes please, and we’ll  give you a free hand in Iraq in return? Is that the deal Obama is envisaging? Perhaps Iraq is better left for Iran and Turkey to slug it out, “bringing the region back” as VP Biden once called it?

Let’s consider the region more broadly:

“As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sanaa to Tripoli.  A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators – a murderer with American blood on his hands.  Today, he is gone.  And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.

Saudi? No matches found.

Bahrain? No matches found.

What if Iranian oil is sufficiently attractive to Asian markets to make the likely impact of the boycott –  higher oil price – bigger in crisis-hit European economies than in Tehran? This might well enable Iran to hold on to Syria and control Iraq while preventing Obama from talking tough on human rights to the remaining “strategic” allies in the Middle East due to continued reliance on their oil.

Unless Obama can maintain a consistent discourse on the Middle East, perhaps it would be better to leave the region out of the State of the Union address altogether.

Posted in US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 28 Comments »

Bremerian Miscalculations at the End of a Long War

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 31 December 2011 16:20

It would have been tempting to do a year-end summary of Iraqi politics. However, in terms of achievements on the part of Iraqi politicians, there really isn’t that much to write about. In late January, Maliki moved a little on exports from the northern oilfields, thereby strengthening his alliance with the Kurds. The Arab Spring came and went but Iraq just did not seem to care: Much of the first part of 2011 was actually spent quarrelling about the exact number of deputies to the largely ceremonial presidential office. Eventually, three deputies were agreed and approved by parliament; one of them promptly resigned. In July, in a positive move, most ministers of state were dismissed from the cabinet, at least theoretically enabling a better consolidation of the sprawling cabinet. By August, the potential for a more compact coalition with an interest in extending the US presence beyond 2011 actually seemed to exist. But it fell apart again as soon as it had come into existence as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Kurds began quarrelling about the oil law, with the secular Iraqiyya party somewhat surprisingly opting to support the confederalist position of the Kurds. By late October it was clear that there would be no prolonged US military presence; simultaneously, some Sunni-majority governorates became so exasperated with Maliki and his renewed anti-Baathism campaign that they began demanding federalism for their own areas on the Kurdish pattern. The US forces finally withdrew in December; this was followed by further steps on the part of Maliki to legally pursue Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and sack Vice Premier Saleh al-Mutlak (both from the Iraqiyya party), plunging the country into a more serious political crisis than at any point since he first came to power in 2006. Anything else? The word count is at no more than 350. 

Paul Bremer to the rescue. Yes, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. After having reportedly repostured to painting landscapes in 2004, Bremer is now talking again. And writing as well, specifically in The Wall Street Journal.

At the beginning of his op-ed, Bremer declares, “For millennia, leaders in Mesopotamia have survived by making fine calculations about power.” Presumably Bremer sees himself as part of that tradition, because “fine calculations” certainly appeared to be one of his favourite pastimes during his tenure as viceroy of Iraq. In his memoirs, he recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis as “unrepresentative” because it contained only one Sunni Arab. According to Bremer, “representativeness” would have meant a perfect proportional reflection of the ethno-sectarian demographic balance of the population (i.e. around 1.4 Sunni Arabs in this case). In another instance, Bremer nixed the inclusion of an able Christian leader in his governing council because the Christian quota would have thereby become too big according to his own mathematics.

Eight years later, Bremer still does not seem to realise how his fine calculations actually had a detrimental effect on Iraqi politics and society.  He bombastically declares, “the year after the American-led coalition overthrew Saddam’s dictatorship in 2003, al Qaeda in Iraq revealed a cynical plan to kill and maim Shiites to spark a sectarian war. It almost worked. Only President George W. Bush’s courageous decision to surge additional troops in early 2007 saved the country.” Many Iraqis would say it was Bremer’s own focus on sectarian identities when he put together the governing council in 2003 that was the real culprit. They would also add that the “saviour” was not Bush’s surge but Iraqis themselves who began working together across sectarian lines as they discovered just how flawed the constitution they had adopted with American support in 2005 was.

At times, Bremer just cannot seem to make up his mind whether we should cry or be happy about the new Iraq. It is almost touching how he enlists modernisation theory methodology that was in the vogue in the 1950s to count telephones as an indicator of how wonderful everything is in the post-2003 democratic era! But eventually he does find an answer: Everything is fine, except “al Qaeda and Iranian terrorists still active in Iraq”.

Perhaps the most substantially interesting piece of information in the Bremer op-ed is the suggestion that “quiet diplomacy had secured the agreement of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani not to oppose a continued American presence [beyond 2011]”. Back in 2008, National Security Council types would tell us the same thing: Sistani supposedly wanted a long-term military pact with the Americans; only the evil Sadrists opposed it. As is well known, Maliki crushed the Sadrists that year and went on to dictate strict time limits for the SOFA concluded with the Americans. In other words, the Sistani factor never seemed to come into play. Perhaps because it was never based on anything more than some ambiguous statement by his son, Muhammad Rida?

More fundamentally, Bremer’s musings on these topics are typical of a prevalent trend in US policy-making circles in which Iraqi Shiites are seen as profoundly anti-Iranian across the board. That thesis is based on good scholarship by Yitzhak Nakash which rightly identifies anti-Iranian trends in parts of the Iraqi Shiite community. But it also contains unfortunate generalisations in which the Shiites are posited as a monolithic community. In fact, the Shiites that were propelled to political prominence by Bremer and other Americans after 2003 happened to be the minority with particularly close ties to Iran.

As for the current situation, Bremer correctly diagnoses a state of crisis in Iraqi politics.“Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant for the country’s vice president, a Sunni, who then fled to the northern Kurdish area.”  And unsurprisingly, the cure prescribed by Bremer is more US intelligence and military intervention: “We should also seek ways to extend our contacts with the Iraqi military, with the eventual goal of returning at least a cadre of U.S. forces to Iraq. Training Iraqi forces outside Iraq, in the U.S. or elsewhere, could be a useful step.”

“Sunnis” and “Shiites”. Clearly, Bremer is at it again. His op-ed is an unspoken mea culpa second only to that of another former Iraq ambassador, Chris Hill and constitutes a much less effective neo-conservative criticism of the Iraq policies of the Obama administration than that previously put forward by Charles Krauthammer. Put simply, Mr. Bremer, you’ve got the wrong calculator: With analytical tools like that, there really is no point in going back.

Let’s settle for the more modest new year’s wish that one year from now there actually exists a recognisable Iraq to write about.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 28 Comments »

The Hashemi Arrest Warrant

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 20 December 2011 12:27

The televised confession, often taped less than 48 hours after the detention of a suspect, has become something of a gold standard in Iraqi judicial procedure in the post-2003 era.

In many ways, this way of presenting the evidence of the prosecution is a sorry sight. At similar instances in the past, accusations of torture and forced confessions have been rampant. The theatrical nature of these videos and the conspicuous timing of their appearance certainly do not instil confidence about due process and the independence of the judiciary vis-à-vis the political environment.

Hopefully, any case against Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi – who yesterday evening was formally accused of having abetted terrorism through his office – will be judged on its own merits. Before rushing to conclusions, it might perhaps also be useful to recollect a criminal case involving the security detail of another past vice president, Adel Abd al-Mahdi, back in 2009. Despite the serious nature of the charges against one of his employees (a bank robbery with alleged political motivations), Abd al-Mahdi eventually emerged unscathed from the whole affair. 

Given the symbolic timing of the arrest warrant just days after the US withdrawal from Iraq, it is hard to ignore accusations that there are political dimensions to the case. The reputation of the Iraqi judiciary is already in tatters after a series of rulings of a rather blunt pro-Maliki character. On the whole, the atmosphere seems reminiscent of the arbitrariness and outright terror that characterised the pre-election de-Baathification process in early 2010 – except perhaps that the targeted politician in this case is someone with a Sunni Islamist rather than a Baathist past. Sunnis and secularists must begin wondering whether they can all be the next target in a politicised campaign.

As far as the politics of the affair is concerned, not that much has changed. The Kurds propose vague mediation attempts and “national conferences”. Symptomatically, perhaps, President Jalal Talabani – normally a Maliki ally – managed to say that “no one should interfere with the judicial process” before adding that the measures taken against Hashemi seemed to have been done “in great haste”! For their part, Iraqiyya leaders remain reluctant to give up their patronage assets entirely: They are now suspending their participation in cabinet meetings rather than withdrawing from their ministries altogether. In a trend echoing the previous experience of secularist leaders in the Iraqi football federation, Iraqiyya are now clearly signalling their perception of the Kurdish federal region as “neutral territory” and are calling for the investigation against Hashemi to take place in Arbil. (Hashemi is reportedly still in Kurdish territory.)

Two players could conceivably create some dynamism in what seems an otherwise static – if increasingly bitter – tug-of-war. Firstly, Ibrahim al-Jaafari of Maliki’s own State of Law alliance, a former premier, has tried to present himself as an intermediary in the conflict with Iraqiyya, at times portraying himself as more reconciliatory than Maliki himself. (Jaafari is however not particularly popular with the Kurds and is seen as closer to Iran than Maliki by some.) Second, Usama al-Nujayfi, the parliamentary speaker of Iraqiyya, has continued to chair parliament meetings and thus remains in contact with Shiite and Kurdish leaders perhaps to a greater extent than others in Iraqiyya are.

The reported appearance of CIA director David Patraeus at a meeting of Iraqiyya yesterday seems somewhat extraordinary. If true, it could be indicative of how Washington sees the situation in Iraq after the withdrawal. Critics will claim that after two years dominated by Joe Biden diplomacy, it is perhaps somewhat late in the day to begin sending competent special envoys to Iraq.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 15 Comments »

Thoughts, More Than Actions, Shaped the Iraq War Legacy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 16 December 2011 18:38

When the last remaining American forces withdraw from Iraq at the end of this month, they will be leaving behind a country that is politically unstable, increasingly volatile, and at risk of descending into the sort of sectarian fighting that killed thousands in 2006 and 2007… Full story here (New York Times op-ed on the formal end of the Iraq War).

Comments section open as usual below.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 14 Comments »

In Washington, a Window-Dressing Exercise; in Diyala, another Federalism Bid

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 12 December 2011 19:55

The arrival in Washington of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has been accompanied by considerable media hype.  A key talking point for the Obama administration is the idea that Iraq is facing a more positive future as 8 years of occupation are coming to an end.

Among the indicators of progress cited by President Barack Obama today are the statistics of violence in Iraq, which currently stand at an all-time low. Obama also mentioned a series of “indicators” that strictly speaking relate to the future rather than the present, such as the “expected” increase in Iraqi oil production and the “scheduled” meeting of the Arab League, to be held in Baghdad. Additionally, much attention has been given by the US media to recent statements by Maliki to the international press that all emphasise the idea of Iraqi sovereignty towards its neighbours.

Opponents of the Obama administration, on the other hand, are trying to highlight possible indicators of Iranian hands working behind the scenes. Previously, the so-called special groups and the Sadrists more broadly have received attention; recently, the fate of the pro-Baathist Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq, still camped in Iraq, as well as the pro-Iranian suspected terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq – currently in US custody in Iraq – have been suggested as bellwethers with relevance for the coming period and possible test cases re continued Iranian clout in Iraq.

Some will also ask about the realities of the “non-interference” concept that seems to be the current Iraqi foreign policy doctrine: Iraq will not interfere in Syria, and will not let Iran interfere in Iraq. What, then, are we to make of rumours that Iraqis, including Sadrists, actively (and militarily) support the Syrian regime these days? If that is the Iraqi interpretation of non-interference, can we be assured that informal Iranian “support” will not continue to characterise Iran–Iraq relations?

The critics of the spin-doctoring are right, but they could in fact have painted a far more dramatic and wide-ranging  picture of the precarious situation in Iraq. Just look back at the formation of the second Maliki government that was finished one year ago almost to the day. Among the features highlighted by commentators in the international community and especially the US government at the time (and criticised by others as unrealistic) was the agreement to create power-sharing through a national council for high policies as well as through distributing the security portfolios to the biggest political blocs. But where are we today? One year after the formation of the government, all the elements of power-sharing highlighted by optimistic commentators back then remain unimplemented. The strategic council is hardly at the drawing-board stage and even optimists within the Maliki government suggest that any agreement on security ministries is many months ahead.

The composition of the Iraqi delegation accompanying Maliki to Washington very much reflects this state of affairs. Maliki is assisted by one adviser and two Shiite Islamist ministers with close ties to Iran, two Kurds, one long-exiled, nominally Sunni defence minister who enjoys only limited support in Sunni-majority areas, as well as two technocrats. Glaringly absent is any representative of the Iraqiyya coalition that won most votes in the March 2010 parliamentary elections.

If that is not sufficient to raise doubts about the realities of power-sharing in today’s Iraq, perhaps developments in Diyala today can serve as a better reminder. Reportedly, Iraqiyya figures played a key role in launching a request for a referendum on federal status for that governorate – interestingly with at least some Kurdish support (some say in exchange for the acceptance of Kurdish claims to the disputed territory of Khaniqin). There was rejection from some Shiite parties including ISCI as well as in the Khalis sub-governorate, plus reports that a Kurdish local politician in Diyala was arrested today by a force from Baghdad. Nevermind that the whole federalism bid to some extent was accompanied by illegality in the way it mimicked the “declaration” of a federal region attempted by Salahaddin in late October!

When you have the resources of a superpower, safely withdrawing military forces is in itself not exactly a major accomplishment. True, violence in Iraq is down, but in the big picture the critical reduction of violence antedated 2009. Maliki does things in the name of Iraqi nationalism that Iran doesn’t like, Obama told us today, but when was last time that actually happened? Probably in autumn 2009, when he decided to try to run the State of Law alliance separate from the other Shiites in the upcoming parliamentary elections – and failed. Sunni interest in federalism – virtually non-existent in 2009 – is a sign of the disintegration of national politics rather than a positive development.

The inescapable truth is that much of the current pathology of Iraqi politics dates back to the 2009–2011 period, precisely when President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in charge in Washington.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iranian influence in Iraq, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 32 Comments »

 
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