The situation in Iraq continues to get grimmer and grimmer. Here is the latest: “A wave of car bombings and gunfire attacks hit cities in Iraq overnight and on Monday, killing at least 64 people and wounding more than 170, medical and security officials said.”
What is most alarming about this growth of violence is the intransigence increasingly displayed by both sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blaming “terrorist” politicians of Sunni persuasion for the attacks, while Sunnis once active in the Anbar Awakening are vowing to resist with force the presence of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province. It is difficult, if not yet impossible, to imagine some kind of negotiated solution. In all likelihood, the violence will get worse as al-Qaeda in Iraq stages a dismaying comeback from its near-defeat during the surge in 2007-2008.
What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.
On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.
February 2013 was a particularly bloody month in Iraq, with more than 200 killed and 500 wounded in terrorist attacks. When it comes to Iraq, the United States military has a sectarian problem: In the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the Pentagon often is more sectarian than Iraqis, and deeply biased against the Shi’ites. The reasons for this are multifold:
- The Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
- The 1983 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut.
- Subsequent Hezbollah hostage-taking in Lebanon
- CENTCOM deals almost exclusively with Sunni generals and Sunni royal families who don’t hesitate to badmouth Shi’ites at every possible opportunity.
Iranian malfeasance is real, but the Shi’ites are not all fifth columnists for Iran. Most Iraqis—including the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’ites—place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity. The whole reason Iran must sponsor militias in Iraq is to impose through force of arms what is not in Iraqi hearts and minds.
It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Iraq was badly shaken by an incident that occurred Friday in Fallujah: security forces fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters, killing at least seven people. The people of Fallujah got their revenge by killing at least two soldiers and kidnapping three more. As press accounts note, mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” and they set fire to an army checkpoint.
This is, to put it mildly, a worrisome situation. Fallujah was one of the epicenters of Al Qaeda in Iraq and, more generally, of Sunni resistance to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Along with the rest of Anbar Province, it has been relatively peaceful since the “surge” of 2007-2008, when most Sunnis elected to join with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, but the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.
The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.
Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”
The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.
Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”
It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.
Large, noisy demonstrations have flared across Anbar Province in recent days to protest what is widely perceived to be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s witch-hunt against Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki’s security force raided Issawi’s compound and arrested 10 of his bodyguards–following the same M.O. that led last year to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi being convicted of murder in absentia after his bodyguards were allegedly tortured. (Hashemi has fled to Turkey.)
Maliki insists the security forces are simply following the law and investigating credible allegations that Issawi, like Hashemi, has been involved in terrorism. As it happens, a friend has provided me with a letter that General Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote to Maliki in 2010. The letter (which is in Arabic) says that U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly investigated the charges against Issawi and found them to be uncorroborated. In the murky world of Iraqi politics, where courts are corrupt and government agencies often sectarian, this is about as convincing an exoneration as Issawi could get–coming as it did at a time when the U.S. still had a substantial military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, something that is no longer the case.
A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:
When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.
Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.
In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.
Within the United States, conventional wisdom relates that Iraq is now a puppet of Iran. There is real reason for concern, and I won’t be one that will downplay Iranian attempts to influence, if not dominate, Iraq. That said, Iraqi Shi’ites are traditionally not pro-Iranian; they are pro-Iraqi. After all, during the Iran-Iraq War, the bulk of Iraqi conscripts on the front line hailed not from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and its Sunni environs, but rather from Baghdad and the largely Shi’ite towns and villages of Iraq’s south. They fought against the Shi’ite brethren because they saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first, not Persians.
That said, Iranian influence is on the increase. Iran’s true Achilles’ heel is Shi’ism. Because the supreme leader claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on earth, with ultimate political and religious authority, the theologically independent ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, undercut his authority whenever they contradict him. Iran will never tolerate the rise of an ayatollah to the political leadership in Iraq because that would pose a threat to the supreme leader. However, the Iranians will try to dominate Iraq to ensure that Iranian strategic interests remain paramount. Certainly, it need not have been this way: Had the United States retained a presence in Iraq, even if a limited number of forces simply kicked their heels in isolated bases, their presence would have enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to better resist Iranian demands. For many Middle Eastern countries, diplomacy is about balance. Iran will ratchet up its pressure and perhaps its presence in Iraq as its grasp on Syria falters. Iraqis worry openly that they will become Iran’s new frontline.
I’m currently in Baghdad catching up with old friends. I am not here with U.S. sponsorship and so am not trapped behind embassy walls or surrounded by a phalanx of security. Over the next few days, I’ll offer some observations both good and bad. Baghdad is definitely a mixed bag. But first, a positive sign:
Many American writers, including some friends and colleagues, describe Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a burgeoning dictator. They accuse him of making a power play upon the departure of U.S. troops, and some also suggest his administration to be somehow illegitimate because he did not win as many votes as Ayad Allawi. Such criticisms are unfair: It is a simple fact that it was Maliki and not Allawi who managed to cobble together a coalition. Broad coalition governments never work. If Governor Romney defeats President Obama, I would not expect him to keep Joe Biden on or appoint Sen. John Kerry to be his Secretary of State. Nor, for that matter, would I expect a second term Obama administration to put Paul Ryan in change of the budget. The test of Maliki’s commitment to democracy will be in both rule-of-law and allowing free-and-fair elections.
It is surely no coincidence that on Sunday an Iraqi court sentenced to death Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, and on the same day Sunni militants unleashed a series of attacks across Iraq, many of them aimed at Shiites, which killed some 100 people. Not that the bombings were planned in response to Hashemi’s sentencing in absentia–such coordinated strikes have to be arranged well in advance. But the attacks are symptomatic of how Iraq is starting to unravel: Prime Minister Maliki is seen as a Shiite militant who is persecuting Sunnis and Sunni extremists are responding with their trademark terrorist attacks.
It is quite possible that Hashemi is guilty of the killings attributed to him–but then similar charges could be lodged against many senior Shiite political figures. Too many Iraqi politicos to count have blood on their hands from the dark days of Iraq’s civil war, which finally petered out in 2008–at least temporarily. The fact that the courts, which are widely viewed as beholden to Maliki and not in any credible way independent, have gone after Hashemi is widely seem as a political vendetta–not as justice being done. The evidence against Hashemi, moreover, appears to have come from the torture of his bodyguards.
On December 19, 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi alleging that al-Hashemi had planned a wave of bomb attacks and had directed the assassination of Shi’ite opposition. The move unleashed a furious wave of political maneuvering, not only in Baghdad and Erbil, but also amongst Iraq’s neighbors, most notably Turkey. Interpol subsequently upheld the warrant against al-Hashemi, whose trial is ongoing even as Hashemi remains a fugitive. Almost nine months on, it’s clear that Maliki has come out the winner. Hashemi and his allies—Masud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—miscalculated and face a growing perception respectively of weakness and fallibility among their home constituencies.
Erdoğan and Barzani’s embrace of al-Hashemi was a cynical and sectarian strategy. While Turkish diplomats still insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that Erdoğan harbors no ill-will toward Jews and Christians, Shi’ite and Shi’ite offshoot sects are another issue. Often, strict adherents to any religion exhibit more tolerance toward those of other religions than they do toward those whom they consider deviating from their own. Simply put, Erdoğan dislikes Turkey’s Alevis. Upon winning his first national elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included not a single Alevi parliamentarian. He has since unleashed a campaign of discrimination, refusing to recognize Alevi places of worship, in some cases even threatening to tear them down. Alevis complain he is imposing Sunni religious education teachers upon their children. Like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, Erdoğan will never accept a Shi’ite-led Iraq.
The front-page New York Times story today on the role that Iraqi financial instituions are playing in helping Iran to evade sanctions may well be taken by opponents of the decision to invade Iraq as vindication of one of their core arguments: namely, that Saddam Hussein was a vital bulwark against Iranian power and that toppling him would only increase Iranian influence in Iraq.
How much of a bulwark Saddam actually was is debatable: The Iranian Revolution spread its influence for decades to Lebanon and Syria, among other places, all the while Saddam was still in power. That Iran has managed to increase its influence in Iraq since 2003 is incontestable, however. To some extent, Iranian influence in a neighboring state is inevitable. The situation has gotten worse, however, because of a series of bad policy choices made in Washington.
Michael Rubin and I have been disagreeing about the nature of Iraq’s government and specifically about Prime Minister Maliki: Is he a well-intentioned leader who is trying, in all good faith, to increase the power of the central government in Baghdad so as to govern the country effectively, or is he a budding dictator who is trying to establish a sectarian Shi’ite regime with the aid of Iranian agents? I wish the answer were the former but I fear, alas, that it is the latter. More evidence of his alarming tendencies comes from Human Rights Watch, which can hardly be accused of being a Sunni mouthpiece. Its latest report finds:
Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone, based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.
Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held.
Max Boot pushes back on my post and suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s recent actions consolidating power risk are pushing Iraq into a civil war. I certainly worry about instability in Iraq, but it is wrong to suggest that Maliki’s attempts to govern would be the cause.
First, it’s important to define where we agree: Both of us see the U.S. withdrawal as costly. It undercut U.S. leverage, and privileged Iran. Both of us are deeply suspicious of Iran. I make no secret of my belief that the United States should do nothing that throws a lifeline to Tehran and, indeed, should do everything possible to undermine the Iranian regime. That said, while I understand that Max’s view is conventional wisdom in many U.S. military circles, I am as unconvinced about Max’s argument as he is about mine.
I commend Michael Rubin for challenging conventional wisdom about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq. He argues that what we are seeing is a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming sings of incipient authoritarianism. While I am intrigued by his argument, I am not convinced.
It is hard to see anything but sectarian motives in the criminal charges filed against Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, and Maliki’s attempt to remove from office Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, for, ironically, criticizing Maliki for his dictatorial tendencies. There are widespread reports that Hashemi’s bodyguards implicated him after having been subjected to torture by security forces. Read More
Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.
The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.
If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.
The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.
This is a promising development. A gathering of Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Christian leaders met in Copenhagen today to discuss whether to issue a religious decree condemning the recent tide of violence against Christians, AFP is reporting:
“I hope that we will be able to produce a joint Shiite-Sunni fatwa (religious decree) against violence towards Christians,” said Canon Andrew White, head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad.
“There is a total unity between the Muslims and Christians: we need to do something radical,” White told AFP on the sidelines of the three-day closed-door meeting that began Wednesday.
The emergency summit at a heavily guarded Copenhagen hotel, organised by FRRME and the Danish foreign ministry, comes on the heels of a string of attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as in neighbouring countries.
It is time “to think seriously about steps that need to be taken to protect all the minority communities,” White insisted.
And it looks like the summit has drawn some influential participants, including Sheikh Abdul Latif Humayem (a top Sunni adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), Shiite leader Sheik Abduhaeem al-Zubairi (the representative for Iraq’s Assyrian community), and Archbishop Avak Asadourian (leader of Iraq’s Christian Council).
“This group of leaders has the power and influence to negotiate on behalf of the people they represent, to deny legitimacy to the use of violence and to call authoritatively for reconciliation and peaceful solutions,” Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen told the AFP.
It’s interesting that Iraqi leaders are using their own cultural mechanisms to push the liberal idea of religious tolerance. At a time when there’s been a lot of negativity about the influence of Iran over the Iraqi government, this is a good sign for those who remain optimistic about the future of democracy in Iraq.
In its editorial today, “A Good Year in Iraq,” the Washington Post writes this:
AT THE beginning of this year, Iraq’s fragile new political order faced a momentous challenge. The country needed to hold credible democratic elections at a time when its army was still battling al-Qaeda and other domestic insurgents. The winners had to form a government in spite of deep rifts among leaders and sects, who just three years ago were fighting a civil war. And all this had to happen even as the United States reduced its troops from 150,000 to 50,000 and ended combat operations for those who remained.
The result was a long, painful, contentious, confusing and sometimes bloody year. But when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented his new government to parliament on Tuesday, Iraq could fairly be said to have passed a major test. It is not yet the peaceful Arab democracy and force for good in the Middle East that President George W. Bush imagined when he decided on invasion eight years ago. But in the past 12 months it has taken some big steps in the right direction.
The editorial goes on to point out that (a) the election was judged free and fair, a very rare event in the Middle East; (b) measures to integrate former Sunni militiamen into the security forces or other government jobs have been implemented; (c) fears that Mr. Maliki would establish a dictatorship look to be exaggerated; (d) the economy is nearing a tipping point, with foreign oil companies refurbishing the fields of southern Iraq and the city of Basra, a militia-ruled jungle four years ago, beginning to boom; and (e) violence has dwindled to the lowest level Iraq probably has known in decades (in September 2006, there were more than 3,300 civilian deaths from violence; this month so far it has counted 62, making Iraq a country far safer than Mexico). Read More