Washington’s Silence on Iraq

Almost five years ago, President Bush sat grasping the hand of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, flashbulbs from an army of photographers illuminating their smiling, faintly strained faces. As we know now, the agreement they had just signed and were shaking upon turned out to be a very public parting of ways.

For Washington, which wanted to keep troops in the country, but was spurned by Maliki and an Iraqi parliament that preferred to go it alone rather than give the US military continued legal immunity, breaking up has been quite easy to do. In the indomitable words of rapper Gang Starr, "you’re my ex-girl cuz I’m on with the next girl," and Iraq is being treated thusly.

President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki signing the Strategic Framework and Security Agreement  2008
President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki signing the Strategic Framework and Security Agreement 2008

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, best be paying attention. He stands on the cusp of a similar agreement with the United States over the status of its forces there after 2014. Again, the issue of immunity is at hand, and rather than decide it himself, he has put the question to a loya jirga, a grand council of the country’s elders, before signing the pact. Things are pretty bad already, but observers fear a worse implosion of Afghanistan’s security situation if the Americans abruptly pull up stakes and leave altogether.

Already, the American people could care less – they’re one foot out the door. They have written Afghanistan off – just as they did with Iraq – as a mistake. So if what’s happening in Iraq is any indication of times to come, a bitter divorce, felt mostly by the neediest of Afghans, is inevitable.

Twice Bitten

Violence has escalated in Iraq at a rate not seen since 2008 when the final Strategic Framework and Security Agreement between Bush and Maliki was signed. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis were killed since the beginning of the year, 490 in October, as of Sunday. Sectarian violence on both sides is washing over Iraqi towns and cities like an epidemic, including the North, where Kurdistan had once been known as the safest place in Iraq.

Washington, which for years claimed the invasion, in part, was to foster a democratic ally in the region, has been curiously silent on why this is happening and what it means for Iraq, with much of the mainstream news following suit.

Some might call it "moving on," or "closure." Others may call it desertion.

One need go no further than the Oct. 9 State Department press briefing, a regular affair in which the designated spokesperson fields questions as if hitting (or missing) one pitch after another in a batting cage. At one point, an international reporter attempts to throw a curve ball to spokeswoman Marie Harf on a country Foggy Bottom has already torn out of its Little Black Book:


MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: The UN reports that 6,000 Iraqis have died since the beginning of the year, there has been a tremendous spike in sectarian violence, incursions by al-Qaida, almost collapse of the central government. Yet Iraq really seems to be not on your radar screen. Can you explain to us why this lack of attention to what’s going on in Iraq on your part?

MS. HARF: Well … there are, like, three or four things that you just said that I would take issue with factually, so let me walk through some of them.

Harf proceeds to explain to the obviously misinformed foreign newsman that the "violence" he speaks of is "terrorist violence." So that makes it, what, not as urgent?

"It’s not the kind of sectarian violence we saw during the most violent years of the Iraq war. So it really is violence perpetrated by extremists, and much of it is a outflow of the situation in Syria," Harf says (translation: it’s not our problem anymore). When asked if the US is taking any "special measures to sort of help Iraq in this really difficult time," she says, "well, we have an ongoing dialogue with them on the fight against terrorism. We’ve said we will continue to support them in the best way we think is possible."

A boy surveys the aftermath of a bombing in Baghdad in June
A boy surveys a the aftermath of a bombing in Baghdad in June

At a great distance, no doubt. But let’s take this hoo-hah one swing at a time. Washington loves, at least for public consumption, to pretend that "terrorism" simply occurs in a vacuum, completely ignoring the circumstances feeding into it (admitting that Iraq is in the midst of what Iraqi-American and University of Maryland professor Adil Shamoo calls a sectarian "civil war," would force the US to acknowledge that it had a part to play in it, which Washington is loathe to do.)

Much of violence against the Shia in Iraq has been perpetrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) a.k.a. the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL), and other Sunni extremists who are taking advantage of sectarian tensions that already exist there. Meanwhile, there seems to be no attention paid to the Shia militia problem in key cities like Basra, in which the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis that the US helped Maliki pursue during the war has clearly not ended. From the Al Monitor newspaper in late September:

Sectarian displacement carried out by armed militias to empty large regions of Basra from its native residents is escalating amid an eerie silence from Basra authorities and the federal government. Forced displacements, through threats, have targeted the al-Zubair District in particular and other regions in Abu al-Khaseeb. …

The sources explained that sectarian killing and cleansing in Basra had been preceded with notices that had been hung on the doors of Sunni mosques calling on Sunnis to leave the city within one week or face death. The historical district of al-Zubair, home for Sunnis for centuries, no longer has Sunnis living in it. Its residents moved to Gulf countries following death threats from militias, the sources clarified.

There is instability everywhere, and much of it stemming from, or thriving on, political strife caused in part by the Shia-dominated Maliki government itself, which the Sunnis have been protesting against en masse for basic rights and services since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011. While the mainstream western media has largely stopped covering the protests, rallies such as the one our Antiwar.com source Donna Mulhearn reported last spring in Fallujah, are regular events.

Sunnis protest against Maliki Government in Fallujah
Sunnis protest against Maliki Government in Fallujah

Maliki would prefer to blame the "terrorism" on radical Sunnis coming across the border from Syria. Of course he is not entirely wrong, the ISIL is now operating in Syria. But like the US, Maliki oversimplifies to his benefit, as though his own policies have nothing to do whatsoever with the increased instability of his country. Here’s what he had to say when confronted with the security issue in a recent Al Monitor Q & A:

Our forces are confronting these criminals and are involved in an all-out war with them. We are confident that we can defeat and eliminate them. There are many factors that have contributed to this increase in terrorist acts, the most important of which is the sectarian tension in the region that is directly related to the developments in the Syrian crisis and its repercussions on the Iraqi arena.

First of all, if Maliki’s government forces – paid for and trained by the US military – are in an "all-out war" with the terrorists, the terrorists are clearly winning. Second, Maliki, a supporter of the Assad regime, along with Iran, would like nothing better than to shift the focus of the conversation to the "extremists, terrorists and sectarians" among the anti-Assad rebels just over the border. But when asked about the Shia militia killings in Basra, Maliki acknowledged their presence, but conveniently adds, "there is a clear correlation between these groups and terrorist groups and they strengthen each other." Again, the "terrorist" label.

Maliki uses it, like American officials often do, as a sort of incantation to ward off the complex, political roots of the violence, as well as speculation that perhaps it might be related, not to "the wider, regional conflict," but to his own bad leadership, which has been called corrupt, authoritarian and broadly incompetent in terms of solving crises and providing basic services to the most needy of his people. The overall parliamentary politics of Iraq is a hot mess, too, much of it seeded in unresolved constitutional issues and a broken political process dating back to the war. But there seems to be no place in the State Department briefing room for such comprehensive talk. It’s just easier to blame "terrorism" and not the guy we helped to install in the seat in 2006.

"Counterterrorism" is probably the only thing of substance Maliki will be talking to US officials about during his reported trip to Washington at the end of the month. It will be the first such meeting since he met with Secretary of State John Kerry in March. At that meeting of the minds, the main topic of conversation was Syria. The US wanted Maliki to stop allowing Iranian over-flights with arms for Assad to Syria. Maliki reportedly resisted. Now, Maliki is supporting a plan that would spur negotiations in Syria without foreign intervention.

The State department won’t even acknowledge that Maliki is coming to Washington this month, yet early reports suggest there will be discussions over "the security situation in Iraq, the Syrian crisis and the issues related to the Strategic Framework agreement." No word on whether the president will meet with Maliki, which would be their first one-on-one since 2011.

Not our problem anymore

To be fair, there is not much the US can do now but talk anyway, and the State Department insists they are doing a lot of it as part of the Strategic Framework Agreement (though to be frank, their diplomatic efforts seem as empty as the $730 million US fortress embassy sitting in Baghdad right now).

The Strategic Framework and Security Agreement took all US troops out, but it needn’t have taken our full attention away from helping to rebuild what we broke. That was our commitment, like it or not.

Adil Shamoo doesn’t necessarily agree that "we’ve completely washed our hands" of Iraq, as American aid (albeit greatly reduced) continues to help fund civil projects, hospitals and schools there. Recently, the U.S. announced it would be acting on a request from the Iraqis for a $2.6 billion air defense system and F-16 fighter jets to "to curb the radicalization of young Iraqis and other spillover effects from the Syrian conflict."

Shamoo believes continued American "influence" has indeed neutralized any serious threat to neighbor Israel and kept Iran at bay, to a certain extent. But that only speaks to US interests, what of the Iraqi people? Are they better off now than before the war?

“Not even close. Iraq has been taken back 30 years at a minimum. I said that in front of a dinner filled with Iraqis. They said no, it’s been more like 300 years. Iraq has been destroyed. It has been destroyed," said Shamoo.

"The one area I know well is science, technology and medicine. It is like in the 1950’s – I’m not kidding you. It’s just devastated.”

While perversely, the US might be sending Iraq a message that "you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone," we’re sure, in the end, the Iraqis prefer to be going their separate ways. No doubt they wish, too, amid the daily bombings killing Sunni and Shia alike, that they’d never crossed paths with us in the first place.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.