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The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong

About the author
Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford.

The United States presidential candidates are not the only ones scrambling to put together a credible interpretation of the situation in Iraq these days. The Pentagon's latest quarterly report to the US Congress - Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, delivered on 1 October 2008 - shows that Washington's defence establishment shares the same difficulty.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit-Verlag, 2005), the first study ever on a specific case of southern separatism in Iraq

Many of Reidar Visser's writings on Iraq are available at his website, historiae.org - in which this article was first published

Also by Reidar Visser in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's partition fantasy" (19 May 2006)

"Iraq lives" (22 November 2006)

"Washington's Iraqi 'surge': where are the Iraqis?" (12 January 2007)

"Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008)


There are two basic problems in the report, which covers the period June-August 2008. The first concerns its assessment of "the fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq". At the outset there is bombast: "[While] security has improved dramatically, the fundamental character of the conflict in Iraq remains unchanged - a communal struggle for power and resources". That is as about as wrong as one can be in describing the political dynamics of the past year.

To give just one prominent example: the reason Iraqis will soon hold provincial elections is that a broad opposition alliance of Shi'a and Sunnis, Islamists and secularists, challenged the Nouri al-Maliki government to demand early elections and a firm timeline when the provincial-powers law was debated in late 2007 and early 2008. Thirty of the MPs involved were followers of the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But the fact of this cross-sectarian opposition cooperation does not seem to fit into the Pentagon narrative of "communal conflict" at all. It even hails the passage of legislation on provincial elections as an achievement of the "government of Iraq" - even though the government resisted the elections all the way and repeatedly tried to scupper the process!

Instead of recognising the role of the opposition in changing the atmosphere of Iraqi politics, the report repeatedly reverts to a focus on "lingering sectarianism". Some parts of the US military blogosphere have picked up on the growing debate about the cross-sectarian currents in today's Iraq, and it is remarkable that a Pentagon report like this should insistently recycle interpretations that perhaps made sense for a limited period in 2006 and early 2007 - but do so no longer.

The second main problem in the report has to do with the Pentagon's take on Iranian influence in Iraq. The United States department of defence simply refuses to deal open-mindedly with the possibility of pro-Iranian influences inside the current Iraqi government. Instead, the report brusquely states: "despite long-standing ties between Iraq and some members of the GoI [Government of Iraq], Tehran's influence campaign is beginning to strain that relationship due to the rising perception that Iran poses a significant threat to Iraqi sovereignty."

Maybe it is the overuse of acronyms that prevents Pentagon analysts from detecting the realities here? The effect of describing ISOF conducting COIN with IP support to defeat the JAM and SGs and other undesirables is that everything is made to sound so well organised - and almost unthinkable that Iranian interests could conceivably be served by these actions. At any rate, not a word is said about the massive Iranian influence in Najaf (where the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI] dominates); or about the repeated complaints by Shi'a tribal leaders in the south that the government of Iraq is too close to Iran; or the continued praise of Iran by members of the Badr brigade, one of Washington's supposed key allies among the Shi'a of Iraq.

It is assumptions like these that drive the report authors again and again to exaggerate the significance of Nouri al-Maliki and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim turning against some of their own Shi'a enemies. For example, al-Maliki's operations against Sadrists in Basra and elsewhere are repeatedly viewed as expressions of a definitive national attitude and something that should prompt Sunnis and the Arab world at large to embrace the al-Maliki government.
Also on Iraqi politics in openDemocracy:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (19 March 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq, Iran and the United States: problems and prospects" (30 July 2008)

It is symptomatic that the decision by one relatively minor and office-seeking Sunni group to rejoin the government in July 2008 is spinned on the first page of the report as "a welcome sign of re-engagement by Sunni Arabs at the national level". But what is problematic is the basic assumption that Iran only controls and benefits from the Sadrists and the "special groups", and that this relationship can be understood in no other way.

It would be helpful in this respect if Pentagon analysts were to recall what their "ally" Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq said about these matters in the Tehran-based ISCI newspaper Al-Muballigh al-Risali in 15 February 1999, when he furiously criticised Muhammad al-Sadr for daring to start a revolt in Iraq without reference to Iran's leadership: "We need to treat Khamenei's leadership in the same fashion as Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr treated Khomeini's leadership". The logic - that the supremacy of the leader of the Iranian republic should never be challenged - is plain.

In other words: historically, the unpredictable Sadrists have always been a problem and not an asset to Iran and ISCI - a problem they seemed finally to have solved in 2007, when Muqtada al-Sadr was left with no other option than to flee to Iran at the start of the surge. But instead, the Pentagon refers to "recognition of Coalition and ISF tactical superiority" as the main cause of the weakening of the Sadrists.

When such basic questions are not addressed in a nuanced way, it is very hard to ascribe much significance to the predictable succession of graphs and statistics and acronyms that take up the subsequent pages of the Pentagon report. If the underlying assumptions about the "fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq" and Iran's channels of influence are inaccurate, these things all collapse.


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