• What’s Next in Iraq?

    February 5, 2018 // 3 Comments »

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    The contours of Iraq post-Islamic State are becoming clearer. Did the strategy to defeat Islamic State succeed? Are the American wars in Iraq finally over? Who walks away the winner?


    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State on December 9, 2017. And while there will still be some fighting, the real war is over. Yet there were no parades, no statues pulled down, no “Mission Accomplished” moments. An event that might have once set front pages atwitter a few years ago in America wasn’t even worth a presidential tweet.

    That’s because in Washington there is little to celebrate. With the likelihood of spring elections in Iraq, what stands out is how absent American influence is. The two main candidates are current prime minister Abadi, and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both come from the same Shi’ite Dawa party, and both have close ties to Iran. The names should be familiar. Maliki was the Great American Hope in 2006, and again in 2010, to unite Iraq across Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish lines as the bulk of American occupation forces withdrew, while Abadi was the Great American Hope in 2014 to do the same as American troops flowed back to Iraq to fight Islamic State.

    As prime minister Maliki didn’t follow-through on the Surge in the end years of the American occupation, leaving the Sunnis at the mercy of his Shi’ite supporters. Maliki’s first action post-occupation — the very day after the last American combat troops withdrew — was to try and arrest his own Sunni vice president. In 2014, Maliki unleashed his army in Sunni Anbar Province, a move which drew Islamic State in to Iraq. American manipulations then replaced Maliki with Abadi in 2014.

    Yet despite high (American) hopes, Abadi made few efforts to integrate Sunnis into the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi judiciary, military, and police forces, the minimum groundwork for a united Iraq. He did not create economic opportunities for Sunnis or deliver public services. Instead, Abadi created new fault lines, ossified old ones by further embracing Tehran, and sent Iranian-lead Shi’ite militias numbering some 120,000 tearing through the Sunni heartlands. Both Presidents Obama and Trump worked closely with Abadi to ultimately destroy Islamic State in Iraq, at the expense of the Iraqi Sunnis.


    The Obama-Trump strategy was medieval: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shi’ite Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq war of 2003-2011: there would be no political follow-on this round, no nation building, between the end of the fighting and the exit. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi politics, even if that meant an exclusionary Shi’ite government in Baghdad under Tehran’s wing.

    The walk-away policy was implemented, albeit less violently, to resolve for now the question of the Kurds. In September 2017, the Kurds voted for independence from Iraq, only to see their fate decided as Washington stood aside while Shi’ite militias pushed Kurdish forces from disputed regions, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. After decades of American promises of independence, the Kurds were left to salvage a small bit of pre-2003 autonomy from Baghdad where once full statehood stood within grasp. With American support, the Kurds blunted Islamic State in the darkest days of 2014. In 2018, in what some analysts call the “Twilight of the Kurds,” they no longer seem to have a place in Washington’s foreign policy.

    The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis. The United Nations was appalled by the mass execution of Sunni prisoners and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from Washington.

    Unlike the 2003-2011 war, when it spent $60 billion on the task, the United States does not intend on trying to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq. Estimates suggest $100 billion is needed to rebuild the mostly Sunni areas destroyed, and to deal with the 2.78 million internally displaced Sunnis. Shi’ite Baghdad pleads lack of funds to help. Across two administrations Washington contributed only $265 million to reconstruction since 2014 (by comparison, America allotted $150 million in 2017 alone to financing arms sales to Iraq, one of the top ten global buyers of American weapons.) Other than plans for Kuwait to host a donors conference in February, the Sunnis are largely on their own, hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog.


    President Trump is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq entirely. A reduced force will stay to play Whack-a-Mole with any Islamic State resurgence, to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops, and to referee among the disparate groups in western Iraq and Syria the United States armed willy-nilly to help defeat Islamic State. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight Islamic State, but with that behind them, about all they have in common is mutual distrust and lots of guns. American troops perma-stationed inside Iranian-allied Iraq are a bit of a geopolitical oddity, but one Iran has likely already at least passively agreed to. Tehran has little to gain from a fight over some American desert base real estate right now, when their prize is the rest of Iraq.


    Over five administrations and 26 years, the United States paid a high price – some 4,500 American dead and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent – for what will have to pass as a conclusion. Washington’s influence in Baghdad is limited and relations with Iran are in shambles under a Trump administration still focused backwards on the Obama-era Iran nuclear accords. The last quarter century of Iraq wars thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces, creating a new Lebanon out of the shell of what was once Iraq. As long as the Trump administration insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have few ways to exert influence. Other nations in the Middle East will diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this.

    A long fall from the heady days of 2003, when America lit up the region like the Fourth of July to remake the Middle East. But the problems proved impossible to solve and so America washed its hands of that, for this. And if any of this does presage some future American conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy.

     




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    Groundhog Day in Iraq? Nope, Worse

    June 23, 2017 // 31 Comments »

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    It’s a helluva question: “Tell me how this ends.”

    It was a good question in 2003 when then Major General David Petraeus asked it as the United States invaded Iraq, an ironic one in 2011 when the US withdrew, worth revisiting in 2014 when the US reinvaded Iraq, and again in 2017 as Islamic State appears to be on its way out. Problem is we still don’t have a good answer. It could be Groundhog Day all over again in Iraq, or it could be worse.



    Groundhog Day

    The Groundhog Day argument, that little has changed from 2003 until now, is quite persuasive. Just look at the headlines. A massive Ramadan car bomb exploded not just in Baghdad, but in Karada, its wealthiest neighborhood, during a holiday period of heightened security, and all just outside the Green Zone were the American Embassy remains hunkered down like a medieval castle. Islamic State, like al Qaeda before it, can penetrate the heart of the capital city, even after the fall of their home base in Fallujah (2004, 2016.) Meanwhile, Mosul is under siege (2004, 2017.) Iranian forces are on the ground supporting the Baghdad central government. The Kurds seek their own state. American troops are deep in the fighting and taking casualties. The Iraqi Prime Minister seems in control at best only of the Shia areas of his country. Groundhog Day.

    But maybe this time around, in what some call Iraq War 3.0, we do know how it ends.


    Not Groundhog Day

    It seems unlikely anyone will be able to get the toothpaste of Kurdish independence back into the tube. A functional confederacy since soon after the American invasion of 2003, Kurdish national forces have linked with Kurdish militias, albeit with American help, across the width of northern Iraq, from the Iranian border in the east into Turkey and Syria in the west. This is in large part the land mass traditionally thought of as Kurdistan.

    The Trump administration is for the first time overtly arming Kurdish militias in Syria (some of whom the Turks consider terrorists) to fight Islamic State, without much plan in mind about how to de-arm them when they turn towards the Turks who hold parts of their ancestral homeland. That may not even be a valid question; the ties that bound the United States and Turkey during Iraq War 2.0 appear significantly weakened following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s coup. His authoritarian government seems far less a valued NATO partner in 2017 than it was even a few years ago. Though the US may require the Kurds to maintain some sort of fictional relationship with the country of “Iraq” to preserve the illusion of a unified nation for American domestic consumption, the key question is whether the Kurds will go to war with Turkey somewhere in the process, and whether the US will choose a side.

    Any reluctance on the part of the United States during Iraq War 2.0 to act as a restraining force on the Shia central government’s empowering of militias (gifted the Orwellian name of Popular Mobilization Units) disappeared when the Iraqi National Army dropped its weapons and ran from Islamic State in 2014. Those militias — only loosely allied with one another, and even less tied to the central government — now carry the bulk of the responsibility for the fight against Islamic State. Many owe their primary allegiance to Iran, who helps arm them, command them, and by some accounts supplements their efforts with special forces dispatched from Tehran. These militias, empowered by the Iranian help now offered openly as America shrugs its shoulders at expediency, are unlikely to be interested in any kind of Sunni-Shia unified Iraq post-Islamic State. It will be near impossible to demobilize them. Indeed, holding them back from committed a Sunni genocide will be the likely challenge in the near future.

    The Iraqi government “victories” over Islamic State in Sunni strongholds like Ramadi and Fallujah have left little for those not sent off as internal refugees. Large swathes of Sunni territory lay in ruins, with no clear plan to rebuild in sight. A political officer at the American Embassy would likely tell you the problem is that neither the U.S. nor Iraq will have the funds anytime in the foreseeable future. A Sunni tribal leader would likely spit on the ground and explain the Shia central government wouldn’t spend a dime if it had a dollar, and will settle for a slow-motion genocide of the Sunni people if the Americans won’t allow a quick one at Shia gunpoint. No matter; the desolation of Sunni areas is severe, regardless of the cause.

    Iraq will be a Shia nation with extraordinary ties to Iran. With no small amount of irony, the price Iraq and Iran will be forced to pay for America, and Israel, titularly accepting this will likely be permanent American military bases inside Iraq (don’t laugh until you remember Guantanamo in Soviet-dominated Cuba, or Hong Kong nestled in Communist China), mostly out of sight way out west with more interest in Syria than Iran. America has wanted those bases since the early days of Iraq War 2.0, and Iran has nothing to gain by picking a fight with the United States. They get the rest of Iraq, after all.

    What happens to the bulk of Iraqi Sunnis is less certain, though the menu is all bad news. World media optics suggest it is in everyone’s interests that any mass slaughter be avoided; Iran in particular would have no interest in giving President Trump or an angry Congress an excuse to get more involved in Iraq’s internal affairs. With the US bases most likely to be located in western Iraqi Sunni homelands, it may be that the tribes find themselves the unofficial beneficiaries of American protection. Those permanent American bases, and the safety they provide, might also keep the successor to Islamic State from moving into a power vacuum the way Islamic State did when al Qaeda found it had outstayed its welcome among the Sunni population.

    This is the End

    Tell me how this ends? A defacto divided Sunni-Shia-Kurd “Iraq” with stronger ties to Iran than the United States. The only unanswered question will be if the value of that ending is worth the cost of some 14 years of American combat, close to 4,500 American dead, and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent.

     

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    Five (More) Things That Won’t Work in Iraq

    July 1, 2015 // 16 Comments »

    iraq valentine


    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.




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    Not Quite Ludacris: Rapper Nelly Gets $650,000 to Perform in Erbil

    March 20, 2015 // 8 Comments »

    nelly

    Rap star Nelly became the first American artist to perform live in Erbil, Kurdistan Iraq in the city’s 8,000 year history.

    Nelly and Motocross Rock Erbil

    Nelly’s March 13 performance occurred during Erbil’s annual Xoli Raperin soccer tournament. Although the stands weren’t jam-packed, the crowd of 15,000 seemed, according to reports, to enjoy the show as they waved their country’s the unofficial Kurdish flag in the air. The show was billed as an effort to raise funds for the peshmerga. Nelly sang all the hits, including “Dilemma”, “Hey Porsche”, and “Just A Dream.”

    Following Nelly’s encore, there was also a motocross show.



    Follow the Money

    That said, questions remain. It is unclear how any money could have been raised. One source claims Nelly received $650,000 for the show. An online booking agent says Nelly’s fee for an international concert ranges $500,000 and up.

    At $650k, each Kurdish spectator would have had to pay $44 to have the event break even.

    Given that the Kurds have not paid most government salaries since December, that seems unlikely. In addition, oil money promised by the central Iraqi government to the Kurds has been long delayed. A Baghdad spokesperson told Reuters the delay in what is meant to be a monthly transfer of over $1 billion in exchange for oil was due to a fiscal crisis rather than political factors. Cited were factors of poor fiscal management, the costly battle against Islamic State, and the sharp fall in oil prices, as reasons for the federal government’s cash shortfall. The Kurds have been battling a financial crisis of their own since Baghdad authorities cut budget payments in January 2014 as punishment for their attempts to export oil independently.



    Who Paid?

    So with that said, how did the Kurds raise the lucre for Nelly?

    Nelly’s visit was sponsored by the Rwanga Foundation, a non-profit whose stated mission is “to assist the most vulnerable people residing in Kurdistan.” The group’s website lists no sources of funding, and Internet resources could turn up no sources of funding.

    Wonder who paid? And why?





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    Why Airstrikes in Iraq are a Mistake

    August 8, 2014 // 16 Comments »



    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.



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    Whither Iraq? What’s Happening Had to Happen

    June 13, 2014 // 17 Comments »




    The events unfolding now in Iraq are inevitable. They are the latest iteration of all the good we failed to do from day one of America’s ill-fated invasion in 2003.

    Some History

    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.

    Sunni-Shia Rift

    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.

    Post-America Iraq

    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.

    Lost

    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.



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    Fmr. US Amb to Iraq Jim Jeffrey: Now Gasping for Lameness

    May 14, 2013 // 8 Comments »

    Oh my! Retired, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey has turned into a real tiger.

    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?!?

    Hard hitting.

    Insightful.

    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.

    Grrrr!




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    All About Oil: Former US Ambassador to Iraq Now Works for Exxon

    February 11, 2013 // 11 Comments »

    Demonstrating the core values of service and loyalty, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey now works directly for Exxon Mobile. Jeffrey was America’s man in Baghdad, helming the World’s Largest and Most Expensive Embassy there from 2010-2012.

    The problem Jeffrey was most likely hired to resolve is oil, specifically oil in Kurdistan. The Kurds live in the northern chunk of Iraq and have always wanted to be an independent nation, separate from the Sunni and Shia Arabs who fill up the rest of Iraq. The “issue” of Kurdistan is one of the many significant genies the U.S. let out of the bottle with the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was left unresolved.

    The Kurds have oil, which Exxon would like to have. In late 2011 as the U.S. military was sounding the call to retreat, Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company, defied the instructions of the Baghdad government and signed a separate deal with the Iraqi Kurds to search for oil in the northern area of Iraq they control. To make matters worse, three of the areas Exxon signed up to explore are on territory in dispute.

    Now, in 2013, the Iraq central government is in a muscle tussle with Exxon. Exxon faces a dilemma over whether to operate in the south of the country or honor its deals with the autonomous Kurdistan region. Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki and his central government says the oil company can’t have both. Maliki last month made Exxon an offer in a bid to woo back the company, which had seemed intent on pulling out of the $50 billion oilfield in the south under the central government’s jurisdiction. The substance of Maliki’s offer to Exxon is not known, but industry sources describe it as substantial and say it is likely to involve sweet contract terms. The condition is that Exxon quit the northern Kurdish region.

    One in-the-know economist offered this insight into why Kurdish oil is so attractive to Exxon:

    For all its faults, the Baghdad-run awarding of oil contracts is as open and transparent as you can get in this sector. The Kurds on the other hand have a very murky process that allows for immense kickbacks and skimming. U.S. companies prefer working with the Kurds because they simply wave a wand and awards a high-cost contract, while Baghdad nitpicks about every single cost.

    So what’s a multi-national to do? Take the deal for the Shia south fields and abandon the likely richer northern Kurd fields? Why not hire a very recently ex-ambassador to pimp out his contacts with the Malaki government to see if you can score some crude from all sides? After all, since Jeffrey failed to positively affect the oil issue in Iraq as ambassador, what could possibly be wrong with him being hired as a consultant so that he, and Exxon, can profit from it?

    So, to recap:

    — Soldiers who fought in Iraq get killed, PTSD, record-high suicide rates, unemployment.

    — Regular State Department drones who worked in Iraq get nothing special.

    — Whistleblowers and those who pretend to be lose their jobs.

    — Contractors who keep their mouths shut get rewarded with similar well-paid positions in Afghanistan.

    — Ambassadors who stick to the party line get high-paid consulting gigs.




    Jeffrey is pictured above, playing some sort of obscene hand gesture game with the vice president.




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    Who won the war in Iraq? (Here’s a hint: It wasn’t the US)

    November 10, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    (This article, written by me, originally appeared on Foreign Policy.com)

    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.



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