Commentary Magazine

Topic: Haider al-Abadi

Embrace, Don’t Cut off Iraq

Yesterday, Max Boot argued in a powerful post that given the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States should not be training Iraqi F-16 pilots let alone delivering the planes to Iraq. Here’s the core of Max’s argument:

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Yesterday, Max Boot argued in a powerful post that given the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States should not be training Iraqi F-16 pilots let alone delivering the planes to Iraq. Here’s the core of Max’s argument:

Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

I certainly share Max’s concern with regard to Iranian efforts to infiltrate and influence Iraq’s government, but I disagree with his conclusions, first with regard to his reading of sectarianism, and second with regard to the meaning and purpose of the bilateral U.S.-Iraq partnership.

Iraq is unfortunately sectarian, but sectarianism is neither one-way-only, nor should it be exaggerated. The roots of Sunni extremism are not any particular grievance suffered at the hands of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, though his rule was far from perfect and enlightened. Rather, it is the ethnic and sectarian chauvinism of the Baath Party and its evolution into partnership if not symbiosis with the Islamic State. The bombs which, until recently at least, terrorized Baghdad were the work of Sunni sectarian groups. That Abadi has restored a modicum of security to Baghdad, and that Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, and Christians are now restoring the (admittedly, less alcohol-centric) night life for which Baghdad was once known, is a sign that there is progress.

This past fall, I visited the Shi‘ite holy city of Karbala as a guest of the Imam Hussein shrine. Driving from the Najaf International Airport north toward Karbala, the main highway was flanked by refugees from the al-Anbar Governorate which, then as now, the Islamic State threatened. They had taken refuge in the Husainiyahs (Shi’ite meeting and prayer halls) that dot the roadside between the two cities to, in normal times, cater to pilgrims. They had opened their doors instead to Sunni refuges who were fed, clothed, and their kids educated in ordinary Iraqi schools. Many displaced Anbaris seemed to feel better treated in largely Shi’ite southern Iraq than in Iraqi Kurdistan, where ethnic discrimination Arabs face trumps the sectarian discrimination Sunnis might feel elsewhere in Iraq.

At any rate, the complex I stayed in played host not only to Sunni refugees from Fallujah, but also to Shi’ite volunteers who had answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call. I would see teens and men ranging in age, by my own estimate only, from 15 to 60 years old, get off the bus, ready to begin their 30-day crash training course. Few if any I met were fighting on behalf of Iran or actually cared about the geopolitical competition; most simply wanted to defeat the scourge of the Islamic State. That is not to say that the Iranian government has not tried to co-opt some of the volunteers, but if there’s one thing that has become clear over the past decade-plus of U.S. and Iranian involvement in Iraq, it is that Washington constantly overestimated the psychological impact of occupation, whereas Tehran consistently underestimates the importance of Iraqi nationalism.

Certainly, militias like Asa’ib al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah represent important exceptions which cannot be tolerated. And, where Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani goes, death and destruction follow. Besieged Shi’ites will accept help from whomever offers it—and the Iranians offer it more consistently and with greater sustained attention than does the United States—but Iraqi Shi‘ites are also realistic enough to know that Iran is not an altruistic power. Max Boot is correct to fear Iranian ambition in Iraq.

The danger, however, is that walking away from a military partnership with Iraq because of fear of Iranian influence will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Iran gets to consolidate control over Iraq. That smaller, weaker states in the Middle East maintain their independence by playing larger, stronger rivals off each other is Arab statecraft 101. Kuwait balances its interests against Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Iran as well. Qatar famously plays the United States and Iran off each other, as does Oman and even the United Arab Emirates. Iraqi Shi’ites are not Fifth Columnists. While the war against Iran was unjust and initiated by Saddam Hussein, when called to military service, Iraqi Shi’ites fought with honor against the Iranians.

In southern Iraq, Shi’ites from both the ruling party and many opposition groups are desperate to win American investment and bolster the American presence in order to balance out Iranian inroads. Maliki changed in Baghdad and became increasingly deferential to Iranian demands once he recognized that the White House was determined to withdraw U.S. forces. As Maliki told me once in a meeting after the U.S. military withdrawal, the White House and State Department simply would not take yes for an answer. (It was the White House that insisted that immunity for U.S. forces be passed through the Iraqi parliament, a political non-starter; had they accepted an executive guarantee, it was a done deal.) The worst thing that ever happened, as far as many Iraqi Shi‘ites are concerned, was the precipitous withdrawal which pulled the carpet out from the Iraqi government’s ability to tell Tehran, “We’d love to comply with your demands, but we have to consider the Americans.”

Washington needs to recognize, as the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant said at a recent panel discussion, that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi is effectively offering the United States the right of first refusal on Baghdad’s future direction. But if Washington falls short on his requests, then he might just as easily seek what Iraq needs in Tehran or Moscow. American policymakers should never forget that the United States and Iraq are not the only players in the sandbox.

So now we come to the training of the F-16 pilots. It is an irony of diplomacy that sometimes the best diplomats reside in Defense Ministries rather than Foreign Ministries. Diplomats rotate in and out of countries and strike up relations that are as often characterized by fakeness as friendliness. But when military officers undergo training, they develop lifelong relationships with their colleagues of the same rank who are in the trenches with them around the clock. As they rise through the ranks, they often constitute an important backchannel when a crisis strikes. During the 1998 Kargil Crisis between Pakistan and India, the Clinton administration ended up relying disproportionately on the relationships which American officers had struck with their Indian and Pakistani counterparts, relationships which were far deeper and more mature than corollary ties between diplomats. To cut off the training relationship—or undercut the ability of Iraq to defend itself—would represent a self-inflicted wound by which the Iraqis conclude they have no choice but to cast their lot with Iran. That would be the greatest gift the United States could give to the Islamic Republic, given how the Iranians struggle to win hearts and minds inside Iraq.

So, what might be done instead?

  • It’s time to dispense with the simplistic sectarian narrative which Gulf allies whisper into the ears of American officials and which, by osmosis, has become the dominant narrative in CENTCOM and CENTCOM circles as well. It’s all well and good to talk about re-Baathification and forcing undemocratic concessions under terrorist fire, but that would simply throw the baby out with the bathwater and convince the more than 60 percent of Iraq which is Shi’ite that the United States seeks to disenfranchise them. Rather than pursue a sectarian strategy which pits Sunni vs. Shi’ite, the United States should embrace a nuanced strategy which seeks to win Shi‘ite hearts and minds by protecting their freedom of conviction against an Iranian government which seeks to subordinate it to Tehran’s will while at the same time concentrating on the real problem, which is the Qods Force and a small minority of Shi’ite militiamen among a larger corpus of volunteers.
  • Rather than walk away from the Iraqi government, it’s time to double down on the military-to-military relationship so that the United States has leverage to exert pressure to increase the space between Baghdad and Tehran. A diplomatic conference builds relations for the duration of the conference; a military training program cements ties for years. It is time to recognize the importance of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship on its own terms rather than only through the lens of Iran policy.
  • Make no mistake: I won’t downplay the threat Iran poses, but the proper way to counter the Iranian threat is to, well, counter the Iranian threat. There needs to be a strategy to undercut the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, if possible, even grab Qassem Soleimani, a man responsible for the murder of hundreds of Americans, more than any other living terrorist.

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Abadi, Maliki, Da`wa and Iraqi Reality

Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

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Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

Da`wa—the political movement to which both Maliki and Abadi belong—has always been fissiparous. And years of exile simply made it worse. Back in 2008, Iraqi-British scholar Sama Hadad published an excellent analysis of the impact of the separate exiles in a report on Arab dissident movements for AEI; you can download it here (Sama’s chapter begins on page 32), but the key section—with footnotes removed—is here:

In 1958, Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, with support from other young scholars, established the Islamic Da’wa Party, which, up until his execution, was the only Iraqi Shi’a Islamic Party. Al-Sadr was the key architect of the party and was its intellectual driving force. The party established most its leadership force from the educated middle class and Al-Sadr tried to instill within them the ideas he was developing. The Ba’athist government in Iraq, however, deemed membership in or association with the Islamic Da’wa Party to be a capital offense. Many Da’wa members fled Iraq, mainly to Iran.

For the thousands of Iraqis who had found sanctuary in Iran, the nostalgia for their homeland and their desire for an Islamic state mixed in with the sense of revolution that was still prevailing in Iran, attracted them to wilayat al-faqih[the philosophy of guardianship of clerical jurists espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini]. For some in the Da’wa Party this fascination did not last long. During the 1980s the Iranian government measured any group’s commitment to the revolution by their belief in wilayat al-faqih. The Revolutionary authorities censored or banned any group that challenged the concept of wilayat al-faqih. This placed Da’wa in a tight spot, unable to publicly exchange ideas with their members other than those that conformed to wilayat al-faqih.

Iranian authorities sensed growing disagreement among leading Da’wa members as to how pro- wilayat al-faqih they should be. Capitalizing on this disagreement, Iran sought to fragment the party and establish groups more loyal to wilayat al-faqih. The Da’wa party attempted to salvage the situation by not challenging wilayat al-faqih, but throwing out any members who publicly supported it.

The most prominent group to emerge from the fragmentation of the Da’wa party, under the guardianship of Iran, was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Led by Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim, SCIRI fully embraced wilayat al-faqih.

Da’wa members fled Iranian repression and regrouped in London. The discord of the 1980s and 1990s, however, meant that Da’wa did not significantly extrapolate from Al-Sadr’s theories.

The most significant step taken was the publication in London of ‘Barnamajuna’ (Our Program). Barnamajuna emphasized the need for democracy, free markets, and abandoned the call for an Islamic Republic in Iraq, perhaps as a backlash from their negative experience in Tehran. There was a clear shift from the belief of the early 80s in the will of the faqih (scholar) over the people, similar to wilayat al-faqih, to the belief in the superiority of the will of the people.

A senior Da’wa Party political source stated at the time, “[al-Da’wa] shall accept everything that the public will accept. Even if they choose a perfectly non-Islamic regime. If they do not choose Islam, this means that they are not prepared for it. If Islam is imposed, it will become an Islamic dictatorship and this would alienate the public.” This marked a clear re-affirmation of Al-Sadr’s wilayat al-ummah [rule by the community].

A relevant point brought out further in the essay is that Da`wa’s intellectual development in the United Kingdom was more dynamic, but still restrained by the fact that the Iranian regime more or less held the majority of Da`wa activists hostage in Iran. Should Da`wa activists in London grow too vocal in proposing alternate interpretations of governance than espoused by Khomeini and his successor and current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then Da`wa exiles in Iran might suffer. When I visited Iran for my second time in 1999, I met a number of Iraqi Shi‘ite exiles in the center of that country, and they had nothing good to say about the Iranian repression they suffered and the indignities Iran put upon their children.

Iraq’s liberation, however, provide an opportunity for the two main Da`wa communities to reunite; a renaissance in exegesis took place. Much of this was not to Iran’s liking. When it came to governing philosophy and religious interpretation, differences that might have existed between those who spent their exile in Iran versus those who lived those decades in Britain disappeared with time, Da`wa might split personalities, ambitions, or portions of the debate but to suggest that Abadi is enlightened while Maliki was not is simply inaccurate. Enlightenment is relative, but the two men likely now share many of the same interpretations.

Enter Iran: Iranians know the Iraqi Sh‘ites do not particularly embrace Khomeini’s viewpoints. That does not make Iraqi Shi‘ites into American clones or necessarily pro-Western; rather, it makes Iraqi Shi‘ites, well, Iraqi Shi‘ites. The Iranian government has responded by sponsoring militias to impose through force of arms what isn’t necessarily in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Iraqi Shi‘ites. These militias remain a major problem, alongside their opposites on the Sunni side: radical Islamists sponsored by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia; and ethnic and sectarian chauvinist Baathists embraced by Jordan. Alas, empty calls for an inclusive government do nothing to address this basic problem, nor would forcing all factions under a big tent lead to anything other than infighting and paralysis. Iraqis don’t insist that Jesse Jackson and Dick Cheney share a desk, or Samantha Power and Pat Buchanan; that we do the equivalent to Iraqis is unfortunate.

Let us hope Abadi can rally Iraqis against ISIS but, to do that, he will have to defeat not only ISIS itself, but those who have given the group help and solace. Maliki saw the problem growing and begged the White House and visiting Senators like John McCain to understand how radicalized the Syrian opposition had become. To believe that Maliki and Abadi are respectively Satan and savior, or that they represent different Iraq’s or different philosophies is misguided. The two men are realists; it is the White House that too often is not.

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Exit Maliki

It’s certainly good news that Nouri al-Maliki read the writing on the wall and decided to end his last-ditch resistance to giving up the job of prime minister of Iraq. How good the news is remains to be determined.

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It’s certainly good news that Nouri al-Maliki read the writing on the wall and decided to end his last-ditch resistance to giving up the job of prime minister of Iraq. How good the news is remains to be determined.

For one thing, although the U.S. undoubtedly played a role in forcing him from office (for which President Obama and Vice President Biden deserve credit), just as important if not more so was Iran, which refused to back Maliki after it became clear that large segments of the Shiite community, led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, were disenchanted with the prime minister. If Iran and especially its Quds Force under the command of General Qassem Suleimani had continued to support Maliki, he would probably have remained in office. But the Iranians value Shiite unity above all and so they pulled out the rug from under Maliki.

That’s a positive development, but a disturbing reminder of the outside influence that Iran continues to exercise in Iraq–which itself is a large part of the reason why so many Sunnis, intensely hostile to the “Persians” (as they refer to Shiites, both Iraqi and Iranian), are willing to side with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

We know little about Maliki’s putative successor, Haider al-Abadi. What little we have heard is good–he is said to be less insular, less sectarian, and less conspiracy-minded than Maliki. It helps that, while Maliki spent long years of exile from Baathist Iraq in Syria and Iran, Abadi spent part of his exile in Britain where, one hopes, he gained greater appreciation for democratic norms than Maliki has exhibited. But Abadi comes from the same Dawa Party as Maliki, and that party is part of the Shiite establishment that backed Maliki as he was victimizing Sunnis in recent years. The challenge for Abadi, and it is a big one, will be to show that he is not Maliki Redux–that he is genuinely willing to share power instead of trying to set himself up as another autocrat.

Part of the challenge will be for Abadi to voluntarily give up some of the authority that Maliki accumulated in extra-constitutional fashion–never an easy thing for any politician in power to do. In particular Maliki set up the Office of the Commander-in-Chief to allow him to circumvent the normal command structure and directly order the armed forces to perform his bidding, which usually meant targeting Sunnis. Abadi, as a first step, must disband this office and promise to respect the chain of command.

He must also weed out sectarians that Maliki appointed to the officer corps and work to hand power back to a professional officer corps, many of whom will be Sunnis. Moreover, he must end Maliki’s reliance on Iranian-directed militias. And he must not horde for himself the security ministries–Interior and Defense–as Maliki did; he needs to appoint a prominent Sunni to at least one of these posts.

This will not be easy for Abadi to do even with the best of intentions–and we have little idea of what his intentions are. Much of the Shiite establishment is sure to resist any diminution of its power and in this it is likely to have Iranian backing. It is imperative that the U.S. make a bigger commitment to Iraq not only to fight ISIS directly but also to push Abadi in a moderate, inclusive, non-sectarian direction that will make it possible to woo Sunni tribes away from the terrorists.

The Third Iraq War is hardly won yet. It has, indeed, barely been joined. Much work remains to be done including the dispatch of much greater military forces by the U.S. and its allies to work with the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, and Sunni tribes. And it is far from clear whether President Obama has the will to do that. At most one battle, albeit an important one, has just been won with Maliki’s imminent removal. The challenge now will be to consolidate this political beachhead. The greatest danger is giving in to excessive euphoria–to imagine that Iraq’s problems are now solved. Actually Iraq’s challenges are just beginning.

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