How Iraq was lost: The inside story of U.S. bungling
How Iraq was lost: The inside story of U.S. bungling
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was staunchly backed by the United States for years, but his divisive and authoritarian approach is increasingly splintering the country.
To understand why Iraq is imploding, you must understand Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — and why the United States has supported him since 2006.
I have known al-Maliki, or Abu Isra as he is known to people close to him, for more than a decade. I know his family and his inner circle. In 2006, I helped introduce him to the U.S. ambassador, recommending him as a promising option for prime minister. In 2009, I lobbied skeptical regional royals to support al-Maliki’s government.
By 2010, however, I was urging the U.S. vice president and the White House senior staff to withdraw their support for him. I had come to realize that if he remained in office, he would create a divisive, despotic and sectarian government that would rip the country apart and devastate American interests.
But America stuck by al-Maliki. As a result, we now face strategic defeat in Iraq and perhaps in the broader Middle East.
Born in Tuwairij, a village outside the Iraqi holy city of Karbala, al-Maliki was raised in a devout Shiite family. He grew to resent Sunni minority rule in Iraq, especially the secular but repressive Baath Party.
Al-Maliki joined the theocratic Dawa party as a young man, believing in its call to create a Shiite state in Iraq by any means necessary. But Saddam Hussein’s government later banned the movement and made membership a capital offence.
Thousands of Dawa party members were arrested, tortured and executed. Among those killed were some of al-Maliki’s close relatives, forever shaping the psychology of the future premier.
Over a span of three decades, al-Maliki moved between Iran and Syria, where he organized covert operations against Saddam’s regime, eventually becoming chief of Iraq’s Dawa branch in Damascus.
The party found a patron in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran. With Iran’s assistance, Dawa operatives bombed the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981 in one of radical Islam’s first suicide attacks. They also bombed the American and French embassies in Kuwait and schemed to kill the emir. Dozens of assassination plots against senior members of Saddam’s government, including the dictator himself, failed miserably, resulting in mass arrests and executions.
During the tumultuous months following America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Maliki returned home, becoming an adviser to the future prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, and later a member of parliament.
I volunteered to serve in Iraq after watching the tragedy of Sept. 11. The son of Iraqi immigrants, I was dispatched to Baghdad by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for a three-month assignment that ultimately lasted almost a decade. As one of the few American officials there who spoke Arabic, I became the Iraqi leaders’ go-to guy for just about everything — U.S.-furnished weapons, cars, houses or the much-coveted Green Zone access passes.
After the formal U.S. occupation ended in 2004, I stayed in Baghdad to facilitate the transition to a “normalized” American diplomatic presence. Al-Maliki would quiz me about American designs for the Middle East and cajole me for more Green Zone passes. These early days were exhausting but satisfying as Iraqis and Americans worked together to help the country rise from Saddam’s ashes.
Then disaster struck. During al-Jafari’s short tenure, ethno-sectarian tensions spiked. With Saddam’s criminal excesses still fresh in their minds, Iraq’s new Shiite Islamist leaders concocted retribution schemes against Sunnis, resulting in horrifying episodes of torture, rape and other abuses. Displaced Baath Party members launched a bloody insurgency, while Al Qaeda recruited young men to stage suicide and car bombings, kidnappings and other terrorist attacks in a bid to foment chaos.
After the February 2006 bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, a sacred shrine for Shiite Islam’s 200 million adherents, Shiite Islamist leaders launched a ferocious counterattack, sparking a civil war that left tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead. Al-Jafari initially refused American overtures to institute a curfew after Al Qaeda bombed Samarra, insisting that citizens needed to vent their frustrations — effectively sanctioning civil war and ethnic cleansing.
Washington decided that change at the top was essential. After the December 2005 parliamentary elections, U.S. embassy officials combed the Iraqi elite for a leader who could crush the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, battle Al Qaeda, and unite Iraqis under the banner of nationalism and inclusive government.
My colleague Jeffrey Beals and I were among the few Arabic-speaking Americans on good terms with the country’s leading figures. The only man we knew with any chance to win support from all Iraqi factions — and who seemed likely to be an effective leader — was al-Maliki. We argued that he would be acceptable to Iraq’s Shiite Islamists, around 50 per cent of the population; that he was hard-working, decisive and largely free of corruption; and that he was politically weak and thus dependent on co-operating with other Iraqi leaders to hold together a coalition. Although al-Maliki’s history was known to be shadowy and violent, that was hardly unusual in the new Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in turn encouraged Iraq’s skeptical but desperate national leaders to support al-Maliki, who seized the opportunity, becoming prime minister on May 20, 2006.
He vowed to lead a strong, united Iraq.
Al-Maliki’s first years leading Iraq were enormously challenging. He struggled with violence that killed thousands of Iraqis each month and displaced millions, a collapsing oil industry, and divided and corrupt political partners. He was the official ruler of Iraq, but with the surge of U.S. forces in 2007 and the arrival in Baghdad of Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, there was little doubt about who was keeping the Iraqi state from collapse.
Crocker and Petraeus met with the prime minister several hours a day, virtually every day, for nearly two years. Unlike his rivals, al-Maliki travelled little outside the country and routinely worked 16-hour days.One of the biggest breakthroughs of this era was the Awakening movement, in which Sunni Arab tribal and Baathist insurgents turned their guns away from U.S. troops and pointed them toward Al Qaeda, thereby reintegrating into the Iraqi political process. Initially hostile to the idea of arming and funding Sunni fighters, al-Maliki eventually relented after intense lobbying from Crocker and Petraeus, but only on the condition that Washington foot the bill. He later agreed to hire and fund some of the tribal fighters, but many of his promises to them went unmet — leaving them unemployed, bitter and again susceptible to radicalization.
Settling into power by 2008, and with the northern half of the nation becoming pacified, al-Maliki was growing into his job.
Over time, he helped forge compromises with his political rivals and signed multibillion-dollar contracts to help modernize Iraq. A year after the surge began, the country seemed to be back on track.
Al-Maliki didn’t always make things easy, however. Prone to conspiracy theories after decades of being hunted by Saddam’s intelligence services, he was convinced that his Shiite Islamist rival Muqtada al-Sadr was seeking to undermine him. So in March 2008, al-Maliki led an Iraqi army charge against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra.
With no planning, logistics, intelligence, air cover or political support from Iraq’s other leaders, al-Maliki picked a fight with an Iranian-backed militia that had stymied the U.S. military since 2003.
We feared that al-Maliki would be killed, an Iraqi tradition for seizing power. I dialed up Iraq’s Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurdish leaders so Crocker could urge them to publicly stand behind al-Maliki. Petraeus ordered an admiral to Basra to lead U.S. Special Operations forces against the Mahdi Army.
Although it was a close call, al-Maliki’s “Charge of the Knights” succeeded. For the first time in Iraq’s history, a Shiite Islamist premier had defeated an Iranian-backed Shiite Islamist militia. Al-Maliki was welcomed in Baghdad and around the world as a patriotic nationalist.
Buoyed by his win in Basra, and with massive U.S. military assistance, al-Maliki led the charge to retake Baghdad’s Sadr City slum from the Mahdi Army just weeks later. Through an unprecedented fusion of American and Iraqi military and intelligence assets, dozens of Iranian-backed Shiite Islamist militant cells were eliminated within weeks. This was the true surge: a masterful civil-military campaign to allow space for Iraqi politicians to reunite by obliterating the Sunni and Shiite armed groups that had nearly driven the country into the abyss.
By the closing months of 2008, successfully negotiating the terms for America’s continued commitment to Iraq became a top White House imperative. But desperation to seal a deal before President George W. Bush left office, along with the collapse of the world economy, weakened our hand.
In an ascendant position, al-Maliki and his aides demanded everything in exchange for virtually nothing. They cajoled the United States into a bad deal that granted Iraq continued support while giving America little more than the privilege of pouring more resources into a bottomless pit. I left Baghdad with Crocker on Feb. 13, 2009. After more than 2,000 days of service, I was ill, depleted physically and mentally, but hopeful that America’s enormous sacrifices might have produced a positive outcome.
With the Obama administration vowing to end Bush’s “dumb war,” and the continued distraction of the global economic crisis, al-Maliki seized an opportunity. He began a systematic campaign to destroy the Iraqi state and replace it with his private office and his political party. He sacked professional generals and replaced them with those personally loyal to him. He coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections in March 2010. After the results were announced and al-Maliki lost to a moderate, pro-western coalition encompassing all of Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups, the judge issued a ruling that awarded al-Maliki the first chance to form a government, ushering in more tensions and violence.
With the political crisis dragging on for months, a new ambassador for whom I had worked previously, James Jeffrey, asked me to return to Baghdad to help mediate among the Iraqi factions.
Even then, in August 2010, I was shocked that much of the surge’s success had been squandered. Kurds asked how they could justify remaining part of a dysfunctional Iraq that had killed hundreds of thousands of their people since the 1980s. Sunni Arabs were outraged at being asked to abdicate the premiership after pummelling Al Qaeda and winning the elections. Even Shiite Islamist leaders privately expressed discomfort with Iraq’s trajectory under al-Maliki, with al-Sadr openly calling him a “tyrant.” Worst of all, perhaps, the United States was no longer seen as an honest broker.
After helping to bring him to power in 2006, I argued in 2010 that al-Maliki had to go. I felt guilty lobbying against my friend Abu Isra, but this was not personal. Vital U.S. interests were on the line. Thousands of American and Iraqi lives had been lost and trillions of dollars had been spent to help advance our national security, not the ambitions of one man or one party. The constitutional process had to be safeguarded, and we needed a sophisticated, unifying, economics-minded leader to rebuild Iraq.
I suggested Vice-President Adel Abdul Mahdi as a successor. A former Baathist, moderate Shiite Islamist and French-educated economist who had served as finance minister, Abdul Mahdi maintained excellent relations with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as well as with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
On Sept. 1, 2010, when Vice-President Joe Biden was in Baghdad, I made a brief but impassioned argument against al-Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said al-Maliki was the only option.
However, the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us.
Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging.
After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: al-Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerrilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011.
Those Iraqi leaders who co-operated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.
I was determined not to let an Iranian general who had murdered countless American troops dictate the endgame for the United States in Iraq. By October, I was pleading with Ambassador Jeffrey to take steps to avert this outcome. I said that Iran was intent on forcing the United States out of Iraq in humiliation and that a divisive, sectarian government in Baghdad headed by al-Maliki would almost certainly lead to another civil war and then an all-out regional conflict.
This might be averted if we rebuffed Iran by forming a unity government around a nationalist alternative such as Abdul Mahdi. The alternative was strategic defeat in Iraq and the Middle East writ large.
Desperate to avert calamity, I used every bit of my political capital to arrange a meeting for Jeffrey and Antony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser and senior Iraq aide, with one of Iraq’s top grand ayatollahs. Using uncharacteristically blunt language, the Shiite cleric said he believed that Ayad Allawi, who had served as an interim prime minister in 2004-05, and Abdul Mahdi were the only Shiite leaders capable of uniting Iraq. Al-Maliki, he said, was the prime minister of the Dawa party, not of Iraq, and would drive the country to ruin.
But all the lobbying was for naught. By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind al-Maliki.
The next day, I warned that we were making a mistake of historic proportions. I argued that al-Maliki would continue to consolidate power with political purges against his rivals; Talabani would never step aside after fighting Saddam for decades and taking his chair; and the Sunnis would revolt again if they saw that we betrayed our promises to stand by them after the Awakening’s defeat of Al Qaeda.
The al-Maliki supporters were unmoved. The ambassador dispatched me to Jordan to meet with a council of Iraq’s top Sunni leaders, with the message that they needed to join al-Maliki’s government. The response was as I expected. They now wanted their share in the new Iraq, not to be treated as second-class citizens. If that did not happen, they warned, they would take up arms again.
Catastrophe followed. Talabani rebuffed White House appeals to step down and instead turned to Iran for survival. With instructions from Tehran, al-Maliki began to form a cabinet around some of Iran’s favourite men in Iraq. And he purged the National Intelligence Service of its Iran division, gutting the Iraqi government’s ability to monitor and check its neighbouring foe.
Al-Maliki never appointed a permanent, parliament-confirmed interior minister, nor a defence minister, nor an intelligence chief. Instead, he took the positions for himself. He also broke nearly every promise he made to share power with his political rivals. And he abrogated the pledges he made to the United States. In short, al-Maliki’s one-man, one-Dawa-party Iraq looked a lot like Saddam’s one-man, one-Baath Party Iraq. But at least Saddam helped contain a strategic American enemy: Iran. And Washington didn’t spend $1 trillion propping him up. There is not much “democracy” left if one man and one party with close links to Iran control the judiciary, police, army, intelligence services, oil revenue, treasury and the central bank. Under these circumstances, renewed ethno-sectarian civil war in Iraq was not a possibility. It was a certainty.
I resigned in protest on Dec. 31, 2010.
The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted — and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming al-Maliki, President Barack Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that Bush unwisely initiated.
Iraq is now a failed state, and as countries across the Middle East fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni-Shiite holy war, with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another Sept. 11.