Iraq in the Middle: Conclusion

by Robert Tollast and Kirk H. Sowell – Journal Article – Small Wars Journal

1.11.2012 – A Foreign Ministry in the Shadows –

RT: This series has looked at the foreign policy of Iraq- which way it is leaning, whether toward the US and EU or toward Russia, China and Iran, as well as who has the most diplomatic leverage over this unstable yet strategically vital no.2 OPEC producer. And yet, as the series has progressed since pt.1 in May, what is apparent is that Iraq has quite an incoherent foreign policy. For example, there is quite a gap between statements by Badr head and Transport minister Hadi al-Amiri (“Iranian arms flights are American propaganda”) and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (“Iraq will not accept being a transit point or passageway for… arming or financing the Syrian conflict .”)

Foreign involvement, in terms of arms sales, investment etc. is quite diverse in Iraq right now, but it still doesn’t seem possible for anyone to exercise much “diplomatic leverage” over a country that does not even seem to have a coherent political process. Iraq seems to be lurching between wanting to be neutral, supporting Assad, falling out with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and being a champion of Arabism. Do you see this situation changing as Maliki consolidates power?

KS: We need to make a distinction between formal institutions and substantive policy in this regard. At the formal level, yes, Iraqi foreign policy is often incoherent. The statements that Foreign Minister Zebari makes which are out of sync on Syria are a good example. But Zebari is not truly in charge of Iraqi foreign policy on Syria. Abd al-Halim al-Zuhayri is. It was Zuhayri, a long-time Dawa Party member and Maliki confidant, who travelled to Syria in 2010 to patch things up with Assad on Maliki’s behalf, and it is Zuhayri whom Iraqi sources speak of as holding the “Iran-Syria file.” I would say Iraqi policy toward any given country – whether Syria, Turkey or Kuwait – is pretty coherent, you just have to focus on substantive policy and not what ministers outside Maliki’s inner circle say. In your example, Hadi al-Ameri is in it; Zebari, a member of the Kurdistani Democratic Party, is not.

The same is true with the military. The Chief of Staff, Babakir Zebari, is Kurdish, and Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaymi is Sunni Arab. But neither of these men wields real power. Maliki has bypassed the formal institutions through the Office of the Commander in Chief, headed by a Shia general, Faruq al-Araji, and that is how he controls the military.

RT: There has been a lot of comment recently that Iraq’s (approx) $4.2bn Russian arms deal is an indicator that the country is moving away from the Western sphere of influence, rather than being beholden to US or EU contracts that could be jeopardised by politicians who worry about Iraqi autocracy, Iranian leanings or human rights abuses. As Defence Industry Daily reported on the recent Mi-28 deal.

    If Iraq’s central government finds itself using these gunships in armed clashes with the Kurds, or other neighbours, Maliki knows that Russia won’t cut off Iraq’s access to parts, maintenance, or associated weapons. In exchange, Iraq has to accept a separate supply chain for the Mi-28’s parts and weapons, coupled with Russia’s well-earned reputation for unresponsive support.

The real story is somewhat different- Iraq has significantly diversified arms suppliers over the years. Nations selling arms to Iraq include France, Germany, South Africa and even Serbia, but America is still Iraq’s No.1 supplier and still lends the biggest military assistance. It seems to suggest an Iraqi policy of hedging bets rather than accepting anyone’s hegemony.

Regarding the energy sector, an Iraqi oil expert tells me that as US oil companies are stumbling in Iraq, Russian and Chinese companies are consolidating their position. But these moves away from the West do not represent a rebuttal to the US or Europe- in the oil sector, they are a simple punishment to companies cutting deals with the KRG. In the arms trade, they reflect Iraq’s need for a more rapid delivery of systems. Likewise, the recent foreign policy clash between Turkey and Iraq saw Turkish firms denied business permits by Iraq. But when the al-Basrah governor slammed “Turkish interference” it was not Chinese, Iranian or Russian companies asked to replace the Turks- he went straight to the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad and asked for greater Japanese involvement. And the company tipped to replace the Exxon water injection project in southern Iraq’s biggest field is in fact American.

In short, it seems these foreign policy choices are not about favouring Russia, Iran or China over the US, EU or Turkey- they are about politicians of the ruling elite concentrating military and energy power in their hands- who helps them get that power doesn’t matter, as long as they can deliver. Do you agree?

KS: I completely agree. The biggest mistake people make in analyzing Iraqi politics is thinking that Maliki works with or relies on another country because he likes them, or is controlled by them, etc. Iran has more influence on Maliki than the US does because Iran can impact his power base through its leverage on some of the Shia Islamist parties. I am confident Maliki would prefer to not have to rely on Iran politically, but he will use them when he needs to. The same is true for oil or weapons. In addition to the power struggle in Baghdad, there is the power struggle between Baghdad and the Kurdish region and the provinces. But only the region really has the ability to push back. Exxon’s contracts with Irbil are a threat to Maliki’s power; Turkey’s rapprochement with the KRG is also a threat to his power.

In fact I don’t think Iraq was ever in the US or Western sphere of influence. Remember how hard the administration tried to get former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and then Maliki to crack down on Shia militias in the 2005-2007 period. Then in 2008 Maliki went to war against the Mahdi Army when it was in his political interests, and he benefited from that. And even Iran now, for all its vaunted influence, can’t influence Baghdad when their interests conflict. Iran wanted a hard-line on Kuwait; Maliki turned them back. And the current oil expansion is quite damaging to Iran. Maliki uses domestic and foreign allies alike; he uses them when he needs them, and that is it.

RT: Rather than worrying so much about Iraq’s proximity to Iran, perhaps a more pressing concern of the US should be its support to the ISF through the (now in jeopardy) OSC-I. This includes support for all weapons systems purchased off the US from Iraq, as well as the alleged recent US SOF visit to Iraq.

Your reports highlight how the US is effectively supporting a defence force under Maliki’s control which makes unconstitutional warrant-less arrests, has allegedly committed human rights violations (the death of al-Hashemi’s body guards being only a prominent example) and intimidates opponents across entire provinces through the Operations Commands in accordance with Maliki’s aims (as in the example of the curfew in Diyala to intimidate pro-autonomy councillors.) Should congress call time on the OSC-I, or is some influence here better than none? For example, South Korea was a US backed autocracy, and assisting them to democracy (rather than cutting ties) has paid off.

KS: The question you pose relates to one of the big debates within foreign policy, which is the realism v. idealism question. Personally I tend to view foreign policy as more about interests than ideals, but nonetheless it is not hard to also find examples of alliances with bad governments that have paid off in the short term and cause blow-back in the long term. But there is a category of cases where it is possible to find common ground, because the ally’s bad behaviour has destabilizing consequences. So in some cases ideals can serve interests as well.

Iraq in my mind often falls into this category. The primary US interest in Iraq is stability and a strong state; no base for terrorists, strong enough to resist Iran, and with a successful oil export strategy that keeps oil prices lower than they would otherwise be. And the problem with many of Maliki’s actions is that they are destabilizing. This to me is clearly the case with illegal arrests of political opponents or attacks on the Central Bank.

But consider the more specific case of Kirkuk – Maliki’s new Tigris Operations Command in Diyala and Kirkuk seems to be more “counter-Kurd” than counterterrorism. For instance, he has recently increased their tank and artillery allocation in Huwayja, the Arab area of Kirkuk which is the TOC’s Kirkuk base, and this past week they had a military procession near Kirkuk city to commemorate some new graduates whose specializations included tank warfare and engineering. Why does the Iraqi army need tanks, artillery and military engineers in Kirkuk? Or take this quote from Maliki when he was in Russia, in which he said they needed weapons that would help them fight “terrorists both in the mountains and in the deserts.” But Iraq’s terrorists aren’t based in the mountains. We know who in Iraq lives in the mountains.

As far as OSC-I is concerned, assuming the funding is sorted out and it is maintained, I wouldn’t worry about that because, as I understand it, that program is focused on training police and soldiers in counter-terrorism. The real concern in terms of Maliki’s politicization of the military is giving them tanks and F-16s. While the US should not be promoting an independent Kurdistan, it also should not be doing anything to enable “Counter-Kurd” security policies.

Intergovernmental Organizations

RT: Assuming Iraq was never really in the Western sphere of influence- and that while it is friendly with Russia, China and Iran, it does not want to be under anyone’s hegemony, perhaps the biggest forces to promote growth and counter autocracy, human rights abuses and sectarianism are intergovernmental organizations (IGOs.)

While the UN have had minimal influence in nations such as Syria, they have seen limited progress with UNAMI in mediating territory disputes (although Maliki’s targeting of the Electoral Commission shows the limits of UNAMI in the face of autocracy.)  Most other IGOs could exercise a degree of influence over the Iraqi government based on what they can offer: Iraq wants US help to join the WTO, and has shown an interest in making its business with energy companies more transparent by joining the EITI in the hope of improving investor confidence.

Elsewhere, the IMF has provided macroeconomic advice and government personnel training, and provides Iraq with access to a $3.7 billion Stand- by Arrangement- a good relationship that is increasingly in jeopardy. To a lesser extent, the World Bank is still involved in Iraq, mainly training staff at Iraq’s various Ministries. The bank has recently passed harsh judgement on Iraq’s business environment.

Europe could theoretically exercise influence via the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (a WTO style agreement with the EU which includes MOUs on Energy Cooperation and electoral assistance.) This could be reassessed in the advent of a further decline in Maliki’s human right’s record or a similar scenario. But as David Forsythe mentioned in Pt.5 of the series, tough action by the EU over human rights abuses is rare when dealing with a resource rich country.

Other IGO influence over Iraq can also now come in the form of the NATO cooperation accord which Iraq signed in September. While the above IGOs only partially coordinate their activities, taken together they account for significant influence over the Iraqi government.

The question is whether Maliki’s inner circle, drunk on huge oil revenues and increasing extra-judicial power, will respond to pressure from these organizations.  My feeling is that if these agreements and MOUs are put under threat, the Iraqi govt. will be resilient to pressure. A possible exception is the dropping of charges against Faraj al-Haidari (former head of the Electoral Commission) although it is not clear if UNAMI (who condemned the charges) had a role in clearing his name. Is the idea that IGOs can put constructive pressure on Maliki wishful thinking? Also, a lot of the above IGOs demand transparency, something Iraq has had real problems with.

(A recent example of a government at loggerheads with a major IGO is Argentina, whose president is ignoring demands from the IMF to release accurate economic data. Likewise, the IMF will not be impressed by Maliki’s targeting of Central Bank of Iraq manager Sinan Shabibi, who is widely regarded as having effectively managed the bank- a process greatly helped by the IMF. )

KS: The idea that either the UN or NGOs generally can pressure Baghdad I think is wishful thinking, at least on any issue which relates to the pillars of power. I can’t think of a single case where that has been true, and frankly don’t think they care at all. As far as Faraj al-Haydari is concerned, the decision overturning his conviction came after he was already removed from office anyway. Maliki’s real defeat there was that parliament, which remains independent, elected a board which in turn elected an ally of Masud Barzani to be the new chair.

RT: Finally, let’s look at EU and US policies toward Israel and Syria. Generally, the EU and US are supportive of Israel, give or take the occasional controversy over settlements. In fact, the EU boosted trade relations in June, despite some member states reservations about settlements. And despite the Israeli public’s concern about Obama, US aid to Israel stands at $10 billion under his Presidency: 20% more than the next 6 recipients of US FMF combined, or as Ehud Barak remarked when asked if Obama was a friend of Israel, “Yes, clearly so.”

The Sunni allies of the US and EU in the region, while not happy about this situation, generally accept the status quo (with the exception of Turkey) and may privately long for an Israeli attack on Iran. These same allies also support US and EU aid to the FSA, to differing extents. One could argue that US/EU policy, while considering itself fair (“we support Palestinian rights as well as Israel’s right to self-defence etc.) is inevitably viewed as grossly unfair by the majority of Shi’a in the region, who see support of the FSA as effectively supporting al-Qaeda. Do you think that the US and EU have lost any chance of being seen as “honest brokers,” in Iraq and is it time we adopted a more neutral foreign policy in the region, lest we lose Iraq and further fuel sectarianism? Well-meaning US- Iraqi initiatives such as the recent USAID microfinance conference seem almost pointless in light of these big foreign policy contradictions.

KS: Since I’ve already expressed a low evaluation of US influence in Iraq, I should emphasize that it does at least have a mentionable role, whereas the EU is practically a non-entity. Maybe it looks different in the international media, where European statements are always quoted like they mean something. The best indicator I can give you is that in the Iraqi press, visits by US or UN officials do get reported, and when they make recommendations that are substantive, factions opposed always express this opposition vigorously. By contrast, European ambassadors struggle to get Iraqi news agencies to carry press releases about them, and when they criticize Iraqi policy, on let’s say the death penalty or Syria, rarely does this even merit a response. Recently I saw something in English about the Cameron government opposing the death penalty in Iraq. I don’t think Baghdad gave it a second thought.

That said, the UN regularly makes proposals on Kirkuk, they always get Iraqi media coverage, and they never go anywhere. So if the UN has any influence it would have to be on such low-profile issues as to not merit coverage.

For the United States, I don’t think the term “broker” is in any sense appropriate. The administration made a very extensive effort in 2010 to impact government formation and had zero impact. The final form of the government was exactly what Maliki wanted, especially the exclusion of Iyad Allawi, which was the US priority. For the US to have any influence it will be necessary to use tangible levers, and even then in a very low profile way. These include weapons purchases, protection of Iraq’s financial assets and a vote in the Security Council to lift Chapter 7. I’m not saying it necessarily makes sense to use these levers, but this is just to point out what they are.

Perhaps theoretically if the US could persuade the Kurds to moderate their demands on territory and oil powers in exchange for Baghdad accepting an international security guarantee for the KRG that would at least be giving Baghdad something. But frankly I’d be very surprised if either the Kurds or Baghdad would accept such a deal. For the Kurds this is about identity, soil and a historical memory of aggression. Any security guarantee strong enough to satisfy the Kurds would be unacceptably offensive to Iraqi Arabs’ sense of national sovereignty. And Maliki views the balance of power, time and demography as being all on his side. With time Baghdad will only grow stronger. Maliki and his allies waited decades against impossible odds to replace Saddam. If it takes a few more decades to achieve the Iraq they want, I think that is fine with them.

As far as Israel is concerned, I think the pattern you see elsewhere in the Arab world plays out – Israel is a deeply emotional issue for Iraqis, but it has limited direct relevance for the leaders, and thus limited impact on policy. The one exception is Arab resentment of the low-profile presence Israel maintains in Kurdistan. Israeli-Kurd intelligence cooperation, which many Arabs view as significant, is one of the bones of contention between Baghdad and Irbil. But it just aggravates an otherwise bad relationship, and otherwise I think Israel is a marginal factor in Iraq.