In one form or another, the U.S. has been at war with Iraq since 1990, including a sort-of invasion in 1991 and a full-scale one in 2003.
During that quarter-century, Washington imposed several changes of government, spent trillions of dollars, and was involved in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. None of those efforts were a success by any conceivable definition of the term Washington has been capable of offering.
Nonetheless, it’s the American Way to believe with all our hearts that every problem is ours to solve and every problem must have a solution, which simply must be found. As a result, the indispensable nation faces a new round of calls for ideas on what “we” should do next in Iraq.
With that in mind, here are five possible “strategies” for that country on which only one thing is guaranteed: none of them will work.
1. Send in the Trainers
In May, in the wake of the fall of the Sunni city of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) fighters, President Obama announced a change of course in Iraq. After less than a year of not defeating, degrading, or destroying the Islamic State, the administration will now send in hundreds more military personnel to set up a new training base at Taqaddum in Anbar Province. There are already five training sites running in Iraq, staffed by most of the 3,100 military personnel the Obama administration has sent in. Yet after nine months of work, not a single trained Iraqi trooper has managed to make it into a combat situation in a country embroiled in armed chaos.
The base at Taqaddum may only represent the beginning of a new “surge.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has begun to talk up what he calls “lily pads,” American baselets set up close to the front lines, from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces. Of course, such lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, waiting for a hungry Islamic State frog.
Leaving aside the all-too-obvious joke — that Dempsey is proposing the creation of a literal swamp, a desert quagmire of the lilypad sort — this idea has been tried. It failed over the eight years of the occupation of Iraq, when the U.S. maintained an archipelago of 505 bases in the country. (It also failed in Afghanistan.) At the peak of Iraq War 2.0, 166,000 troops staffed those American bases, conducting some $25 billion worth of training and arming of Iraqis, the non-results of which are on display daily. The question then is: How could more American trainers accomplish in a shorter period of time what so many failed to do over so many years?
There is also the American belief that if you offer it, they will come. The results of American training so far, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear recently, have fallen far short of expectations. By now, U.S. trainers were to have whipped 24,000 Iraqi soldiers into shape. The actual number to date is claimed to be some 9,000 and the description of a recent “graduation” ceremony for some of them couldn’t have been more dispiriting. (“The volunteers seemed to range in age from late teens to close to 60.” Given how much training the U.S. has made available in Iraq since 2003, it’s hard to imagine that too many young men have not given the option some thought. Simply because Washington opens more training camps, there is no reason to assume that Iraqis will show up.
Oddly enough, just before announcing his new policy, President Obama seemed to pre-agree with critics that it wasn’t likely to work. “We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits,” he said at the close of the G7 summit in Germany. “It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.” Obama was on the mark. At the al-Asad training facility, the only one in Sunni territory, for instance, the Iraqi government has not sent a single new recruit to be trained by those American advisers for the past six weeks.
And here’s some bonus information: for each U.S. soldier in Iraq, there are already two American contractors. Currently some 6,300 of them are in the country. Any additional trainers mean yet more contractors, ensuring that the U.S. “footprint” made by this no-boots-on-the-ground strategy will only grow and General Dempsey’s lilypad quagmire will come closer to realization.
2. Boots on the Ground
Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most vocal proponent of America’s classic national security go-to move: send in U.S. troops. McCain, who witnessed the Vietnam War unfold, knows better than to expect Special Forces operatives, trainers, advisers, and combat air traffic controllers, along with U.S. air power, to turn the tide of any strategic situation. His response is to call for more — and he’s not alone. On the campaign trail recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for instance, suggested that, were he president, he would consider a full-scale “re-invasion” of Iraq. Similarly, General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, urged the sending in of many boots: “I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”
Among the boots-on-the-ground crowd are also some former soldiers who fought in Iraq in the Bush years, lost friends, and suffered themselves. Blinking through the disillusion of it all, they prefer to believe that we actually won in Iraq (or should have, or would have, if only the Bush and Obama administrations hadn’t squandered the “victory”). Needed now, they claim, are more U.S. troops back on the ground to win the latest version of their war. Some are even volunteering as private citizens to continue the fight. Can there be a sadder argument than the “it can’t all have been a waste” one?
The more-troops option is so easy to dismiss it’s hardly worth another line: if over eight years of effort, 166,000 troops and the full weight of American military power couldn’t do the trick in Iraq, what could you possibly expect even fewer resources to accomplish?
3. Partnering with Iran
As hesitancy within the U.S. military to deploy ground forces in Iraq runs into chicken-hawk drum-pounding in the political arena, working ever more closely with Iran has become the default escalation move. If not American boots, that is, what about Iranian boots?
The backstory for this approach is as odd a Middle Eastern tale as you can find.
The original Obama administration plan was to use Arab, not Iranian, forces as proxy infantry. However, the much-ballyhooed 60-nation pan-Arab coalition proved little more than a short-lived photo op. Few, if any, of their planes are in the air anymore. America flies roughly 85% of all missions against Islamic State targets, with Western allies filling in a good part of the rest. No Arab ground troops ever showed up and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington has, of course, been in a Cold War-ish relationship with Iran since 1979 when the Shah fell and radical students took over the American Embassy in Tehran. In the 1980s, the U.S. aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, while in the years after the invasion of 2003 Iran effectively supported Iraqi Shiite militias against American forces occupying the country. Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, currently directing his country’s efforts in Iraq, was once one of the most wanted men on America’s kill list.
In the wake of the 2014 Islamic State capture of Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities, Iran ramped up its role, sending in trainers, advisers, arms, and its own forces to support the Shiite militias that Baghdad saw as its only hope. The U.S. initially turned a blind eye on all this, even as Iranian-led militias, and possibly the Iranians themselves, became consumers of close American air support.
In Washington right now, there is a growing, if quiet, acknowledgment that Iranian help is one of the few things that might push IS back without the need for U.S. ground troops. Small but telling escalations are occurring regularly. In the battle to retake the northern Sunni city of Tikrit, for example, the United States flew air missions supporting Shiite militias; the fig leaf of an explanation: that they operated under Iraqi government, not Iranian, control.
“We’re going to provide air cover to all forces that are under the command and control of the government of Iraq,” a U.S. Central Command spokesperson similarly noted in reference to the coming fight to retake the city of Ramadi. That signals a significant shift, former State Department official Ramzy Mardini points out. “The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against IS.” Such thinking may extend to Iranian ground troops now evidently fighting outside the strategic Beiji oil refinery.
Things may be even cozier between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias than we previously thought. Bloomberg reports that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both already using the Taqaddum military base, the very place where President Obama is sending the latest 450 U.S. military personnel.
The downside? Help to Iran only sets up the next struggle the U.S. is likely to bumble into due to a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. Syria, perhaps?
4. Arm the Kurds
The Kurds represent Washington’s Great Hope for Iraq, a dream that plays perfectly into an American foreign policy trope about needing to be “liked” by someone. (Try Facebook.) These days, glance at just about any conservative website or check out right-wing pundits and enjoy the propaganda about the Kurds: they are plucky fighters, loyal to America, tough bastards who know how to stand and deliver. If only we gave them more weapons, they would kill more Islamic State bad guys just for us. To the right-wing crowd, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of Winston Churchill in World War II, crying out, “Just give us the tools and we’ll defeat Hitler!”
There is some slight truth in all this. The Kurds have indeed done a good job of pushing IS militants out of swaths of northern Iraq and were happy for U.S. assistance in getting their Peshmerga fighters to the Turkish border when the locus of fighting was the city of Kobane. They remain thankful for the continuing air support the U.S. is providing their front-line troops and for the limited weapons Washington has already sent.
For Washington, the problem is that Kurdish interests are distinctly limited when it comes to fighting Islamic State forces. When the de facto borders of Kurdistan were directly threatened, they fought like caffeinated badgers. When the chance to seize the disputed town of Erbil came up — the government in Baghdad was eager to keep it within its sphere of control — the Kurds beat the breath out of IS.
But when it comes to the Sunni population, the Kurds don’t give a hoot, as long as they stay away from Kurdistan. Has anyone seen Kurdish fighters in Ramadi or anywhere else in heavily Sunni al-Anbar Province? Those strategic areas, now held by the Islamic State, are hundreds of actual miles and millions of political miles from Kurdistan. So, sure, arm the Kurds. But don’t expect them to play a strategic role against IS outside their own neighborhood. A winning strategy for the Kurds involving Washington doesn’t necessarily translate into a winning strategy for Washington in Iraq.
5. That Political Solution
Washington’s current man in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Abadi, hasn’t moved his country any closer to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. In fact, because Abadi has little choice but to rely on those Shiite militias, which will fight when his corrupt, inept army won’t, he has only drawn closer to Iran. This has ensured that any (American) hope of bringing Sunnis into the process in a meaningful way as part of a unified government in a unified state will prove to be a pipe dream.
A balance of forces is a prerequisite for a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish federal Iraq. With no side strong enough to achieve victory or weak enough to lose, negotiations could follow. When then-Senator Joe Biden first proposed the idea of a three-state Iraq in 2006, it just might have been possible. However, once the Iranians had built a Shiite Iraqi client state in Baghdad and then, in 2014, unleashed the militias as an instrument of national power, that chance was lost.
Many Sunnis see no other choice but to support the Islamic State, as they did al-Qaeda in Iraq in the years after the American invasion of 2003. They fear those Shiite militias — and with good reason. Stories from the largely Sunni city of Tikrit, where militia-led forces defeated Islamic State fighters, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” In the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar, there were reports of ethnic cleansing. Similarly, the mainly Sunni population of the city of Nukhayb, which sits at a strategic crossroad between Sunni and Shiite areas, has accused the militias of taking over while pretending to fight the extremists.
There remains great fear in Sunni-dominated Anbar of massacres and “cleansing” if Shiite militias enter the province in force. In such a situation, there will always be a place for an al-Qaeda, an Islamic State, or some similar movement, no matter how brutal, to defend the beleaguered Sunni population. What everyone in Iraq understands, and apparently almost everyone in America does not, is that the Islamic State is a symptom of civil war, not a standalone threat.
One lingering hope of the Obama administration has no support in Baghdad and so has remained a non-starter: defeating IS by arming Sunni tribes directly in the style of the “Anbar Awakening” movement of the occupation years. Indeed, the central government fears arming them, absent a few token units to keep the Americans quiet. The Shiites know better than most what an insurgency can do to help defeat a larger, better-armed, power.
Yet despite the risk of escalating Iraq’s shadow civil war, the U.S. now is moving to directly arm the Sunnis. Current plans are to import weapons into the newest lilypad base in Anbar and pass them on to local Sunni tribes, whether Baghdad likes that or not (and yes, the break with Baghdad is worth noting). The weapons themselves are as likely to be wielded against Shiite militias as against the Islamic State, assuming they aren’t just handed over to IS fighters.
The loss of equipment to those militants is no small thing. No one talking about sending more new weaponry to Iraq, no matter who the recipient is, should ignore the ease with which Islamic State militants have taken U.S.-supplied heavy weapons. Washington has been forced to direct air strikes against such captured equipment — even as it ships yet more in. In Mosul, some 2,300 Humvees were abandoned to IS fighters in June 2014; more were left to them when Iraqi army forces suddenly fled Ramadi in May. This pattern of supply, capture, and resupply would be comically absurd, had it not turned tragic when some of those Humvees were used by IS as rolling, armored suicide bombs and Washington had to rush AT-4 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi army to destroy them.
The Real Reason Nothing Is Going to Work
The fundamental problem underlying nearly every facet of U.S. policy toward Iraq is that “success,” as defined in Washington, requires all the players to act against their own wills, motivations, and goals in order to achieve U.S. aims. The Sunnis need a protector as they struggle for a political place, if not basic survival, in some new type of Iraq. The Shiite government in Baghdad seeks to conquer and control the Sunni regions. Iran wants to secure Iraq as a client state and use it for easier access to Syria. The Kurds want an independent homeland.
When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter remarked, “What apparently happened [in Ramadi] was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” what he really meant was that the many flavors of forces in Iraq showed no will to fight for America’s goals. In the Washington mind-set, Iraq is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving problems that were either created by or exacerbated by the U.S. in the first place, even as America once again assumes an ever-greater role in that country’s increasingly grim fate.
For America’s “plan” to work, Sunni tribesmen would have to fight Sunnis from the Islamic State in support of a Shiite government that suppressed their peaceful Arab-Spring-style protests, and that, backed by Iran, has been ostracizing, harassing, and murdering them. The Kurds would have to fight for an Iraqi nation-state from which they wish to be independent. It can’t work.
Go back to 2011 and it’s unlikely anyone could have imagined that the same guy who defeated Hillary Clinton and gained the White House based on his opposition to the last Iraq War would send the U.S. tumbling back into that chaotic country. If ever there was an avoidable American crisis, Iraq War 3.0 is it. If ever there was a war, whatever its chosen strategies, in which the U.S. has no hopes of achieving its goals, this is it.
By now, you’re undoubtedly shaking your head and asking, “How did this happen?” Historians will do the same.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
When at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.
And with that, we woke up Wednesday to see the Obama administration ready to announce a change of course in Iraq, one that is very much a back to the future kind of event. Following about a year of not defeating, degrading or destroying Islamic State (IS; in fact, they are doing quite well, thank you), the administration let slip it’s planning to send hundreds or more new U.S. military personnel to set up a new training base in Anbar Province, Western Iraq. The facility will be located at Al Taqqadum, an Iraqi base near the town of Habbaniya.
American plans are to somehow use, what, magic powder, to double the number of Sunni tribesmen willing to fight IS, while at the same time recruiting and training some 3,000 new Iraqi Army personnel to fight specifically in Anbar. Such plans remind one of an eight-year-old, who proclaims she plans to make a billion zillion dollars selling lemonade in front of the house.
The 450 new military trainers would boost the American presence in Iraq; there are currently 3,080 U.S. military personnel in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes this latest dumbass move “would expose American forces to greater risk of being drawn into direct combat with Islamic State forces that already control territory around likely sites for a planned U.S. training base.”
But that’s actually the least thing wrong with all this. The biggest problem is the latest American escalation won’t work any better than any of the previous ones, going as far back at 2006 and The Surge.
Apart from the possibility U.S. troops will engage in combat, lead ground combat missions, or act as forward air controllers for U.S. warplanes, their most likely mission will be to try and train Sunni militias to fight IS. The U.S. has been pestering the Shiite Iraqi government for years to arm and train the Sunnis. That government, fearful of an armed insurrection among its own people and dead set on conquering Iraqi Sunni-controlled territory in Anbar (IS is a sideshow, dangerous and annoying, but in the long-term politics of Iraq, a sideshow nonetheless), has shown about as much enthusiasm for the idea as a Muslim at a pork roast, wrapped in bacon, enroute to a Quran burning. You get it.
Without the support of the central government, in particular concrete moves toward moving Shiite militias and their Iranian trainers out of Anbar, coupled with concrete moves to a bring Sunnis into actual government roles that affect the daily lives and political future of the Sunnis, the U.S. plan will fail. Basically, the same plan already failed in 2009 when the central government refused to support the U.S.-initiated Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, and allowed the Sunnis to flounder. Remember one definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over, each time hoping for different results.
Baghdad has no interest in empowering its Sunni minority. It is playing a long-game for control of Iraq, not going deep with the United States in some short-term temper tantrum against the latest terror group we helped create that has spun out of control. To the U.S., the battle is toward the east, as Anbar is just 70 miles from Baghdad. To the Iraqi government, the battlefield is west, from Anbar deeper into Sunni turf.
Now take a look at this snapshot: The Iranians are training and equipping Shiite militias. The U.S. is seeking to train and equip Sunni militias. Long after IS retreats, retires to Florida or whatever, what could possibly go wrong with that kind of a scenario?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
If the United States was looking for the surest way to lose Iraq War 3.0, it might start by retraining the failed Iraqi Army to send — alongside ruthless Shi’ite militias — into Sunni-majority territory and hope that the Sunnis will welcome them with open arms, throwing out the evil Islamic State.
Maybe it’s time for a better plan. The way to find one is by understanding how we lost Iraq War 2.0. We need a plan to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide, or the current war will fail as surely as the previous one.
A critical first step is, of course, to remove Islamic State from the equation, but not how the Obama administration envisions. The way to drive Islamic State out of Iraq is to remove the reason Islamic State has been able to remain in Iraq: as a protector of the Sunnis. In Iraq War 2.0, the Iraqi Sunnis never melded politically with al Qaeda; they allied out of expediency, against the Shi’ite militias and the Shi’ite central government. The same situation applies to Islamic State, the new al Qaeda in Iraq.
The United States is acting nearly 180 degrees counter to this strategy, enabling Shi’ite militia and Iranian forces’ entry into Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas to fight Islamic State. The more Shi’ite influence, the more Sunnis feel they need Islamic State muscle. More Iranian fighters also solidify Iran’s grip on the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, and weakens America’s. The presence of additional Sunni players, like the Gulf States, will simply grow the violence indecisively, with the various local factions manipulated as armed proxies.
Iraq in 2007 was, on the surface, a struggle between insurgents and the United States. However, the real fight was happening in parallel, as the minority Sunnis sought a place in the new Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. The solution was supposedly the Anbar Awakening. Indigenous Iraqi Sunnis would be pried lose from al Qaeda under American protection (that word again), along with the brokered promise that the Shi’ites would grant them a substantive role in governance. The Shi’ites balked almost from day one, and the deal fell apart even before America’s 2011 withdrawal — I was in Iraq with the Department of State and saw it myself. The myth that “we won” only to have the victory thrown away by the Iraqis — a favorite among 2.0 apologists — is very dangerous. It suggests repeating the strategy will result in something other than repeating the results.
The Sunnis are Who fans; they won’t be fooled again.
Progress otherwise in Iraq? The new prime minister has accomplished little toward unity, selecting a Badr militia politician to head the Interior Ministry, for example. The Badr group has been a key player in sectarian violence.
Islamic State still controls 80 percent of Anbar Province, the key city of Mosul and is attacking in Ramadi. U.S. air strikes cannot seize ground. The Iraqi Army will never rise to the fullness of the challenge. One can only imagine the thoughts of the American trainers, retraining some of the same Iraqi troops from War 2.0.
Military vehicles of the Kurdish security forces are seen during an intensive security deployment in Diyala province north of Baghdad. Elsewhere, the Kurds are already a de facto separate state. Their ownership of Arbil, the new agreement to allow the overt export of some of their own oil, and the spread of the peshmerga to link up with Kurdish forces in Syria, are genies that won’t go back into the bottle. America need only restrain Kurdish ambitions to ensure stability.
Present Iraq strategy delays, at great cost — in every definition of that word — the necessary long-term tri-state solution. It is time to hasten it. The United States must use its influence with the Shi’ites to have their forces, along with the Iranians, withdraw to Baghdad. America would create a buffer zone, encompassing the strategically critical international airport as a “peacekeeping base.” Using air power, America would seal the Iraq-Syria border in western Anbar, at least against any medium-to-large scale Islamic State resupply effort. Arm the Sunni tribes if they will push Islamic State out of their towns. Support goes to those tribes who hold territory, a measurable, ground-truth based policy, not an ideological one. Implementing the plan in northwest Iraq can also succeed, but will be complicated by Kurd ambitions, greater ethnic diversity among the Iraqis and a stronger Islamic State tactical hold on cities like Mosul.
There’ll be another tough challenge, the sharing of oil revenues between the new Sunni and Shi’ite states, so this plan is by no means a slam-dunk.
The broad outline is not new; in 2006 then-Senator Joe Biden proposed a federal partition of Iraq along the Bosnian model. Bush-era zeal kept the idea from getting a full review. But much has transpired since 2006.
If the tri-state plan works, it will deny Islamic State sanctuary where it is now most powerful, and a strategy for northwest Iraq may emerge. America will realize its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq as a check on Iranian ambitions and an assurance of security for the embassy. The president can decouple Syrian policy from Iraq. An indefinite American presence in Iraq will not be fully welcomed, though one hastens to add it basically is evolving anyway.
I Hate Myself
For advocates of disengagement like myself, this is bitter medicine. But we are where we are in Iraq, and wishful thinking, on my part or the White House’s, is no longer practical. A divided Iraq, maintained by an American presence, is the only hope for long-term stability. Otherwise, stay tuned for Iraq War 4.0.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Iraq’s Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the U.S. says NIQASH, a non-profit media organization operating out of Berlin. Without Sunni support, America’s war in Iraq cannot succeed. Here’s why.
According to NIQASH, a source at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said there have been secret negotiations between various Sunni Muslim armed factions, via Arab and Iraqi Kurdish intermediaries, for the past three months. At the request of U.S. diplomats and military personnel, Shia officials from the Iraqi government have also been meeting with the leaders of these groups in Erbil, Kurdistan and Amman, Jordan.
At the same time General John Allen, the Obama’s appointed coordinator of U.S. efforts in Iraq, has been trying to contact the Sunni tribal leaders he worked with in Anbar during the previous war’s “Awakening.” “But it was surprising,” a NIQASH source reported, “Most of General Allen’s former allies refused to cooperate with us. And some of them are actually now living outside of Iraq because of the Iraqi government’s policies.”
Oops. With some irony, America’s failure to secure the 2006 Awakening caused those Sunnis sympathetic to America’s aims to flee Shia persecution. Those “good guys” are thus not available in 2014 to help out America in the current war.
ISIS and the Sunnis
When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators from the Iraqi army. The army, along with paramilitary police from the Interior Ministry, had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing, the Sunni majority areas. For the Sunnis and ISIS, the Baghdad government was a common enemy, and a marriage of convenience formed.
Recent events in Baghdad do little to assuage Sunni fears. A recent report suggests the new Iraqi Prime Minister may nominate a Shia Badr Militia leader as Interior Minister. Since the Shias took control of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, has been a prime tool of repression and punishment.
Still, cracks in the ISIS-Sunni relationship have started to form. Many of the Sunni groups, especially those led by former Baathists, are largely secular in nature, seeing their Sunni ties more as broadly cultural than strictly religious. ISIS’ requests to pledge allegiance to its cause, coupled with demands to implement Sharia law, have created friction. Some internecine fighting has taken place. The U.S. has sought to exploit these issues to break the indigenous Sunnis away from ISIS, and ultimately to turn the Sunnis into American proxy boots on the ground as was done with the Kurds.
America’s problem is that most Sunnis are fearful about cooperating via America with the Shia government in Baghdad. They fear history will repeat itself and the Americans and the Shia government will betray them, exactly as they betrayed them only a few years ago when the Awakening movement collapsed. Quite a pickle.
The Sunnis seem to be choosing a middle ground, one which does not serve America’s interests.
According to a 1920s Revolution Brigades (Sunni militia) leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS. They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS either. If the [Iraqi] army or the [Shia] militias attack [Sunni] areas they control though, they will fight both groups.”
“We are against the acts of the hardline Islamic State. And we are also against bombed cars exploding randomly in Baghdad,” Abu Samir al-Jumaili, one of the Sunni Mujahideen Army’s leaders in the Anbar province, told NIQASH. “However we are also opposed to the government’s sectarian policies against Sunnis… In 2006 we cooperated with the government to expel al Qaeda from Sunni cities but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us… The ISIS group are terrorists but so are the Shia militias.”
History is a Witch
There is no way America can succeed in its goals in Iraq– repel ISIS and keep the country together– without the active participation of the Sunnis. It is very unlikely that that will happen. American strategy rests on the assumption that the Sunnis can be bribed and coerced into breaking with ISIS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine. As with al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2006, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.
America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? It appears they will not, and that by itself suggests the current Iraq war will end much the same as the previous one. It is foolish for America to expect otherwise.
— U.S. Embassy Baghdad (@USEmbBaghdad) October 18, 2014
A key part of America’s strategy in Iraq is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, one that will pull together the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. This has been a persistent American myth since the 2003 invasion, one that is impossible realize and thus a single point of failure for Obama’s war.
History of the Myth
First, in 2003, as symbol of the democracy the U.S. sought to create in Iraq, then again in 2006 (remember the purple finger photos?) that the war was not actually already lost, and then forever after as the solution to the internecine fighting that America’s Occupation unleashed, the myth has had a long run. As you can see from Embassy Baghdad’s Tweet above, America again imagines it has achieved its interim goal of a balanced government; peace and prosperity is just around the corner.
A big part of the problem is that the United States thinks creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a sports team. If things don’t work out, try again in next season’s draft. That was the thought behind America’s 180 on former Prime Minister Maliki. In power since 2006 with strong U.S. support, Maliki stayed in office from January to August 2014, even as ISIS had its first successes in Iraq. But as Obama launched the newest Iraq war, Maliki was out and a new player moved up the roster.
But since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and thus the great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, little changed at the top. So hopes for “inclusiveness” fell to the choices to lead the key ministries of defense and the interior. Both have been tools of repression against the country’s Sunnis for years.
And now we know the winners of that odd contest.
Anti-Inclusionary Choice for Interior Ministry
A Sunni was chosen to lead Defense, a ministry currently in charge of a decrepit Iraqi Army best known for running away at first contact, leaving behind American-supplied weapons for ISIS to repurpose. Not so much joy in that job for now.
More significant choice is Abadi’s new Interior Minister, Mohammed Ghabban, a little-known Shiite politician with the Badr Organization. You remember the Badr folks, or should, because every Sunni in Iraq does. During the American Occupation, the Badr militia ran the notorious Shiite death squads, after infiltrating the same Interior Ministry it basically now heads to ensure the government would not interfere in their grim work.
Human Rights Watch quoted a doctor in the Health Ministry: “Sunnis are a minority in Baghdad, but they’re the majority in our morgue.”
Back in 2009, a SECRET Wikileaked State Department cable had this to say about the Badr militia’s leader, and the man Ghabban still answers to, Hadi al-Amiri:
Amiri is widely known to have played a leading role in organizing attacks by the Badr Corps militia (the strongest, most disciplined Shia militia at the time and precursor to the current Badr Organization) against Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. Sources indicate that he may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2000 Sunnis. One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.
Amiri was also previously rejected by Sunnis as a negotiating partner. Again, from the State Department:
Given his role in sectarian violence and prominent position in the dominant Shia coalition, it is understandable that Sunni leaders were hesitant to view him as a viable negotiating partner when he proposed a compromise parliamentary seat distribution after the November 23 Shia-Kurd backed electoral amendment was adopted.
Anti-Inclusionary Rise of the Shia Militias
The elevation of a Badr organization leader to perhaps the most significant cabinet position vis-vis the Sunnis is in line with the broader increasing influence of the Shia militias.
As much out of necessity given the limp Iraqi Army as sectarian politics, the Baghdad government has increasingly called upon Shia militias to defend the city. While they currently seem to be holding off ISIS advances past the already-Sunni controlled territory west of Baghdad Airport, Shia militias have also abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months and enjoy total impunity for these crimes, according to Amnesty International. These attacks, as an anti-inclusionary act as can be, are apparently in revenge for Sunni support of ISIS. Scores of unidentified bodies have been discovered across the country handcuffed and with gunshot wounds to the head, deliberate execution-style killings that send a message.
“By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart,” concluded Amnesty.
Two more points about the Badr group: They were responsible for the deaths of many American military personnel during the Occupation and they remain closely allied with Iran. There is no good news with this one.
“To give the Interior Ministry to a direct Iranian proxy is huge,” said one researcher specializing in Shiite groups. “It shows who the Iraqis are throwing their lot in with.”
The inclusionary government America’s strategy for Iraq rests on is an illusion, a governmental fantasy in 2014 as it was 2003-2011. Everyone with eyes– except the U.S. government– can see where this one ends.
1) “Inclusive” Government
A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.
The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.
2) For-Show Sunnis
Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.
Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.
Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.
One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.
Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.
Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.
Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.
5) U.S. Bombing
More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.
More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.
Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.
6) That Coalition
If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.
Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.
Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.
But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.
Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.
While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.
What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.
As America goes back to war in Iraq with airstrikes, here’s what to know and do instead:
— This is a slippery slope if those words have any meaning left. Airstrikes are in part to protect American advisors sent earlier to Erbil to support Kurds there because Iraqi central government won’t. The U.S. is assuming the role of the de facto Iraqi Air Force. What happens next week, next crisis, next “genocide?” Tell me how that ends.
— Understand how deep the U.S. is already in. It is highly likely that U.S. Special Forces are active on the ground, conducting reconnaissance missions and laser-designating targets for circling U.S. aircraft. If U.S. planes are overhead, U.S. search and rescue assets are not far away, perhaps in desert forward operating positions. Protecting/evacuating Americans from Erbil will be a major military operation. This is how bigger wars begin. Go Google “Vietnam War,” say starting about 1963.
— The U.S. media is playing the meme that the U.S. is worried about Christian minority in Iraq, as a way to engorge the American people with blood. But the media fails to note that over half of Iraq’s Christians were killed or fled during the U.S. occupation. The play in the Arab world that the U.S. cares more about a limited number of Christians now than untold thousands of Muslim lives will not aid U.S. long-term goals.
— The questions of why what is happening in Iraq is “genocide” and why what is happening in Gaza is not remains unaddressed by the United States. Even if Americans are not asking for an answer, many others are.
— Wait a tic– are we again “buying time” by putting American lives at risk so the Iraqis can form a government and reconcile in some short-term thing? Isn’t that what America had been doing since 2003? Wasn’t that what the “success of the Surge” in 2007 was all about? We have seen this movie already friends.
— The only realistic hope to derail ISIS is to alienate them from Iraq Sunnis, who provide the on-the-ground support any insurgency must have to succeed. Mao called a sympathetic population “the water the fish swims in.” Separating the people from the insurgents is CounterInsurgency 101. Instead, via airstrikes, the U.S. has gone all-in on side of Iraqi Shias and Kurds. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
— Sunnis are not confined by the borders of Iraq and this is not a chessboard. U.S. actions toward Sunnis in Iraq (or Syria, or wherever) resonate throughout the Sunni world. There is no better recruitment tool for Sunni extremists than showing their fight is actually against the Americans. ISIS seems to be playing to this, calling the Americans “defenders of the cross.”
— Throughout the broader Islamic world, the takeaway is that again the U.S. unleashes war against Muslims. Nothing can inspire jihad like seeing the struggle in Iraq as one against the Crusaders. ISIS seems to know this, and taunts America into deeper involvement with statements such as “the flag of Allah will fly over the White House.”
— Precise, Surgical Strikes: Sure, just ask those wedding parties in Yemen and Afghanistan how that has worked out. It is near-evitable that mistakes will be made and innocents will die at American hands.
— ISIS’ connections to al Qaeda are tenuous at present. However, just like when Sunnis felt threatened during the U.S. occupation, fear and military needs will inevitably drive them closer to al Qaeda.
— Irony: Back to the Future: U.S. airstrikes on Iraq are being launched from an aircraft carrier named after George H.W. Bush, who first involved the U.S. in a shooting war against Iraq in 1991’s Desert Storm.
— Air strikes will not resolve anything significant. The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better? We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
— Oh, but what should we do?!?!? The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
Step One: Stop digging the hole deeper (see above, Sunni-Shia-Kurd problem);
Step Two: 2: Demand the Iraqi government stop persecuting and alienating their own Sunni population, the root of these insurgent problems;
Step Three: Demand the Saudis and others stop funding ISIS in hopes of choking back their strength;
Step Four: Demand the Iraqi government launch airstrikes in support of the Kurds as a show of support;
Step Five: Deliver humanitarian aid only through the UN and the Red Crescent. In Vietnam, this mistake was colloquially expressed as “F*ck ’em, then Feed ’em.” So instead, divorce the good U.S. stuff from the bad U.S. stuff.
Those things will be a good start. Airstrikes are a terrible start that begs a tragic finish.
Be sure to also see Ten Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq are a Terrible Idea.
The smell of blood is once again in the air in Washington, this week for airstrikes and other forms of violent intervention in Iraq (reference: many of the same people– McCain and Graham in particular– were only recently calling for airstrikes or other military action in the Ukraine, and before that Syria, and before that…)
Here are some of the many reasons airstrikes (or any other form of U.S. military action) in Iraq are just a terrible idea.
1) Air strikes will not resolve anything significant.
The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better?
We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
2) But air strikes now are crucial to buying the Iraqi government time to seek a political solution.
See above about nine years of ineffectiveness. Today’s crisis is not new; Iraqi PM Maliki has been in power since 2006 and has done nothing to create an inclusive government. Indeed, he has done much to actively ostracize, alienate, jail and destroy his Sunni opposition. Maliki currently is his non-inclusionary own Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense. Replacing Maliki, another regime change the U.S. now apparently supports, is no magic cure. Maliki’s successor will most likely come from his own majority party, and inherit his own ties to Iran and the many Shia groups needed to stay in power. Even with good intentions, a new Prime Minister will walk into office in the midst of a raging, open war against Sunni forces, not exactly the best place to start towards a more inclusive government. This argument of buying the Iraqis time is the same falsehood that fueled the unsuccessful Surges in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009). History matters, and it is time to accept that despite arguable tactical progress, in the longer view, the Surges did not work. And long views are what matter.
Even David Petraeus, once America’s golden boy as architect of the Iraq Surge, warns against military intervention now in Iraq.
3) John Kerry flying around the world diplomizing on Iraq is an air strike of its own.
Worth noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy intelligence presence. It is clear that all those diplomats have not accomplished much in service to Iraqi reconciliation under even the more peaceful conditions in the past. It is unrealistic to expect more now.
As for recruiting allies to intercede somehow with America in Iraq, that seems equally unlikely. The British, America’s former stalwart companion in global adventures, refused to get involved in American action last September in Syria. British involvement in the 2003 invasion remains controversial at home, and it is hard to see the Brits getting fooled again.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) June 23, 2014
4) Air strikes are surgical.
Oh please. Check with the wedding parties in Yemen destroyed, and funeral gatherings massacred in Pakistan. Bombs and missiles are not surgical tools. They blow stuff up. It is impossible to avoid killing people near the other people you set out to kill, what the U.S. blithely refers to as collateral damage. And even that assumes you are aiming the weapons even close to the right place to begin with. Bad info that identifies the wrong house means you kill an innocent family, not a ISIS command cell.
And even if you take the coldest American view possible that collateral damage is just an unavoidable cost of war, you fail to understand the real cost. Every innocent killed sets the population further against the U.S. and the people the U.S. seeks to support, both in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East. Videos of dead children propagate well over social media.
5) Air strikes are not a counterinsurgency tool.
See nine years of war and occupation in Iraq, or forever years of war in places like Vietnam. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
6) Air strikes mean the U.S. is taking sides in a pit bull fight.
The U.S. strikes would presumably be in an attempt to support the “Iraqi government and army.” The problem is that those entities are elusive. The Maliki government enjoys uneven public support, so supporting it alienates swaths of the Iraqi population and nearly requires them to take up arms against the U.S. and its puppets. The forces Maliki is putting into the field include a growing number of Shia militias under the control, such as that even is, of individual warlords and religious leaders. These are fighters who actively killed Americans just a few years ago, but somehow we’re on their side now. Maliki’s collection of forces are also bolstered in various ways by Iran. Somehow we’re on their side now too. Air strikes are part of a pattern of failed short-term thinking by the U.S.
7) Air strikes are just more of “whack-a-mole” foreign policy.
These entanglements are much more serious than to be dismissed as “well, politics makes for strange bedfellows” or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Such trite phrases are typical of a U.S. foreign policy that only sees discrete crises within clear geopolitical borders. As long as the U.S. fantasizes that it can support Sunni fighters in Syria while striking them in Iraq, and as long as the U.S. believes it can bolster Iranian goals and credibility in Iraq while pushing back against it elsewhere in the Gulf, the worse things will get in the broader region.
The same applies to the U.S.’ global “whack-a-mole” geopolitical strategy. Russia invades the Ukraine? A devoted by Washington to that. Boko Harem kidnaps girls? Ten days of Twitter memes. Iraq simmers for years? Let’s act now (and only now) before the next shiny object distracts our leaders.
8 ) But air strikes are necessary because the U.S. must “do something.”
Nope. There is nothing that says the U.S. must “do something” in response to all world events. There are many reasons to say even if we are compelled to do something, a military “solution” is not necessarily, or even often, the right thing to do. Imagine if you are outside a burning house, with a can of gasoline in your hand. With the compulsion to do something, is it better to throw the gas can into the flames, or stand back. Sometimes the best answer is indeed to stand back.
9) ISIS is a threat to the U.S. and has to be air struck to stop another 9/11.
ISIS is far from the Super Villains the U.S. media has seen necessary to depict them as. The groups fighting on the “Sunni” side, such as it is, are a collection of tribal, Baathist, religious, warlord and other conglomerations. Their loosely organized goal is to hold territory that criss-crosses the borders of Iraq and Syria. Absent some odd event, they are likely to withdraw or be chased out of central Iraq and hold on out west, where they have existed as a state-like thing for some time now. Central Iraq is way too far from their home base to retain supply lines (though they have been doing well capturing weapons from the retreating Iraqi forces), and Shia militia strength is more powerful the closer ISIS, et al, get to Baghdad.
The threat line is most ardently espoused by who else, Dick Cheney, who brought out his own go-to scary thing, saying “One of the things I worried about 12 years ago – and that I worry about today – is that there will be another 9/11 attack and that the next time it’ll be with weapons far deadlier than airline tickets and box cutters.”
ISIS and/or its Sunni supporters in Iraq have held territory in western Iraq for years without being a threat to the U.S. Homeland. Little changes if they hold a bit more, or less territory.
ISIS is not a transnational terror group, and unless the U.S. drives them into an alliance with al Qaeda (as the U.S. did in the early years of the 2003 invasion with the Sunnis), they are unlikely to be. They fight with small arms in small groups under loose leadership. They will not be invading the U.S.
10) Bottom line why air strikes are a terrible waste.
The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
Sometimes I think I even recognize a place on TV I had been, having spent a year in the midst of America’s Occupation in Iraq, 2009-2010. I was a State Department civilian, embedded in turn with two Army brigades of some 3000 men and women each, far from the embassy and the pronouncements of victory and whatever bright lights Iraq might have had.
Why We Lost
I grow weary of the drumbeat for the U.S. to return to Iraq and blow more stuff up. Drones, airstrikes, Special Forces on the ground who are somehow not really “boots on the ground,” the whole bloodlust redux. As a human being I decry the loss of more life. As someone who cares about America’s foreign policy, I cannot believe (while believing) that we are continuing to misunderstand the larger picture, what might be called the strategic or long-term, once again for the tactical, the expedient, the short-term.
Of all the many reasons why American could not win its Iraq War (and I wrote about one of the most significant, the failure of Occupation and Reconstruction, in my first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People perhaps the one that is most applicable now is the most basic.
America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space that imagines Blue Forces fighting Red Forces, Saving Private Ryan but with more sand. Instead, in Iraq right now, there are multiple layers of war going on. For those who like to look ahead a bit, you may feel free to substitute “Syria” for “Iraq” in the rest of this article. Most of this also applies to Libya, Afghanistan and pretty much the rest of the post-9/11 conflicts.
A War of Layers
Instead of a good old fashioned and simple Our Side vs. Their Side, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, the Iraq War is one comprised of many layers. They intermingle and overlap, kind of like the multiverse of conflict. Some of this is painted here in quibbly broad strokes, but the core is solid:
— On the surface you have our media-view war: Jihadists vs. The Iraqi Government. This is the dominant view in Washington, because it is the easiest to understand in bullet points, the easiest to sell to the American people through an ever-compliant media, and the one that fuels the most defense spending. These sorts of wars need plenty of hardware for the U.S. military, and lots of stuff to sell to whichever side we support. You can imagine these sorts of wars as winnable with brave-but-Spartan-like-expendable Special Forces, drones and intel. Blue-on-Red wars also lend themselves well to demonizing the enemy (Terrorists! Who kill people! Who want Sharia law!)
— Another layer down in Iraq you have one group dominated by Sunnis vs. another Shia one fighting a political civil war for actual control of territory. The U.S. willingness to devote extraordinary amounts of money and military power to keeping “Iraq” from not separating on its historical boundaries (the present national borders were drawn up by British cartographers after WWI) over eight years of Occupation and for four years of pretend democracy left this one on long-term simmer awaiting today’s boil. Enough power and money can reduce it again to a simmer, maybe, but it won’t go away.
— Below that layer are intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite struggles for turf and power. There is no such thing as a Sunni Corporate Structure, or a Shia one, with privates reporting to colonels who report to a white house. Instead you have religious allegiances, tribal allegiances, warlord allegiances, paid for allegiances, allegiances of convenience and so forth. At some point they turn on each or dissolve, for awhile, then often reassemble. During the Occupation the U.S. thought they could play off various groups against each other, but the Iraqis had been doing that long before any Americans got there, and knew the game so well that it was like putting the U.S. soccer team up against the Brazilians.
— Laying under it all is the much larger proxy war, including Iran’s support for the Shiites/Malaki government and Saudi/Kuwaiti support for the Sunnis. To zoom out for a moment, this is why invading Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan failed as well. Failure to focus on the proxy war means things like America supporting the same side as the Iranians in Iraq. Inevitably, this results in adding to Iran’s regional power with every drone flight and Special Forces action undertaken. That Iranian regional power will end up projecting itself elsewhere, such as in Syria, where the U.S. and Iran are not on the same side.
— And just because many Americans don’t see/know this, the people in the region sure do: should airstrikes occur,or even just more military aid into Iraq, once again America is at war in an Islamic country. You cannot win the hearts and minds of dead people, but you sure can help recruit their friends and relatives against you. Worse, in that the U.S. promised to leave forever in 2011. America is also supporting Shias against Sunnis, which does not go unnoticed outside of Iraq.
Why the U.S. Cannot Win
The reason why America can never win the war in Iraq, et al, is because to win the war you have to somehow win all the layers of wars, and to win all the wars involves impossible to resolve paradoxes such as siding with the Iranians here while opposing them there. Here and there are often in reality the same place, such as along the Syrian-Iraqi border. It can’t be done. It is a trick, like a carnival ring toss game. The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just another sucker with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.
BONUS: Not convinced yet? The aircraft carrier being sent into the Persian Gulf to launch any air strikes the U.S. deems necessary is the USS George H.W. Bush. Construction of the ship began in 2003, planning and funding well before that. I know irony is not a government thing, but using a carrier named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq is one level of it, and then realizing we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who started the adventure is another.
BONUS BONUS: And for goodness sakes, stop saying this is all PM Maliki’s fault. It is, of course, but only after the U.S. slipped him into power in the 2006 elections, allowed him to cut deals with the Iranians to stay in power in 2010 elections and then has maintained him in power with money, weapons and support since then (including now).
Iraq before our invasion was three separate pseudo-states held together by a powerful security apparatus under Saddam. If you like historical explanations, this disparate collection was midwifed by the British following WWI, as they drew borders in the MidEast to their own liking, with often no connection to the ground-truth of the real ethnic, religious and tribal boundaries.
That mess held together more or less until the U.S. foolishly broke it apart in 2003 with no real understanding of what it did. As Saddam was removed, and his security regime dissolved alongside most of civilian society, the seams broke open.
The Kurds quickly created a de facto state of their own, with its own military (the pesh merga), government and borders. U.S. money and pressure restrained them from proclaiming themselves independent, even as they waged border wars with Turkey and signed their own oil contracts.
The Sunni-Shia rift fueled everything that happened in Iraq, and is happening now. The U.S. never had a long game for this, but never stopped meddling in the short-term. The Surge was one example. The U.S. bought off the Sunni bulk with actual cash “salaries” to their fighters (the U.S. first called them the Orwellian “Concerned Local Citizens” and then switched to “Sons of Iraq,” which sounded like an old Bob Hope road movie title.) The U.S. then also used Special Forces to assassinate Sunni internal enemies– a favored sheik need only point at a rival, label him al-Qaeda, and the night raids happened. A lull in the killing did occur as a result of the Surge, but was only sustained as long as U.S. money flowed in. As the pay-off program was “transitioned” to the majority Shia central government, it quickly fell apart.
The Shias got their part of the deal when, in 2010, in a rush to conclude a Prime Ministerial election that would open the door to a U.S. excuse to pack up and leave Iraq, America allowed the Iranians to broker a deal where we failed. The Sunnis were marginalized, a Shia government was falsely legitimized and set about pushing aside the Sunni minority from the political process, Iranian influence increased, the U.S. claimed victory, and then scooted our military home. Everything since then between the U.S. and Iraq– pretending Maliki was a legitimate leader, the billions in aid, the military and police training, the World’s Largest Embassy– has been pantomime.
But the departure of the U.S. military, and the handing over of relations to the ever-limp fortress American embassy, left Iraq’s core problems intact. Last year’s Sunni siege of Fallujah only underscored the naughty secret that western Iraq had been and still is largely under Sunni control with very little (Shia) central government influence. That part of Iraq flows seamlessly over the artificial border with Syria, and the successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a war zone that now takes in both countries should not be a surprise.
The titular head of Iraq now, Nuri al-Maliki, is watching it all unravel in real-time. He has become scared enough to call for U.S. airstrikes to protect his power. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will comply, though covert strikes and some level of Special Forces action may happen behind the scenes. That won’t work of course. What the full weight of the U.S. military could not do over nine years, a few drone killings cannot do. It’s like using a can opener to try and catch fish.
What Might Happen Next
Things are evolving quickly in Iraq, but for now, here are some possible scenarios. The Kurds are the easy ones; they will keep on doing what they have been doing. They will fight back effectively and keep their oil flowing. They’ll see Baghdad’s influence only in the rear-view mirror.
The Sunnis will at least retain de facto control of western Iraq, maybe more. They are unlikely to be set up to govern in any formal way, but may create some sort of informal structure to collect taxes, enforce parts of the law and chase away as many Shias as they can. Violence will continue, sometimes hot and nasty, sometimes low-level score settling.
The Shias are the big variable. Maliki’s army seems in disarray, but if he only needs it to punish the Sunnis with violence it may prove up to that. Baghdad will not “fall.” The city is a Shia bastion now, and the militias will not give up their homes. A lot of blood may be spilled, but Baghdad will remain Shia-controlled and Maliki will remain in charge in some sort of limited way.
The U.S. will almost certainly pour arms and money into Iraq in the same drunken fashion we always have. Special Forces will quietly arrive to train and advise. It’ll be enough to keep Maliki in power but not much more than that. Domestically we’ll have to endure a barrage of “who lost Iraq?” and the Republicans will try and blast away at Obama for not “doing enough.” United States is poised to order an evacuation of the embassy, Fox News reported, but that is unlikely. “Unessential” personnel will be withdrawn, many of those slated to join the embassy out of Washington will be delayed or canceled, but the embarrassment of closing Fort Apache down would be too much for Washington to bear. The U.S. will use airstrike and drones if necessary to protect the embassy so that there will be no Benghazi scenario.
What is Unlikely to Happen
The U.S. will not intervene in any big way, absent protecting the embassy. Obama has cited many times the ending of the U.S. portion of the Iraq war as one of his few foreign policy successes and he won’t throw that under the bus. The U.S. backed off from significant involvement in Syria, and has all but ignored Libya following Benghazi, and that won’t change.
The U.S. must also be aware that intervening to save Maliki puts us on the same side in this mess as the Iranians.
Almost none of this has to do with al Qaeda or international terrorism, though those forces always profit from chaos.
The Turks may continue to snipe at the Kurds on their disputed border, but that conflict won’t turn hot. The U.S. will keep the pressure on to prevent that, and everyone benefits if the oil continues to flow.
The Iranians will not intervene any more than the Americans might. A little help to Malaki here (there are reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the fighting), some weapons there, but Iran is only interested in a secure western border and the Sunni Surge should not threaten that significantly enough to require a response. Iran also has no interest in giving the U.S. an excuse to fuss around in the area. A mild level of chaos in Iraq suits Iran’s needs just fine for now.
There are still many fools at loose in the castle. Here’s what Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics said: “There is hope… that this really scary, dangerous moment will serve as a catalyst to bring Iraqis together, to begin the process of reconciliation.”
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, brought out a tired trope, on Twitter no less: “The U.S. has a permanent Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We have suffered and bled together, and we will help in time of crisis.”
The war in Iraq was lost as it started. There was no way for America to win it given all of the above, whether the troops stayed forever or not. The forces bubbling inside Iraq might have been contained a bit, or a bit longer, but that’s about all that could have been expected. Much of the general chaos throughout the Middle East now is related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how that upset multiple balances of power and uneasy relationships. The Iraq war will be seen as one of the most significant foreign policy failures of recent American history. That too is inevitable.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is in the US this week, meeting with officials in hopes of getting more US assistance, including lots of weapons he says he needs to fight terrorism, or Syria, or whatever (whatever=killing more Sunnis.) You can expect lots of dumb, uninformed comment about this visit.
To save readers valuable time and as a public service, I have searched the web for the dumbest article you’ll encounter about Maliki’s visit, and present it here, with some explanatory comment.
The winner is Douglas A. Ollivant, writing for the really, really important blog-thingie War on the Rocks. Ollivant is certainly a smart apple about Iraq; indeed, he is responsible in part for the disaster there.
Ollivant served as Director for Iraq at the National Security Council during both the Bush and Obama administrations. He is now the Senior Vice President of Mantid, a “consulting firm” with offices in Washington, Beirut and Baghdad. He was also a member of now-disgraced idiot warrior-poet-flim flam man David Petraeus’ “brain trust” of “warrior-intellectuals.”
But enough about Google. Let’s see what this warrior intellectual has to tell us now about Iraq.
Iraq Did This to Themselves
First, it is important to note, Ollivant says, that “Iraq is, quite simply, on the receiving end of a major al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) offensive. AQI remains one of the most capable of the al Qaeda affiliates or regional franchises. As a percentage of the population, Iraq has lost more of its citizens to al Qaeda explosives in each of the past three months than the United States did on September 11, 2001.” Not that any of that has anything to do with the United States’ invasion and inept occupation of Iraq.
No, no, the al Qaeda “issue” in Iraq is actually Iraq’s own fault. We learn:
AQI has experienced a resurgence. As I have written elsewhere, this is largely due to the release of AQI-affiliated detainees, spill-over from the Syria conflict, passive support from elements of the Sunni population, and the simple fact that the Iraqi security forces fall far short of JSOC, particularly with respect to training and equipment.
To defeat this sophisticated terrorist network, the Iraqis must acquire more JSOC-like capabilities
(JSOC– Joint Special Operations Command, is a super-secret special forces entity that the US used for years in Iraq as a high-tech assassination squad, killing off a long whack-a-mole string of “senior al Qaeda leaders.” JSOC now continues its filthy work pretty much everywhere in the world following its success in Iraq.)
Of course, one cannot just order up some JSOC-like Iraqi guys on the internet or something for speedy delivery. Or can one? Ollivant has the answer:
Perhaps a more feasible answer is for the United States to facilitate the Iraqi contracting of private U.S. firms that specialize in intelligence analysis, many of them formed and/or staffed by JSOC, and other military intelligence, veterans.
That’s it, the solution to Iraq’s problem is for the nation to hire some of the US’ out-of-work mercenaries, from Blackwater or whomever, to return to Iraq and return to killing Iraqis. We all know how much Iraqis loved American mercs stampeding over their country during the Occupation, so this makes perfect sense.
After the Mercs, Weapons
Ollivant also knows that the Iraqis need weapons, lots of weapons. But why?
The frustration with the delays in fighter jets, air defense equipment, helicopters, and armored vehicles has moved beyond the staff level and become a Prime Ministerial issue. This should be of interest to the United States, as the reason Iraq needs this equipment is to stand up to—among others—its perennial rival, Iran.
C’mon man, this borders on warrior intellectual satire! Rival Iran? For the love of Allah, Maliki is an Iranian stooge. He was put into power by Iran, uses Iranian thugs to capture, imprison or kill his political rivals and visits Tehran as necessary to maintain a robust cross-border trade. Iranian planes overfly Iraq freely, on their way to Syria to deliver weapons to some version of whatever count as “rebels” nowadays (Ollivant says “Iraq lacks the Air Force and Air Defense system to stop this.”) And of course fighter jets and armored vehicles are exactly what you need for counter-insurgency work, right? I mean, that’s what the US used so fruitfully for nine years in Iraq so it must be right.
That Sunni-Shia Thing
Ollivant is also aware of that nasty Sunni-Shia thing. He does skip over Maliki’s arrest threats that drove his own Sunni Vice President into exile days after the US pulled out, and the systematic disenfranchisement of Sunni voters, and the abandonment of the Sahwa, Sunni fighters promised jobs in return for putting down their arms and all that. But Ollivant is a realist and so adds:
Maliki is no doubt expecting—with some resignation—a lecture on Sunni inclusion and reconciliation. This is a delicate issue and one that does not lend itself to easy solutions. But the reasonable Sunni issues can be reduced to de-Baathification reform, inclusion in Iraqi society, and an end to persecution by the security forces.
The de-Baathification thing is just a hoot, given that it was done by the US in 2003 and in many respects was the tipping point of the whole disaster, destroying Iraq’s civil service and thus functional government, throwing millions of Sunni’s out of work, and essentially creating the groundwork for the next nine years of insurgency. Hi-larious.
Security forces (Shia controlled) killing Sunnis? Just a typo: “Regarding the alleged persecution of Sunnis, there is no doubt that some innocent Sunni are caught in the raids that the security forces engage in to try to discover the AQI cells.”
Inclusion into Iraqi society? A statistical anomaly. “Sunni do not appreciate what they do have. While there has been no census in many decades, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq are no more than 25% of the population, and the CIA Factbook estimates they could be as little as 12%. Yet most Sunnis believe they comprise at least 50% of the Iraqi population. If the 12% is correct, Sunnis may well be over-represented…”
Maliki is Actually Thomas Jefferson
At this point you’d think that Ollivant would have sobered up, realized how he had embarrassed himself, and hit the delete key, just like he might do with those Facebook photos that seemed fun when posted last night but now don’t seem like resume material. Instead, he doubles-down for a big conclusion:
Maliki is not coming to the United States with hat in hand—he has his own money, and plenty of it. He does not want Iraq to be a ward of the U.S. military, but, rather, a customer of U.S. business. Iraq doesn’t need the U.S. to give it anything other than goodwill. It just wants the U.S. to deliver on sales of goods and services.
And in this, the Prime Minister will be echoing the sentiment, if not the words, of Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
So there you have it. The democracy the US failed to implement in Iraq after nine years of Occupation, trillions of dollars and thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives, is in hand. Thomas Jefferson is now Prime Minister of Iraq.
If the US gives Maliki anything on his trick-or-treat visit but a cold shoulder it has learned nothing in defeat. Huzzah!
Update: We now have a runner-up. Psychotic microcephalic James Jeffrey, former US ambassador in Baghdad, said Iraq desperately needs teams of US advisers, trainers, intelligence and counterterror experts to beat back al-Qaeda.
“They could mean all the difference between losing an Iraq that 4,500 Americans gave their lives for,” said Jeffrey.
So heads up American military reservists, for the recall order to ship back to Iraq for some more war. We’re getting the old band back together!
Now at the Washington Institute, a “think” tank, Jeffrey surveyed the current crumbling scene in Iraq from his office window (May is already boiling, and April was the bloodiest month there since 2008, with 712 killed, 1,633 wounded in sectarian violence) and wildly uncorked this remark:
Obama should also signal his willingness to consider new approaches to Iraq if the Maliki government continues its campaign against the Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations.
[Jon Stewart-type mug face to camera look now]
OMG! A willingness, really? And to consider? And the stinger, a new approach?!?
Utter bullshit. All the impact of a David Bowie-Justin Bieber slap fight.
Heavens me, Prime Minister Maliki must be a’ quaking in his sandals. Maliki watched in 2010 as the U.S. stood aside and allowed Iran to broker the election that put him in power. He tried to arrest his Sunni VP practically hours after the last US troops left Iraq. He has seen the U.S. do nothing as he seeks to crush violently the Sunni and Kurd minorities over an extended period of time, including during Ambassador Jeffrey’s own lame tenure. Maliki has allowed Iran to tranship weapons into Syria across Iraq while the U.S. dithered from some dark corner.
Maliki knows a defeated nation when he sees one. This is how America loses wars, former Ambassador Jeffrey.
There is a school of physics, or maybe science fiction, it doesn’t matter, that posits if matter and anti-matter collide it will be the end of the universe. Collapse of the time-space continuum, regression of the speed of light, that sort of thing. We can say now that such theories are wrong, having witnessed a great collision of reality and anti-reality at the Bush Library opening and lived to tell the tale.
Last week found us wallowing in the opening of the Bush Library in Texas, a monument to George W. and his eight year reign of terror in America. The library opening also signified the opening shots of Bush revisionism, the signal that all loyal or ignorant (perhaps loyal and ignorant?) pundits should start trying to make up a new version of reality to replace the evil, horrible crap that really happened between 2000-2008.
Leading the pack was Charles Krauthammer (the name is somehow not a punchline of its own), who reminded us of how wonderful the Iraq War really was. Krauthammer fapped:
Finally, the surge, a courageous Bush decision taken against near-universal opposition, that produced the greatest U.S. military turnaround since the Inchon landing. And inflicted the single most significant defeat for al-Qaeda (save Afghanistan) — a humiliating rout at the hands of Iraqi Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the American infidel.
As with Lincoln, it took Bush years of agonizing bloody stalemate before he finally found his general and his strategy. Yet, for all the terrible cost, Bush bequeathed to Obama a strategically won war.
Wow. That’s enough to make an old man proud. Out of breath here, gimme a minute, OK…
Meanwhile, in the real Iraq, last week saw the deaths of some 200 people, mostly those perky Sunnis Krauthammer writes about, in combat against the dominate Shia regime (Krauthammer at least got it right that it was a civil war.) The fighting escalated to the point where Sunni fighters briefly took over a town and had to be killed by the Iraqi army to restore Shia order.
Also among the Sunni dead last week were two Sahwa (“Sons of Iraq”) leaders, gunned down with silenced pistols in a classic assasination. The Sahwa of course were America’s creation, the Sunnis willing to fight on our side for money.
The killings noted above were preceded by a series of pre-election bomb blasts across Iraq that killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 257 others. Suck on that Boston!
The whimpering U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was roused from its absinthe-fueled haze to issue a bland statement that “raised concerns” about the Sunni-Shia clashes, without of course assigning blame. It again called for an “urgent and transparent investigation.” And get this line, delivered without irony: “The United States stands firmly with the Iraqi people who seek to live in peace after so many decades of war.” Hah hah, it’s funny because it was the U.S. that created those decades of war! It’s like SNL, the good years!
But the most significant sign of Iraq’s state of democracy was that Iraqi authorities announced Sunday they revoked the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine other satellite TV channels, alleging that they are promoting a “sectarian agenda.” That agenda seems to include reporting on more than the wonderfulness of the Shia Maliki government, hence the censorship.
Now if you want to be sad, read this bit of revisionism, as one American soldier continues to imagine his time in Iraq “made a difference.” You understand the politicians and the pundits say their stupid things for gain or money, but this soldier is just plain sad trying to make his sacrifice seem worthwhile. My heart goes out to him in his ignorance of how he was used.
So, that all clearly justifies 4,462 American and 122,000 Iraqi dead under Bush’s war. Moving on…
Bonus: Condi Rice explains why Bush-era torture was OK (Turns out it was all nice and legal)
Extra Bonus: Handy guide, “How to Debunk George W. Bush’s Attempts at Revisionism,” neatly destroys the “but he kept us safe” myth.
Tracking for your convenience the value of our sacrifices for a free Iraq!
January 5, 2012 – Four bombs in mainly Shi’ite Muslim areas of Iraq kill at least 73 people with about 150 people wounded. The biggest attack takes place beside a police checkpoint west of Nassiriya, where a suicide bomber targeting Shi’ite pilgrims kills 44 people.
January 14 – A suicide bomber disguised as a policeman kills at least 53 people and wounds 130 more in an attack on Shi’ite pilgrims at a police checkpoint in Basra, southern Iraq.
January 27 – A suicide bomber explodes his vehicle near a Shi’ite funeral procession in the Zaafaraniya neighbourhood of Baghdad, killing at least 31 and wounding more than 60.
February 23 – About 60 people are killed in bomb blasts across Iraq. Thirty-two people die in Baghdad where 10 explosions tear through mainly Shi’ite neighborhoods.
March 20 – At least 30 explosions strike cities and towns across Iraq, killing at least 52 people and wounding 235, despite a security clampdown for an Arab League meeting. Al Qaeda’s Iraq wing claimed responsibility.
April 19 – More than 20 bombs hit cities and towns, killing at least 36 people and wounding almost 150. In Baghdad, three car bombs, two roadside bombs and one suicide car bomb hit mainly Shi’ite areas, killing 15 people and wounding 61. Again Iraq’s al Qaeda wing claims responsibility.
May 31 – Six explosions hit neighbourhoods across Baghdad, killing at least 17 people. Attacks include a truck bomb blast at a market, a car bomb and several roadside bombs on mixed neighbourhoods.
June 4 – A suicide car bomber detonates his vehicle outside a Shi’ite religious office in central Baghdad, killing at least 22 people and wounding more than 100 more in an attack officials say bears the hallmarks of Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate.
June 13 – More than 75 people are killed in bombings and attacks in Baghdad and other cities. At least 30 people are killed when four bombs hit pilgrims in Baghdad. Another Baghdad blast kills 16 people as pilgrims passed through a checkpoint in Karrada district. In Hilla at least 22 people are killed when two bombs explode.
June 16 – At least 26 people are killed and more than 60 wounded when double car bombs strike at Shi’ite pilgrims in Baghdad, in the third day of violence during the major religious festival in the capital.
July 3 – A bomb in a truck kills 40 people and wounds 75 others in a market in Diwaniya. The blast was near a mosque where pilgrims were gathering for a Shi’ite celebration. Another blast kills four more people near Karbala.
Here’s a story worth repeating in its whole, as it will be one of those articles you wish you had read a few years from now when everyone is wondering how Iraq ended up a vassal state of Iran.
Note the important parts in bold, particularly the final paragraph which reminds again that the US failure to reconstruct Iraq will continue to have far-reaching consequences for the US in the Middle East.
A pubic relations stumble between Tehran and Baghdad has intensified speculation that one of Iran’s most senior clerics is about to extend his power – and Iran’s theocratic system – into Iraq.
On his return from a visit to Tehran, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office released statements on his meetings with several senior Iranian officials – but it was silent on Mr Maliki’s encounter with 63-year-old Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.
Despite a Baghdad blackout on what is understood to have been their third meeting in recent months, Iran’s government-run news agency IRNA released a photograph of Mr Maliki and Ayatollah Shahroudi – who is Iraqi by birth – greeting each other warmly. An accompanying report on the visit barely mentions Mr Maliki, but quotes Ayatollah Shahroudi urging Baghdad to support the ”Islamic Awakening” currently under way in the Middle East.
Ayatollah Shahroudi, a powerful member of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s inner circle, is positioning himself to become the next spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, a move observers say would be impossible without Tehran’s blessing and funding. The Iraqi religious establishment, based in Najaf, south of Baghdad, opposes religious intervention in day-to-day government. But in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory that God’s authority is vested in the supreme leader and senior religious scholars is law.
Speaking privately, a senior official in Baghdad described the meeting as ”extremely significant”, revealing at least tacit support by Mr Maliki for an Iranian plan to have Ayatollah Shahroudi replace the ailing Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites.
Reidar Visser, an Oslo-based analyst of Iraqi affairs, sees formidable obstacles to the Shahroudi bid, but warned: “By visiting Shahroudi, Maliki did nothing to kill the rumours about some kind of Iranian design on the holiest centre of Iraqi Shiism. “If Shahroudi should succeed … those arguing that Maliki is moving towards even greater co-ordination with the Iranian clergy would feel vindicated – and rightly so.”
The plan seems to be inspired, in part, by a breakdown in relations between Mr Maliki’s government and religious authorities in Najaf. Despite remaining aloof from day-to-day politics, the ayatollahs wield significant power in their real or perceived endorsement of the government and its policies.
For months now, all the senior clerics in Najaf have been abiding by an edict from Ayatollah Sistani that they not meet with politicians or government officials. Referring to the cloak-like robe worn by Arab men, a spokesman for one of the senior ayatollahs in Najaf told The Saturday Age: “We will not continue to cover their mistakes with our abaya.”
Ayatollah Sistani’s surrogates have recently become even more confrontational, openly attacking the Baghdad government during Friday prayers. One cleric widely linked to Ayatollah Sistani, Ahmed al-Safi, blamed government corruption for the failure to restore Iraq’s electrical generation system.
“When patriotism is absent, officials sell themselves to foreigners for their kickbacks,” he said while preaching at the holy city of Karbala.
Iraq has been free for about two months now. As idiots debate whether or not “it was worth it,” the Agency France Press (AFP) cuts to the money shot with a terse summary of the deadliest attacks in Iraq since only January:
January 5: Attacks against Shiite Muslims in Baghdad and south Iraq kill 68 people and wound more than 100.
January 14: A suicide bomber kills 53 people and wounds 137 in an attack on Shiite pilgrims on the outskirts of the southern port city of Basra.
January 27: A suicide bomber detonates an explosives-packed car at a funeral procession outside a Baghdad hospital, killing 31 people and wounding 60 others.
February 19: A suicide bomber detonates a car bomb in front of a Baghdad police academy, killing 15 people and wounding 21.
February 23: A wave of attacks nationwide, blamed on al Qaeda, kill 42 people and leave more than 250 wounded.
March 5: Suspected al Qaeda gunmen, some wearing police uniforms, and rage through the western city of Haditha in a pre-dawn shooting spree that leaves 27 policemen dead.
Even as the AFP posted this macabre list, violence in Iraq continued.
A recent wave of violence in Iraq has resulted in the kidnapping, torture, and killing of about 40 people perceived to be gay or lesbian, with the murder weapon sometimes being a concrete block to the head. The killings began in early February after an unidentified group put up posters with death threats against “adulterous individuals” in largely Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and Basra, reports the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The threats listed the targets’ names and ages, and gave them four days to change their behavior or face divine retribution.
On March 7 a car bomb attack in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad left three dead as the capital prepared for the Arab League summit. The same day, a suicide blast killed 14 in the predominantly Shia Turkmen city of Tal Afar. Al Jazeera summed up the continuing violence in a photo essay.
In December 2011, President Obama paid tribute to the more than one million Americans who served in Iraq, the 4,479 fallen Americans and thousands wounded, as well as Iraqis who gave their lives. “They are the reason that we can stand here today and we owe it to every single one of them, we have a moral obligation to all of them, to build a future worthy of their sacrifice,” he said.
As the war drums beat again (Iran this time), we must remember how little politicians actually value our lives. Let us start making a list in relation to what Iraq has become:
4479: General Qassim Sulaimani, head of the Iranian Qods force for Iraq and scenic Lebanon, saying “Iraq is under the will of Tehran.”
David Hickman, 23, of Greensboro was the last of the 4479 Americans killed during the Iraq War and Occupation. According to an Associated Press analysis of casualty data, the average age of Americans who died in Iraq was 26. Nearly 1,300 were 22 or younger, but middle-aged people fought and died as well: some 511 were older than 35.
“I used to watch all the war stories on TV, you know,” said Needham, Hickman’s old coach. “But since this happened to David, I can’t watch that stuff anymore. I just think: That’s how he died.”
4478: 1st Lt. Dustin D. Vincent, 25, of Mesquite, Texas, died November 3, 2011.
No statement denying the Qods statement from the Iraqi Government.
4477: Sgt. 1st Class David G. Robinson, 28, of Winthrop Harbor, Ill., died October 25.
Iraq is falling back into authoritarianism and headed towards becoming a police state, despite US claims that it has helped establish democracy in the country, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.
4476: Capt. Shawn P. T. Charles, 40, of Hickory, N.C., died October 23.
Iraq cracked down harshly during 2011 on freedom of expression and assembly by intimidating, beating and detaining activists, demonstrators and journalists.
4475: Pfc. Steven F. Shapiro, 29, of Hidden Valley Lake, Calif., died October 21. Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, that women’s rights remain poor and civilians have paid a heavy toll in bomb attacks.
4474: Staff Sgt. James R. Leep Jr., 44, of Richmond, Va., died October 17.
Human Rights Watch discovered a secret prison run by forces controlled by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office, the same troops who ran Camp Honour, another facility where detainees were tortured.
4473: Spc. Adrian G. Mills, 23, of Newnan, Ga., died September 29.
Prime Minister Maliki’s security services have locked up more than 1,000 members of other political parties over the past several months, detaining many of them in secret locations with no access to legal counsel and using “brutal torture” to extract confessions, his chief political rival, Ayad Allawi, has charged.
4472: Sgt. Andy C. Morales, 32, of Longwood, Fla., died September 22.
Iraq remains consumed by violence.
4471: Staff Sgt. Estevan Altamirano, 30, of Edcouch, Texas, died September 18.
Even the State Department thinks “violence and threats against U.S. citizens persist [in Iraq] and no region should be considered safe from dangerous conditions.”
4470: Cmdr. James K. Crawford, 50, of East Concord, N.Y., died September 7.
Security remains a primary concern nearly nine years after the U.S. invasion, with bombings a daily occurrence, and most foreign companies hire personal security teams. Bank HSBC spends around $3,000-$6,000 a day on security. Ground Works Inc, an engineering, construction and logistics firm, said security for housing and business compounds can run at $14,000-$18,000 a month, while a local bodyguard costs $1,500 a month and a foreign guard $4,000 per month. Electricity is intermittent and having a generator is a necessity. Businessmen say fuel for generators can cost around $3,000-$8,000 a month.
4469: Sgt. Mark A. Cofield, 25, of Colorado Springs, Colo., died July 17.
A scandal unfolding in Denmark over the transfer of Iraqi prisoners by Danish forces to Iraq authorities, even as they knew they would be tortured, threatens to implicate the current Secretary General of NATO.
4468: Spc. Daniel L. Elliott, 21, of Youngsville, N.C., died July 15.
On the day the last US combat troops left the country, Maliki turned against his vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of what he has himself long been suspected of – ordering the bombings and assassinations of his political opponents. Mr Hashimi was not just a leading Sunni Muslim in a Shia-dominated government. He was the linchpin of the political deal stitched together by the US last year, under which the Iraqiya coalition, which won the largest number of votes in the last election, agreed to participate in government. Hashimi fled to the relative safety of Kurdistan, before denouncing the charges as a coup, but he joins a growing list of internal exiles – all of them Sunni.
4467: pc. Marcos A. Cintron, 32, of Orlando, Fla., died June 16.
At least 30 people connected to the leader of Iraqiya, Ayad Allawi, had been arrested in recent weeks by security forces under Mr Maliki’s personal control.
4466: Sgt. Steven L. Talamantez, 34, of Laredo, Texas, died July 10.
For five years Iraq was the most important item on policy-makers’ agenda. That meant we allowed China to steal a march on the United States. It gained economically, militarily and perhaps even diplomatically as the United States demonstrated it was not the unquestionable superpower that many believed it was at the start of 2000s.
4465: Spc. Nathan R. Beyers, 24, of Littleton, Colo. died July 7.
Iraq likely played a role in the export of banned US-made internet surveillance equipment to Syria.
4464: Spc. Nicholas W. Newby, 20, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, also died July 7.
The State Department continues to refuse to cooperate in an audit of its multi-billion dollar Iraqi police training program.
4463: Capt. David E. Van Camp, 29, of Wheeling, W.Va. died June 29.
Even though they often are housed on-base at Department of Defense facilities and within secure perimeters for embassies operated by the State Department, many of these [third country national] TCN workers live in sub-human conditions, are subjected to sexual abuse and even prostitution, have wages stolen by subcontractors, and have passports stolen in order to prevent them from leaving,” said Gerry Connolly (D-VA) referring to widespread human trafficking committed by US government contractors in Iraq.
4462: Capt. Matthew G. Nielson, 27, of Jefferson, Iowa also died June 29.
Percentage of Iraqis who lived in slum conditions in 2000: 17%; in 2011: 50%
4461: Spc. Robert G. Tenney Jr., 29, Warner Robins, Ga. also died June 29.
Rank of Iraq on Corruption Index among 182 countries: 175.
To be continued, and repeated…
(All names of the deceased and the dates of their deaths are from Antiwar.com)
As part of the democratic process still unfolding in Iraq, Sunni insurgents have attacked an Iraqi police station manned by Shia cops, in Sunni Ramadi. The cops work for the Iraqi government, widely seen as being dominated by Shia and used as a tool of control over the Sunni’s in Ramadi. Cowboys and Indians.
In Ramadi, two initial car bombs exploded at around 11:30 am near Dawlah Kabir Mosque in the center of the city, before a third car bomb went off in the same area. A short time later, a fourth car bomb detonated near a police compound in Ramadi, followed quickly thereafter by two suicide bombers blowing themselves up inside. Then, about 10 insurgents stormed the compound, which houses the police’s investigations and intelligence directorate and a building under construction that is to be the new office of the mayor of Ramadi. The gunmen, who apparently did not take hostages, were holed up in the latter facility and clashes were ongoing as of 1:30 pm.
The violence was reminiscent of a siege at a police station in the nearby town of Al-Baghdadi, also in Anbar province, three months ago, in which the local police chief and four others were killed when gunmen disguised in police uniforms set off explosions, clearing the way for them to overrun the building.
In June, at least three explosions near provincial government offices in Ramadi killed 10 people and wounded 15 others.
In January 2011, a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed car carrying Anbar governor Qassim Mohammed Abid, but he was unhurt.
Anbar Provincial government offices were also targeted by attackers three times in 2010, and, on December 30, 2009,
Of course, Sunday’s violence in Ramadi came a day after a suicide attacker targeting Shiites killed 53 people on the outskirts of the southern city of Basra, the latest in a series of attacks that have killed nearly 200 people.
Following some of the worst car bombings in some time in Baghdad, the Grinches high atop Mount Crumpit at the White House and State Department mumbled:
Vice President Biden has spoken to several senior Iraqi leaders over the past week. Today he called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to offer our full support for his efforts, and those of other Iraqi leaders, to foster dialogue that will allow all Iraqi blocs to work through their differences together. The Vice President also reiterated the need for actions to be guided by the rule of law and Iraq’s Constitution. At this difficult time, the United States stands with Iraq as a strategic partner and a close friend.
Happy messaging from Washington, but they are fooling no one except perhaps the American people, and of course the easily distracted American media. Most US outlets perked up momentarily to report on the Baghdad bombings, but otherwise events in Iraq lost in their competition with Rudolph, Lingerie Football and “It’s a Good Life” marathons.
Meanwhile in Whoville, it was like a Greatest Hits of the Iraq War show, with both Generals Odierno and Petraeus (now CIA head for some reason) dropping by the old neighborhood to chat with Maliki while Biden worked the phones. US Ambassador James Jeffrey, who had read too many of his own press releases and left Baghdad early for the Christmas holidays, was also back and went straight to Duhok in Kurdistan to meet with Kurdish President Barzani. They would try to stop the Grinch from stealing Christmas they would.
The New Yorker shares that “For those who may have briefly, vainly wished for a “decent interval” following the American departure from Iraq, the moment of illusion is over” and notes that while American voices talk of standing together and all that Rainbow Connection stuff, Maliki’s “public statements regarding the future of the Iraqi-American relationship have been unsettlingly parsimonious, along the lines of ‘one chapter ends, a new one begins; we look forward to the future.’”
The Sunnis continue to vote with their feet. Several thousand Iraqis protested on Friday against Maliki in Samarra and other Sunni strongholds after he moved to sideline Sunni leaders from his power-sharing government. After Friday prayers, with Sunni imams warning Maliki was seeking to foment sectarian divisions, protesters took to the streets of Samarra, Ramadi, Baiji and Qaim, many waving banners in support of Hashemi, and criticising the government.
Baghdad is once again under guard, much as it was during the American occupation. Media reports the movement of the vehicles is limited, and the streets are semi-empty, in addition to strict security precautions. “The BOC has banned press photographers to shoot photos of the explosion site in Karrada, targeted against the office of the Integrity Commission, killing and wounding dozens of civilians and completely destroying the building,” an Iraqi press photographer told Aswat al-Iraq news agency. Parliament speaker Nujaifi’s spokesperson told Agence France-Presse News that crisis talks have been postponed indefinitely because Iraq MPs can’t visit Baghdad due to the security situation.
The US Consulate in Kirkuk was again hit by rockets.
So, this holiday season, please do take efforts from the White House and the State Department to downplay the events in Iraq with a grain of salt dear Cindy Lou Who. Or two. Pass the roast beast, please.
Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mount Crumpit,
He rode to the tiptop to dump it!
“Pooh-pooh to the Whos!” he was grinch-ish-ly humming.
“They’re finding out now that no
ChristmasDemocracy is coming!
“They’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do!
“Their mouths will hang open a minute or two
“The all the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO!”
(If it is stuck in your head now like it is in mine, read the whole of How the Grinch Stole Christmas online)
For those who were napping, literally a freaking day (this war’s “decent interval”) after the last US troops left Iraq, PM Maliki drops an arrest warrant on his Sunni VP, pops three of the guy’s bodyguards into jail, and then rolls them out on the TV to announce their boss, VP Hashemi, is a terrorist. Tanks appear in the Green Zone, with their tubes pointed inward at various Sunni leaders’ homes. Hashemi runs for the protection of Kurdistan, nominally part of Iraq but pretty much autonomous, at least as declared so by Exxon, who signed oil contracts up there without the seal of approval of PM Maliki.
To make things more intense, Maliki threatened on Wednesday to abandon the American-backed power sharing government created a year ago.
Hashemi remains in exile with the Kurds. “Unfortunately I cannot go to Baghdad right now, my office is occupied, all of my computers have been seized by authorities loyal to Maliki,” he told the Daily Beast. “My house is being investigated and all my computers and papers have been seized there. My office staff has been asked to leave.”
Maliki also issued a warning to his rivals from Iraqiya, the largely Sunni bloc of lawmakers that includes Hashemi: if it does not end its boycott of Parliament and the Council of Ministers, he would move to form a majority government that would, in essence, exclude Sunnis from power. If Iraqiya’s ministers do not show up at future sessions, he said, “we will appoint replacements.”
And as a final punctuation point, a wave of at least 14 bombings ripped across Baghdad Thursday morning, killing at least 60 people in the worst violence Iraq has seen for months.
Oh, now don’t go acting all surprised at this.
The US has signaled several times to the Shia majority that it was willing to trade Sunni lives for the appearance of democracy, and then to trade that appearance of democracy for anything in Iraq that is not overtly seen as an Iranian win.
The key to the lessening of violence during the Surge in 2007 was the US buying off the Sunnis, the so-called Anbar Awakening. The US paid Sunnis not to kill us, helped them eliminate rivals (all labeled “al Qaeda” to make it nice and legal looking) and claimed publicly that this was all to buy time for some sort of Sunni-Shia reconciliation. Instead, even as early as 2009 when I was involved with such Sunnis, the US made little more than happy sounds to try and get the Shias to uphold their promises to take over the payoffs and provide real jobs for the Sunnis. The US sat idle in the face of obvious fraud in the payoffs and sat idle when Sunnis were never offered meaningful jobs in the new Shia government. That bought-and-paid-for lapse in violence was good enough to start the troop pullouts that ended a few days ago. With honor.
The real sign that the appearance of a democracy alone was good enough for the US took place after the contested March 2010 elections. Though it appeared Sunni-backed elements won the majority of votes, without the support of the Iranian-backed Shias, especially the Sadrists, they could not form a government. The Iranians brokered a deal that created a Shia majority government with the Sadrists, throwing a few bones to the Sunnis and leaving the Kurds alone as they wished to be. The US, desperate to see some government, any government, be formed to allow us to finally leave Iraq, fluttered around Baghdad frantically, advising this and suggesting that, until nine lousy months later the Iranians proclaimed it finished and a government was formed, December 2010.
With one eye on the exit, the US then sat quietly while Maliki failed to fill the critical government posts of Defense and Interior, the later controlling internal security. Maliki instead put himself into both jobs. Meanwhile, the daily news in Iraq was filled with stories of assassinations of Sunni government officials, with the regular whacking of Sunni Sons of Iraq leaders. Any violence directed at Shias was quickly labeled, again, “al Qaeda,” which enabled the US to look the other way as Maliki spent a year arranging the chess board for this week’s moves.
Of course a coincidence, but Maliki announced today that instead of the number zero previously trumpeted in two capitals, the US is leaving behind 700 US soldiers as “trainers.” He also extended the MEK grace period another few months. Thus the US is handed a Scooby treat or two to ensure it keeps shut up about Maliki’s political moves.
The World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad returned the favor. The Embassy web site features a puff piece on Maliki’s visit with Obama and an article on “Using Sports as a Means to Empower Women and Girls.” No mention of the current dramatic events in Iraq among the “emergency messages” for American Citizens either. Nothing to see here folks, move along now.
So, stop acting so surprised that 24 and a quarter hours after the US pulled out Maliki pulled off his rubber George Washington face mask to reveal himself instead to be just another crappy Middle East dictator running roughshod over his own country.
America made it very, very clear it would sacrifice democracy in Iraq for pretty much whatever it could get in order to pull the troops out, and America got exactly what it said it wanted, not much more than 24 hours later.
There’s yer legacy, boys, there’s what ya’ll died for. Photo above of PM Maliki and Obama laying a memorial wreath at Arlington National Cemetery last week.
Sunni Anbar province sent twenty demands to the central government to be implemented within 14 days, otherwise, the province will be declared as independent region, according to a decision taken by the Provincial Council.
The demands concentrated on allocating enough funds, withdrawal of the Iraqi army , stopping random arrests and raids and transforming Habbaniyah military airport to a civilian.
Meanwhile, with Sunni VP Hashimi still “visiting” Kurdistan, a Kurdish Alliance MP described the charges leveled against Hashimi by the Shia-dominated central government as “political, not criminal”. MP Shwan Mohammed told Aswat al-Iraq that though the arrest warrant is judicial, the case is “political.”
In Mosul, the (Shia) Iraqi military force arrested a leader from Hadba’ List, an advisor to Ninewa governor for sports affairs. Hadba’ List is an affiliate within the Iraqiya bloc.
This represents another round fired in the current Sunni-Shia battle now unfolding throughout Iraq.
As Western media outlets close up shop in Iraq, following the blog Musings on Iraq remains a good way to keep up with events.
As all the false statements by Obama, Panetta and the neocon stenographers who tried to justify the war by claiming Iraq is a democratic, stable society drifted off into space, a day later Iraq’s Sunni-backed bloc suspended its participation in parliament accusing Prime Minister Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government of concentrating power. The move by the Iraqiya parliamentary bloc, headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, intensifies political jostling among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs who form Iraq’s fragile power-sharing government.
Iraqiya said in a statement it was “suspending its participation in parliament … until further notice,” accusing Maliki of stalling on promises to form a partnership government.
The bloc complained Maliki is delaying filling key positions such as the ministries of defense and security, posts which have been empty for a year because of political squabbling. Supported strongly by minority Sunnis, Iraqiya won the largest number of seats in the March 2010 national election but failed to muster a governing majority. Maliki put together a coalition with Iranian help that included the Sadrists.
“We think there are new indications of a new attempt to create a dictatorship,” said Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. “We are really worried that the country is being led into chaos and division and the possibility of civil war is there.”
It gets better, or maybe worse.
A brewing confrontation in the province of Diyala underscored the risk that violence could erupt. After the mostly Sunni leadership of the province declared last week that it intends to seek regional autonomy under the terms of Iraq’s constitution, Shiite militiamen surrounded the provincial council headquarters and set fire to the Sunni governor’s home.
The governor and most members of the provincial council have fled to northern Kurdistan, and on Saturday, the main highway linking Baghdad to the northern city of Kirkuk was blocked for a third day by Shiite militiamen who, residents said, belong to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
An arrest warrant was issued for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi for being the mastermind behind the recent bombing targeting the parliament. He has been banned from leaving the country, and three of his body guards have been arrested on terror charges related to the car bombing which took place on November 28.
According to the Iraqi government, evidence pointed at al-Hashimi’s embroilment in the parliament blast incident after deriving confessions from four arrested Islamic Party members.
“As difficult as [the Iraq war] was,” and the cost in both American and Iraqi lives, “I think the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world,” said Leon Panetta.
There are new stories from Iraq that the Maliki government is no longer issuing passes for journalists to enter the Green Zone. If true, that, plus the general withdrawal of Western media from Iraq now that the “big story” of the troop withdrawal is over, will limit what the world knows about events. Sorry.
Gonna be an interesting 2012 in Iraq. What is most significant here is not the events– though they are shattering in scope and negative potential– but the timing. Both sides barely waited for the last US soldier to cross the border before beginning the unraveling. No decent interval here, just a contemptuous display of how little the US accomplished.
Iraq continues to represent the vision of two American presidents who apparently had nothing better to do than invade and occupy the place because, hey, why not? On Saturday, seven people were killed and 28 others wounded when three roadside bombs exploded mid-morning in the busy Bab al-Sharji commercial district of central Baghdad. Another six men died and 10 others were injured when a roadside bomb hit a minibus carrying young laborers and construction workers in al-Annaz area in eastern Falluja. Both area were primarily Sunni.
But don’t worry, because earlier in the week 50 people were killed and more than 50 others were hurt when three explosions hit a commercial district in Basra, an oil-rich, predominantly Shiite city. The universe of sectarian killing in Iraq remains in balance.
America firmed up ties with its best buddy and ally Pakistan by gunning down at least 26 Pakistani troops. NATO helicopters opened fire on two Pakistani military checkpoints near the border with Afghanistan early Saturday, killing 24 soldiers. Another 13 soldiers were wounded in the attack in the Mohmand Agency area. But it’s OK– Marine General John R. Allen offered his “sincere and personal heartfelt condolences” to the families of any Pakistan Security Forces members killed or injured. OK, that’s settled!
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, six children were among seven civilians killed in a NATO airstrike. A spokesman for the governor of Kandahar said that a NATO reconnaissance aircraft spotted five militants planting mines in the village of Siacha. The plane targeted the insurgents, killing two and wounding a third, and then pursued the other two suspects as they carried their wounded comrade away. “The plane chased them, the insurgents entered a street where children were playing and, as a result of its shooting, seven people have been killed, including six children, and two girls also have been injured.”
There is more, but my stomach can only handle so much loaded down with turkey and stuffing, so I’ll leave it to your imagination and Google. Americans, thank you, and please now return to your shopping and over-eating.
Here’s some good news on a Monday– The top US general in Iraq predicted a level of upheaval in the country as militant groups jostle to fill the vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of all American forces in the coming weeks.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said the threat from the Sunni extremist organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, could grow at the same time that Iranian-backed Shiite militias are also seeking to assert themselves.
“Al-Qaeda will continue to do what it’s done in the past, and we expect that it’s possible they could even increase their capability,” he said. Meanwhile, Shiite militias based mostly in the south will pursue their efforts to expand their capabilities, Austin said.
But, he added, “I’m hopeful that the right things will continue to happen.”
Wait, according to a million email signature lines, “hope” is not a strategy. Has that changed?
So, quick summary: almost nine years after the invasion of Iraq, $63 billion in reconstruction, so many elections and of course the Surge/Awakening that was supposed to have helped settled the Sunni-Shia civil war, as the US withdraws the best view the Army’s main guy can offer is a revived al Qaeda and renewed Sunni-Shia violence?
That sort of seems like… after everything… we… did… not… accomplish… much.
See you on the Embassy rooftop for the ride home. Last person out of the compound shut off the lights in Baghdaddy’s!
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation, it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, “But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic or whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a … relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.”
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song.
On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything.
The United States lost 4484 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return. Blood for oil? Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta’s patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state. As this is written, it is even unclear if the United States will snag any permanent bases in Iraq, and whether any troops will be allowed to stay on past the end of this December.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell “Kurdistan” from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO — imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time-they ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban “Al Hassan and Al Hussein” on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. “This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife,” said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran…
Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran’s nukes (if Cheney couldn’t edge the United States into that fight, who can?).
The Iranians also came to see that Iraq, like Lebanon, made for a nice proxy battleground. By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: Iranian-made roadside bombs ealled EFPs. These shaped “explosively formed penetrating devices” fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. (Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, which also advances the United States vs. Iran proxy theory in general.)
Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq. When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003. Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.
Yet while strategic and political relationships are very important between Iraq and Iran, it is the growing economic and social-religious ties that cement the relationship and signify Iran as the real winner of the U.S. invasion. The raw numbers tell a big part of the story: the two countries’ current annual trade is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion and growing, with much more money changing hands on the black market.
On more formal terms, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi kicked off the most recent round of goodwill on July 6, when he traveled to Baghdad to join the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. Better yet, Iran agreed to supply 9,400 barrels of “gasoil” a day to Iraq for power generation. Iraq also signed a $365 million agreement to install a pipeline network to import natural gas from Iran for power stations in the country. The pipelines will eventually supply 25 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas a day to the Sadr, al-Quds and South Baghdad power stations in the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said that Iran and Iraq would soon sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said.
But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism. Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange. It also creates significant people-to-people ties that Iran will be able to exploit long into the future.
Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian companies are associated with local hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to the religious site Mashhad, in Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.
Business is booming. Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.
I saw a little slice of this during my own time in Iraq. My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.
Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the US invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select friends of Saddam. My translator recalled family trips to the area the way my daughters remember a visit to Disney, leaving me a bit nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.
On routine patrols through the area, my PRT and Army would frequently see giant tour buses with Iranian license plates and markings hauling tourists around the city. The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.” Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom. We didn’t know it then, but our tourists were offering us a glimpse of the future, a picture of who the winners, and losers, were to be in our war.
As for Iraq, add it up:
–no resolution to the Arab-Kurd issue,
–no resolution to the Sunni-Shia issue,
–no significant growth in the oil industry,
–a weakened U.S. presence more interested in a Middle East land base and profitable arm sales than internal affairs,
–and an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Hold your emails– the title is not another grievance-inducing off-the-ranch remark by me, but instead comes from scholar and usually urbane analyst Reider Visser. Visser, on his blog and in his articles, is one of the more secular and steady believers that Iraq still functions under an organized set of laws (a Constitution) and that representative government is still a possibility for Iraq.
I guess until now. The next phase of the unraveling of Iraq, it seems, isn’t even going to have the good manners to wait for the US troop withdrawal at year’s end.
Maliki’s Shia-dominated, Tehran-friendly government (aka, the reason the US sacrificed 4479 lives and trillions of dollars) is on an anti-Sunni rampage rivaling your favorite fictional zombie apocolypse.
Iraq’s prime minister said Saturday that 615 people have been detained in a security sweep targeting so-called members of the former ruling Baath party. Arrests on this scale terrify Sunnis, who consider use of the term “Baathists” by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government to be a coded way to refer to Sunni politicians, army officers, and other prominent members of their community. Sunnis say that Maliki uses crackdowns on Baathists as a tool to exert political pressure. The arrests coincide with a recent autonomy push by Salahaddin, a mostly-Sunni province in north-central Iraq, the latest bone of contention between Sunni political blocs and the Baghdad government.
In other words, ethnic cleansing, the latest act in the Sunni-Shia civil war the US birthed in our 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Maliki clarifies that what Salahaddin is not really a declaration of a federal region, since this is not legally possible… But what follows is complete nonsense. Maliki says the government will reject the request for a referendum because it “is based on a sectarian grounds, intended to offer protection of Baathists, and on other unclear grounds”!
This comment by Maliki is tantamount to pissing on the constitution. As long as they stay faithful to the procedures laid down in the law for forming regions, Iraqis can create federal regions for whatever reasons they want. No one has the right to enquire about the motives as long as the modalities are done correctly. If Maliki wants to change that – and there are good reasons for restricting federalism options so as to avoid a constant string of useless federalism attempts – he must work to change the constitution.
It is a sorry sign of the state of play in Iraq that both opponents and proponents of the Salahaddin federal region are now making up their own laws.
I’ll leave this space available for the State Department declaration criticizing Maliki’s actions: _______
Welcome to your Malikistan, America. Trouble a’ brewing up ahead, better circle the wagons around Fort Apache, formerly known as the World’s Largest Embassy (c).
We do check in on Iraq from time to time, just to keep tabs on the endless violence there.
In case you missed it, some Sunnis killed 22 Shitte pilgrims out in Anbar. A day or so later a sticky bomb attached to a senior traffic police official’s car detonated while he was driving in the al-Ameen neighborhood of southeastern Baghdad, killing him. Then two Iraqi soldiers died and 10 others were wounded when a bomb attached to a military bus exploded inside a base in al-Habaniya, about 90 kilometers west of Baghdad, also in Anbar province. South of Baghdad, five people died and 41 others were wounded when a car bomb exploded outside a restaurant in Hilla, which is frequented by Iraqi security forces. In Baghdad’s al-Qahira neighborhood, gunmen opened fire at a police checkpoint, killing two officers and wounding a bystander. In addition to these attacks, a raid on a house by a military counterterrorism unit left a man dead in al-Habaniya. Three of his family members were wounded during the raid. About 13 persons were killed, and 43 injured, in a Babel blast.
Some idiots seem to think such things create an argument that the US needs to keep military forces in Iraq for, well, forever.
The thing is no matter how many troops we put in Iraq, we can’t stop terrible things like this. Even at the height of our involvement, these incidents took place regularly. It only stops when the Iraqis want to stop it, and they at this time clearly do not want to stop. Their war is not over, no matter what we say or do. The demons we unleashed in 2003 when we destroyed civil society in Iraq and upset the balance of power among the tribes and religions are not settled yet. A lot more people are gonna die I am afraid, no matter what the US does with its troops.
We can pretend it is all al Qaeda’s fault to placate the Fox news crowd, but this is civil war friends.
AFP reports that the number of kidnappings for ransom in Iraq has multiplied in the past two years.
In the lawless aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, sectarian abductions became rampant, especially during the high times of the bloody Sunni-Shiite civil war, 2005-2007.
Here’s the good news: “It is a far increasing percentage now where the objective of kidnapping is money,” said Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for US forces in Iraq.
Foreigners, as well as important Iraqis, live behind blast walls with security guards. But Iraqi small businessmen who cannot afford bodyguards, and whom kidnappers can count on to cough up large sums for ransom, have become the fave targets.
Between April and June, six to seven Iraqis were kidnapped each month, according to UK-based private security firm AKE. The average ransom paid to kidnappers was $50,000. “Kidnap remains a regular occurrence in the country, with many incidents going unreported,” AKE said.
So there it is, another sectarian evil defeated by the surge, or Navy SEALs, or whatever, replaced by an even more evil thing, albeit motivated by greed, not ideology, so it is progress.
Two more American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb outside the main US base in Baghdad today. Military officials said the bomb at a checkpoint outside Victory Base Camp used armor-piercing explosives known as EFPs, a trademark of Iranian-backed Shiite militia.
Thursday’s deaths bring to 4471 the number of American troops who have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Enjoy your freedom, citizens.