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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 »

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”.


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.


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 »

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 »

As Paul Bremer Wanted Them To Be

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 13 April 2012 14:17

The Iraqi parliament marked the 9-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad this week by approving a human rights commission, made up by 11 members. The legislation relevant to the commission was passed back in 2008, so it has taken a long time to agree on those 11. And,  in an indication of continued dissension as to the legacy of the war that unseated Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are already divided regarding the significance of the new commission and the legitimacy of the process by which it emerged.

The concept of a human rights commission is in itself an important innovation, both in Iraq and in the Gulf region more broadly. The idea is that citizens can contact the commission directly whenever they wish to have cases of human rights violations heard. The commission, in turn, can decide to hand over cases to the judiciary. It is however important to note that the commission does not possess any judicial power of its own. Accordingly, it cannot be described as a fully-fledged oversight body vis-à-vis the police and the security forces.

At any rate,  while the idea behind the commission may be beautiful, the way the commission emerged has already prompted some criticism among Iraqis. Hardly had the names of the 11 new commissioners been agreed by parliament before angry voices began shouting a well-known term of abuse: muhasasa!

Muhasasa means quota-sharing in Arabic. In the Iraqi context, it has become associated with the particular formula of ethno-sectarian power-sharing government that was established by the US occupation administrator Paul Bremer when he instituted the new Iraqi governing council in 2003.  One of Bremer’s key concepts was that national decision-making institutions should reflect Iraq’s ethno-sectarian demographic balance proportionally. Bremer took this imperative quite literally: His memoir recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis for being unrepresentative due to the presence of only a single Sunni Arab, and how he in another context nixed the participation of a Christian representative on the governing council based on the reasoning that the Christian representation on the council would become disproportionally high if there were two Christian members rather than one. Another consequence of Bremer’s thinking is that in most institutions of post-2003 Iraq, there would be a preset Shiite majority, mostly in line with their 60-65% share of the total Iraqi population.

Are the accusations of quota-sharing correct when it comes to the new human rights commission? Yes and no. To take the positives first, most of the new commissioners do have legal expertise and have worked within the field of human rights for many years –  in NGOs, government or academia. Many are lawyers by training whereas a few are medical doctors who have made careers within the field of human rights.

But are these therefore the 11 most suitable human rights commissioners in Iraq? Are they the ones that would have prevailed in a competition that was blind to ethnicity and sect? After all, human rights are supposed to be a supremely universal field of practice where such considerations should count for nothing.

This is where the quotas come into the picture. Hardly had the vote in parliament been finished before hardworking AFP reporters had established that the ethno-religious balance of the new committee was 6 Shiites, 4 Sunnis and 1 Yazidi. That would be broadly in tune with the Bremer approach (though he might have insisted on one Christian as well). Ethnically there were 8 Arabs, 2 Kurds and 1 Turkmen, again roughly reflecting Iraqi demographics proportionally. These very predictable findings do suggest that quota factors may have played a stronger role in selecting the 11 than their ability alone. The contrast is another team of eleven –  the Iraqi soccer team, which uniquely remains something of a quota-free oasis in the new Iraq.

If we look more closely, it is equally clear that political-party affiliations also played a role. Hayman al-Bajlani has ties to the Kurdish KDP, Bushra al-Ubaydi was once a candidate for the Unity of Iraq list (now part of the secular Iraqiyya), Falah al-Yasiri is connected with the Sadrist movement and Salama Khafaji has links to the Shiite alliance. Among the prominent bureaucrats in the Shiite-majority governorates – examples include Fadil al-Gharawi in Najaf and Maytham al-Ghazzi in Dhi Qar – there are likely some allies of the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But there are also a few representatives who do not lend themselves easily to this kind of neat classification, whether on ethno-religious or political basis. Some quick searching on Fathi al-Hayani and Ahmad Muhammad Baqir al-Attar failed to provide decisive clues about their pasts. In other words, not all of the new commissioners come from politicized or ethno-sectarian activist backgrounds, and this in itself could be a sign of good news.

Importantly, the composition of the human rights committee does not reflect a legal or constitutional imposition – the explicit muhasasa requirement in the Iraqi constitution mainly applies to the military, the security forces and the constitutional review committee. As for the law on the commission from 2008, it is noteworthy that the stipulated female quota – one third of the members – has not been fulfilled (2 women instead of 3). The Yazidi commissioner satisfies the legal requirement of 1 minority representative.

In other words, the proportional representation in this committee is to some extent a Paul Bremer legacy. It is just something Iraqi politicians of the post-2003 generation continue to do, again and again. And it is spreading rather than going away: Lately, the once secular Iraqiyya party has been an ardent supporter of a Kurdish idea of counting Sunnis and Shiites in government ministries in the name of national “balance” (tawazun). What Iraqis should ask themselves is the virtue of continuing to make appointments along these proportional lines. One of the most perfectly proportional institutions in this respect is in fact the Iraqi federal supreme court. Has it not easily succumbed to the dominance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki despite having been appointed with such Bremerian precision?

Sadly, some of the critics of the appointment procedure are themselves visibly infected by the muhasasa virus. For example, the Kurdish “opposition” parties that are independent of the Kurdistan Alliance in the Iraqi parliament criticized the appointment procedure for being subjected to political pressures. Their main grievance, though, was that their own parties had not been represented!

The United States fought many fights in Iraq – some good and some bad, and with some losses and some victories. The definitional battle of Iraqi politics is perhaps Paul Bremer’s least recognized victory, but a very resounding one. It deserves mention that the US embassy in Baghdad promptly declared the appointment of the human rights commission “historical”.

Only when Iraqis have the courage to come up with a commission that is surprisingly unrepresentative of the Iraqi population simply because of the high quality of its members will they truly liberate themselves from both Saddam Hussein and Paul Bremer.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 19 Comments »

Where Is Izzat al-Duri?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 8 April 2012 13:34

The sensational video of Izzat al-Duri released yesterday on the occasion of the 65 year anniversary of the Baath party isn’t getting quite the airplay it deserves. Not that the content of the hour-long speech in itself is particularly interesting, but the sheer fact that, despite rumours of ill health, the most senior Baath leader to survive the Iraq War  is confirmed to be alive and well is an important development. This is, after all, the person seen as the rightful successor to Saddam Hussein by the remaining Baath party faithful. Additionally, towards the end of the speech, Duri reveals some interesting perspectives on the broader regional situation that provide clues as to this possible whereabouts, which for a long time has been something of a riddle.

First of all: It looks real. Duri has a characteristic appearance and does not easily lend himself to impersonation. Even though the Baath party specialized in this kind of thing, it seems unlikely that this video is the work of a double.

Above, screenshot of Duri in video released yesterday; below, archive photo

The Iraq-related part of the speech takes up most bandwidth and is the least interesting one. It is a predictable outpouring of anger concerning supposed Iranian influences penetrating everywhere in Iraq and spreading across the Arab world. Not only that, Duri repeatedly describes this as a conspiracy of Persians/Safavids, Americans and Israeli Zionists. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is that Duri – at 70 and despite conflicting stories about his health situation – had the stamina to gesticulate his way through an hour of these grand theories.

The more interesting and newsworthy parts of the Duri speech are towards the very end. Here, he comments on broader regional developments, including the situation in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Regarding Libya, Duri clearly sees developments there as a deplorable parallel to what took place in Iraq in terms of “foreign intervention”. With respect to Syria, there is praise for the “legitimate” and “peaceful uprising” of the Syrian people, though there seems to be concern that foreign (Western) intervention can ensue if things get out of hand. Most remarkably, though, there is much praise for the Saudi king with reference to his efforts to help solve the situation in Yemen.

Beyond verifying the relative recency of the video, these remarks help explain the worldview of Duri, which seems to be one in which Iranian and Western interventions in the Arab world must be fought at any cost. Unsurprisingly, given his own religious background, there is more positive praise for the ulama in the Arab world than one would perhaps expect from a Baathist leader, even after a decade of state-led “Islamism” in Iraq in the 1990s.

Above all, though, Duri’s remarks on the regional situation may help address that lingering question of where he currently lives. For a long time, it was thought he was in Syria, but the praise for the Syrian uprising suggests he is not there anymore. That leaves the Gulf states as his most likely current location. Given the criticism of the Libya intervention, Qatar can probably be ruled out. On the other hand, the praise for the Saudi king seems to be a credible indicator that he might be there already or is applying for a permanent residence permit.

For many years after 2003, the Iraqi Baathist presence in Syria served as something of an anomaly for those seeing grand sectarian schemes and a Shiite axis projecting through the region from Iran via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. The realignment of Duri and the Iraqi Baath towards the conservative Gulf monarchies makes both themselves and the Syrian regime – now deprived of another Sunni-secular card –  look a little more sectarian than before. The more sectarian Shiite media outlets in Iraq will lose no time in seizing on this; as ever, though, the question is whether the majority of Iraqis will allow hyperbole articulated from outside the country to aggravate their own political problems.

Posted in Iraq international relations, Sectarian master narrative | 21 Comments »

After the Baghdad Summit: Implications Regionally and in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 30 March 2012 13:55

The Arab League summit in Baghdad is over and it is time to take stock.

Given the essentially international character of the summit in Baghdad, it is natural to start with the regional implications. And, in many ways, the degree of representation at the level of heads of state is a useful indicator of how things went. Altogether, 10 countries were represented by their rulers: Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Comoros, Palestine, Lebanon and Kuwait in addition to Iraq.

In one way, those who came to Baghdad can be crudely summarized as the “Maghreb Spring” countries (Tunisia, Libya), the very poor in need of any help they can get (Comoros, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Palestine), and “others” not so easily classified (Kuwait and Lebanon). The absence of most of the GCC leaders can be attributed to continued aversion to the Maliki government in Iraq, whereas the failure of the rulers of Egypt and Yemen to show up may reflect the messiness of their own domestic situations as much as any clear policy on Iraq.

But there is more to this than the apparent preference of poor republics for building ties with the new Iraq. True, the gap between Iraq and the Gulf countries remains wide, but if the Iraqi government can build ties with non-GCC countries, it could form an alternative regional bloc within the Arab League.  The one obvious disappointing absence for Iraq in this respect must have been that of Algeria. Nonetheless, the net outcome of the meeting was a dilution of the GCC interventionist policy on Syria. Thanks to their own lack of initiative and boycott, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had to yield to Arab states that prefer softer language on regime change in Syria. The massive wealth of the GCC states was in itself not sufficient to buy a particular Arab policy on Syria.

Also, it is significant that a growing number of Arab states are prepared to interact with Iraq as a perfectly normal Arab state. This is so despite continued attempts by Gulf states to dismiss the Iraqi government as Iranian marionettes. The Arab heads of state who did come to Baghdad probably realized that the town wasn’t full of Safavids after all and that attempts to reduce regional politics to a clear-cut Sunni–Shiite sectarian struggle are futile. (An AP piece claimed “Sunni rulers” shunned the summit whereas in fact 8 “Sunni rulers” were present!) Growing number of Arab rulers realize it is normal for Iraq to have leaders who may or may not be Shiites.

The second implication of the Baghdad meeting relates to the level of internal Iraqi politics. Only weeks ago, both the Kurds and Iraqiyya talked tough about bringing Iraqi domestic problems onto the summit agenda. Schemes for unseating Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seemed to garner more interest than ever. In the end, though, the domestic situation in Iraq was kept off the summit agenda, and neither Ayad Allawi of Iraqiyya nor the Kurdish president, Masud Barzani, attended the meeting.

What Allawi and Barzani need to realize is that their position is increasingly analogous to that of the GCC states within the Arab League. The GCC countries who boycotted Baghdad saw their forward policy on Syria reversed. If they persist in boycotting Maliki, Allawi and Barzani may well experience something similar with their own ambitions domestically in Iraq. Importantly, other Iraqiyya leaders like Usama al-Nujayfi (parliament speaker) and Rafi al-Eisawi (finance minister) showed up at the summit. Their presence highlighted how a letter of protest from Qatar which attempted to speak on the behalf of the “Sunnis in Iraq” was just too unsophisticated to fit the complex Iraqi situation. Even the Bahraini foreign minister opted to have a meeting with Maliki.

Perhaps the best indication of the state of affairs in Iraq was the simultaneity of the summit and a mortar attack near the Iranian embassy. The two happened at the same time, but the attack did not derail or even interrupt the meeting of the Arab leaders. These attacks will continue to happen, but they are unlikely to create the collapse of politics in Iraq sought by their perpetrators. Similarly, Iraqi opponents of the Maliki government – who have many valid reasons for being critical – should realize that a policy of dialogue with him stands a better chance of achieving something in the real world. The alternative may well be growing irrelevance, both in the Iraqi political process as well as in the Arab world at large.

Posted in Iraq international relations, Sectarian master narrative | 16 Comments »

Separatism and Sectarianism in the Barzani Speech

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 21 March 2012 17:15

So, finally, Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has delivered his much-anticipated speech on the occasion of the Nowroz festival that marks the beginning of a new year in the extended Persian cultural sphere stretching from Kurdistan to Afghanistan.

Much of the content of the speech was predictable simply because it involved reiteration of previously stated positions, if perhaps in somewhat more pitched variants than before. This included strictures on the concentration of power by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (including numerous erroneous descriptions such as saying Maliki “is” the defence minister etc.) as well as not-so-veiled threats about Kurdish secession if the problems persist (“we will turn to our people”). As usual, there are numerous problems in the way the Kurdish leadership appeal to the Iraqi constitution whenever they are in conflict with Maliki, including the contradictive statement  “the Iraqi constitution is constantly violated and the Erbil agreement, which was the basis upon which the current government was formed, has been completely ignored.” With its creation of extra-constitutional institutions and its attempts to change the Iraqi state structure by fiat when in fact referendums are constitutionally required, the Arbil agreement is itself a veritable violation of the Iraqi constitution!

Whether Barzani will make any progress with these threats remains unclear. As regards an actual move to unseat the government by withdrawing confidence in Maliki, the numbers are more or less as they were in the summer of 2010, when Barzani similarly talked tough but ended up supporting Maliki for PM anyway. The Kurds and Iraqiyya alone do not add up to reach the critical mark of 163 deputies needed to withdraw confidence in the government. Conceivably, there may be a slight gain in that some Badrists have defected to ISCI during their latest split (ISCI being the most pro-Kurdish Shiite party); conversely, though, we should not forget that fractures in Iraqiyya come prominently on display each time someone in the alliance talks about taking drastic action against Maliki. In that perspective, it is hard to see any difference between this threat from Barzani and his previous ones.

However on another and arguably deeper level, Barzani is scoring some successes. Specifically, this relates to the contest of defining the parameters of Iraqi politics.  What Barzani always does in his speeches is to portray Iraq as a triad of Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds. In his commentary on the Hashemi case, Barzani has complained about how the Kurds are being dragged into a conflict supposedly being fought between Sunnis (pro-Hashemi) and Shiites (anti-Shiite) – entirely disregarding the fact that the head of the Iraqiyya party to which Hashemi belongs is in fact a Shiite! This theme was also present in yesterday’s talk, in which Iraqi politics was once more reduced to a struggle between sects.

Importantly, Barzani is winning not only the definitional battle over Iraqi politics. He is also transforming the character of the once-secular Iraqiyya party. Increasingly, whether voluntarily or not, Iraqiyya comes across as a pro-federal, Sunni party more than a secular and nationalist  movement. Recently, in attempts to address the so-called “balance” problem in government – another Kurdish invention – Iraqiyya leaders have been counting Sunnis and Shiites in ways they themselves described as unthinkable just a few years ago. For his part, if he feels sufficiently threatened by Barzani et al., Maliki will probably turn to the Sadrists as his option of choice, something which again would underline sectarian polarisation.

In a way, Barzani and the Kurds are honest. They often articulate their independence dreams. Similarly, that a Shiite party like ISCI sometimes talks like this is perhaps not so suprising either, since its sectarianism is often expressed very clearly. The more remarkable aspect in all of this is the constant fraternization by an avowedly secular and Iraqi nationalist party – Iraqiyya – with these basically separatist forces.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative | 25 Comments »

A Plan for Baghdad? Iraq and the Arab-Russian Peace Initiative for Syria

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 13 March 2012 19:23

With an Arab foreign minister meeting completed, a website launched and an official emblem designed, it now seems the Arab League meeting in Baghdad on 29 March may actually become reality.

The significance of that fact, in itself, is not to be underestimated. Only months ago, few analysts found the idea of having the Arab summit realistic. The notion of substantial high-level representation was certainly dismissed.

On the surface, one can easily get the impression that a Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement has enabled the summit preparations to go ahead in recent weeks. However, the appointment of a Saudi non-resident ambassador to Iraq and the articulation of the word “change” in Iraqi discourse on Syria are long overdue baby steps. And one could also argue that these moves are above all cynical tactics: Iraq wants the summit simply to celebrate its return to normalcy after the US withdrawal, whereas Saudi Arabia is eager to maintain momentum in multilateral cooperation on the Syria issue.

Nonetheless, one should not dismiss the slight improvement in the regional climate as necessarily a transient phenomenon. When Iraqi Sadrists deliberately tone down their criticism and say AL summit participants should be welcomed to Baghdad, that in itself is a significant move which takes away some of the punch in the “Shiite crescent” theory as a framework for understanding the regional behaviour of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Egypt has recently settled debt issues with Iraq; Wednesday this week Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is headed to Kuwait with a similar objective.

One of the most interesting recent developments in this respect is the joint Arab–Russian initiative for Syria. This is so because Russian influence has taken the AL in the direction of a plan for Syria that Iraq, too, might sign up to. The emphasis on non-interference and the focus on an impartial supervisory mechanism for Syria, in particular, are things the Iraqis can approve of. It does not matter in this respect that nobody knows exactly what the supervisory mechanism will look like: Cynically disregarding the plight of the Syrians, as far as regional diplomacy is concerned the process is to some extent an aim in itself.

Of course, the Russian-Arab plan is a far cry from what countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar wanted for Syria. Perhaps the more important aspect is the fact that it did come into existence despite objections from some GCC countries. Going forward, the key question for Iraq’s return to the Arab fold may well be how it interacts with other Arab states that are less hawkish on Syria than Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Sectarian master narrative | 45 Comments »

Blame It On the Iraqis: Christopher Hill Goes Rural

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 20 January 2012 13:50

In his tireless efforts to convince the world that political problems in post-withdrawal Iraq cannot possibly be attributed to his own tenure as the US ambassador in Baghdad from 2009 to 2010, Christopher Hill today presents a new twist to his narrative.

Having apparently realised the failure of his previous attempt to explain that it is all the fault of Iraqis, Hill now informs us that the really, really deep sectarian conflict in Iraq is rooted in the rural parts of the country. According to Hill, we other mortal Iraq analysts who focus on the politics of Baghdad (“urban bias”) are incapable of seeing the big picture because we are not privy to the ambassador’s unique rustic insights. Forget about Baghdad and its artificial coexistence between sects; instead consider the countryside: “Trips outside of the capital to Sunni-dominated Anbar or Shia-controlled southern Iraq often reveal a country much more focused on, and animated by, the Sunni-Shia divide. And this phenomenon did not begin with the US-led invasion. It had a thousand-year head start.”

It is hard to know where to begin. For example, did Hill take note of the recent episode in Dhi Qar where a Sunni soldier, Nazhan al-Jibburi, sacrificed his life to stop a terrorist attacking mainly Shiite targets and immediately had streets and new-born Shiite children named for him? 

Maybe that was not rural enough. Let’s venture further away from the urban distortions of the real Iraq and try to reach the rural purity that Hill doubtless found, unadulterated of course by any possible presence of American security details or other distractions of non-Iraqi origin. Did Ambassador Hill consult some of the best anthropological material on Iraq like the Marsh Dwellers of the Euphrates Delta by SM al-Salim (1962) relating to Chubayish (between Basra and Dhi Qar) or Shaikh and Effendi by R.A. Fernea (1970) relating to Daghara in the mid-Euphrates? There really is not much about sectarian conflict in those volumes.

But maybe the 1970s were exceptional. Maybe the 1960s were exceptional too. Perhaps the generally peaceful monarchical period and the late Ottoman eras were exceptional too? If the ambassador is so sure about a “thousand-year head start” for sectarian problems, why doesn’t he at least do us the favour of enumerating some historical empirical examples of bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq, say between 1650 and 1970, to back up his own impressions?

Today, Hill is telling us that Iraqiyya is essentially a Sunni party, and as such it should by definition accept a secondary role in Iraqi politics. There are many good reasons for Iraqiyya to reconsider its relationship with Maliki, but the idea of accepting that “Shia majority rule is an immovable fact of life” just isn’t one of them. The examples of Shiites bitterly disagreeing with each others are simply too many for Iraqis to accept this kind of simplistic and essentialist formula for their politics.

Do these problems really have nothing to do with the “conflict paradigm” of Iraqi politics that seems to have been a staple of most US ambassadors in Baghdad from Paul Bremer, via Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker to Hill himself? Does Hill not realise that some of his own policies actually abetted sectarian tensions – for example when he was apologetic about the de-Baathification excesses of early 2010?

One good thing about the latest revelation by Hill is that it may help explain some of his own Delphic policies: Most of the time, Hill was out in the desert, hiking with camels and doing anthropological research, hopefully to be published in a soon-to-come landmark tome!

Posted in Sectarian master narrative | 64 Comments »

Small Victories for Maliki in Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 5 January 2012 14:22

The Iraqi national assembly was it usual self today, with the predictable assortment of idiosyncrasies that are typical of Iraqi politics. However, for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, there was some good news.

This includes the simple fact that the parliamentary sessions continue to take place despite the boycott by the secular Iraqiyya party. Today, once more, signs of tensions between Maliki’s own Shiite Islamist State of Law bloc and the Kurds at one point threatened the quorum of the session, but an amicable resolution was found and the session could resume, technically as an “extraordinary session” since it had been officially terminated during the preceding tension.

With relative peace vis-à-vis the Kurds, Maliki is probably satisfied with the fact that some Iraqiyya members opted to take part in the session, which altogether counted 192 members, thus comfortably above the quorum threshold at 163 and not that much different from the normal attendance level in 2011. Reportedly, those Iraqiyya members present numbered between six and eight. Over and above that, they included at least three deputies who say they are forming a new bloc within Iraqiyya, opposed to calls for Sunni-area federalism and sympathetic to Shiites that have defected from Iraqiyya in the south. These three deputies all nominally belonged to the Iraqiyyun bloc of parliament speaker  Usama al-Nujayfi in the past, and one of them was formerly a prominent advocate of a majority government between Iraqiyya and State of Law.

Conceptually, then, this new tendency seems similar to the White Iraqiyya breakaway faction of Iraqiyya which is reckoned as openly pro-Maliki. (Equally important is the fact that they remain separate and have not joined White Iraqiyya.) Additional Iraqiyya attendants in parliament today reportedly included members of the Hall (Karbuli) faction. It is noteworthy that the assembly today managed to agree on additional judges to the de-Baathification appellate court, which had proved troublesome in the past.

In the past, White Iraqiyya has sometimes been dismissed as “Shiite Iraqiyya”, which is not entirely plausible since it also includes vocal Sunni members from Nineveh. Today’s developments stress that there are more Sunnis in the north that are prepared to speak the language of anti-federalism and could be potential allies to Maliki in the north. They come at a time when there are conflicting reports about the exact status of Iraqiyya ministers boycotting cabinet meetings, with some reports suggesting that certain individual ministers are prepared to return. Again, the Hall faction is mentioned as a possible dissenter to the general Iraqiyya line.

To Maliki, this is the ideal scenario: Parliament continues to function, not terribly effective, but enough to get some things done and preventing a formal disintegration of democratic politics. Maliki may well be hoping that similar things could happen at the level of the cabinet , since a situation with too many acting ministers unapproved by parliament in the long run would threaten one of the most basic principles in a parliamentary democracy – that of ministerial answerability to the national assembly.  

It is noteworthy that all these developments point in a different direction than the doom and gloom associated with the Iraqiyya boycott and renewed violence today. Importantly, and often overlooked by Western policy-makers, this is a potential avenue of rapprochement that has nothing to do at all with the Arbil agreement.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 45 Comments »