October 19, 2010

US Wants All of Iraq’s Cake

Ayad Allawi meets Muqtada al-Sadr in Syria

Nearly eight years have passed since George Bush uttered his “Sixteen Words” during the 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” During the ensuing controversy, the White House itself conceded that the line of "yellowcake" should have been omitted. And with no sign of WMDs added to a persistently destabilized Iraq, even the fallback claim of “liberation” rings hollow to many Iraqis and Westerners.

Yet the stated intentions of Britain’s Iraq Inquiry have nothing to do with punishment, only avoiding a similar situation in the future, while America is unlikely to ever hold a proper war trial. Washington’s recent actions make clear that it failed to learn any real humility either. As de facto Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Tehran, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters, “We are concerned about any neighboring country that would meddle in Iraq's affairs.”

This from the country that invaded on pretext and without a short or long-term plan for regional stability.

It became clear from the start that President Barack Obama wanted everything to go his own way in Iraq. Relentlessly bashing Bush’s war and his surge to inflate weak foreign policy credentials, Obama ran on the basic principle of “Iraq bad, Afghanistan good.” Nor did he cave to Iraq’s intermediate success when questioned on the surge’s progress and how it allowed him withdraw significant US troops, which Obama would later highlight as a fulfilled campaign promise.

Dick Cheney himself would criticize the duplicitous act of taking credit without praising Bush.

Fortunately for Cheney, Obama has also indicated that no Iraqi war trial lurks in the future, no punishment for those who should be held accountable for the egregious planning that Obama voted against as a junior Senator and campaigned on. Obama has repeatedly stated that he “wants to look forward” in Iraq, craving both sides of the pie. Unfortunately for Iraqis, this trend extends to the status of US forces and the formation of a new government.

The tragic irony of al-Maliki’s visit to Iran can hardly be any thicker. Though US officials kept their profiles low in the seven months following Iraq’s parliamentary election in March, their choice for prime minister is no stranger to anyone. As Iran coerced a reluctant Muqtada al-Sadr into al-Maliki’s coalition last month, Washington busied itself massaging the Sunnis in preparation for al-Maliki’s administration. Around the same time the Shia cleric cast his 39 parliamentary seats behind al-Maliki’s second term, US Vice President Joe Biden called al-Maliki’s rival, Iraqiya chief Ayad Allawi, to press for a “compromise” - to support a government dominated by Shia blocs.

"The vice president urged Dr. Allawi, as he is urging all Iraqi leaders, to expedite efforts to form an inclusive and legitimate government responsive to the needs of the Iraqi people," Biden's office later said.

The irony reaches its peak in the possibility that al-Maliki may be more pro-Iranian than the nationalistic al-Sadr. Crowley would claim on Monday, "Ultimately, this has to be an Iraqi decision as part of its own political process... We would expect the Iraqi government to work on behalf of its own citizens rather than on behalf of another country." Yet Washington and Iran both have their hands deep in al-Maliki’s return to power.

They are partners in meddling.

Of course nothing else can be expected from these two arch enemies, but the effects of insurgency are manifesting in their political struggle. On a guerrilla battlefield where the laws of war break down, the government or occupying force must embody a higher standard than the guerrilla, whose potential cruelty receives leniency from the population. The same law applies politically to America in regards to Iran - operating at the same level leads to defeat for the counterinsurgent.

America’s argument of Iranian meddling is rendered obsolete by Washington’s own meddling, a fact it may privately realize but refuses to accept in public. This “Great Hypocrisy” impedes any legitimate appeal to Iraqi sovereignty and is frequently raised to counter US allegations.

Worst still, US officials initially refused to publicly enter Iraq’s political negotiations, waiting until the situation grew dire before voicing their urgency. But with America’s influence stamped on al-Maliki’s second term, the last six months become a waste of time that Washington should have actively engaged from the beginning. Iraqi officials alleged in the meantime that the White House tuned out of Iraq once its surge commenced in Afghanistan. Delaying comes with a heavy price: the necessary allegiance of al-Sadr.

Here too Washington’s meddling is easily visible. As with Hamas and Hezbollah, US officials refuse to acknowledge his democratically-won seats and have worked to lock him out of a power-sharing agreement. But with al-Maliki desperate for Shia support, it was only a matter of time before al-Sadr found himself in the kingmaker role that many anticipated after his electoral success. Blocking him from the political system was always a futile hope.

Now Washington must swallow a bitter pill to stabilize Iraq, weakening America’s overall position in the country.

Yet al-Sadr’s support, coupled with US and Iranian blessings, stands to further destabilize Iraq. While vacillating in his resistance to al-Maliki, Allawi offers no tangible evidence that he intends to cooperate with a Shia-led government, especially when his Sunni/secular Iraqiya list beat out al-Maliki's State of Law coalition by two seats, 91 to 89. Sunni tribesman once on the government payroll were cut off months ago, reverting back to militiamen with some being recruited by al-Qaeda’s double payments.

Without Sunni representation at the highest level, conditions are ripe for the political and economic marginalization that dumps into the insurgency. Despite Washington’s support for al-Maliki and an inclusive government, the two concepts tend to violate each other.

The danger posed by al-Sadr is just as acute, if not more serious than Allawi’s potential alienation. Many suspected that Washington intends to re-negotiate its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) before August, when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that US troops would stay past 2011 “if asked.” Iraq’s lack of progress has only reaffirmed him and unilateral support for al-Maliki solidifies these rumors, already fanned by Iraqi security forces who speak of the need for long-term US military support.

Unfortunately for US troops staying past 2011, their number one enemy will shift from al-Qaeda to the Mahdi army, al-Sadr’s personal militia, leaving two networks to combat. And the Mahdi army’s network dwarfs al-Qaeda’s. The organization went underground in 2007, when al-Sadr announced a ceasefire, and continued to disappear from the battlefield after being confronted by Iraqi and US forces in 2008. But the underground army evolved its social services in the process, likely translating into votes for al-Sadr last March.

It’s no secret why Washington supports al-Maliki but, when he meets al-Sadr in Iran, criticizes the meeting and opposes “Iranian interference.” More than a few al-Sadr officials speak of the new Mahdi army, composed of small tactical units specialized in guerrilla warfare. Well armed and fighting on nationalism and religion, they would pose a far more sophisticated and deadly threat to US troops than al-Qaeda. The Mahdi army has already declared war as of January 1st, 2012.

al-Maliki’s reported exchange of “security guarantees” to al-Sadr offers the latest evidence that America still hopes to extend the SOFA.

Obama didn’t instigate Iraq's war and isn’t to blame for the current conditions stemming from the invasion, but his early opposition adds to the foulness of his own “post-war” strategy. US policy seeks to extend US forces and isolate al-Sadr as a criminal of the state, rather than a democratically and morally supported cleric. At the highest strategic level, Washington seeks to isolate Iraq from its neighbor before a potential strike on its nuclear program.

“Liberation,” like WMDs, hasn’t stopped America from pursuing its own interests in Iraq above all others. And so long as America continues meddling in Iraqi politics, surrounding countries have all the more reason to continue their own interference. Admittedly easier said than done, Washington must drop its support of al-Maliki and lobby for Allawi as an equal partner, while accepting al-Sadr’s legitimacy. Though less likely to create a favorable US ally, neutrality may be the only means of permanent stabilization.

And perhaps the only real punishment to those who sought to financially exploit the war’s aftermath.

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