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How to Respond to the Loss of Iraq

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By William R. Hawkins

On November 1, Iraq Prime Minister Nouri Maliki met with President Barack Obama in the White House. Baghdad’s Shiite leader asked for more U.S. military equipment supposedly to fight al-Qaeda. Terrorist attacks have been on the rise since the last American troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011. A joint statement released after the two-hour meeting declared an “urgent” need for additional aid for Iraqi security forces, but to his credit President Obama did not make any specific offer to PM Maliki. Unfortunately, there is little credit that can be given to either leader from the perspective of what is best for the U.S. strategic position in the region.        

Washington took its eyes off the ball in Iraq. The focus on what led America to invade in 2003 began to be lost during the George W. Bush administration. It then went fully dark as President Obama rushed to meet his campaign promise of a complete troop withdrawal during his first term. President Obama failed to negotiate a residual military presence because Maliki did not want one as it might have served as a constraint on his grab for greater domestic power. Iran was also opposed, and Maliki is Tehran’s man.      

In a futile attempt to avoid the charge of “imperialism” by leftists (a criticism that should simply be ignored), the U.S. turned “sovereignty” back to Baghdad in June 2004 with the backing of a UN resolution. The interim Iraqi government was not, of course, able to rule the country; but the declaration set Washington on a course that made hash of the war’s objective of regime change. The U.S. sent an army marching to Baghdad to rid the land of the dictator Saddam Hussein who had gone mad after his invasion of Kuwait had been repulsed by a U.S.-led coalition in 1991. Getting rid of Saddam, however, was not enough. The regime had to be changed to one with which Washington could work as an ally. Yet, even with 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, the U.S. allowed a new leader to take power who was hostile to American strategic interests. That man was Maliki who became Prime Minister in 2006.           

An enemy of Saddam, Maliki fled Iraq in 1979. He lived first in Syria then moved to Iran in 1982 where he stayed until 1990 when he moved back to Syria. As a Shiite, Maliki’s opposition to Saddam was more about the sectarian divide within Islam than about any desire for democracy. Indeed, Maliki’s expansion of autocratic power indicates he is no liberal. He won his position with the support of pro-Iranian radicals in parliament, including the bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr who’s Mahdi Army often fought against U.S. forces. Washington had the chance to crush al-Sadr, but instead offered him the chance to participate in the democratic process where he continued to work against American interests.           

Too often it is forgotten that democracy is merely one of many political processes; it does not guarantee a favorable outcome. U.S. foreign policy must aim for favorable outcomes, using whatever methods will get the job done. Once again in Iraq, the military won the war, but the politicians lost the peace.          

I was a staffer with a Congressional delegation that met with Maliki in 2011. The main topic was the massacre at Camp Ashraf a few months earlier on April 8. Iraqi security forces had attacked the refugee camp filled with unarmed civilians; 34 people were killed and hundreds more wounded. Video showed Iraqi soldiers (or at least those dressed as Iraqi soldiers) methodically shooting people. The residents of Camp Ashraf are members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) a group of Iranian exiles opposed to the Tehran theocracy. They had been living quietly, in a self-supporting community, under U.S. protection. The only motive for the attack was that Iran ordered it and Maliki complied. Some witnesses claim that at least some of those in Iraqi uniform that day were Iranian agents. Under Maliki, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qods Force operatives and Hezbollah fighters have been welcomed into Iraq.           

This September 1, Camp Ashraf was attacked again with 54 killed. Seven people were taken away, their fate unknown. It is feared that they were abducted by Iranian agents. The MEK are being processed by the UN for relocation to safe havens outside Iraq, but are under constant harassment. The case of the MEK is not just a human rights tragedy; it is an indicator of where Maliki feels his loyalty lies. He is willing to see defenseless refugees slaughtered simply because they are opponents of the Tehran regime.      

Prime Minister Maliki’s regime should not continue to receive weapons from the United States as he has and will use those weapons in ways that are dangerous to American interests. The day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was charged with terrorism. Hashemi fled first to the Kurdistan province of Iraq (a very pro-American, competently run entity) and then to Turkey. On September 9, 2012, he was sentenced in absentia to death by hanging. It was Maliki who opened the domestic offensive against the Sunni community, reopening the sectarian conflict that the U.S. had worked so hard to end during the military “surge” and the “awakening” political movement. Washington had persuaded Sunni leaders to turn on the “foreign” al-Qaeda by promising that they would get a fair deal in a democratic Iraq. Maliki has broken that promise and violence is on the rise again as the Sunni fight for their survival against a Shiite autocracy.  

The civil war in Syria is cut from the same cloth of religious hatred. The Sunnis are a majority in Syria and a minority in Iraq, both facing Shiite rulers who want them either dead or enslaved. As partisans of both sides move back and forth across the border, the two civil wars are merging into one. The United States has no theological dog in the Sunni-Shia fight, but it does have interests to protect. These favor the Sunni faction in the current strategic situation in the Middle East. Iran is the greater threat with its large population, oil wealth, expansionist ambitions, allies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon (Hezbollah), and an active nuclear weapons program.      

Over the weekend, the BBC aired a half-hour documentary on Iran’s clandestine war in Syria. The report included film taken of Revolutionary Guards training militia units loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and serving in the field as advisors. One of the Iranian officers was killed and video of his military funeral in Iran was shown. As in the case of its nuclear program, the Tehran regime denies what it is doing, but the BBC has added more proof that Iran as well as Hezbollah is in combat defending the Assad dictatorship. There was also testimony from an Iranians operative that besides acting as trainers and advisors, commando raids are being conducted against rebel Sunni targets.      

Like Maliki in Iraq, Iranian spokesmen try to use fear of al-Qaeda to deflect U.S. action against them. Al-Qaeda is active in both Syria and Iraq, as well as other places where circumstances give them a chance to emerge. But the movement is still strategically weak. Indeed, the irony is that al-Qaeda is now spending its blood fighting against larger enemies of America. When an al-Qaeda fighter dies while killing Shiite allies of Tehran, it is a double win for the U.S.        

The American strategic posture in the Middle East is anchored on Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and includes the smaller Sunni states of Jordan, Kuwait and the Gulf emirates. Washington has the money, expertise and weapons to build groups that can fight for influence in Syria and Iraq against both Iran’s puppets and al-Qaeda if it has the will to do so. The U.S. also has the military capability to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Yet, the Obama administration has wavered in its efforts and Congress is drifting into an isolationist stance as libertarian Republicans join with left-wing Democrats to weaken American security at home and abroad. The mullahs in Tehran, however, never slacken in their plans to dominate the region nor waver in their hatred of the “Great Satan” America.    

Dictators are adept at exploiting democracies where partisan divisions have weakened the energy generated by a people mobilized to advance their common destiny. Iran cannot match the power of the United States, which is still the world’s strongest nation; but it won’t have to if that power is not deployed.