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Embedded in Iraq

Indeed, in designing the political surge, the US government failed to understand that the main problem is not simply the incompetence of the Iraqi government but its very legitimacy. The two main parties in the government—Dawa and the larger Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC)—have a weak popular base. Representing businessmen and professionals, their principal leaders spent most of the Saddam years outside the country, returning only after the US invasion. In ruling, they rely on the support of the two main Kurdish parties, which have their own narrow Kurdish agenda. The government is thus seen as consisting mainly of “outsiders” who debate endlessly and futilely behind the heavily fortified walls of the Green Zone. They are widely loathed by Iraq’s “insiders,” those who stayed in Iraq under Saddam and who today share the daily hardships of the people. Foremost among them are the followers of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who make up the largest mass movement in the country. Yet the Bush administration has relentlessly sought to marginalize al-Sadr while propping up the detested government.3

One of the few positive developments I heard mentioned during my stay was the rush of new political activity at the local level. In villages, towns, and provinces, a new, more authentic set of political actors seems to be emerging. The provincial elections due to be held by the end of the year could help bolster their position. For that to happen, though, violence must be held in check. Iraq is full of vicious militias, warlords, and thugs patiently waiting for the Americans to leave, and with the unemployment rate at 50 percent or higher, there’s a huge pool of potential recruits. This past May was celebrated as a “good” month, yet more than five hundred Iraqis were reported killed during it, and no doubt hundreds more died without ever being tallied. An official at the US embassy’s Office of Hostage Affairs told me that at least twenty-five kidnappings take place in Iraq every day. In much of the world, that would be considered catastrophic.

If Barack Obama is elected, he’s going to find it very hard to withdraw,” I was told by Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at Queen Mary College at the University of London and a frequent visitor to Baghdad. “He won’t be able to radically change US policy until the end of his first term. The key will be to find a way to rework the US presence so as to prevent the outbreak of another civil war.”

During my research, I encountered little fresh thinking about how to go about that. I did, however, come away believing that there’s one critical step the United States could take to ease the pressure on its troops and open the way for an eventual reduction in their number.


Throughout my stay in Baghdad, I heard many chilling stories about the brutality of the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), or the Mahdi Army. Created by Moqtada al-Sadr in 2003, this Shiite militia won broad popularity by providing services to the poor and by aggressively challenging the US occupation, but over the last two to three years its ranks have swelled with violent young men interested more in amassing power and wealth than in pressing any political agenda. I heard about how, during the 2006 “battle for Baghdad,” JAM-linked thugs had waged an assassination campaign against Sunni merchants, businessmen, and other prominent Iraqis. I was told how the JAM, in taking over the health ministry, had set about liquidating Sunni doctors and nurses. And, in Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, Patrick Cockburn’s richly detailed and revealing new book, I read about how Cockburn himself had been seized and nearly executed at a JAM checkpoint in 2004.4

Hoping to learn more about the group’s operations, I arranged to talk with a sheikh who was one of its founding members. We met in the lobby of the al-Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone. The sheikh, who would give his name only as al-Naseri, had come there to see Tahseen al-Shaikhi, a spokesman for the Nouri al-Maliki government who in late March had been abducted from his home by forty armed men who were almost certainly linked to the JAM. After three days of being moved from place to place, al-Shaikhi had been released, thanks to the intervention of Sheikh al-Naseri. Al-Shaikhi’s house had been burned to the ground during the attack, and he and his family were now living in the al-Rasheed. Al-Naseri had come to see him because he had been unable to find work since leaving the JAM a year earlier and hoped al-Shaikhi could help find him a job with the government.

I asked the sheikh why he had left the JAM. “Because of the Iranian influence,” he said. “They give money to criminals to kill civilians.” The going rate, he said, was $1,500 for planting an IED and $2,000 for recording the explosion with a video camera. “That’s why people fight,” he said. “They need the money.” Like many others I spoke with, al-Naseri distinguished between the JAM proper, which remains popular with poor Shiites, and the so-called special groups that have become prominent within it—groups that, he said, “worked for Iran in the name of the JAM.”5 Moqtada al-Sadr, with whom, he said, he was very close, “does not agree with what is happening now. He rejects all these bad things going on with the JAM.” Fingering a set of blue worry beads, he added, “All Iraqis reject the interference of Iran in Iraqi affairs.”

Before coming to Iraq, I had been skeptical of the many statements US officials had put out about Iran’s involvement there. They sounded too canned, too overstated, too reminiscent of the exaggerated claims made about Saddam in the run-up to the Iraq war. My visit to Baghdad cured me of that.

It’s all about Iran,” Michael Ware, CNN’s Baghdad correspondent, told me when I visited him at the scruffy villa that houses the network’s bureau. Since 2003, no Western journalist has spent more time in Iraq than Ware, and no journalist has a broader collection of sources. In his rooftop interviews with Wolf Blitzer, he delights in tweaking official Washington. When John McCain made his famous, closely guarded tour of a marketplace in Baghdad in March 2007, for instance, Ware mocked his claim that it was truly safe for Americans to walk freely around the city.

When I saw Ware in Baghdad, all he wanted to talk about was Iran. “Iran’s agents of influence go to the top of the Iraqi government,” he said. “Twenty-three members of the Iraqi Parliament are permanent members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” Hezbollah operatives, he said, were training JAM members in guerrilla warfare, while a senior member of al-Qaeda was being sheltered in Iran. Even the Kurds were in deep with the Iranians, he said. Under Saddam, for instance, Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who is now president of Iraq, ran weapons and communications lines through Iran. Finally, there was Ahmad Chalabi, the influential former exile who had urged the Americans to invade and then fallen out with them, allegedly over his ties to Tehran. “All the time, he was working for Iran!” Ware told me.6

Of all the unintended consequences of the US invasion of Iraq, surely the most paradoxical is the way it has boosted Iran’s position in the region. In toppling Saddam, the United States removed from power Iran’s mortal enemy, the leader of a regime with which it had fought a devastating eight-year war that had cost it a half-million lives. The electoral system the Bush administration devised helped bring to power a Shiite majority with long-standing cultural, religious, and economic ties to Iran. The SIIC, the main government party, was founded in Iran and remains so close to Tehran that many Iraqis shun it for having a “Persian taint.” Iran is erecting mosques and power plants in the Shiite south and investing heavily in construction and communications in the Kurdish north. “The only one winning here is Iran,” an Iraqi journalist observed. “And they’re losing zero people.”

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish parliamentarian, told me that Iran—fearful that the United States will turn its weapons in its direction—“is doing everything in its power to pin down the US and make it fail in Iraq.” The Bush administration has responded mainly with denunciations, protestations, and threats. Yet these have simply spurred Iran on. Top Iraqi officials have often urged the Americans to tone down their rhetoric. Last fall, for instance, Mowaffaq al-Rubai’e, Iraq’s national security adviser, on a visit to the Nixon Center in Washington, warned against the idea of attacking Iran: “They will react against us. They will not come to New York. They will not come to Washington. They will come to us, I can tell you that, and we will be in big, big trouble.”

Last year, US Ambassador Ryan Crocker did initiate a series of meetings with his Iranian counterpart to discuss issues of mutual interest in Iraq, but these meetings have foundered. The Iranians have pushed for talks with Washington at a much higher level, but President Bush, adhering to his we-don’t-talk-to-terrorists credo, has repeatedly rebuffed them.

The Iranian regime, of course, has contributed to its own isolation. Its secrecy about its uranium enrichment program, together with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s periodic promises to wipe Israel off the map, have stirred protests and anger around the world. Yet in refusing to talk with Iran, the White House seems to be harming its own interests. “The Iranians have more in common with the United States in terms of their interests in Iraq than most of the other neighboring states,” observes Joost Hiltermann, deputy Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group. “They don’t like having 140,000 American troops on their border, but they don’t want them to leave precipitously, either—there would be chaos. The Iranians want an Iraq that is unified but weak and friendly. If the United States were to leave behind a vacuum—that would scare everybody.” Iran, Hiltermann added, “has a crazy president. But he’s not the real power. The Iranians are very pragmatic. No doubt they’d make a deal.” The International Crisis Group has pushed for a regional conference in the spirit of the Dayton conference on Yugoslavia and the Bonn conference on Afghanistan.7

With America’s Iraqi allies urging the United States to negotiate with Iran, and with the Iranians themselves eager for such contacts, the Bush administration’s resistance seems puzzling. Indeed, Washington’s refusal to engage in vigorous regional diplomacy may be its most serious political blunder of all. If the United States is ever to withdraw from Iraq, reaching some accommodation with Iran would seem essential. Trying to make sense of this, I recalled something Toby Dodge had told me: “When the Americans go home, the Iranians will inherit the earth.” Iranian hegemony over Iraq: that is the Bush administration’s worst nightmare. The Iraq invasion was designed to project American power in the region at Iran’s expense; instead, it has done the exact opposite. And so it dawned on me: no matter what happens in Iraq, the Bush administration doesn’t want to leave, since if it does, Iran, in one way or another, will take over. That helps explain recent reports that Washington, in negotiating a long-term status of forces agreement with Iraq, is determined to maintain nearly sixty bases there indefinitely—a position the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki is strongly resisting.8

John McCain, of course, has fully signed on to the Bush approach. Barack Obama, by contrast, has promised to pursue “aggressive diplomacy” with Iran. Are Americans ready for such a change? Or will they continue to view Iran as a central part of the axis of evil? On that question, the election in November may hinge.

—June 18, 2008

  1. 3

    For a lucid description of the outsider/insider divide, see Phebe Marr, “Iraq’s New Political Map,” US Institute of Peace, January 2007.

  2. 4

    Scribner, 2008. See also “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists, and the Surge,” International Crisis Group, February 2008. In anticipation of the upcoming provincial elections, al-Sadr announced in mid-June that he was dividing his movement into two branches—one that would remained armed and operate underground, and another that would concentrate on politics and providing basic services to Iraqis.

  3. 5

    The US military maintains that nearly three quarters of the attacks that kill or wound its soldiers in Baghdad are carried out by Sadrist special groups. See Stephen Farrell and Alissa J. Rubin, “Groups with Iran’s Backing Blamed for Baghdad Attacks,” The New York Times, April 24, 2008.

  4. 6

    For more on Chalabi’s Iranian ties, see Aram Roston, The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi (Nation Books, 2008), especially Chapter 48, “The Iran Connection.”

  5. 7

    See “After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq,” International Crisis Group, December 19, 2006.

  6. 8

    In his new book War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (Simon and Schuster, 2008), NBC correspondent Richard Engel relates a fascinating hour-and-a-half interview he had with George Bush in 2007 in which he urged the President to undertake a major diplomatic initiative in the Middle East—the only way, Engel argued, some degree of stability could be achieved in Iraq. Bush dismissed the idea, telling Engel that the war in Iraq “is going to take forty years.” Engel also writes that Bush “seemed genuinely surprised” at the suggestion that US actions in Iraq are helping Iran.

    See also Amit R. Paley and Karen de Young, “Iraqis Condemn American Demands,” The Washington Post, June 11, 2008.

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