The view from the ground.

What America Left Behind in Iraq

It's even uglier than you think.

Warrick Page/Getty Images
Warrick Page/Getty Images
Warrick Page/Getty Images

Click here for images of Iraq: Obama's inherited war.

Click here for images of Iraq: Obama’s inherited war.

Hundreds of cars waiting in the heat to slowly pass through one of the dozens of checkpoints and searches they must endure every day. The constant roar of generators. The smell of fuel, of sewage, of kabobs. Automatic weapons pointed at your head out of military vehicles, out of SUVs with tinted windows. Mountains of garbage. Rumors of the latest assassination or explosion. Welcome to the new Iraq, same as the old Iraq — even if Barack Obama has declared George W. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom over and announced the beginning of his own Operation New Dawn, and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared Iraq sovereign and independent.

Iraq has had several declarations of sovereignty since the first one in June 2004. As with earlier milestones, it’s not clear what exactly this one means. Since the Americans have declared the end of combat operations, U.S. Stryker and MRAP vehicles can be seen conducting patrols without Iraqi escorts in parts of the country and the Americans continue to conduct unilateral military operations in Mosul and elsewhere, even if under the guise of "force protection" or "countering improvised explosive devices." American military officers in Iraq told me they were irate with the politically driven announcement from the White House that combat troops had withdrawn. Those remaining still consider themselves combat troops, and commanders say there is little change in their rules of engagement — they will still respond to threats pre-emptively.

Iraq is still being held back from full independence — and not merely by the presence of 50,000 U.S. soldiers. The Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates that U.S. forces will be totally out by 2011, deprives Iraq of full sovereignty. The U.N.’s Chapter 7 sanctions force Iraq to pay 5 percent of its oil revenues in reparations, mostly to the Kuwaitis, denying Iraqis full sovereignty and isolating them from the international financial community. Saudi and Iranian interference, both political and financial, has also limited Iraq’s scope for democracy and sovereignty. Throughout the occupation, major decisions concerning the shape of Iraq have been made by the Americans with no input or say by the Iraqis: the economic system, the political regime, the army and its loyalties, the control over airspace, and the formation of all kinds of militias and tribal military groups. The effects will linger for decades, regardless of any future milestones the United States might want to announce.

The Americans, meanwhile, worry about losing their leverage at a time when concerns still run high about a renewed insurgency, Shiite militias, and the explosion of the Arab-Kurdish powder keg everybody’s been talking about for the last seven years. Many in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wonder what Obama’s vision for Iraq is. By the summer of 2006, Bush woke up every day and wanted to know what was happening in Iraq. Obama is much more detached.

American diplomats also worry that they will soon lose their ability to understand and influence the country. In addition to Baghdad, there will soon be only four other posts. Much of the south will be without any U.S. presence: There will be no Americans between Basra and Baghdad, no Americans in Anbar or Salahuddin provinces. Some in the embassy fear they are abandoning the "Shiite heartland." The diplomats still in the country will have less mobility and access, even if they are nominally taking the lead over the military, because it will be harder to find military escorts when they want to travel. "You can’t commute to a relationship," I was told.

At best, unable to secure areas to visit by helicopter or communicate with Iraqis navigating the hassle of trying to get into the Green Zone, the diplomats in the four outposts will act as listening posts or trip wires. They hope to be viewed as the honest broker between Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq, where the American focus has shifted as part of the consolidation of "strategic gain."

But staffers complain that they lack the funding to do their job right, even though the four posts outside Baghdad are going to be very expensive. They say the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the war in Iraq but is now pinching its pennies over secretarial salaries.

One hope for change rested on this year’s national election, held on March 7, which ended in a virtual tie between former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party and Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. The election nonetheless did represent a milestone in the country’s political evolution. Regardless of the outcome — Maliki contested but could not overturn the vote count — the elections will not precipitate a return to civil war. The state is strong, and the security forces take their work seriously — perhaps too seriously. The sectarian militias have been beaten and marginalized, and the Sunnis have accepted their loss in the civil war.

But the controversies surrounding the still-unresolved contest point to some serious long-term political rifts. The increased pace of the U.S. withdrawal coupled with the still-unresolved state of the political map and meddling by the United States, the Saudis, Iran, and even Turkey, has lead to a vicious zero-sum competition as Iraqi leaders jockey for power.

Maliki was a popular candidate, supported by Iraqis for having crushed both Sunni and Shiite armed groups, and he came in first as an individual politician, with Allawi a distant second. But Maliki’s candidates came a close second to Iraqiya — a surprise after Allawi’s dismal performance in 2005.

On the Allawi side are Sunnis, restless with perceived Iranian influence in the country. Opposition to Maliki often centers on his suspected ties to Iran — an allegation that echoes the tendentious Sunni notion that an Arab cannot have a strong Shiite identity without being pro-Iranian. And notwithstanding the Bush administration’s "80 percent" approach — focusing on the Shiites and Kurds and ignoring the Sunnis — the group’s frustration could lead to destabilization. Sunnis might not be able to overthrow the new Shiite sectarian order, but they can still mount a limited challenge to it. The Kurds, with only the mountains as their friends (to paraphrase a Kurdish proverb), were able to destabilize Iraq for 80 years. Sunni Arabs are present in much more of the country and have allies throughout the Arab world who can supply them well enough to destabilize Iraq more than the Kurds ever could.

The Americans want to keep Allawi around for exactly that reason: They see him as mollifying Sunni anger. "We would like to see an important role for Allawi," U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey said in an August press conference, arguing that the Shiite ex-Baathist was able to organize a historic shift in the post-war political dynamic by coalescing Sunni and secular forces behind a new democratic process. U.S. diplomats in Baghdad tell me that outgoing U.S. commander Gen. Raymond Odierno is extremely worried about a renewed insurgency if Allawi’s Iraqiya list isn’t satisfied.

Allawi can’t simply be made prime minister, given that he doesn’t have support from across the political spectrum. Instead he may be given an enhanced presidency with increased powers, coupled with some checks — including term limits — on Prime Minister Maliki.

Shiites and members of Maliki’s cadre, meanwhile, are not at all pleased with the idea of a President Allawi. Oil Minister Hussein Shahrastani, who is close to Maliki, has warned the Americans that many in the Shiite elite would see a powerful Allawi presidency as a coup, overthrowing the new order and restoring the bad old Saddam days. Many in Maliki’s party are strongly anti-Sunni, just as many in Allawi’s party are strongly anti-Shiite, and they fear
the repetition of history.

Maliki has told confidants that if he leaves office, everything he has worked for over the last four years will fall apart. He believes that he almost singlehandedly rebuilt the Iraqi state. Without him there is no State of Law party, since it was built around his reputation and Maliki is the individual candidate who won the most votes. The Sadrists would then become the most powerful Shiite bloc and the clock would turn back to the anarchy and misery of 2006.

It’s hard to disagree. The prime minister has amassed a vast and relatively stable infrastructure of power. Removing him and his advisors and security institutions at a time like this could be disastrous. Maliki has managed to win over skeptical Sunnis after his 2008 attack on Shiite militias and remake himself into a candidate perceived by many as a secular nationalist.

The Americans certainly believe there are no non-Maliki scenarios, given the risk of the Sadrists taking over. "We’ve done the math," General Stephen Lanza, the outgoing U.S. military spokesman, said at an event in August.

"We have no real power or authority here," U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey said. "We have no right to interject ourselves in any kind of threatening way. The only thing we have said that comes close to a rethink of our policies is if you had a government where the Sadrists played a critical role, we would really have to ask whether we can have much of a future in this country given their political position." Beyond exiting the country, Jeffrey said, the United States might back off on its vigorous push to convince the United Nations to remove the Chapter 7 sanctions on Iraq, if the Sadrists were to take a dominant role in the government. "We probably wouldn’t be too enthused with that mission," said Jeffrey, "and there are a thousand other examples like that." For their part, the Sadrists refuse to meet with the Americans.

The Sadrists are, however, talking with Allawi, offering support in return for control over the Ministry of the Interior and the release of at least 2,000 of their men from Iraqi detention. Allawi has justified his flirtation with the violently anti-American Sadrists on the grounds that they are merely misguided and can be controlled.

It’s a move that could seriously backfire. Maliki says privately that the Sadrists are dangerous. He doesn’t believe that Allawi can control them, insisting that he comes from their world and he knows them. He insists that it’s not within his legal power to simply free their prisoners. And the Kurds have been dismayed by Allawi’s dalliance with the Sadrists; they don’t want the Sadrists to be the kingmakers. The Kurds also worry that many of the dominant Sunni politicians in Allawi’s list are hostile to their vision of the boundary dividing Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Because of this, the Kurds now oppose an Allawi premiership and have thrown their support behind Maliki.

Frustrated with his string of PR defeats, Allawi has taken refuge in confidence-boosting visits to Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait, and Syria. But none of that helps him much in Baghdad, where it matters, and it certainly doesn’t help him in Iran, where an Allawi premiership would be seen as a victory for Tehran’s regional rivals, the Saudis, not to mention a victory for the Baathists. Iran prefers Maliki, even if their relationship is not nearly as close as it’s been made out to be by the Sunnis.

In fact, Iraq’s powerful neighbor has failed to achieve many of its goals in Iraq. Iran has pawns in Iraq but not proxies. Even the Iran-formed Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq actually dislikes Iran. Its members, former Iraqi exiles who came together in Tehran during Saddam’s rule, remember the humiliation of being looked down upon by Iranians for being Arabs. Shiite parties have their own power base as well, and don’t need Iranian support. Still, the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad remains very active, and the Americans refuse to meet with him — a surprising change given the meetings that took place under the Bush administration.

As for the Turks, they want to turn the Kurdish regional government in the north into a Turkish vassal state. They are also deeply involved in Baghdad. Ambassador Jeffrey maintains that Turkey can live with a Maliki premiership, and this is true, although Turkey prefers Allawi; the Turkish ambassador dislikes Maliki and helped organize the Iraqiya list. (Maliki took this personally and temporarily stripped the Turkish ambassador of his access to the Green Zone.)

In a sad sense, none of this maneuvering actually matters all that much. Regardless of who becomes prime minister or president, Iraq is about to become increasingly authoritarian. Oil revenues will not kick in for several years, so services are not going to improve. Even when revenues reach Iraqi coffers, infrastructure costs will eat them up for the near future. The lack of services means the government will face street-level dissatisfaction and become harsher and more dictatorial in response — even if a democratic façade persists.

For Iraqis, then, there is no end in sight. Since the occupation began in 2003, more than 70,000 Iraqis have been killed. Many more have been injured. There are millions of new widows and orphans. Millions have fled their homes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men have spent years in prisons. The new Iraqi state is among the most corrupt in the world. It is only effective at being brutal and providing a minimum level of security. It fails to provide adequate services to its people, millions of whom are barely able to survive. Iraqis are traumatized. Every day there are assassinations with silenced pistols and the small magnetic car bombs known as sticky bombs. In neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of refugees languish in exile, sectarianism is on the upswing, and weapons, tactics, and veterans of the Iraqi jihad are spreading.

Seven years after the disastrous American invasion, the cruelest irony in Iraq is that, in a perverse way, the neoconservative dream of creating a moderate, democratic U.S. ally in the region to counterbalance Iran and Saudi Arabia has come to fruition. But even if violence in Iraq continues to decline and the government becomes a model of democracy, no one will look to Iraq as a leader. People in the region remember — even if the West has forgotten — the seven years of chaos, violence, and terror. To them, this is what Iraq symbolizes. Thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other failed U.S. policies in the broader Middle East, the United States has lost most of its influence on Arab people, even if it can still exert pressure on some Arab regimes.

Last week, the Western media descended upon Iraq for one last embed, for a look at the "legacy," to ask Iraqis whether it was "worth it." On the night of August 31st, I overheard one American TV producer trying to find an Iraqi family that would be watching Obama’s speech on Iraq live. Obama’s speech was aired at 3 a.m. in Baghdad. But Obama did not address Iraqis in his speech. And they weren’t interested, anyway. Most Iraqis were awake at that hour, but they were lying in bed sweltering, unable to sleep, waiting for the electricity to come back on so they could power their air conditioners.

<p>Nir Rosen is a fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security. He has reported extensively from the Middle East, and his book In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq was published in 2006.</p>

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