Will Iraq, finally, fall apart? As U.S. forces in Iraq – which stood at 144,000 at the start of the Obama administration – fall from their current 56,000 to 50,000 by the end of the month, the trauma of the past seven years threatens to erupt once again. More than five months after the March 7 elections, there is no Iraqi government, and none in sight. And here’s the problem: without some sort of understanding between the United States and Iran, whatever government in Iraq eventually emerges will be hopelessly divided. On top of that, there’s no movement toward a resolution of the Arab-Kurdish split in Iraq, either.
The Obama administration spent the week engaged in happy talk about Iraq, touting the scope of its withdrawal, pledging that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and putting an optimistic spin on the news. Hitting the airwaves, speaking to reporters, giving speeches, and appearing at Washington conferences, top U.S. officials involved with Iraq generally glossed over the horrific violence inflicted on Iraq by an unnecessary and criminally illegal war, and they suggest that the future is rosy. Colin Kahl, the Defense Department’s point man for the Middle East, told a packed conference at Center for a New American Security, where he used to work, that the insurgency is mostly gone, that Al Qaeda is “decimated” and “weaker than it’s ever been,” that the Shiite-led Mahdi Army is “largely disbanded,” and that other Shiite militias in Iraq’s south are not a worry. “We don’t judge that they represent a strategic threat to the government of Iraq,” he said. The Sons of Iraq, the name given to the Awakening movement of mostly Sunni, former insurgents that was backed by the United States starting in 2006, is a bit restless, he suggested, but there’s no sign that they’re returning to the ranks of the insurgency.
At the same meeting, Michael Corbin, the State Department’s top officer for Iraq, dismissed the influence of Iran. “The record shows that Iraq is standing up to foreign [i.e., Iranian] influence,” he said. He said that Iran’s clients in Iraq – meaning the Shiite-led alliance of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, sponsor of the Mahdi Army – have been “pushed back.” Asked whether Iran is exercising a “veto” over the formation of a new government in Iran, Kahl said, “I don’t think that there’s an Iranian veto.” He said that Iran has used “every arrow in its quiver” to extend its influence in Iraq, and failed.
If the administration really believes that it’s checkmated Iran in Iraq, and that it can push for the formation of an American-leaning government there to the zero-sum exclusion of Iran’s own interests, then they’re making an enormous mistake. Not only does Iran see Iraq as a place for countering American influence in the region, but from a strategic perspective Iran will never allow the coming to power of a government in Iraq that could become a powerful adversary to it – especially one whose armed forces are armed and trained by the United States. According to today’s New York Times, at the very least the United States is planning to supply Iraq with advanced weapons, including M-1 tanks, F-16 fighter jets and other sophisticated equipment, all of which will come with contingents of U.S. soldiers and contractors for training, maintenance, and resupply.
By all accounts, the United States wants to see a government formed by the two biggest winners of the March 7 election, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya and Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law. That, in turn, would exclude the ISCI-Sadr alliance, and although Iran has ties to Maliki, too, it would be seen in Tehran as a U.S.-sponsored anti-Iranian government. So far, political currents in Iraq seem to be running strong against such an alliance, despite U.S. pressure in that direction. (The latest version of that alliance would have Maliki back as prime minister and Allawi in charge of the security portfolio.) Instead, there are strong reports that Allawi is looking toward an alliance with ISCI and Sadr, shutting out Maliki, who’d refuse to join any arrangement that doesn’t allow him to retain his post. According to Iraqi sources, a deal between Allawi and the ISCI-Sadr group would put Adel Abdel Mahdi in the prime minister’s spot, with Allawi as president. Such an arrangement would probably be much more to Iran’s liking. There are many other possible combinations, of course, but the bottom line is that Iran isn’t likely to sit idly by while a new Iraqi government is put together with American support.
Strangely enough, during the Bush administration the United States engaged in a series of political talks with Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad in search of a U.S.-Iran understanding on Iraq. But during the Obama administration, no such talks have occurred, despite Obama’s oft-stated willingness to talk to Tehran. (In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius reports that the United States plans to talk to Iran about stabilizing Afghanistan. If so, why not Iraq, too?)
Despite the happy talk from the administration, even the withdrawal of U.S. forces is occurring under fire. Reports the Post: “Commanders spent weeks studying the perils of the 360-mile nighttime drive through the sweltering, dusty desert of southern Iraq. Powerful roadside bombs lined the two-lane road. And Shiite militias have stepped up attacks against U.S. bases in southern Iraq in recent weeks. As a precaution, the military demanded that journalists accompanying the soldiers on the trip refrain from disclosing details of their departure until early Thursday, when the last group was scheduled to cross the Kuwaiti border.”
Many of those “Shiite militias” – the ones that Kahl says pose no strategic threat – are linked to Iran.
The Times reports, citing U.S. officials, that the United States plans to sharply increase the number of private U.S. contractors in Iraq, using them to protect the sprawling U.S. embassy in Baghdad and satellite offices and consulates in Mosul, Kirkuk, Irbil, and Basra. And they won’t be shooting blanks:
“Defending five fortified compounds across the country, the security contractors would operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress, the officials said.”
The State Department itself will take on a paramilitary role:
“The State Department plans to acquire 60 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, called MRAPs, from the Pentagon; expand its inventory of armored cars to 1,320; and create a mini-air fleet by buying three planes to add to its lone aircraft. Its helicopter fleet, which will be piloted by contractors, will grow to 29 choppers from 17.”
And the Pentagon is cagily toying with the idea of keeping 5,000 to 10,000 troops in Iraq after the 2011 deadline, if the Iraqi government requests them.