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 Filkins patches together many useful and sometimes previously unpublished anecdotes that contribute to a fuller picture of Maliki than seen in English previously.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.