Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Strategic games in Iraq

The political cards are being redistributed among the players in Iraq, with profound implications for the region, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

What is happening in Iraq? To even begin to answer this question we need to focus on two processes.

On the one hand, there is the socio-political evolution of the country following the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from the field after the US-led invasion in 2003. It is important to approach this history with a critical eye and not to take for granted what the books tell us.

On the other hand, there is the geo-strategic map of Iraq and the areas where the violence is now taking place among local, regional and international players. This map cannot be viewed in isolation from the broader context of a region that is in the process of reshaping itself.

“History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided – that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder. No one, including me, can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now when we can more fully understand its impact. What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary,” wrote Scott McClellan, former US president George W Bush’s press secretary, in his memoirs entitled “What Happened?”

Few would contest this testimony on the part of one of the people intimately connected with the US decision to invade Iraq. However, the fact is that it was far worse than just a “blunder”.

The Bush administration dragged the US into a war to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein through the deliberate creation and manipulation of two illusions. The first was that his regime was connected with Al-Qaeda, accused of carrying out the 11 September attacks. The second was that it possessed nuclear arms capable of threatening America’s allies in the region, such as Israel above all.

Yet, the current narrative in Washington is that the US fell into a trap laid by a particular individual, Ahmed Chalabi, this summing up a decade in which the US lost hundreds of lives and trillions of dollars. Is this narrative at all convincing, even if dozens of officials, experts and theorists and even assorted think tanks agree on it?

When one looks at what that decision wrought on the ground, one realises the truth. A state collapsed in the fullest sense of the term. A partition project based on ethnic and sectarian divides that was only a whisper a couple of decades ago is now on the verge of fruition. And if the government led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and Al-Maliki personally have spoken about defeating terrorism in Iraq, they have not broached the subject of Kurdish control over the city of Kirkuk.

The Iraq that emerged from the ashes of the US-led invasion could not be further away from the model democracy that was the purported aim of the US project. The country is now awash with terrorist groups, militias and extremism. There is no national polity with even a semblance of unity or cohesion. There are sectarian/ethnic fiefdoms and strongholds. A single Shiite faction has secured the right to represent the so-called Iraqi state led by Al-Maliki, the chief architect of Shiite empowerment.

This Iraq could never recover the structures of an institutionalised state or one inclusive of a solid security establishment at its heart. Al-Maliki’s exclusionist empowerment project will only be able to forge a collection of groups held together by sectarian-ideological glue in the manner of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

To the latter, Iraq means the religious shrines of Samara and the seminary in Najaf, and the far-flung borders of the country lie outside their field of vision. As a result, it is little wonder that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been able to occupy the border crossings with Syria and for these to become chief conduits for arms and personnel.

Perhaps equally unsurprising has been the tragic deterioration of the Iraqi army as it makes its second withdrawal from the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk in scenes reminiscent of its withdrawal from Baghdad in April 2003. And to round out this tragic irony, let us recall the statements made by Iraqi Minister of Information Mohamed Said Al-Sahaf at the time of the US-led invasion and those made by Al-Maliki today.

Arab League Ambassador Hani Khalaf experienced first hand the first post-Saddam years in Baghdad. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly he said that the new Iraqi army was organised along the conventional lines followed by all Arab military establishment in terms of its divisions and its relations with the other institutions of the state with which it shared common interests and goals.

The architects of the new army had managed to strike a sectarian and ethnic balance in the ranks despite the enormous challenges this presented. The US had been particularly keen on this, he said.

“However, clearly that did not last long. The idea of primary allegiances surfaced, and the military creed receded in favour of sectarian loyalties.” He added that under Al-Maliki, the government had been obsessed with the idea of Shiite empowerment and that it had begun to push strongly in this direction. This had helped generate the current situation in which Sunni forces were refusing to obey orders and withdrawing because they found themselves fighting other Sunnis, he said.

In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Ibrahim Nawwar, Senior Political Advisor to the UN Mission in Baghdad, said, “Shia leaders with whom I met in Iraq told me, “Rid us of the Kurds. They want to secede. Let them secede. The Sunnis want to secede. Let them secede.” He suggested that according to their vision the oil map would be redrawn on sectarian lines: “The oil of Mosul goes to the Sunnis, the oil of Kirkuk goes to the Kurds and the oil of Basra goes to the Shia.”

Nawwar relates, “the US governor-general of Iraq Paul Bremmer had clear instructions. He was told to dismantle everything. We in the UN were against that. I believe that the UN Mission head Sergio de Mello – with whom I worked day and night – paid with his life for this opposition by means of a missile that directly targeted his office. We fought tooth and nail with the Americans over the interim government council, the dissolution of the Iraqi army, the dismantlement of government institutions. The Americans were of the opinion that everything had to be redrawn on the basis of quotas. In the end, the Americans did what they wanted.”

What lays ahead? According to Nawwar the forthcoming war in Baghdad will draw the new map of the Middle East. “The first episode was the disruption of Baghdad, arming the Peshmerga, training people in how to overthrow the government and dismantling the army and government institutions after the fall of Saddam. The whole region was one big test tube. The whole region was shaken by coups and revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. But I believe that the third episode was rushed. In Egypt, the regime held out even if it was changed. In Syria, it held out. I think that the map that some want features a Shiite crescent facing a Sunni crescent. The Iranians have ambitions to become neighbours of Europe by reaching the warm waters in the Middle East. The world is returning to the dramas of ancient empires, the world before WWI and the Sykes-Picot agreement. However, displacement from the wars, that will drive millions to fill the soft areas of the region. And I believe that areas in Jordan and the Sinai are vulnerable to this threat.”

Ihsan Al-Shamri, an Iraqi scholar and politician close to Al-Maliki, said there was a link between the dispute in parliament steered by Osama Al-Najifi, the brother of the governor of Mosul, and the fall of Mosul to ISIS forces. He said that the Baathists, former members of the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, would likely have an increasing influence on developments.

“Certainly the Baathists are tactically allied with ISIS, even if there is no ideological link. Former Baathist military officers used to manage the Mosul governorate” under Saddam, he said. 

Al-Shamri also said that there was now a form of “collusion” between the Kurds and ISIS. “Previously, they obtained the oil. Now, they want to get the land. What is happening is an attempt to seize territories that were disputed between the Kurds and the central authorities in Baghdad. This is the first factor that has facilitated the militia’s ability to move onto the land in the manner we saw in Mosul,” he said.

A second domestic factor that had facilitated ISIS’s occupation of these areas was tensions within the central authority. “There is a conflict between Al-Maliki and other political figures such as Al-Najifi. This, together with the collusion on the part of other political leaders, has facilitated the mission of ISIS which was only an instrument in this process.”

US sources told the Weekly that the absence of the Iraqi army from the scene had been pre-arranged. High-level intelligence officials in the Gulf, from Riyadh in particular, had tried on numerous occasions to persuade the US not to dismantle the Iraqi army after 2003. In fact, former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld had issued pledges that the US would not do so. But, as we now know that pledge was broken and US representative in Iraq Paul Bremer oversaw the dismantling of the Iraqi army.

“We need new foundations to build an Iraqi army on the basis of a truely new leadership,” Al-Shamri said.

A US expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank, asked what the value was of US sanctions against Iran. “Iran is now in Iraq and in Syria. Before that it was in Lebanon and Palestine. It is moving into other parts of the region... I don’t think that the sanctions serve any effective purpose,” he said.

The scenario that may be closest to reality is that the US, Israel and Iran have been acting as one to arrange the region in the post-Saddam era. There has been ample evidence of covert operations carried out by this triangle since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Iranian-American scholar Tartita Barzi has gathered considerable information about them through interviews with officials and experts in all three countries.

This is presented in his book “The Alliance of Common Interests”, and it conforms in many respects with comments made by former Mossad director Efraim Halevy in his “Man in the Shadows.”

ISIS has now seized control of the Baiji oil refinery, one of the most important oil refineries in Iraq. It is certainly not going to manage the refinery or export oil. But it may offer to compensate Iran for the oil exports it has lost due to international sanctions.

Meanwhile, Al-Maliki and prince Saud Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia have been exchanging verbal salvos, with the latter clamouring for the former’s removal and the former fulminating from Samara. 

Tawfik Aclimandos, a scholar and lecturer in the EU countries who recently participated in a NATO workshop, said that one source had informed him that US President Barack Obama had urged Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf “not to engage in a nuclear arms race” if the world wakes up one day to find that Iran has become a nuclear power during his recent visit to Riyadh.

This was said to have angered the Saudi monarch, who began to ignore Obama. According to Aclimandos, Obama’s appeal worked to strengthen the notion in the Gulf that the US is not a reliable ally and that it is moving to reforge its alliance with its old friend Iran, “even if the shah has now changed his uniform to a black robe and turban.”

US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel tried to reassure Saudi and Gulf military leaders during his visit to Riyadh, something that has not happened for the past five years, but he was unable to allay their suspicions. Were it not for the fact that the Saudi royal family is preoccupied with smoothing the way for the transfer of power to the fourth generation of the ruling house, many things might be different.

In the unfolding situation in Iraq, ISIS is opening prisons and releasing Baathist detainees by the tens of thousands. The founder of the Iraqi Islamic Army, Ahmed Al-Dabbash, has proclaimed that tens of thousands of his soldiers are now fighting alongside ISIS fighters. In the suburbs of Baghdad, tens of thousands of members of the Al-Salam regiments, aligned behind the Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, are parading in force and preparing to enter battle.

Iranian forces are amassing along the border with Iraq, and the commander of the Al-Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), Qassem Suleimani, who has managed the battle in Syria, is reported to be in Baghdad. He is not believed to be involved in commanding any battles in Iraq, but it is certain that no orders would be forthcoming from the commander of the IRG without coordination with the US.

There is undoubtedly a pact in the works such that the draft agreement on the Iranian nuclear question that is currently being hammered out by the P5 + 1 Group can see the light of day.

For Khalaf, Washington is trying to generate rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite regional axes, and Israel, situated in the centre of the region, is adopting certain strategies with respect to it. “It seems to me that Egypt is keen to play a role together with Saudi Arabia. I believe that, contrary to the common impression, they want that role to be remote from Iraq,” he said.

As a result, the US, which has long played on the contradictions of the region that are inherent in its sectarian and ethnic makeup, has approached and, for a while, has strategically allied itself with the Sunni camp in the Gulf, primarily with Saudi Arabia while using Qatar as a bridge. However, it has never severed its underground network of relations with its erstwhile ally and present-day enemy, Iran, in the interests of the security of Israel.

Today, the pendulum is swinging back, and Iran is resurfacing as a potential ally that promises to be more cost-effective. Iran overlooks the “Persian” Gulf. It surrounds the Arabs from all sides, from Yemen to Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and even from Syria and Lebanon. There are also suspicions of a relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iran that has been called into play.

Iran has oil and gas, and it has important strategic cards in the eastern Mediterranean. Iran could also be useful in the US’s handling of China, while it is good at reaching understandings with rivals, such as the Turks, and it has relations with the US’s former superpower rival that is now making a comeback in the international arena.

To add to the foregoing, Iran has certain ideological aspects that mesh with an American outlook that cherishes the strategic Judeo-Christian embrace, namely the Shia concepts of persecution, redemption and the saviour (Mahdi). The political cards are now being reshuffled and redistributed among all the players in Iraq, and the regional security arrangements are being reworked.

The present map of Iraq will not be spared this time.

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