We hear again and again from Washington that we have turned a corner in Iraq and are on the path to victory. If so, it is a strange victory. Shiite religious parties that are Iran’s closest allies in the Middle East control Iraq’s central government and the country’s oil-rich south. A Sunni militia, known as the Awakening, dominates Iraq’s Sunni center. It is led by Baathists, the very people we invaded Iraq in 2003 to remove from power. While the US sees the Awakening as key to defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, Iraq’s Shiite government views it as a mortal enemy and has issued arrest warrants for many of its members. Meanwhile the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that brought stability to parts of Iraq is crumbling. The two sides confronted each other militarily after the Iraqi army entered the Kurdish-administered town of Khanaqin in early September.

John McCain has staked his presidential candidacy on his early advocacy of sending more troops to Iraq. He says he is for victory while Barack Obama is for surrender; and polls suggest that voters trust McCain more on Iraq than they do Obama. In 2006, dissatisfaction with the Iraq war ended Republican control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This year, in spite of being burdened with the gravest financial crisis since 1929 and the most unpopular president since the advent of polling, the Republican presidential nominee is running a competitive race.

The US sent more troops into Iraq in 2007 and violence has declined sharply in Anbar, Baghdad, and many other parts of the country. Sectarian killings in Baghdad are a fraction of what they were in 2006, although that city remains one of the world’s most dangerous places. In recent months, US casualties have been at their lowest level of the entire war. While it is debatable how much of this is the result of the “surge” in US troop strength, as opposed to other factors, the decline in violence is obviously a welcome development.

Less violence, however, is not the same thing as success. The United States did not go to war in Iraq for the purpose of ending violence between contending sectarian forces. Success has to be measured against US objectives. John McCain proclaims his goal to be victory and says we are now winning in Iraq (a victory that will, of course, be lost if his allegedly pro-surrender opponent wins). He considers victory to be an Iraq that is “a democratic ally.” George W. Bush has defined victory as a unified, democratic, and stable Iraq. Neither man has explained how he will transform Iraq’s ruling theocrats into democrats, diminish Iran’s vast influence in Baghdad, or reconcile Kurds and Sunnis to Iraq’s new order. Remarkably, neither the Democrats nor the press has challenged them to do so.


In January 2007, President Bush announced that he was sending 25,000 additional troops to Baghdad and Anbar province. Under a military strategy devised by the newly appointed Iraq commander, General David Petraeus, US troops moved out of their secure bases and embedded themselves among the population. The forces of the surge were intended to provide sufficient protection to the local population so that they would cooperate with the Iraqi army and police and US troops fighting insurgents and subversive Shiite militias. By living with their Iraqi counterparts, the US troops could provide training, advice, and confidence, making the Iraqi forces more capable.

Politically, the surge was intended to provide a breathing space for Iraq’s diverse factions to come together on a program of national reconciliation. This was to include revision of a law excluding Baathists from public service, new provincial elections so that Sunnis might be fully represented on the local level, a law for the equitable sharing of oil revenues, and revisions of the Iraqi constitution to create a more powerful central government. Except for a flawed law on de-Baathification, these goals have not been achieved, although the parliament recently passed a law to allow elections in parts of the country. Militarily, however, the surge worked as General Petraeus intended. In Baghdad and other places wracked by sectarian violence, Sunnis and Shiites welcomed the increased presence of US troops.

The surge, however, has not been the main reason for the decline in violence. In 2006, Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar decided that al-Qaeda and like-minded Islamic fundamentalist fighters were a greater threat than the Americans. The fundamentalists were a direct challenge to the local establishment, assassinating sheikhs and raping their daughters (sometimes under the pretext of forced marriage to jihadis). More importantly, the tribal leaders came to realize that the Americans would sooner or later want to leave while the fundamentalists intended to stay and rule. The tribal leaders obtained American money to create their own militias and, in a brief period of time, forced al-Qaeda and its allies out of most of Sunni Iraq. Denied their base in Sunni areas, the fundamentalists have been less able to stage the spectacular attacks on Shiites that helped fuel Iraq’s Sunni–Shiite civil war.


Meanwhile, the radical Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr responded to the increased US military deployments by ordering his militia, the Mahdi Army, to stand down. At the time, this seemed like a sensible tactical approach. He, too, realized that the US presence—in particular the surge in troop numbers—was a temporary phenomenon. By not fighting the Americans, he could wait out the surge, recall his troops, and eventually resume battle with the Sunnis and rival Shiite factions.

Al-Sadr’s Shiite rivals, however, outfoxed him. In 2006, the support of al-Sadr’s parliamentarians enabled Nouri al-Maliki to win the nomination of the Shiite caucus to be prime minister by one vote over Adel Abdul Mehdi, the candidate of Iraq’s largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). In 2008, however, al-Maliki broke his connection to al-Sadr and aligned himself with SCIRI (since renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC). In March, he used the Iraqi army, a Shiite-dominated institution built around the SIIC’s militia, the Badr Corps, to oust the Mahdi Army from much of Basra. Subsequently, the Iraqi army and police have made inroads against the Madhi Army in its stronghold in Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling Shiite slum.

Al-Maliki launched the Basra operation without first telling the Americans, and when the Iraqi forces ran into difficulty, he had to ask for American support. Once it became clear that the government and the Americans were bringing substantial resources to both the Basra and Baghdad campaigns, the Mahdi Army chose to negotiate a halt in the fighting rather than engage in full-scale combat.

Thus in 2007 and 2008, both the Sunnis and the Shiites fought civil wars within their communities. Among the Sunnis, the Awakening emerged as the decisive victor over al-Qaeda and the other fundamentalists. Among the Shiites, the ruling Shiite political parties have undercut Moqtada al-Sadr politically and diminished the Mahdi Army militarily. But al-Sadr has not been defeated and has significant residual support.

In both the Shiite and Sunni communities, relative “moderates” have emerged from the intracommunal fighting. This is one key factor in the reduced violence. The Sunni Awakening does not use car bombs against Shiite pilgrims and it has diminished al-Qaeda’s ability to do so. The SCIRI-controlled Iraqi Interior Ministry had run its own death squads targeting Sunnis, but they were not as murderous and cruel as the death squads of al-Sadr. The surge had little to do with Sunnis turning against al-Qaeda (although US funds were critical) but it did have a part in undermining the Mahdi Army.

Although the Bush administration would never say so, it has in effect adopted the decentralization strategy long advocated by Senator Joseph Biden and now also supported by Senator Obama. Biden’s plan would devolve almost all central government functions—including security—to Sunni or Shiite regions with powers similar to those now exercised by Kurdistan. Until late 2006, the Bush administration tried to defeat al-Qaeda with a US-backed Shiite- dominated Iraqi army. The approach failed and the US Marines even concluded that Anbar, Iraq’s largest Sunni province, was lost to al-Qaeda. While the Sunnis have yet to set up a region (as allowed by Iraq’s constitution), they now have, in the Awakening, a Sunni-commanded army. And it has defeated al-Qaeda.


In July, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki interjected himself into the US presidential campaign, telling the German magazine Der Spiegel that “US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about sixteen months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.” Al-Maliki’s endorsement of the main plank of Obama’s Iraq plan undercut both President Bush and Senator McCain. The US embassy prevailed on al-Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, to say that Der Spiegel had mistranslated his boss. Al-Dabbagh, however, wouldn’t issue the statement himself, so it was put out by CENTCOM in his name. A few days later, al-Maliki met the visiting Senator Obama and again endorsed his deadline. This time al-Dabbagh explained that al-Maliki meant it.

Some conservative commentators suggested that al-Maliki had decided Obama was going to win and wanted to have good relations with the next US president. Others suggested that al-Maliki was playing to Iraqi public opinion and didn’t mean what he said. Bush loyalists grumbled that al-Maliki was an ingrate.

Few grasped the most obvious explanation: Nouri al-Maliki wants US troops out of Iraq. He leads a Shiite coalition comprised of religious parties, including his own Dawa party, which is committed to making Iraq into a Shiite Islamic state. Like his coalition partners, al-Maliki views Iraq’s Sunnis with deep—and justifiable—suspicion. For four years after Saddam’s fall, Iraqi Sunnis supported an insurgency that branded Shiites as apostates deserving death. Now the Sunnis have thrown their support behind the Awakening, which is portrayed by American politicians, including Senator McCain, as a group of patriotic Iraqis engaged in the fight against al-Qaeda. Iraq’s Shiite leaders see the Awakening as a Baathist-led organization that rejects Iraq’s new Shiite-led order—an accurate description.


Until 2007, the Americans fought alongside the Shiite-led Iraqi army against the Sunni fundamentalists. The Shiites were more than happy to have the Americans do much of their fighting for them. When the US created and began to finance the Sunni Awakening in 2007, the Shiite perspective on the American presence shifted. Now the United States was backing a military force deeply hostile to Shiite rule. Al-Qaeda could—and did—kill thousands of Shiites but it was no threat to Shiite rule per se. It was a shadowy terrorist organization operating with small cells and unable to mobilize or concentrate large forces. Further, both the US and Iran, the two most important external powers in the Iraqi equation, were certain to support the Shiites against al-Qaeda.

With some 100,000 men under arms, the Awakening is, at least potentially, a strong military force in its own right. Its leaders are not only ideologically linked to Saddam’s anti-Shiite Baath regime, but many served in Saddam’s army. And most importantly from a Shiite perspective, the Awakening has powerful outside support—from the United States. Al-Qaeda could never take over Iraq, but the Awakening might—or at least so Iraq’s Shiite government fears.

Since the US created the Awakening, its goal has been to integrate the Sunni militiamen into Iraq’s armed forces. Al-Maliki’s government has repeatedly promised the Bush administration that it would do so, and then reneged. (Iraqis learned in the early days of the occupation that President Bush and his team were readily satisfied with promises, regardless of whether any actions followed.) At the end of 2007, General Jim Huggins, who oversaw the Iraqi police in the Sunni belt south of Baghdad, submitted three thousand names—most from the Awakening but also including a few hundred Shiites—to the Iraqi government for incorporation into the security forces. Four hundred were accepted. All were Shiites. As of October 1, the Iraqi government is supposed to take over responsibility for the 54,000 Awakening militiamen in Baghdad, including paying their salaries. By all accounts, the militiamen are deeply skeptical that this will happen, as apparently are their American sponsors. US commanders have been reassuring the Awakening that the US will not abandon them.

As many as one half the members of the Awakening have been insurgents or insurgent sympathizers. While the Sunni militiamen can gain tactical advantage by joining the Iraqi army and police, they are no less hostile to the Shiite-led Iraqi government than when they were planting roadside bombs, ambushing government forces, and executing kidnapped Iraqi army recruits and police. The Shiites understand this and so, apparently, do some of the Americans. As General Huggins told USA Today, if the Sunnis “aren’t pulled into the Iraqi security forces, then we have to wonder if we’re just arming the next Sunni resistance.”

From 2003 until 2007, the Bush administration helped Iraq’s most pro-Iranian Shiite religious parties take and consolidate power. Naturally, the Shiites—and their Iranian backers—welcomed the US involvement, at least temporarily. Now the United States is putting heavier pressure on al-Maliki to include the Sunni enemy in Iraq’s security forces. It has created a Sunni army that, as long as the US remains in Iraq, can only grow in strength. Al-Maliki and his allies want the US out of Iraq because the American presence has become dangerous.

Without American troops, the Iraqi army and police would be able to move against the Awakening. Should Sunni forces prove too powerful, Iran is always available to help.


In early September, al-Maliki sent Iraqi troops into Khanaqin, a dusty Kurdish town on the Iranian border northeast of Baghdad. While technically not part of the Kurdistan Region, the Kurdistan Regional Government has administered Khanaqin since 2003. The forces of the Kurdish Peshmerga army, who liberated the town from Saddam that April, have provided security. It is widely expected that Khanaqin will formally be incorporated into the Kurdistan Region as part of the process specified in Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution for determining Kurdistan’s borders. By sending Arab troops to Khanaqin, al-Maliki deliberately picked a fight with the Kurds, who have been the Shiites’ partner in governing Iraq since 2003.

Iraq’s Kurds have had a very large part in post-Saddam Iraq. Iraq’s president, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, and army chief are all Kurds. The Peshmerga fought on the US side in the 2003 war and is the one indigenous Iraqi force that is reliably pro-American. Iraqi Kurds are secular, democratic, and pro-Western. Both militarily and politically, they have supported US policy, even when they have had reservations about its wisdom.

In recent months, al-Maliki has tried to marginalize the Kurds. In ordering troops to Khanaqin, he did not consult Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s Kurdish president, and he did not involve General Babakir Zebari, the Kurd who supposedly heads Iraq’s army. In order to bypass Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s Kurdish foreign minister, al-Maliki has appointed his own “special envoys.”

President Talabani, who was in the US for medical treatment at the time, helped defuse the Khanaqin crisis by persuading both the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army to withdraw. But the incident has been seen by the Kurds as a danger sign. When Iraq’s defense minister proposed acquiring American F-16s for the Iraqi air force, Iraq’s neighbors—including Iran and Kuwait—said nothing. But the Kurdish deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament strongly protested, expressing fear that the planes’ most likely target would be Kurdistan. As a condition of the proposed US–Iraq security agreement, the Kurds want assurances that the Iraqi army will not be used in Kurdistan.


The surge was intended to buy time for political reconciliation. In January, Iraq’s parliament revised the country’s de-Baathification law, thus meeting a long-standing US demand. While the new law restored the rights of some former Baathists, however, it imposed an entirely new set of exclusions on Baathists in so-called sensitive ministries. Iraq’s Sunni parliamentarians mostly opposed the law, which was supposed to help them. The Sunnis had demanded early provincial elections since they had boycotted the previous local elections in 2005 and were largely unrepresented on the provincial councils, even in Sunni areas. The Shiite-dominated parliament inserted a poison pill into the election law, a provision that would invalidate the “one man, one vote” principle in the Kirkuk Governorate—the administrative unit that includes the major city of Kirkuk on the Kurdistan border—in favor of a system of equal representation for each of Kirkuk’s three communities: Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. Naturally, the Kurds, who are a majority both in the Governorate and on the Governorate Council, opposed a system that would give their foes two thirds of council seats.

Talabani vetoed the entire bill and as a result the Kurds were blamed for blocking national elections that the Shiites and some Sunnis also did not want to hold. (The SIIC was afraid it might lose some Governorates it now controls, including Baghdad, to Moqtada al-Sadr, while some Sunni parliamentarians feared the Awakening’s electoral strength would underscore the fact that they do not represent the Sunni community.) Recently, the parliament passed a law to allow elections in 2009 in Sunni and Shiite Iraq, but not in Kirkuk or Kurdistan. The maneuverings left the Kurds politically isolated while, as a bonus to the Shiite ruling parties, providing more time for them to deal with al-Sadr. The Shiites are also pursuing changes in Iraq’s constitution that would strengthen the central government at the expense of Kurdistan, knowing full well that these changes will be rejected by the Kurds.

Al-Maliki’s agenda is transparent. The Kurds and Sunnis are obstacles to the ruling coalition’s ambitions for a Shiite Islamic state. Al-Maliki wants to eliminate the Sunni militia and contain the Kurds politically and geographically. America’s interest in defeating al-Qaeda is far less important to him than the Shiite interest in not having a powerful Sunni military that could overthrow Iraq’s new Shiite order. The Kurds are too secular, too Western, and too pro-American for the Shiites to share power comfortably with them.

This should not be a surprise. Iran, not the US, is the most important ally of Iraq’s ruling Shiite political parties. The largest party in al-Maliki’s coalition is the SIIC, which was founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1982. By all accounts, Iran wields enormous influence within Iraq’s ruling Shiite coalition and has an effective veto over Iraqi security policies. In 2005, Iran intervened in Iraq’s constitutional deliberations to undo a Shiite–Kurdish agreement on Kurdistan’s powers, only to relent after Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani made clear that there would be no constitution without the deal; many Iraqis have told me that one reason that the US and Iraq have been unable to agree on a new security arrangement is that Iran opposes anything of the kind.

Nor is al-Maliki a Western-style democrat, in spite of President Bush’s attempts to portray him as just that. Rather, he is a Shiite militant from the hard-line Dawa Party. Before returning to Iraq in 2003, he had spent more than twenty years in exile in Iran and Syria. As late as 2002, State Department officials sought to exclude Dawa from a US-sponsored Iraqi opposition conference because of Dawa’s historical links to terrorism, including a 1983 suicide bomb attack on the US embassy in Kuwait. (There is no basis for linking al-Maliki or other mainstream Dawa leaders to that attack.)

Al-Maliki is an accidental prime minister, having secured the job only after internecine Shiite rivalries (and Kurdish opposition) derailed more prominent candidates. The Bush administration knew so little about him that it initially had his first name wrong. He had never been considered important enough to meet the many senior US officials traipsing to Baghdad. But President Bush has embraced him as the embodiment of American values and goals in Iraq.

John McCain says that partly because of his persistent support of the surge, we are now winning the Iraq war. He defines victory as an Iraq that is a democratic ally. Yet he advocates continued US military support to an Iraqi government led by Shiite religious parties committed to the establishment of an Islamic republic. He takes a harder line on Iran than President Bush, but supports Iraqi factions that are Iran’s closest allies in the Middle East. He praises the Awakening and but seems not to have realized that the Iraqi government is intent on crushing it. He has denounced the Obama-Biden plan for a decentralized state but has said nothing about how he would protect Iraq’s Kurds, the only committed American allies in the country.

George W. Bush has put the United States on the side of undemocratic Iraqis who are Iran’s allies. John McCain would continue the same approach. It is hard to understand how this can be called a success—or a path to victory.

—September 25, 2008