Credit Iran, not the ‘Surge’

American officials have been stun by the demands from the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki to have a timetable for withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and his refusal to go along with a long term American presence. The working assumption by the US was that the Iraqi government would need and want American support, even if they couldn’t appear too eager. Not only would this assure the Iraqi government could have a strong force to counter resistance, but American money would continue to flow into Iraq, helping enrich a lot of people with close ties to the government.

However, the US is not popular amongst the Iraqi people, and often tries to overtly impact Iraqi politics. Maliki himself is in power because the US did not want al-Jaafari, his predecessor, to keep that role, even though he was chosen by the victors in Iraq’s elections. For months there was a lack of a clear government as the Iraqis and the US tussled over the issue, with Maliki finally chosen as a compromise. Think of the message this sends Maliki: if you want to stay Prime Minister, you shouldn’t do things that make it difficult for us to pursue our goals in Iraq. Maliki could take this two ways — either to say, “gee, America has the power and can use it, I’ll watch myself,” or “as long as the US is here, I’m vulnerable.”

Apparently he’s taken the latter approach, and is presenting himself as an anti-occupation nationalist who is willing to tell the Americans to go home, and even be seen as embracing Barack Obama’s Iraq plan. American officials seem to think he may be overestimating his power, but recognize that within the Iraqi government he has created a pretty strong power base. He won’t be as easy to remove as Jaafari was, if the Americans were to try. Moreover, strategically the US is no longer in a position to make such demands. One of the key reasons may be Iran.

A lot of people credited the “surge” with making life in Iraq better in 2007. Yet the primary reason things got better were: a) the US stopped fighting the Sunni insurgents and instead made peace with them to narrow the focus to al qaeda; and b) Moqtada al Sadr refused to directly confront the US and Iraqi forces, and instead appeared to acquiesce to Maliki in Basra. The only thing that can explain “b” is that Iran is the puppetmaster here. al-Sadr has spent a lot of time in Iran, and the Iranians probably are his insurance against being eliminated as a political force.

Consider the following scenario. It’s well known that Iraqi Shi’ites and the government have not been overly happy with US policy towards the Sunni tribes. They have not disarmed them, and in some cases have given them arms and aid in order to ‘fight al qaeda.’ Al qaeda, however, is not a strong force in Iraq. It came after the US invasion, has always been rather small, and overly brutal. The Sunnis tolerated them as long as the fight was against the US and the Shi’ites, but when the US stopped trying to defeat Sunni insurgents, they found it useful to help the US against al qaeda; al qaeda was unpopular anyway. They also saw that the US meant business when it was telling the Shi’ite government that it had to share oil revenues with the Sunnis and bring Sunni militias into the Iraqi military.

The Iraqi government hated these developments. They’d been held down by the Sunni minority for so long, and it now appeared that the US was helping the Sunni tribes remain well armed and outside the reach of Iraq’s central government (most Sunni areas are controlled by Sunni tribal forces), and were now siding with the Sunnis over fights about Iraq’s economy and political settlement. There is a lot of corruption in Iraq, and government officials knew that opening this to the Sunnis would not only threaten revenue sources, but could open a path for Sunnis to grab a chunk of power.

What if the Iranians came to the rescue? What if they told Maliki “you don’t need the Americans, we’ll make sure you have the capacity to secure the region. We’ll make sure that al Sadr is not a thorn in your side, and help your government gain control of the Shi’ite regions in Iraq. The price is that you do not allow the Americans to use Iraq as a permanent base, and instead you demand they leave relatively quickly.”

Maliki’s calculation would be simple. The US is disliked by the Iraq people, the American public is divided by the war, and for the most part wants the US out of Iraq, and America is pressuring the government to help their Sunni rivals. Moreover, Americans are complaining about Iraq oil revenues and budget surpluses. How much more can the US really do for Maliki? It might even force him out like it did Jaafari, or weaken him politically by making him look like a lackey for the West. But Iran is next door, fellow Shi’ites, and despite the Arab-Persian rivalry, Iran housed and helped most of the Iraqi parties in government during Saddam’s rule. Iran is their natural partner. Iran will be there and can provide more than the Americans can. Most importantly, Iraq knows that despite Iran’s power, Iraq has partners in the Arab world that can help assure that Iran cannot dominate Iraq. The US has shown a desire to try to get the results it wants in Iraq, from election systems, to particular laws (‘benchmarks’) and naming the Prime Minister.

So while McCain and Bush take credit for the ‘surge,’ Iraq is quickly trying to get the US to leave, and appears to have a closer relationship with ever with Iran, a country which continues to thumb its nose at the West on nuclear research.

It would all be rather comical, just how much the US spent in order to lose so much in Iraq. The US lost prestige, is no longer feared, is finding Afghanistan in disintegration, has massive budget deficits, a weakened economy, is divided politically, and appears almost a paper tiger, unable to finish the two wars it started. The irony of ironies is that even in Iraq, where they are trying to claim some success (though that’s a dubious argument even if their premise that the surge worked were true), it may really be that the country’s arch-rival Iran has benefited most from US policies. Not just Iran, but the hardliners in Iran have gained the most! Meanwhile, Islamic extremism has been on the rise, and terrorist groups relatively ignored.

However the deaths are real. There are numerous orphans, widows, and destroyed families and villages in Iraq, where children will never have a normal life, having been surrounded by war and violence, and people will be scared physically and spiritually for decades. There are American families who have lost loved ones, divorces caused by the psychological toll of numerous deployments and the horror of war, and veterans who also will never live a normal life due to what they experienced. All this because policy makers engaged in hubris, overestimated the benefits of military power, and underestimated the heavy price it would cost.

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