Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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.

11 Responses to “What Went Wrong in Iraq: The Khedery Version”

  1. Sledge said

    No idea on who the author Reidar Vasser is or whether the author is a she/he but despite all the eloquent essay writing skills to undermine Khedery’s piece, there is a fundamental question which is not being answered here. Is Maliki not an Iranian puppet and therefore has the US not spent millions to back up what IR wants? And if the response is that no Maliki is not an Iranian puppet, how is the IR support for Maliki is explained?

  2. Maliki’s relations with Iran have fluctuated historically and probably will continue to fluctuate. In 1980s, he sought refuge in Iran after targeting of Daawa by Saddam Hussein. Later moved on to Syria and kept a distance from SCIRI/Badr which was more clearly subordinated to Iranian policies at the time. After 2003, M developed a degree of autonomy from Iran in particular between 2008 and 2010 but he was forced to rely on Iranian support for his second term. M grew closer to Iran during that term, but still fronted some policy initiatives that may not enjoy full Iranian support, including a tough stance on Kurdish oil exports and the promotion of a political-majority government in the place of a power-sharing one.

  3. Am Johnny said

    If Khedrey’s concern is limiting Iranian influence, was his pick of Adel Abd al-Mahdi from SCIRI (or whatever they PC entity they morphed into by then) really a smart choice?

    From my basic knowledge of the differences between the two parties, it does not make much sense.

    Maybe things had changed by 2010?

  4. Adel Abd al-Mahdi has always been considered among the most pro-Western personalities in a generally pro-Iranian SCIRI/ISCI. During the last few years, ISCI has emphasized its Iraqiness more strongly, though it should be noted that its overall sectarian take on Iraqi politics fits well with Iranian agendas. Iran is actually much more worried about things Maliki has done occassionally, such as emphasising political majorities instead of power-sharing.

    At any rate, back in 2010 ISCI had clearly been part of the INA project to recreate a grand Shiite alliance per Iranian instructions so the turn of Iraqiyya (and Khedary) to them during the government formation process was hard to understand.

  5. Ali Sh said

    Mr. Visser, I really appreciate all the work you are doing in providing such elegant and objective analysis of a very complex set of events in Iraq.

    My question is; What are the strategic interests of Iran in meddling with the affairs of Iraq?

    Exporting the revolution, border expansion, and Sectarian alliances are less convincing to be the real undercurrents in this case. Perhaps, it’s because it overlooks a major policy maker, that is Oil.
    Your thoughts !

  6. Many thanks. Oil is very interesting in the Iraq-Iran relationship, because Iraq is in a dramatic phase of expansion of its productivity whereas the ability of Iran to increase its production is very constrained. Accordingly, with the pace of change in the Iraqi oil sector, you could easily get a scenario where Iraq becomes a problem of Iran because its production will have the effect of lowering oil prices and Iran will be stuck with its current level of production.

    Of course, that challenge can be neutralised through political control. But in my view, the sheer magnitude of Iraqi oil production increases – planned and realised – is in itself sufficient to question the view of Iraq as a pliant Iranian protegee.

  7. Dave said

    Khedery’s piece is as obtuse as it is disingenuous. He resigns in protest over a fairly straightforward policy decision, then waits until things look bleak four years later to explain his decision in the hopes that we’ll see him as prescient. That is lame. Iraq is not in the state it is in right now because Biden didn’t take Khedery’s advice to denounce Maliki. Iraq is in crisis because it was invaded by an army of Baathists and jihadists. Had ISIS not been fed the oxygen of a chaotic Syria, there is no chance – zero – that Baghdad would be facing a serious military challenge right now. So Mr. Khedery was not right about anything unless he foresaw the Syrian war and its consequences in 2010. For a senior power-broker, Khedery has a surprisingly weak grasp on Iraqi politics. The Sunnis/secularists did not win the election in 2010 no matter how they felt; Maliki’s retaining the premiership required no violation of the Iraqi constitution; being called a “tyrant” by Muqtada al-Sadr is not a bad thing; nor is negotiating a strong position for your country vis a vis an occupying force. Further, the narrative Khedery spins demonstrates a total lack of self-awareness. It is a little comical that right after feigning indignation over Maliki’s accusation that foreign powers were scheming against him, Khedery goes on to discuss his role in a massive effort by foreign powers to push Maliki out in favor of Abd al-Mahdi. Yes, clearly Maliki is a paranoid madman who sees enemies where there are none. Less amusingly, Khedery’s discussion of the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 places blame squarely on the Shia, glossing over the fact that Zarqawi had been waging a relentless and horrifying terror campaign against the Shia for over a year with the explicit goal of inciting a civil war. However, the most telling line of the piece is this: “One of the biggest breakthroughs of this era was the Awakening movement, in which, thanks to long negotiations, Sunni Arab tribal and Baathist insurgents turned their guns away from U.S. troops and pointed them toward al-Qaeda, thereby reintegrating into the Iraqi political process.” Away from U.S. troops? Khedery seems to not understand that the Iraqi government is the target of the insurgency, and that while these Sunni insurgents may have formed a temporary alliance with U.S. forces to fight off al-Qaeda, they never had any intention of letting the Shia rule Iraq, certainly not with the Americans gone.

  8. Salah said

    Adel Abd al-Mahdi has always been considered among the most pro-Western personalities in a generally pro-Irania
    Sorry RV you DONT really know these mind-set of people you talking about, I just feel sorry to all westerns who are kept in believe what you states above. I hope you also may believe about Ibrahim al-Ja;afri, Shuristani and others?
    Time never change RV they are SOLD been pro-Iranian you like it or you hated but they are well acting on you and others, leave it to Iraqis will tell you the reality of these mongers>

    Excuse me been out the top but I would like to put this for you
    Iraq Election Observation Mission Report Published

  9. Salah said

    Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki the Khedery Version?

    When I read the head for this just thinking why this guy who named Khedery jumped now and telling his story which full of his personal portfolio rather that Iraq.
    Did he know at the time what Maliki who is?
    Did he don’t knew the History of man who well pro Iranians long time while he was the commands of Badar/ or those Iraqi who fled to Iran side by side with Iranians military fought Iraqi Army?

    This just hot air what he right.

    This article remind me with long old story Iraq’s one-man war machine as if Ahmad Chalabi lead US the most powerful power in the world to do war in Iraq?
    Anyone believe in one-man war?

  10. ms. ismael said

    i am a regular reader of this block and find your analyses interesting. what do you think about the current reaction of the kurds to the crisis after ISIS achievments. is it better to let extremist to take over Kirkuk and its oil field or its much better that kurds who also have claims over the city to do that.

  11. Salah said

    What Went Wrong in Iraq
    This article which I would recommend to be read by most you, however I had some disagreement with few points in the atrial but what this guy saying I believe well reflect what’s went wrong with Iraq I put this as start point to understand:

    It is like they had no ownership of the country. Perhaps that is why you can’t just hand a country to people. I just don’t know if they want to rule themselves. You look back at history, they haven’t really had that much power to choose their own destiny.

    Quora Question: Who Is Responsible for the Mess in Iraq?
    By Quora Contributor, 7/14/14

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