Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Washington Heads Buried in Middle Eastern Sand

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 28 September 2011 19:57

Here is what Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, had to say about Iranian influence in Iraq during the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing:

“I think Prime Minister Maliki – I think he understands that he – his country cannot allow Iran to be able to conduct that kind of influence within his country, provide those kinds of weapons and basically undermine his government.

That’s what’s happening and I think he gets that message. But we’re going to have to continue to make sure that – that they take the right steps and I think Iran needs to understand that we’re going to be around awhile here, making very clear to them that we’re not – we’re not simply going to ignore what Iran is doing in – in Iraq.”

Once more, it seems, the United States government is pre-occupied with so-called “special groups” as the prime instrument of malign Iranian influence in Iraq. Kataib Hizbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and the Promised Day Brigades are reckoned as the most dangerous pro-Iranian challenges to political stability in Iraq and have even been elevated to the status of an acronym (SG) in American military terminology – probably the safest possible indication that you are taken seriously in DC. Of course, some US analysts also include the mainline Sadrist movement on their lists of potential Iraqi troublemakers.

The problem with this approach to the subject of Iranian influence in Iraq is its myopic, one-sided character. It ignores at least two other key aspects of Iranian strategy: Maintaining a sectarian definition of politics and keeping de-Baathification as a key issue on the political agenda in Iraq. We can probably add a third aspect: A touch of “divide and rule” once a sectarian Shiite governing coalition had been safely put in place again in December 2010. This could include encouraging general state fragmentation, be it through federalism or consociational “power-sharing” with merely symbolic value.

The problem in Iraq is not so much that these aspects of Iranian grand strategy go undetected by Washington. The problem in Iraq is that Washington actively abets Iranian strategy in these areas. In 2010, during the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Ambassador Christopher Hill basically extended support to the process of ad hoc, illegal pre-election de-Baathification. Once the elections had been done with, Hill went on to endorse the sectarian idea that the next Iraqi premier “had to be a Shiite”.  With this kind US support for most of its strategy in Iraq, Iran can afford to use the “special groups” as an auxiliary to its general approach, adjusting its force in a secondary cat and mouse game with what remains of US military forces there.

Alas, in the Middle Eastern region more broadly, there are worrying signs that the Americans are unable to comprehend what went so seriously wrong in Iraq. In a recent (20 September) New York Times article on Syria, an unnamed US official declared that “nobody wants another Iraq”. But the whole article suggested that precisely those same epistemological mistakes that derailed US policy in Iraq are still thriving in Washington. Here were quotes from Vali Nasr, talking as before about “Sunnis” and “Shiites” as if these constituted coherent monolithic  communities. And the article author, Helene Cooper, remarked, “the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among the Allawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects in Syria” before adding that the US ambassador remains in the country “so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of Syria’s myriad sects and religious groups.”

In Iraq it was “mosaic”; maybe in Syria it will be “myriad”. It is a good thing that the US cannot seem to have the courage to intervene in Syria. Maybe it would be even better if Washington and the US mainstream media at large would simply shut up before they talk Syria to pieces exactly like they did with Iraq?

This is a companion article to a more analytical piece published in the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, titled “Religious Allegiances among Pro-Iranian Special Groups in Iraq”. The comments section is open for both articles below.

23 Responses to “Washington Heads Buried in Middle Eastern Sand”

  1. Salah said

    That’s what’s happening and I think he gets that message.

    It’s clear to US and Iraqis that the punch of politicians brought to Iraq were the chest had Iran’s loving hearts, no matter how and when they uncover it but for what we witnessed for the last 8yers is become a matter of fact that these guys are in love with deep souls with Iran. as for US it is “Muta’a” mirage with Iran inside Iraq, Iran well knew how to play with US inside Iraq on fine lines but looks Iranians get more what they want and pass the lines, you know Persian they are chess inventor and they play well.

    May be good to read this article by Iraqis who voice their voices to same Iraqis from their politicians

  2. This is good but the expanded article is excellent in details. It looks like there is no duplication in the offering of pro-Iranian militias, like a continuous spectrum.
    I think the American way of thinking is to search for quick fixes when it should look at the process: It doesn’t matter if the Islamists win in the beginning so long as there is clean elections.

  3. Thaqalain said

    Washington’s roots are not yet settled on Iraqi soil and it can’t sustain taking the risks of breaking up Syria and threatening air strikes in PAK’s Waziristan. Let their unwise CIA and Armed Forces General lead America on knees. We are happy to see fall of US Empire.

  4. observer said

    Leon may believe the BS fed to him by Maliki, but it is not just Maliki that runs the show. It maybe quite true that Maliki is not happy with the Iranian influence, but the Da3wa is a lot larger than just the leadership and there are many in the hierarchy that admire the Iranian model – regardless of what the party official stance is.

    I have been talking to people from Iraqia and KRG and even ISCI. The feeling around here is that Asad may live to fight another day, but he is finished. It is a matter of when not if. I have yet to find a person who predicts that Asad will survive. Some in ISCI are predicting a coup that would keep the allawites in place for a while longer while changes int eh rest of the middle east settle down. There has been quite a lot of upheaval and the US maybe fearing too much change.

  5. JWing said

    Reidar, good piece. The U.S. has always been obsessed with the military side of Iran’s influence in Iraq, and has largely focused upon the Sadrists and its offshoots not Badr because the Supreme Council also said it was willing to work with the Americans. All the other more important forms of Iranian power in politics, economics, etc. have hardly been countered by Washington as a result.

  6. Daniel Smith said

    “Maybe it would be even better if Washington and the US mainstream media at large would simply shut up before they talk Syria to pieces exactly like they did with Iraq?”


  7. Reidar Visser said

    I was just alerted to a remarkable piece by the same Ambassador Hill, published the day before yesterday:

    One of the disturbing things is that apparently much of what Hill said and did in 2010 about the legitimacy of the de-Baathification process and the need to have a Shiite premier was based on a “I-told-you-so” approach to the whole Iraq War.

    Some voices in DC clearly had predicted civil war before 2003 and were not listened to, but was that a legitimate reason to encourage repolarisation along sectarian lines in 2010? After all, Iraqi politics had clearly taken a less sectarian turn in 2008-2010.

  8. bks said

    Hill writes:

    “The 1,300-year-old Sunni/Shia divide was not what the US had in mind when it invaded in 2003.”

    There is no evidence that George W. Bush was even aware of the Sunni/Shia schism in 2003. Former ambassador Peter Galbraith made that claim in 2006 and, to the best of my knowledge, it has not been refuted.


  9. Reidar Visser said

    But Iraqis had lived mostly happily together for 1,300 years (and more) despite that schism. I think arguably it is just as bad to have a president and an administration that exaggerates (and even abets) sectarian tension (like Galbraith also did) than to have a president that is entirely ignorant about them.

  10. Salah said

    “Some voices in DC clearly had predicted civil war before 2003 and were not listened to”

    There is a real doubt to believe US administration did not do their homework when going to war invading Iraq.
    In fact some sources gave reported US hawks were talking about Iraq many years before 2003. So no one speaks about war without having some reasons political, geopolitical or Biblical reasons if not all.

    Many times said that if Iraqis have internal conflict between Ethnics/Sectarian parts, you all should witnessed conflict ignited from the day when lawlessness all over Iraq.
    We all know that US forces did not care about those 10,000 criminals or killers early days that tyrant released them. Although the sectarian tensions advanced during tyrant regime for his benefits but not reached to level of civil war or massacres.

    For the history some of those killers/criminal reported they hung signs on their nicks stated “Pay $100 to Kill Anyone” this was early days of collapse the state of Iraq and The Deliberate Disintegration of Iraq, many killed due to personal and other reasons by those killers on hire includes many of academic, military personal, also Ba’ath party members, and some killed just for no reasons just crimes.

    But agreed that “An administration that exaggerates (and even abets) sectarian tension” , its well-known fact of the historical US aggression, US done same scenarios in Philippines, and Latin America, the intriguing matter here was same those involved in those old scenarios were deployed to Iraq under well known “The Salvador Option” to show what the administration why exaggerates sectarian tension before 2003. This scenario also may be considered next as part of The Pentagon’s Salvador Option: Death Squads in Iraq & Syria.

    One last note in regards to “the need to have a Shiite premier”

    Shiite represents 10% of all Muslims around the world?

  11. Thaqalain said

    This is how so-called Shiette Premier making Iraqis fool: ” But Prime Minister Maliki said that the “resence of foreign experts and trainers during the process of purchase of weapons is something natural and is followed in other parts of the world.”

    A day before he signed and payed in advance for buying dead F-16s , more then the original set price for $35 Million, now Iraq will pay $ 165 Million dollars for just 1 F-16.
    Al-Maliki thinks that Iraqis are fool and dumb, he is no better then any other Saudi King or American operated dummies in the region. In a nation, where 70% population has not access to clean water, power, sanitation, it will pay to buy over priced F-16s, which are no more in use in US fleet.
    I hope someone should understand and arrest him along with Electricity Minister.

  12. Reidar Visser said

    Thaqalain, I think the two of us may have slightly different preferences when it comes to Iraqi politics, but I agree that there is something remarkable about the jet sales, although for a different reason. It seems to me the USG has an unshakeable belief that as long as Iraq continues to use its hardware (and rely upon it for “instruction”) it will also be friendly. My own take is that as long as the Iraqi government remains dominated by Iran politically, it may well continue to acquire military goodies from the USG but would not hesitate to side with Iran if matters came to a head.

    In other news, the visit to Iran today by a parliamentary delegation headed by Usama al-Nujayfi seems quite interesting. Ostensibly, it has to do with the Iranian shelling of Kurdish areas, but since when was that a matter for a parliamentary delegation to consider? Is Nujayfi going to meet with Qasim Sulaymani perhaps?! Is Allawi opposed to the visit?

  13. Jason said

    Forgive me for being a bit confused. Is America supposed to be damned for failing to recognize Iraqi sectarianism, or damned for causing it? Damned for failing to have enough troops to maintain security and permitting Iraq to collapse into a vicious sectarian civil war, or damned for inserting “occupation” forces to put down the patriotic Iraqi “resistance?” Was it all a malicious scheme to intentionally cause Iraq’s disintegration, or a malicious scheme to build a new democracy and allow free elections so the Iraqi people would elect an Iran-friendly government? You guys should at least try to better job of coordinating your lame conspiracy theories. You sound like American blacks always looking around for someone else to blame for their sorry condition. Maybe it is a good thing we are leaving after all and let Iraq rise or fall on its own.

  14. Salah said


    The Sunni and secular Iraqi politicians yesterday condemned Iran’s influence inside Iraq, echoing complaints from the Bush administration. But their sharp criticism of the al-Maliki government underscored the difficulties of forging a broad political settlement in Baghdad.

    Above is part of an Article from 2007, clearly Bush administration well aware of religious-based parties running the government who are given such support from Iran.
    Both old US administration and Obama one we still hearing these words.
    Reidar, Could you please tell us what should be done to stop Iran in Iraq, OR what US administrations done from Bush time till now dealing with this matter as they have full control on the ground inside Iraq with those Iraqi religious-based parties running the government?

    Who support religious-based parties running the government? why they promoting and helping them so long to be in power, while Arab Spring on their door step have full support from US administration and officials?
    I am not going to talk about vast corruptions attitude that made Iraq the third form the bottom of the Corruptions & Transparency list countries around the world?

    I bring these parts of statements made by Robert Ford head of the American Embassy’s Political Affairs Office in Iraq dated back to March 30, 2006 for my next question:
    Who worked on Iraqi political issues close-up for nearly 2 years in Baghdad plus three months in the Shia holy city of Najaf:

    “Ask the White House”>

    Morris – I have not in my 2+ years here yet met an Iraqi who thinks this would be a good idea. They want to stay a single country and they have had one for the past 85 years. They also want to get their security situation under control, they want to have safe streets and a growing economy.

    My question to here:
    Although this matter well said in 2006, Who did Robert Ford spoken to? Which Iraqis he saw and told him so? Is this from the mouth of those religious leaders who are as you said and US administration believes they sided with Iranians?

  15. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, there is no confusion. Forget about what Bush said, it doesn’t really matter in the big picture. The important thing is that all of the administration at the time remained overly focused on sectarian identity as a basis for dealing with the Iraqis. Paul Bremer is the classical example but it goes back all the way to the 1990s when both the CIA and State Dept were overwhelmingly approaching Iraq through sectarian lenses.

    Salah, Amb. Ford is an honorable exception to the general trend described above. Unfortunately, other figures dominated policy-making in 2009-2010 when the Obama administration had one last chance to get it right. During the run-up to the 7 March elections they could have encouraged a turn away from ethno-sectarian politics or at least remained neutral. But they did the opposite, effectively supporting the Kurdish position on electoral arrangements for Kirkuk and the Shiite hardliners on de-Baathificaton.

    Today, I really think it is too late to do anything. The most realistic option would be to support a smaller government of State of Law, the Kurds and Iraqiyya, but the key to achieving that would be to drop the insistence on implementing the so-called Arbil agreement and instead create a new dynamic based on the deliberate exclusion of ISCI, Fadila and the Sadrists. There are no signs in this direction so far, plus Iraqiyya hate Maliki so much that they probably won’t be able to even contemplate this alternative unless there is an outside force that can encourage them to think outside the box.

  16. Salah said

    Thank you, there are two points here:

    1st- When and why Iraqi institutions not discussed by all parties and members due to huge problematic structures or clauses?

    2nd- Why should Iraq stick with these religious-based parties (i.e. Da’awa, ISCI, Fadila and the Sadrists..) why not let new blood to come, new parties new identities created to take the political process forward instead keeping these short minded, hopeless, corrupt politicians?

    What stop this from happing? Were US from this? What’s their stand here?

  17. Jason,
    ” You sound like American blacks always looking around for someone else to blame for their sorry condition”
    That’s victimhood and I am glad you brought it up. To keep it simple, the US befriended and brought to power people with a strong sense of victimhood by definition: Leaders of religious sects, instead of extending its own values of secularism.
    Sectarian values will always exist in Iraq and other nations including the US, but not as a predominant factor in politics. The US used it as such in Iraq.

    I hope you don’t mean the exclusion of ISCI, Fadhila and the Sadrists from the political process. I think it is much better to include the Baathists than exclude anybody.

  18. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, that is exactly what I mean. But then again I think consociational democracy is the key to disaster in Iraq and that the “everybody-inside-the-tent” approach unnecessarily enshrines Bremerian politics in Iraq. In my opinion, only by deliberately excluding someone can the remaining parties in government begin building trust in each other instead of relying on regional patrons. That in turn will enable them to design political-majority solutions for what is currently stalemated debates.

    And that is also my answer to Salah: After all, the Iraqis elected those parties. It is what happens between the elections, in terms of signals regarding coalition-building, government-formation etc., that counts. But as long as the USG keeps sticking to its formula of an oversized govt where everyone is represented, the political stalemates will remain.

  19. ” In my opinion, only by deliberately excluding someone can the remaining parties in government begin building trust in each other instead of relying on regional patrons”

    That’s precisely what happened: The Baathists are excluded but this did not generate trust between the remaining parties. I guess we agree on the diagnosis but not on the treatment. I think any exclusion harms the credibility of the process but that does not mean a government of partnership between all parties. I think a a pro-Iranian government of majority is good so long as the integrity of the elections is guaranteed by the UN.

  20. Reidar Visser said

    But that just proves that anti-Baathism is not suitable as a building block for a political majority, doesn’t it? My own suggestion is that pragmatism towards Baathism, fairness not capitulation in dealings with the KRG, and even a touch of secularism could provide a platform for politicians from Iraqiyya and State of Law to unite. Hell, it’s not that long ago that Tariq Harb, a legal counsel to Maliki, boasted about his whiskey drinking habits to the NYT!

  21. Gosh Reidar, I hope you’re not saying that Tarik Harb is secular and salvageable because he drinks whiskey (like Talbani) 🙂
    Sure neither Anti-Baathism nor Anti-Iranism is not suitable as a building block for a political majority but exclusion is not the answer. The answer is a process with no double dealing, no cloak-and-dagger practices which allows Iranian style politics to flourish. My suggestion of clean elections with UN oversight is not for ethical reasons, it is for strategic defense and protection from external influence.

  22. Reidar Visser said

    No, and I have recorded my differences with him on legal and contitutional issues elsewhere! Still, he has also made secular points with respect to Islamic legislation and in many ways he is the type of person who might just as well have been with Iraqiyya. I guess I’m just trying to say State of Law is more than the Daawa hardcore of Islamists.

  23. Jason, you seem to be committing the same lack of self-exploration of which you accuse others. One can begin by reading David Wurmser’s “Tyranny’s Ally” in which he makes abundantly clear that Iraq should be divided along sectarian lines. Were they just the rantings of a marginal academic Wurmser’s prescriptions would be bad enough but the fact that he became the senior Middle East advisor to what is regarded to be the most powerful Vice President in US. history, takes his advice to another level. Throw in the rest of his bunch over at the Pentagon and you have something with a little more substance than a conspiracy theory.

    Allowing ISCI and the Kurds to control such important ministries as Interior and Finance was, surely, not an innocent mistake. Indeed hadn’t Zalmay Khalilzad been dealing with those same Iranian allies before the war and in the full knowledge of who they were and what they represent?

    Utilizing those forces against those who violently opposed the occupation was hardly a cohesive policy and the failure of the famously liberal media in the United States to address these divisive policies – instead falling back on the “ancient sectarian hatreds” narraitive – were all bricks in the wall.

    Surely it’s high time Americans took a long, deep look at their role in the damage that has been done to Iraq these past years and accept their own share of responsibility for the consequences of their policies and actions.

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