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Embedded in Iraq

1.

0900: Link up with 2-4 IN patrol at Cross Sabers in IZ,” read the message from the press center of the Multi-National Force–Iraq. That meant that at nine the next morning I should show up at the crossed-sabers monument— the giant pair of arched swords erected by Saddam Hussein on his military parade ground—in the International Zone (aka the Green Zone) to meet a convoy from the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. The convoy was to take me to a neighborhood in southern Baghdad, where I was to spend the day embedded with the US military.

The embed had proved surprisingly easy to arrange. No one had objected to the three New York Review articles I had sent in as samples of my work. On the application form, I had written that I wanted to visit a typical Baghdad neighborhood to see how the surge was working and to get a sense of what more had to be done before the US could begin to draw down its forces in any significant number.

Though I didn’t say it, I also wanted to see what the embedding process itself was like. This was introduced by the Pentagon at the start of the war to allow journalists to attach themselves to invading military units and see the fighting up close. As Iraq grew steadily more violent, embedding became one of the main ways journalists could get out into the field. Baghdad continues to be a very dangerous place for journalists, with kidnapping an ever-present concern. (Whenever I traveled outside the CBS News compound where I stayed, I had to go in three cars, two of them armored, accompanied by eight armed guards.) Embedding thus remains an important means of seeing the country.

The neighborhood I was going to see was Dora. Once a solidly middle-class district full of ex-Baathists, Dora had gradually been taken over by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had imposed an Islamic reign of terror. Fighting back, Shiite militiamen had waged their own bloody war on the population, with mutilated bodies regularly turning up on the street. More than two hundred US soldiers had died there in the first half of 2007 alone.1 But with the Sunni backlash against al-Qaeda and the parallel adoption of counterinsurgency tactics by the US military, the neighborhood had lately become pacified, and it was now a showcase for visiting journalists and pundits.

At precisely nine o’clock, a convoy of four US military vehicles pulled into the asphalt lot near the crossed sabers. From one of them emerged a trim, fair-haired man in camouflage fatigues who introduced himself as Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Watson, the commanding officer of the unit I was joining. “We’re going in an MRAP, OK?” he said, gesturing toward a bulky, bristling Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. A sort of armored truck with heavy metal plates along its bottom, the MRAP was designed to provide extra protection against roadside bombs, but since being introduced last year, it has already proved vulnerable to a new generation of powerful explosives.

Inside, it was surprisingly comfortable, with two seats on either side facing in toward one another, plus room for a gunner standing upright in the center. I took a seat opposite Watson and Captain Brett Walker, the public affairs officer (PAO) assigned to me. How closely, I wondered, would he watch over me? With three Humvees in tow, we rumbled out of the Green Zone and south toward Dora, which was just a few miles away. A year ago, Watson told me above the roar of the engine, Dora was “the most hotly contested area in Baghdad.” Now it was one of the safest. The Dora marketplace, which a year earlier had been all but shuttered, was now home to some eight hundred shops and stalls. “The surge has had a huge impact,” Watson said; hundreds of the 30,000 additional troops sent to Iraq had been assigned to this one neighborhood. There, he went on, they had worked closely with both the Iraqi Security Forces and the Sons of Iraq, the mix of Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents who, as part of the Sunni “Awakening,” had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. With al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups now on the run, the Americans were trying to consolidate the gains by joining with local residents to improve services and repair infrastructure.

That’s what it’s all about—interacting with the population,” Watson said. One of the most difficult things, he went on, was figuring out how the government worked. “What’s that book by Gladwell?” he asked. “The Tipping Point? Iraqis lack connectors. They’re not willing to go out to look for people to coordinate with.” I was a bit startled; was Malcolm Gladwell helping to shape US military strategy in Iraq? Watson expressed pride at how the local beladiya (municipality) had cleared the marketplace of trash. “We put the squeeze on them,” he said. “We consider it a huge success when we get the Iraqis to do the job themselves.”

With that, we arrived in the marketplace. The MRAP’s back door sprung open and, descending, I found myself surrounded by the members of the infantry patrol that was to show me around the market. All I could see for the moment, however, was a palisade of concrete walls extending far down the road—the famous blast walls that the US military had erected throughout Baghdad to keep warring Sunnis and Shiites apart. Nearby, however, there was an opening in the wall, and passing through it I found myself amid a gritty jumble of shops and stalls. Spread out on mottled wooden tables were clumps of tomatoes and cucumbers, onions and potatoes. As we walked along the steamy streets and the humble shops lining them, I was told about the microgrants (ranging up to $5,000) that the battalion was handing out to storeowners to help them get started. Iraqi kids kept running up to us and shouting “Meester, meester!” The adults, however, held back, looking sullen. What, I wondered, was going through their minds?

At one point, Captain Walker, the PAO, gestured toward some sewer-repair work being done in the street. “This isn’t being staged,” he assured me. “The beladiya is fixing this on their own.” His comment, though, put the thought in my mind. Was all this somehow being put on for my benefit? While on patrol, for instance, we ran into a middle-aged man wearing a keffiyah and flowing robe. He was introduced as Sheikh Ahmed, a central figure in the local Awakening group. With the help of an Army interpreter, he effusively praised the Coalition. “We want to give them thanks from our side for how much they have helped to defeat al-Qaeda,” he said, touching his heart.

From the market we drove a short distance to Joint Security Station Masafi. Located in a half-finished, rough-hewn shopping complex, this was a joint outpost for US and Iraqi forces. Here soldiers came to rest and sleep between patrols as well as to collect intelligence and plan operations. Lieutenant Colonel Watson reappeared for some final questions before he moved on to other business. What more had to be done, I asked, before the troops could begin to go home? Improving the Iraqi security forces and providing essential services, he said—a formula I’d heard many, many times. “Do you want to bring up our time in Taji?” said PAO Walker, who was listening in. Thus prompted, Watson described the training his men had received at a counterinsurgency academy located on an air base north of Baghdad. At another point, as Watson was discussing the importance of working with the community, Walker again intervened, ticking off the many cases of state-building the battalion had studied, from the school-building campaign in the Philippines to the CORDS program in Vietnam.

Walker’s intrusiveness surprised me. In our conversations, he had seemed smart and affable. As he had told me, he had grown up in the Bay Area, the son of ex-hippies who were opposed to the war. He had gone to West Point as an act of rebellion. His father, a lawyer and writer, was a reader of The New York Review. But now he was becoming heavy-handed, and I couldn’t help but frown.

Soon we were back on patrol, and the show continued. At a local school the US had helped refurbish, the headmaster described her students’ great progress. At an intersection guarded by three Sons of Iraq, an interpreter relayed to me their gratitude for all the US had done. I was beginning to feel as if I were in my own version of The Truman Show, with some hidden hand directing the action.

2.

But then something unexpected happened. Captain Walker asked if I would like to see a house that US soldiers had blown up a few days earlier after discovering bomb-making materials inside a fake wall. When we got to the site, we found two women and two girls standing on a pile of bricks that had once been their home, looking dazed. As the captain who had carried out the operation began describing it, some residents from the neighborhood gathered around. The explosion had gone off with such force that several adjoining houses had been damaged, and their occupants were now standing glumly around. “Tell them I’ll be back tomorrow to listen to everyone’s story,” the captain told the interpreter, but after he relayed this, the locals began complaining loudly. As we headed back to our vehicles, the interpreter explained that the people were upset at the damage their homes had suffered and were demanding compensation. It was a reminder that counterinsurgency is not all about microgrants and trash removal—that it also involves aggressive actions like nighttime house raids, mass roundups of young men, and the blowing up of houses.

Soon after, there was another unscripted moment. While waiting with a group of soldiers to board some Humvees that were to take us to Forward Operating Base Falcon, one of the main US bases in southern Baghdad, I was waved over by one of them. “Do you know Chris Hedges?” he asked. When I said I did, the soldier, a captain and West Point graduate, told me that he had met Hedges at a conference in the United States and admired his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which explores the way soldiers—and journalists—become hooked on the danger and romance of war. Another captain with whom he’d been chatting began telling me how much he wanted to leave the Army but couldn’t because he’d been “stop-lossed,” i.e., forced to remain in uniform under a contractual clause that allows the military to keep soldiers from leaving for up to eight years after the date of their initial sign-up. Before I could learn more, another captain came over to say how eager he was to roll up some more insurgents, and the other captains fell silent.

It was now time to leave, and to my disappointment the two captains got into a different vehicle. Before coming to Iraq, I had heard a great deal about the growing exodus of captains from the Army and the crisis this was causing in the military’s leadership ranks,2 and here I’d lost a chance to talk to two of them. When we arrived at FOB Falcon —a sprawling facility filled with barracks, firing ranges, volleyball fields, helipads, a mess hall, and Internet terminals for the thousands of soldiers stationed there—Captain Walker, who had noticed my encounter with the two captains, told me that he could get their cell phone numbers for me if I wanted. He went on to say that there were many other captains in the battalion who had been stop-lossed, and that staff sergeants and other senior noncommissioned officers were joining the exodus as well. “They’re burned out,” he said, explaining that the repeated deployments and extension of tours to fifteen months had placed an unbearable strain on many officers’ lives. To my surprise, Walker proceeded to introduce me to both a captain and a staff sergeant who were determined to leave the Army as soon as they could.

The sergeant, a military intelligence officer named Zachery Brown, told me how the repeated deployments were driving up divorce rates among noncommissioned officers. They were also hard on single men like himself, but this, he said, was not the reason he was leaving. “I don’t want to get too political,” he observed, “but the way it looks now—it’s almost as if we’re fighting a perpetual war.” He was quick to point out that he was “a patriotic guy” who had joined the military right after September 11. Sent to Afghanistan, he had felt that he had genuinely been able to help people. Back in the US, he had started taking classes, and that, he said, is when his “liberalization” had begun. It had continued in Iraq. “We’re helping people here,” the sergeant said.

If we weren’t here, there are a lot of people who’d be dead the next day. But we’re spinning our wheels. Al-Qaeda is defeated, but now we face Iraq’s internal problems. They have to be handled politically and socially. I wouldn’t say that I don’t believe in the mission here, but we’re not going about it in the right way.

Was there another way? “No, I don’t really think so,” Brown said. General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, with its stress on protecting the local population, had been very effective, but, he added, “it’s a thin veneer. Beneath it—no matter how we try to make it look—we’re ultimately occupiers. And I don’t think you can democratize a country by being occupiers. Though we’ve made a lot of progress, the core issues remain. And if we can’t find a political solution to them, we’ll never get out of here.” Most of his fellow intel officers, he noted, felt the same way.

Captain Walker came to escort me to the helipad for my flight back to the Green Zone. Struck by how candid Sergeant Brown had been, I thanked Walker for having introduced me to him. In the waiting room, I commented on the sudden turn my excursion had seemed to take. Acknowledging this, Walker told me that during my final interview with Lieutenant Colonel Watson, when he had seen the look of annoyance on my face, he had decided to set aside his usual spiel and be more straightforward. The visit to the flattened house, he told me, had not been on the original itinerary, but he had decided it was important for me to see it so as to understand that war is not “patty cake.” He had also wanted me to speak with captains and sergeants who were leaving the Army so that I could grasp the heavy toll the war was taking on the troops. In fact, he told me, he himself was planning to get out as soon as he could. He had recently married and wanted to start a family, and he didn’t think he could do so while still in uniform.

A few minutes later, I boarded a Black Hawk helicopter and was soon soaring over Baghdad at night. Back in the Green Zone, as I walked to the guesthouse where I was staying for the night, I reflected on my extraordinary day. As I’d expected, my embed had provided little opportunity to hear the Iraqi point of view. Rather, it offered a look at the war through the eyes of the US military, and in that respect it had been very revealing. On the one hand, it had left me with little doubt about the very real gains the surge had brought about, and about the effectiveness of the Petraeus-led counterinsurgency strategy. The situation in Dora had obviously improved, and the combination of aggressive raids, large-scale detentions, and mixing with the community (together with the Sunni Awakening) had had a big hand in achieving that.

At the same time, I’d gotten a look at the crushing effect the war is having on the troops. The breakdown in the Army has advanced so far that in a mere thirteen hours, I could see the rising dissatisfaction, anger, and rebellion within it. The message from the soldiers themselves was that keeping so large a force in the field over the long term seemed unsustainable.

But how to draw that force down? As Sergeant Brown had observed, the success in Dora and other neighborhoods has been largely tactical in nature. Only by joining it to a broader political strategy could the space created by the surge be fully exploited. What was the US doing in that regard? Did it have an exit strategy?

3.

That was a question I explored with a senior US official who took me to lunch at a dining hall in Saddam’s former Republican Palace. It was a cavernous place, with hundreds of American diplomats, military officers, contractors, and bureaucrats filling their plates with burgers, burritos, sandwiches, and salads, all provided by KRB Corporation (formerly part of Halliburton) at $32 a head. “For all that’s happened over the last five years,” the official said, “we’ll be remembered more for what we do over the next five.” As a model, he cited the Balkans and Eastern Europe. This struck me as unrealistic. How often, I wondered, did he get out of the Green Zone to meet with Baghdad residents whose supply of electricity is down to two hours a day, or visit the pharmacies where basic medications like Tylenol are unavailable, or see the wretched tents and shacks where many of the two-million-plus internally displaced Iraqis have been forced to live?

In fact, this official told me, any trip he makes out of the Green Zone requires the deployment of thirty armed guards and two Black Hawk helicopters, all coordinated by the friendly young men at Blackwater. Cooped up in the Green Zone, embassy officials tend to be poorly informed about what’s going on outside it. Military officers, who have a much easier time getting around, tend to know much more. That helps to explain why journalists are drawn to them as sources. It also helps explain why the political aspects of the US presence get far less coverage than the military ones.

In pursuing those political aspects, I found it much more rewarding to talk with Iraq specialists at American and British universities and think tanks who, traveling into and out of the country, are less beholden to government dogma. It was from them that I learned that the Bush administration, in addition to launching the much-publicized military surge, had mounted a little-known political surge as well. Its main elements were spelled out in a classified “Joint Campaign Plan” completed in May 2007. Recognizing how singularly ineffective the Iraqi government has been in delivering services to the people, the plan proposed a huge state-building campaign, spearheaded by a sharp expansion in the US advisory effort.

The campaign got under way last summer. Specialists from Treasury and Justice, Commerce and Agriculture were assigned to government ministries to help draw up budgets and weed out sectarian elements. The Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers set up projects to boost nutrition and reinforce dams. Provincial Reconstruction Teams were stationed in Baghdad and elsewhere to help repair infrastructure, improve water and electrical systems, and stimulate the economy. One main goal was to use some of Iraq’s new oil wealth ($41 billion in 2007 alone) to create jobs that would help occupy the legions of aimless young men who might otherwise join the country’s many militias.

About a year has passed since the campaign began. And from talks with several Green Zone visitors who are familiar with it, I learned that, by and large, it has been an utter failure. “Dysfunctional” is how one visiting adviser described it, citing bitter interagency battles, micromanagement from Washington, and an acute mismatch between the skills of the advisers and the needs of the Iraqi government. “What we have,” he said, “are cattle calls—a bunch of random people sent over with widely varying skills who can’t speak the language, who’ve never worked in this type of environment, and whom the Iraqis didn’t even ask for.”

(Much more than mere disorganization and incompetence may be involved. According to a recent BBC investigation, as much as $23 billion in US aid allocated to contractors working in Iraq may have been lost, stolen, or not properly accounted for. “The money that’s gone into waste, fraud, and abuse under these contracts is just so outrageous,” Henry Waxman, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, commented, adding that this “may well turn out to be the largest war profiteering in history.”)

Listening to the visiting adviser, I was reminded of the many stories I’d heard about the Coalition Provisional Authority and the mess it had created trying to remake Iraq to conform to neoconservative fantasies back in Washington. Could things still be as bad as that? Yes they were, this adviser said. “It’s been one of the most disillusioning surprises for me,” he explained.

I had read all the books and articles about the CPA and about how disastrous it had been. I assumed that competent people in the US government were reading the same things on the CPA and that they must have fixed it. So when I got to Iraq and found it was still disorganized and completely out of sync with what the Iraqis were doing, I was shocked.

The level of incoherence is amazing,” another specialist told me. “The US embassy is one profoundly incoherent organization advising another incoherent organization—the Iraqi government.” The State Department, this adviser went on, “is not set up for state-building.” But the problem went far beyond State, he said, with a profound lack of understanding apparent at “the highest levels of the US government.”

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.

4.

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. 1

    Alexandra Zavis, “Iraq’s ‘Alamo’ Simmers,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2007.

  2. 2

    See, for example, Andrew Tilghman, “The Army’s Other Crisis,” The Washington Monthly, December 2007.

  3. 3

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.”

  7. 7

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

  8. 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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