Christianity in Iraq is finished

Daniel Williams writes: In the part of his Sept. 10 speech on confronting the Islamic State that probably drew the least attention, President Obama mentioned the need to help Christians and other minorities, expelled from cities and villages in northern Iraq, return from where they came. “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homeland,” he said.

Obama got that wrong. Christians, of whom around 120,000 have taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, will not be going home even if their tormentors suddenly disappear.

I spent 10 days talking with Christian refugees in Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, this month, and they are adamant they will not be returning to Mosul and nearby towns on what is known as the Nineveh Plain.

It is not simply that these Christians have gone through tremendous trauma. It is not only because they lost everything, including their homes and businesses, and in some cases spent days and even weeks in detention while being badgered to convert to Islam, where they saw babies taken from mothers’ arms to be held for ransom and busloads of young people ferried off into the unknown.

Nor is it because their neighbors, in Mosul but especially in the countryside, welcomed and even joined fighters from the Islamic State, pointed out the homes of minorities and let them know which ones were wealthy.

No, it is because, for Christians in Iraq, the past three months have been the climax of 11 years of hell. We Americans have short memories (that goes for you, too, in the “Bush Was Right” crowd), but it’s worth noting that Christians began having serious problems within a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sometimes it was the work of al-Qaeda, sometimes Sunni insurgents pining for the return of Sunni control of Iraq. Sometimes it was Shiite militias fighting the Sunnis but finding time to persecute Christians. [Continue reading...]

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Photo exhibit restores dignity to victims of U.S. torture

The Intercept: The U.S. military used a camera as a torture device at Abu Grahib. To add further humiliation to detainees who were already put in cages, urinated on, stripped naked then stacked in macabre human pyramids, their photos were taken during these degrading acts. “I wanted to use the camera to restore these peoples’ humanity through beautiful portraiture,” says photographer Chris Bartlett, whose exhibition, “Iraqi Detainees: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Ordeals,” opens tonight in New York.

When confronted with images of torture, Bartlett says, even the greatest liberal or humanist among us has the tendency to flinch and look away. “It’s such a disturbing and disgusting issue that people want to turn off from it.” Bartlett, who often works in high fashion photography, shooting subjects like candy colored Tory Burch handbags, said he wanted to take “very kind, respectful, beautiful, portraits to draw people into the subject and learn more about their stories.” [Continue reading and view a selection of the portraits...]

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Military skill and terrorist technique fuel success of ISIS

The New York Times reports: As fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continue to seize territory, the group has quietly built an effective management structure of mostly middle-aged Iraqis overseeing departments of finance, arms, local governance, military operations and recruitment.

At the top the organization is the self-declared leader of all Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a radical chief executive officer of sorts, who handpicked many of his deputies from among the men he met while a prisoner in American custody at the Camp Bucca detention center a decade ago.

He had a preference for military men, and so his leadership team includes many officers from Saddam Hussein’s long-disbanded army.

They include former Iraqi officers like Fadel al-Hayali, the top deputy for Iraq, who once served Mr. Hussein as a lieutenant colonel, and Adnan al-Sweidawi, a former lieutenant colonel who now heads the group’s military council.

The pedigree of its leadership, outlined by an Iraqi who has seen documents seized by the Iraqi military, as well as by American intelligence officials, helps explain its battlefield successes: Its leaders augmented traditional military skill with terrorist techniques refined through years of fighting American troops, while also having deep local knowledge and contacts. ISIS is in effect a hybrid of terrorists and an army.

“These are the academies that these men graduated from to become what they are today,” said the Iraqi, a researcher named Hisham Alhashimi.

ISIS, which calls itself Islamic State, burst into global consciousness in June when its fighters seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, after moving into Iraq from their base in Syria.

The Iraqi Army melted away, and Mr. Baghdadi declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, that erased borders and imposed Taliban-like rule over a large territory. Not everyone was surprised by the group’s success. “These guys know the terrorism business inside and out, and they are the ones who survived aggressive counterterrorism campaigns during the surge,” said one American intelligence official, referring to the increase in American troops in Iraq in 2007. “They didn’t survive by being incompetent.” [Continue reading...]

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How Assad fostered the growth of ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Islamic State, which metastasized from a group of militants seeking to overthrow the Syrian government into a marauding army gobbling up chunks of the Middle East, gained momentum early on from a calculated decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go easy on it, according to people close to the regime.

Earlier in the three-year-old Syrian uprising, Mr. Assad decided to mostly avoid fighting the Islamic State to enable it to cannibalize the more secular rebel group supported by the West, the Free Syrian Army, said Izzat Shahbandar, an Assad ally and former Iraqi lawmaker who was Baghdad’s liaison to Damascus. The goal, he said, was to force the world to choose between the regime and extremists.

“When the Syrian army is not fighting the Islamic State, this makes the group stronger,” said Mr. Shahbandar, a close aide to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said Mr. Assad described the strategy to him personally during a visit in May to Damascus. “And sometimes, the army gives them a safe path to allow the Islamic State to attack the FSA and seize their weapons.”

“It’s a strategy to eliminate the FSA and have the two main players face each other in Syria: Assad and the Islamic State,” said Mr. Shahbandar. “And now [Damascus] is asking the world to help, and the world can’t say no.”

The Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, has emerged recently as a major threat to the entire region and beyond. Its seizure of territory in neighboring Iraq triggered American airstrikes, and its execution this week of kidnapped American journalist James Foley prompted President Barack Obama to vow to continue the U.S. air war against the group in Iraq and to relentlessly pursue the killers. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the group can’t be defeated without choking off its operations in Syria.

This account of how the Islamic State benefited from the complex three-way civil war in Syria between the government, the largely secular, moderate rebels and the hard-core Islamist groups was pieced together from interviews with Syrian rebel commanders and opposition figures, Iraqi government officials and Western diplomats, as well as al Qaeda documents seized by the U.S. military in Iraq.

The Assad regime now appears to be shifting away from its early reluctance to engage the group.

In June, Syria launched airstrikes on the group’s headquarters in Raqqa in northern Syria, the first large-scale offensive against the militant group since it rose to power a year ago. This week, Syria flew more than three dozen sorties on Raqqa, its biggest assault on the group yet.

The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, denied that Damascus supported the Islamic State early on and praised his government’s battlefield response to the group, pointing to dozens of recent strikes on the group’s headquarters.

“Our priorities changed as these groups emerged,” Mr. Ali said in an interview at his office. “Last month it was protecting Damascus, for example. Today it is Raqqa.”

Speaking of the Islamic State aggression that has decimated the more secular FSA, he said: “When these groups clashed, the Syrian government benefited. When you have so many enemies and they clash with each other, you must take advantage of it. You step back, see who is left and finish them off.”

Mr. Shahbandar said the Islamic State’s recent success forced the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to ramp up their military assaults, hoping the West will throw its weight behind Damascus and Tehran to defeat the extremists. Such cooperation would put the U.S. and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia in an uncomfortable position, after years of supporting the FSA and demanding that Mr. Assad step down.

There are some signs that the opposing sides might be willing to work together. In Iraq, the U.S. began arming Kurdish Peshmerga forces this month, while the Iranians sent advisers.

The Syrian government facilitated the predecessor to the Islamic State — al Qaeda in Iraq — when that group’s primary target was U.S. troops then in the country. [Continue reading...]

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The false dichotomy between military action and successful diplomacy

Shadi Hamid writes: The Middle East, as a region, is more unstable, divided, and rife with extremism today than it has been at any other point in recent decades. It would make little sense to blame these developments on American military intervention. The past six years have been characterized not by the use of force, but by a very concerted desire on the part of the Obama administration to reduce our regional engagement, in general, and our military footprint in particular.

The presumption was that with the withdrawal from Iraq, a key Arab grievance would be addressed. The Obama administration could, then, re-establish a relationship with the Arab world based on “mutual respect,” leading to a “new beginning.” It wasn’t unreasonable to think this. After all, it was precisely our over-engagement, and the waging of two costly, tragic wars, that appeared to provoke such anger toward the United States. Yet disengagement and detachment haven’t helped matters. Anti-Americanism persists at strikingly high levels and, in a number of countries, attitudes toward the U.S. are more negative under Obama than they were during Bush’s final years.

The Bush administration’s fatal mistake wasn’t military intervention per se, but rather the misapplication of military force under false pretenses. In other words, not all military adventures are created equal: Bad interventions are bad, but good interventions are good.

The two most destructive conflicts in the Middle East today are in Syria and Iraq, two countries that have imploded not because of too much intervention, but because of too little. In Syria, our failure to intervene with air support to help rebels hold territory and targeted military strikes to diminish the regime’s ability to kill not only exacerbated the humanitarian toll, but also undermined “moderates” — who have begged endlessly for the most basic weaponry — and strengthened extremist groups like ISIS. The claim, oft-repeated by opponents of intervention, that “there is no military solution” is a straw man, setting up a false dichotomy between military action and successful diplomacy, when the two, in fact, go hand in hand. Assad has no real incentive to negotiate in good faith in the absence of a credible threat of military force.

Consider ISIS’s recent capture of territory in the strategic Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. The group’s military success had very little to do with hatreds of any kind, ancient or otherwise, and more to do with the failure of the international community to support the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who warned American officials, including Samantha Power, that ISIS was closing in. For weeks, they pleaded for assistance but were ignored. “The FSA numbers are big, but we don’t have weapons, we don’t have ammunition, we don’t have anything,” complained one FSA commander.

In Iraq, the original sin was the Bush administration’s decision to invade in 2003 (or was it the elder Bush’s failure to back the Iraqi uprising of 1991, effectively allowing Saddam to stay in power?). But, again, there was nothing inevitable about the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June and the eruption of civil war in Iraq. To emphasize, as Obama has, that this is a conflict between Iraqis and must be resolved by Iraqis, is banal and self-evident, but it also implies — in the context of Obama’s broader approach to the region — a certain studied detachment. This is not our civil war, but theirs. Except that the U.S., through a staggering combination of incompetence, neglect, and myopia, is directly implicated in the country’s political deterioration. As Ali Khedery, the longest continuing serving U.S. official in Iraq, writes: “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 Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

If anything, the lesson of Bosnia, Kosovo, and, for that matter, Rwanda, is that supposedly “primordial” conflicts over religion, sect, and ethnicity are the very ones, due to their intractability and viciousness, that are more likely to require outside military intervention. Ultimately, the end of the Bosnian war did not mean that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats hated each other any less; it meant that, despite their hate, they would agree to abide by a peace agreement. This return to “politics” would not have been possible without, first, the resort to force by NATO and the international community. [Continue reading...]

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Dahr Jamail: Incinerating Iraq

Who even knows what to call it?  The Iraq War or the Iraq-Syrian War would be far too orderly for what’s happening, so it remains a no-name conflict that couldn’t be deadlier or more destabilizing — and it’s in the process of internationalizing in unsettling ways.  Think of it as the strangest disaster on the planet right now. After all, when was the last time that the U.S. and Russia ended up on the same side in a conflict? You would have to go back almost three quarters of a century to World War II to answer that one. And how about the U.S. and Iran?  Now, it seems that all three of those countries are sending in military hardware and, in the case of the U.S. and Irandrones, advisers, pilots, and possibly other personnel.

Since World War I, the region that became Iraq and Syria has been a magnet for the meddling of outside powers of every sort, each of which, including France and Britain, the Clinton administration with its brutal sanctions, and the Bush administration with its disastrous invasion and occupation, helped set the stage for the full-scale destabilization and sectarian disintegration of both countries.  And now the outsiders are at it again.

The U.S., Russia, and Iran only start the list.  The Saudis, to give an example, have reportedly been deeply involved in funding the rise of the al-Qaeda-style extremist movement the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Now, facing that movement’s success — some of its armed followers, including undoubtedly Saudi nationals, have already reached the Iraqi-Saudi frontier — the Saudis are reportedly moving 30,000 troops there, no doubt in fear that their fragile and autocratic land might someday be open to the very violence their petrodollars have stoked.  Turkey, which has wielded an open-border/safe haven policy to support the Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime, including ISIS and other extremist outfits, is now dealing with kidnapped nationals and chaos on its border, thanks to those same rebels.  Israel entered the fray recently as well, launching airstrikes against nine Syrian “military targets,” and just to add to the violence and confusion, Assad’s planes and helicopters have been attacking ISIS forces across the now-nonexistent border in Iraq.  And I haven’t even mentioned Hezbollah, the Jordanians, or the Europeans, all of whom are involved in their own ways.

Since 2003, Dahr Jamail, a rare and courageous unembedded reporter in Iraq, has observed how this witch’s brew of outside intervention and exploding sectarian violence has played out in the lives of ordinary Iraqis.  It couldn’t be a sadder tale, one he started reporting for TomDispatch in 2005 — even then the subject was “devastation.”  Nine years later, he’s back and the devastation is almost beyond imagining.  As he now works for the website Truthout, this is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.Tom Engelhardt

A nation on the brink
How America’s policies sealed Iraq’s fate
By Dahr Jamail

[This essay is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.]

For Americans, it was like the news from nowhere.  Years had passed since reporters bothered to head for the country we invaded and blew a hole through back in 2003, the country once known as Iraq that our occupation drove into a never-ending sectarian nightmare.  In 2011, the last U.S. combat troops slipped out of the country, their heads “held high,” as President Obama proclaimed at the time, and Iraq ceased to be news for Americans. 

So the headlines of recent weeks — Iraq Army collapses! Iraq’s second largest city falls to insurgents! Terrorist Caliphate established in Middle East! — couldn’t have seemed more shockingly out of the blue.  Suddenly, reporters flooded back in, the Bush-era neocons who had planned and supported the invasion and occupation were writing op-eds as if it were yesterday, and Iraq was again the story of the moment as the post-post-mortems began to appear and commentators began asking: How in the world could this be happening? 

Iraqis, of course, lacked the luxury of ignoring what had been going on in their land since 2011. For them, whether Sunnis or Shiites, the recent unraveling of the army, the spread of a series of revolts across the Sunni parts of Iraq, the advance of an extremist insurgency on the country’s capital, Baghdad, and the embattled nature of the autocratic government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were, if not predictable, at least expectable. And as the killings ratcheted up, caught in the middle were the vast majority of Iraqis, people who were neither fighters nor directly involved in the corrupt politics of their country, but found themselves, as always, caught in the vice grip of the violence again engulfing it.

[Read more...]

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Iraq illusions

Jessica T. Mathews writes: The story most media accounts tell of the recent burst of violence in Iraq seems clear-cut and straightforward. In reality, what is happening is anything but. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), so the narrative goes, a barbaric, jihadi militia, honed in combat in Syria, has swept aside vastly larger but feckless Iraqi army forces in a seemingly unstoppable tide of conquest across northern and western Iraq, almost to the outskirts of Baghdad. The country, riven by ineluctable sectarian conflict, stands on the brink of civil war. The United States, which left Iraq too soon, now has to act fast, choosing among an array of ugly options, among them renewed military involvement and making common cause with Iran. Alternatives include watching Iraq splinter and the creation of an Islamist caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Much of this is, at best, misleading; some is outright wrong. ISIS, to begin, is only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups. Besides ISIS, the Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the government of Nouri al-Maliki includes another jihadi group, Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), as well as the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, comprising as many as eighty tribes, and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group that claims to have Shiite and Kurdish members and certainly includes many Sunni Baathists once loyal to Saddam Hussein.

This is a partial list. The important point is that within the forces that have proven so powerful in recent weeks are groups with profound differences, even mutual hatred. ISIS, for example, has turned on al-Qaeda, its parent, for being too moderate, and considers Baathists to be infidels. These disparate groups are fighting together now, yes, but they won’t be together for long. And they have been fighting in places where local populations are friendly to them. It will be a different matter when they meet the tough and motivated Kurdish peshmerga or Shiite forces in the Shiites’ own regions.

The story, which has seemed to be all about religion and military developments, is actually mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice. True, one side is Sunni and the other Shia, but this is not a theological conflict rooted in the seventh century. ISIS and its allies have triumphed because the Sunni populations of Mosul and Tikrit and Fallujah have welcomed and supported them—not because of ISIS’s disgusting behavior, but in spite of it. The Sunnis in these towns are more afraid of what their government may do to them than of what the Sunni militia might. They have had enough of years of being marginalized while suffering vicious repression, lawlessness, and rampant corruption at the hands of Iraq’s Shia-led government.

What is happening now—not its details, but its essentials—was clearly evident at the time of President Bush’s “surge” seven years ago. The premise for the added American troops then was that insecurity in Iraq blocked political reconciliation. If the violence could be reduced, the administration argued, reconciliation would follow—but it didn’t. The important agreements on the eighteen political “benchmarks” specified by the US never were carried out and haven’t been to this day. (They included, for example, laws that were supposed to distribute oil revenue equitably and reverse the purge of Baathists from government.) When a government is wrenched apart, especially an authoritarian one, a struggle for political power immediately fills the vacuum. In Iraq the struggle has been, and continues to be, within sectarian groups almost as much as between them. [Continue reading...]

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Could Chalabi replace Maliki?

Patrick Cockburn writes: The ablest candidate to be prime minister is Ahmed Chalabi on the grounds that he is intelligent, energetic, an excellent organiser and has a good understanding of what has gone wrong. Several times in the past couple of years he told me with complete accuracy that the Iraqi security services were so rotted by corruption that they would speedily disintegrate if they had to fight a real war.

The very fact that Chalabi would be good as prime minister of Iraq does not mean that he will get the job. Listening to conversations among politically active Iraqis about the next prime minister, I notice that they all focus on how many players each candidate gets on with – the different power centres in the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities and foreign states such as the US, Iran and the Sunni neighbours – and not whether a new PM could reorganise the army before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) attacks Baghdad.

Commending Chalabi and his abilities invariably causes dismay in the West – though not in Iraq these days – because he has acquired an impressive array of enemies. At different moments Chalabi has been high up on the most-hated lists of the US State Department, the CIA, Saddam Hussein, the British Foreign Office, Democrats and all those, mostly but by no means exclusively on the left and centre, who opposed the invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain in 2003.

The Guardian reports: The son of an establishment Baghdad family, Chalabi left Iraq as a child in 1956, spending much of his time between the US and the UK, along with stints in academia in Lebanon and finance in Jordan from the early 1970s. Along the way, he received a doctorate in mathematics and founded Petra Bank in Amman, which failed more than a decade later.

“In all of Iraq, nobody knows how to punch above their weight or play the convoluted game of Iraqi politics better than Ahmad Chalabi,” said Ramzy Mardini, a Jordan-based political analyst for thinktank The Atlantic Council. “His enduring survival is beyond our comprehension. Unlike Ayad Allawi [another former exile], Ahmad Chalabi is close to Iran. This is the key relationship that makes Chalabi’s candidacy something of a realistic prospect should Maliki be ousted. If Iran has a redline against a candidate, [he doesn't] have a shot in making it in the end.

“If Iraqi politics were Game of Thrones, Chalabi would play Lord Baelish, a consummate puppet master behind the scenes, constantly plotting his path to power. For him, chaos isn’t a pit, but a ladder and Chalabi knows the ways and means of exploiting a crisis to suit his interests and elevation in Iraq’s political circles. He apparently has good relations with everyone, except Maliki.”

The next month will determine how willing Chalabi’s patrons are to throw in their lot with him. Maliki, apparently emboldened after a private talk with the office of Iraq Shia Islam’s highest authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said on Friday that he was not going anywhere.

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Iraqi Shiite militias enter battle against ISIS

AFP reports: Iraq’s government once battled entrenched Shiite militiamen but is now making common cause with them against a jihadist-led onslaught that Baghdad’s forces are struggling to contain on their own.

Shiite militiamen are fighting alongside Iraq’s flagging forces, bringing experience, morale and increased numbers to the government side, which has lost large areas of five provinces to the Sunni Arab militant offensive.

But even if it pushes back the offensive, the government may have traded that immediate threat for another it cannot control.

“The last time the militias became strong and Baghdad had to contend with them, it led to operation Charge of the Knights,” said John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group, referring to a 2008 operation against Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia that only succeeded with American support.

“This involved heavy fighting in the south of the country,” said Drake. “The difference now is that the government won’t have the same US military support.”

The Shiite militia resurgence also risks further alienating the Sunni Arab minority, which populates most areas overrun in the offensive and was targeted by death squads during a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war, which peaked in 2006-2007 and killed thousands.

“The reinvigoration of Shiite militia groups will, at the very least, be of concern for the Sunni community, given that such groups were involved in widespread sectarian killing,” Drake said. [Continue reading...]

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Why the U.S. stuck with Maliki — and lost Iraq

“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 Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

This is the damning assessment of Ali Khedery who by 2009 had become the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq. He writes:

[I]n August 2010, I was shocked that much of the surge’s success had been squandered by Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. 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 — who had overcome internal divisions to form the secular Iraqiya coalition with like-minded Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians — were outraged at being asked to abdicate the premiership after pummeling al-Qaeda and winning the elections. Even Shiite Islamist leaders privately expressed discomfort with Iraq’s trajectory under Maliki, with 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 Maliki had to go. I felt guilty lobbying against my friend Abu Isra [Maliki], 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 the country after the security-focused Maliki crushed the militias and al-Qaeda.

In conversations with visiting White House senior staff members, the ambassador, the generals and other colleagues, 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, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because 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. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla 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 cooperated, 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 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. It would be extremely difficult, I acknowledged, but with 50,000 troops still on the ground, the United States remained a powerful player. The alternative was strategic defeat in Iraq and the Middle East writ large. To my surprise, the ambassador shared my concerns with the White House senior staff, asking that they be relayed to the president and vice president, as well as the administration’s top national security officials.

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. 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 Maliki. Washington would try to move Talabani aside and install Allawi as a consolation prize to the Iraqiya coalition.

The next day, I appealed again to Blinken, Jeffrey, Austin, my embassy colleagues and my bosses at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis and Gen. John Allen, and warned that we were making a mistake of historic proportions. I argued that Maliki would continue to consolidate power with political purges against his rivals; Talabani would never step aside after fighting Hussein 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. [Continue reading...]

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Blackwater manager threatened to murder State Department investigator in Iraq

The New York Times reports: Just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

After returning to Washington, the chief investigator wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created “an environment full of liability and negligence.” [Continue reading...]

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Maliki and ISIS are both enemies of democracy

Michael Weiss writes: The American military official best acquainted with the social fabric of northern and central Iraq says that the disintegration of the country was entirely preventable. Col. Rick Welch spent just under seven years in Iraq and served as Gen. David Petraeus’s chief liaison to the Sunni tribes of Fallujah and Ramadi and to various Shia tribal militia groups, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s now-reconstituted Mahdi Army.

Welch was integral to the so-called “Anbar Awakening,” which turned a lot of former insurgents – or insurgency sympathizers – into US allies against Al-Qaeda. Since retiring from the army, he has resumed his law practice in Ohio but has kept up with these hard-won friends, who have painted a dire picture of what life is like under the Nouri al-Maliki government. If the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the former Ba’athists of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order have managed to plow through Anbar Province with such ease, Welch argues, it is because the Sunnis of Iraq felt they had no recourse but to align with such elements.

“Maliki, in my opinion, is just as much an enemy to democracy in Iraq as ISIS is,” Welch told me last week in a wide-ranging interview. “He pushed them so far that they had to rise up. They tried to get reforms, but they couldn’t get them. There were dragnet arrests; Sunni women were thrown in prison to get to the men. Tribal honor was on the line and revenge thinking was on the line. Maliki made this crisis.” And it was abetted, the colonel says, by US obliviousness of or indifference to what was a noticeable degeneration in Baghdad even before the American troop withdrawal in 2011. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s disastrous Iraq policy

Peter Beinart writes: Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.

The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”

When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister’s Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran, perhaps because they believed his claim that Iraq’s Shiites would never accept a Sunni-aligned government. “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust. [Continue reading...]

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Kurdish control of Kirkuk

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Tony Blair should be fired as Middle East envoy, say former ambassadors

The Guardian reports: A group of former British ambassadors have joined a campaign calling for Tony Blair to be removed from his role as Middle East envoy after his recent attempt to “absolve himself” of responsibility for the crisis in Iraq.

The letter, organised by the makers of George Galloway’s film The Killing of Tony Blair, says the 2003 invasion of Iraq was to blame for the rise of “fundamentalist terrorism in a land where none existed previously”.

The signatories, led by Blair’s former ambassador to Iran Sir Richard Dalton, describe the former prime minister’s achievements as Middle East envoy as “negligible”.

Other former diplomats to sign the letter are Oliver Miles, who was ambassador to Libya when diplomatic relations were severed in 1984 after the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, and Christopher Long, ambassador to Egypt between 1992-95. [Continue reading...]

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How did Iraqi sectarianism emerge?

Fanar Haddad: Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms. Obviously, this is something that ebbs and flows, but there were other frames of reference that were politically dominant. Come 2003, plenty changes.

Zack Beauchamp: How did things change in 2003?

FH: You can chart a course to 2003 from the mobilization of Shia parties in the mid-20th century, the Iranian Revolution [of 1979], the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s], the rebellion of 1991, 13 years of sanctions. These are all part of a cumulative process.

Come 2003, the main opposition forces against Saddam Hussein were ethno-sectarian parties. That’s a really important point. Yes, we can blame — and we should blame — occupation forces and the promises that they pursued, particularly enshrining identity politics as the key marker of Iraqi politics. But that was something that these ethno-sectarian parties, the ones who were the main opposition force, advocated before 2003. This, to them, was the answer.

From a Sunni Arab perspective, the Shia parties and personalities that came to power weren’t just politicians who happened to be Shia. They were politicians whose political outlook was firmly rooted in a Shia-centric, sect-centric view of things. I would say there were a number of prejudices, Sunni suspicions of the new regime. These were unfortunately validated by the nature of the new political elite, and their subsequent decisions and policies.

Post-2003 Iraq, I’d say identity politics have been the norm rather than an anomaly because they’re part of the system by design. The first institution that was set up in 2003 under the auspices of the occupation was the Iraq Governing Council — which was explicitly based on sectarian apportionment. You know, 13 Shias, six Sunnis, or whatever it was, based on what were perceived as the correct demographics.

Not to muddy the water further, but we don’t actually have anywhere near an accurate census for these things. They’re just sort of received wisdom — that Sunnis are increasingly rejecting. The idea that they’re a minority, that they’re only 20 percent: this is something that Sunni voices since 2003 have been rejecting. Whether that’s rational or not is not the point. The point is that they basically look at the demographic claims as Sunnis being marginalized and accorded second-class status on the basis of a lie. They do not accept that they are a minority, and this is a system that’s based on ethno-sectarian demographics.

ZB: How do these sectarian divides affect people’s view of the Iraqi state — not just the Maliki government, but the entire set of political institutions themselves?

FH: I’d say this point is crucial to pre- and post-2003 Iraq: the idea of the legitimacy of the state. It’s also sort of crucial to what’s going on now.

When 2003 came along, a lot of Shias and certainly a lot of Kurds welcomed it. They saw it as their deliverance as Shias and Kurds as much as it was the deliverance of Iraq. On the Sunni side, there was no such sentiment because there barely existed a sense of Sunni identity before 2003. It simply didn’t exist in Iraq.

Now, what you see is the reverse. The Iraqi government is not popular with anyone, the popularity of the government is rock bottom, I’d say, but Shias are more likely to accord the state, the post-2003 order some level of legitimacy. Whereas there is a body of opinion of among Sunnis who just do not ascribe any legitimacy to it whatsoever. [Continue reading...]

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The role the Baathists in Iraq’s Sunni insurgency

The New York Times reports: Meeting with the American ambassador some years ago in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki detailed what he believed was the latest threat of a coup orchestrated by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

“Don’t waste your time on this coup by the Baathists,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, chided him, dismissing his conspiracy theories as fantasy.

Now, though, with Iraq facing its gravest crisis in years, as Sunni insurgents have swept through northern and central Iraq, Mr. Maliki’s claims about Baathist plots have been at least partly vindicated. While fighters for the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, once an offshoot of Al Qaeda, have taken on the most prominent role in the new insurgency, they have done so in alliance with a deeply rooted network of former loyalists to Saddam Hussein.

The involvement of the Baathists helps explain why just a few thousand Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters, many of them fresh off the battlefields of Syria, have been able to capture so much territory so quickly. It sheds light on the complexity of the forces aligned against Baghdad in the conflict — not just the foreign-influenced group known as ISIS, but many homegrown groups, too. And with the Baathists’ deep social and cultural ties to many areas now under insurgent control, it stands as a warning of how hard it might be for the government to regain territory and restore order.

Many of the former regime loyalists, including intelligence officers and Republican Guard soldiers — commonly referred to as the “deep state” in the Arab world — belong to a group called the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, often referred to as J.R.T.N., the initials of its Arabic name. The group announced its establishment in 2007, not long after the execution of Mr. Hussein, and its putative leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was one of Mr. Hussein’s most trusted deputies and the highest-ranking figure of the old regime who avoided capture by the Americans.

Referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s fighters, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has researched the Naqshbandia group, said, “They couldn’t have seized a fraction of what they did without coordinated alliances with other Sunni groups.” [Continue reading...]

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Maliki or ISIS? Neither looks good to Sunni Awakening veterans

Christian Science Monitor reports: The last time the Al Qaeda franchise raised its head in Iraq, its brutal tactics convinced many fellow Sunnis to take them on.

Back then, fresh-faced Abu Omar was a local leader of the US-backed “Sons of Iraq,” trying to put a lid on Sunni militancy.

But today, as Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) advance across the country, he sits at home in a dark blue polo shirt playing with his children, unable to stop a storm that he says is threatening to engulf Iraq again.

ISIS is one problem. The group has posted videos it claims show it massacring Shiite Iraqi Army troops, while promising “justice” and basic services on its turf.

But the stunning ISIS advance is riding what some top Sunni politicians – echoed by local players like Abu Omar – say is a much wider “revolution” against the unabashedly Shiite-first policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And this raises the specter of a return to sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.

“If no solution is found very soon, no one will be able to stop ISIS; they are getting very strong with tanks and equipment and manpower,” says Abu Omar, who asked that only this nickname be used.

He reckons that 60 to 70 percent of Iraq’s Sunnis “welcome that revolution” and have been “brainwashed” about the true violent nature of a group they support. “I am expecting worse than 2006-2007, if there is not a quick solution,” he says, adding that ISIS and other Sunni extremist cells are already in Baghdad.

“Rivers of blood will be in the street. The killing we will not be in the air [as rumors], but live,” he warns. [Continue reading...]

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