To understand why Iraq is imploding, you must understand Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki — and why the US 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 have travelled across three continents with him. When Al Maliki was an obscure member of parliament, I was among the very few Americans in Baghdad who took his phone calls. In 2006, I helped introduce him to the US ambassador, recommending him as a promising option for prime minister. In 2008, I organised his medevac when he fell ill, and I accompanied him for treatment in London, spending 18 hours a day with him at Wellington Hospital. In 2009, I lobbied sceptical regional royals to support Al Maliki’s government.
By 2010, however, I was urging the vice-president of the US and the White House senior staff to withdraw their support for Al Maliki. 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 city of Karbala, Abu Isra is the proud grandson of a tribal leader who helped end British colonial rule in the 1920s. Raised in a devout Shiite family, he grew to resent Sunni minority rule in Iraq. Al Maliki joined the theocratic Dawa party as a young man. 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 organised 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. During the tumultuous months following America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Maliki returned to his home country. He took a job advising future prime minister Ebrahim Al Jafari.
I volunteered to serve in Iraq after 9/11. The son of Iraqi immigrants, I was dispatched to Baghdad by the Office of the Secretary of Defence for a three-month assignment that ultimately lasted almost a decade. As special assistant to Ambassador Patrick Kennedy and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s liaison to the Iraqi Governing Council, and as one of the few American officials there who spoke Arabic, I became the Iraqi leaders’ go-to guy for just about everything — US-furnished weapons, cars, houses or the much-coveted Green Zone access passes.
After the formal US occupation ended in 2004, I stayed in Baghdad to facilitate the transition to a “normalised” American diplomatic presence. Then disaster struck. During Al Jafari’s short tenure, ethno-sectarian tensions spiked catastrophically. 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.
Washington decided that change at the top was essential. After the December 2005 parliamentary elections, US Embassy officials combed the Iraqi elite for a leader who could crush the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, battle Al Qaida, 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.
With other colleagues, Beals and I hashed over the options with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who in turn encouraged Iraq’s sceptical but desperate national leaders to support Al Maliki. Leading a bloc with only a handful of parliamentarians, Al Maliki was initially surprised by the American entreaties, but he seized the opportunity, becoming prime minister on May 20, 2006.
He struggled with violence that killed thousands of Iraqis each month and displaced millions, a collapsing oil industry, and divided and corrupt political partners — as well as delegations from an increasingly impatient US Congress. Al Maliki was the official ruler of Iraq, but with the surge of US forces in 2007 and the arrival in Baghdad of ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, there was little doubt about who was keeping the Iraqi state from collapse. One of the biggest breakthroughs of this era was the Awakening movement, in which, thanks to long negotiations, Sunni Arab tribal and Baathist insurgents turned their guns away from US troops and pointed them towards Al Qaida, thereby reintegrating into the Iraqi political process. Settling into power by 2008, and with the northern half of the nation becoming pacified, Al Maliki was growing into his job. He had weekly video conferences with President George W. Bush.
Al Maliki was convinced that his Shiite Islamist rival Moqtada Al Sadr was seeking to undermine him. So in March 2008, Al Maliki hopped into his motorcade and led an Iraqi army charge against Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra. 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, and he was showered with praise as he sought to liberate Baghdad’s Sadr City slum from the Mahdi Army just weeks later. Buoyed by his win in Basra, and with massive US military assistance, Al Maliki led the charge to retake Sadr City, directing Iraqi army divisions over his mobile phone.
After organising Bush’s final trip to Iraq I left Baghdad with Crocker on February 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.
After two months without an ambassador, Crocker’s replacement had arrived in April 2009 while I settled into a new assignment shuttling across Middle East capitals with Petraeus, the new head of US Central Command. But reports from Iraqi and US officials in Baghdad were worrisome. I routinely received complaints from Iraqi and US officials that morale at the embassy was plummeting and that relations between America’s diplomatic and military leadership had collapsed. Al Maliki’s police state grew stronger by the day.
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.
After helping to bring him to power in 2006, I argued in 2010 that Al Maliki had to go. 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. On September 1, 2010, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Vice-President Joe Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, 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. The following month he would tell top US officials, “I’ll bet you my vice-presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow US troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.
Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, General Qasim Sulaimani, 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, Sulaimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Sulaimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Al 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. I was determined not to let an Iranian general who had murdered countless American troops dictate the endgame for the US in Iraq.
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. 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 Antony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser, Jeffrey, General Lloyd Austin, commander of US forces, my embassy colleagues and my bosses at Central Command, General Jim Mattis and General John Allen, and warned that we were making a mistake of historic proportions. Mattis and Allen were sympathetic, but the Al Maliki supporters were unmoved.
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. America’s Iraq policy was soon in tatters. Outraged by what it perceived as American betrayal, the Iraqiya bloc fractured along ethno-sectarian lines, with leaders scrambling for government positions, lest they be frozen out of Iraq’s lucrative patronage system. Within hours of the withdrawal of US forces in December 2011, Al Maliki sought the arrest of his longtime rival Vice-President Tarek Al Hashemi, eventually sentencing him to death in absentia. The purge of Finance Minister Rafea Al Essawi followed a year later.
Concentration of power
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. In short, Al Maliki’s one-man, one-Dawa-party Iraq looks 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 (Dh3.67 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 December 31, 2010. And now, with the US again becoming entangled in Iraq, I feel a civic and moral obligation to explain how we reached this predicament.
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, 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.
Al Maliki’s most ardent American supporters ignored the warning signs and stood by as an Iranian general decided Iraq’s fate in 2010. Ironically, these same officials are now scrambling to save Iraq, yet are refusing to publicly condemn Al Maliki’s abuses and are providing him with arms that he can use to wage war against his political rivals.
— Washington Post
Ali Khedery is chairman and chief executive of the Dubai-based Dragoman Partners. From 2003 to 2009, he was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, acting as a special assistant to five US ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of US Central Command.