IRAQ MATTERS COMMENTARY: Sounding the Alarm

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NOTE: The full commentary offered below appears in our most recent IRAQ MATTERS podcast available here. The commentary begins at 2:36.

Shortly after the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq nearly two years ago, President Obama and Iraq’s Prime Minister — Nouri al-Maliki — held a joint press conference. At that event, Mr. Obama welcomed the Prime Minister as the elected leader of “Iraq’s most inclusive government yet.

Bi-lateral meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki. November 1, 2013
Bi-lateral meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki. November 1, 2013

Mr. Obama declared: “We’re here to mark the end of this war.

That final remark may have held some truth at the time, but nearly two years later, President Obama’s legacy of responsibly ending the war in Iraq is at risk. Right now, violence in Iraq has reached levels not seen since the height of Iraq’s civil war from 2006 to 2008. So far this year, the United Nations reports that more than 7,500 Iraqis have lost their lives in violence, mostly civilians like the headmaster and 14 children who were killed last month when a suicide bomber attacked a primary school in Tal Afar (northern Iraq).

Yes, you read that correctly. He drove a truck packed with explosives into the playground of the primary school, killing 14 children and the school’s headmaster.

What accounts for the dramatic escalation of violence?

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Prime Minister Maliki painted a picture of an “Iraq” that has largely become the victim of circumstances outside his government’s control.

Specifically, he blamed a spillover of militants and weapons from Syria’s civil war, and a reconstituted al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other extremists engaged in a renewed campaign to foment sectarian violence and division.

The solution:

“A deeper security relationship with the U.S.” including the purchase of more U.S. weapons and a greater sharing of intelligence. Already, as of June of this year, Iraq has purchased more than $14 billion in U.S. weapons, services, and training for its military and security forces. That includes 18 F-16 fighters which are scheduled to be delivered next year. Under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program which is subject to Congressional oversight, Iraq is seeking to purchase a second set of F-16s and has stepped up requests for Apache attack helicopters, hellfire missiles, Predator drones and a range of other weapons.

The picture painted by Mr. Maliki is only part of the story.

Here’s what he gets right.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which currently calls itself “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or the Levant) – is back and quite possibly, stronger than ever.

In military terms, common measures of an enemy’s strength are:

  1. The number, scale, and sophistication of their operations.
  2. Their numbers and rate of recruitment.
  3. Their control of territory.

On all three measures, AQI has regained capabilities not seen since their previous peak of operations in 2006 and 2007, and as documented by Jessica Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War, they can “operate from [the Southern Iraqi port city of] Basra to coastal Syria.”

Even the once safe area of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region has not escaped harm.

To illustrate the increasing scale and sophistication of AQI’s operations, consider the following:

  • In July, al-Qaeda-affiliated militants simultaneously attacked Iraq’s Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons and two military divisions stationed near the prisons. The most successful of the attacks was on Abu Ghraib, freeing more than 500 inmates including Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi and other convicted senior members of al-Qaeda in Iraq
  • According to Michael Knights of the Washington Institute, in 2010, there was a multi-city synchronized bombing attack every four months; now one occurs on average once every 10 days.
  • In late September, AQI attacked the headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Security Services (or Asaish) in Erbil – the first terrorist attack in that city since 2007.
  • Due to the number and tempo of such operations, Iraq’s National Army is stretched thin and unable to cover all of the areas where AQI is active. The Economist reports: “Iraq’s security forces have withdrawn from key towns in Anbar, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, and from a mainly Sunni area in the neighboring province of Salahuddin.” Just this week, the mayor of Fallujah was assassinated.

It is time to sound the alarm.

After all, we are not just talking about violence, we are talking about “atrocities.” As noted by Hayder Al-Khoei of Chatham House, today in Iraq, the overwhelming majority of violence is being carried out by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, and not by militias as we saw during the height of sectarian violence in 2007. And while AQI would like to characterize itself as a “protector of Sunnis”, their victims include Sunnis and Shia alike, as well as religious minorities, youth in cafés, protest organizers who they deem as not “radical” enough, tribal leaders who resist giving them carte blanche in their territories, and as previously mentioned, primary school children.

But wait… isn’t the war over?

In fact, didn’t retired General Petraeus just pen a long piece about “How we won the war in Iraq”?

Indeed, during the so-called “surge”, al-Qaeda in Iraq was nearly defeated by a combination of US counter-insurgency operations, the Sahwa (or Awakening) movement led by the late Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha and other tribal leaders, and the mobilization of the Sons of Iraq militias across Anbar, Salahuddin, and other areas that had previously tolerated the presence of foreign militants.

But the long-term follow through – particularly on the political front – to make those gains permanent never came as political rhetoric triumphed over common sense. That brings us to the part of the picture that was missing from Mr. Maliki’s op-ed. By all indications, the lessons of what worked in 2008 are not being applied to the situation in Iraq today.

That point was underscored in a recent letter to President Obama by 6 senior Senators including the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Senators wrote: “as the United States learned through its own hard experience in Iraq, applying security solutions to political problems will only make those problems worse.”

Yet that message does not appear to have been received in Baghdad.

In fact, during Prime Minister Maliki’s visit to Washington DC when he met with two of the letter’s authors – namely Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Corker – the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign relations committee – the meeting was described by the Senators as “extremely disappointing”. “It felt like we were talking past each other,” said Senator Corker.

This raises the prospect that the US Senators will exercise their oversight powers to block the sale of US weapons and other forms of security assistance if “Mr. Maliki continues to marginalize the Kurds, alienate many Shia, and treat large numbers of Sunnis as terrorists…” However, as the letter states: “if he devises and implements a real governance strategy for Iraq, the United States is ready to provide the appropriate support…”

Military crack down in Iraq. Image Source
Military crack down in Iraq. Image Source

The need for Baghdad to make a course correction is urgent.

According to a veteran foreign aid worker quoted in the current issue of The Economist: “At the moment what fuels the conflict the most is the presence of central-government security forces in Sunni areas, where they arrest young men in the hundreds, torture them and then release them after money is paid. You can see al-Qaeda benefiting from the heavy-handed presence of the armed forces.” Earlier this year, blogger Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq rightly observed that Iraqi Security Forces are making the same mistakes that the Americans made in the early years of the war.

So what can the Obama administration and Congress do to encourage Baghdad to pursue – as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk put it – a more holistic approach to fighting terrorism and promoting peace?

EPIC has five recommendations:

  • FIRST, press Prime Minister Maliki’s government to do more to stop the flow of funds, militants and weapons fueling both sides of Syria’s civil war – and that means doing more than just stopping the overflights.

Perhaps most critically, the US and international community should demand that Mr. Maliki allow a full restoration of the transparency and independence of Iraq’s Central Bank. As reported by Hadeel Al Sayegh for the European Council of Foreign Relations, every day that institution is allowed to remain opaque, untold volumes of Iraq’s foreign cash reserves are being used or at risk of being used to fund the Assad regime’s war – either directly or via Tehran – against the Syrian opposition, escalating Syria’s sectarian civil war and regional tensions.

  • SECOND, don’t lose sight of the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable and displaced Iraqis, Syrians, and other vulnerable populations in the region.

3 million Iraqis remain displaced, and escalating violence is adding to those numbers contributing to a regional humanitarian crisis that includes more than 7 million Syrians fleeing internal violence including over 2 million Syrians – mostly children – who have fled to neighboring countries.

Right now, nearly half of Syria’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance. And in Iraq, despite the country’s oil wealth, a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

As US Assistant Secretary Anne Richard rightly put it: the U.S. and international community must redouble their efforts to avert the threat of a “lost generation” of children.  

  • THIRD, require Mr. Maliki to address the legitimate demands of Iraqi protestors. These protesters are making reasonable demands. They are calling for the abrogation of Article 4 of the “counter-terrorism law” that allows people to be imprisoned on accusations without evidence or trial. They want the release of prisoners held without charge and those who have served their term but remain in detention. They want improvements in public services and an end to corruption… especially corruption in the security sector where militants continue to find ways to bribe their way past checkpoints and access ISF uniforms and equipment
  • FOURTH, reverse the precipitous cuts in US assistance.

As was reasonable to expect, US Iraq spending was substantially reduced following the 2011 troop withdrawal.

However, proposed US spending on Iraq for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 is dangerously low: $880 million which represents less than .0003% of the President’s proposed U.S. Federal Budget for FY2014.

Keep in mind that we’re not talking about funds for US troops on the ground – that’s no longer part of the equation – we’re talking about vital funds for cost-effective diplomacy and targeted assistance in areas that are critical for Iraq’s peace and development.

To name just a few examples, the President’s FY2014 budget proposes 70% to 95% cuts in U.S. funding for peace building, human rights, and civil society.

Accompanying those proposed cuts are reports that USAID is scheduled to LEAVE Iraq in 2014.

Budget pressures are also forcing a key office of the US Embassy in Baghdad that liaisons with Iraqi security agencies and senior officials to reduce their staff from its original strength of 260 to 59 by FY2015, and that has raised serious concerns as to whether that office’s mission of security cooperation can be adequately carried out.

ALL OF THESE proposed cuts come at a time of escalating violence in Iraq and serious reports of human rights violations and abuses of power by Prime Minister Maliki — not to mention Iraq’s national parliamentary elections scheduled for next year which will determine Iraq’s next Prime Minister.

In short, now is not the time to diminish America’s capacity to influence events in Iraq.

President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki Shaking hands in 20011. Image Source.
President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki Shaking hands in 20011. Image Source.
  • FINALLY, two years after the last troops came home, it is time for President Obama to articulate a clear, long-term strategy for peace in Iraq.
Two years ago, EPIC welcomed these words from President Obama:

…we’re partnering to strengthen the institutions upon which Iraq’s democracy depends — free elections, a vibrant press, a strong civil society, professional police and law enforcement that uphold the rule of law, an independent judiciary that delivers justice fairly, and transparent institutions that serve all Iraqis.
If we are to become true friends of the people of Iraq, we must continue to pursue progress in all of those areas.

Iraq’s leaders will not change overnight, but over time, through effective partnerships, educational exchanges, investments, and yes – in some cases – direct assistance – particularly in support of key institutions and civil society — Iraq will change for the better, producing better political, social, and economic outcomes for all Iraqis – and with THAT, we can truly mark an END to THIS WAR.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.

NOTE: The full commentary offered above appears in our recent Iraq Matters Podcast available here. The commentary begins at 2:36.

Sources (in order as they appear):

President Obama’s Bi-lateral Meeting with Prime Minister Maliki (video, joint statement), White House website, 1 November 2013.

Wing, Joel. “Over 7,000 Killed in Iraq in first Ten Months of 2013,” Musings on Iraq (blog), 6 November 2013.

Adnan, Duraid. “Bomber Kills 13 Children at Iraq School Playground,” The New York Times, 6 October 2013.

al-Maliki, Nuri Kamal. Op-ed: “Have Patience with Us,” The New York Times, 29 October 2013.

Gordon, Michael R. and Schmitt, Eric. “As Security Deteriorates at Home, Iraqi Leader Arrives in U.S. Seeking Aid,” The New York Times, 1 November 2013.

Ewing, Philip. “More U.S. Military Help Tops al-Maliki’s Wish List,” POLITICO, 31 October 2013.

Jessica D. Lewis. “Al Qaeda Resurgent in Iraq, Part I,” Middle East Security Report 14, Institute for the Study of War, September 2013.

Jessica D. Lewis. “Al Qaeda Resurgent in Iraq, Part II,” Middle East Security Report 15, Institute for the Study of War, October 2013.

Knights, Michael. “Analysis: Iraq’s never-ending security crisis,” BBC News, 3 October 2013.

Civil strife in Iraq: Going all wrong,” The Economist, 2 – 8 November 2013.

Wing, Joel, “Iraq in 2013 is a lot like Iraq in 2003, with many of the same mistakes being,” The Best Defense: Tom Rick’s Daily Take on National Security, 24 June 2013.

Arango, Tim. “Once Calm Area of Iraq Is Shaken by Bombings,” The New York Times, 29 September 2013.

Civil strife in Iraq: Going all wrong,” The Economist, 2 – 8 November 2013.

Ridgwell, Henry. “Iraq Bloodshed Hits 5-Year High as Lawmakers Remain Deadlocked,” Voice of America (VOA) News, 7 November 2013.

Petraeus, David H. “How We Won in Iraq: And why all the hard-won gains of the surge are in grave danger of being lost today.Foreign Policy, 29 October 2013.

McCain, John; Levin, Carl; Inhofe, James M.; Menendez, Robert; Corker, Bob; Graham, Lindsey. Letter to President Barack Obama on Iraq as PM Maliki visits Washington DC. 29 October 2013.

Gordon, Michael R. and Schmitt, Eric. “As Security Deteriorates at Home, Iraqi Leader Arrives in U.S. Seeking Aid,” The New York Times, 1 November 2013.

Testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk. Hearing on Iraq, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. 13 November 2013.

Ayub, Fatima (editor), Al-Sayegh, Hadeel (author of section titled, “Iraq: the ongoing perils of sectarian conflict,” pages 12 – 17) “The Gulf and Sectarianism” report, European Council on Foreign Policy, 13 November 2013.

IRAQ: Response still centred on return despite increasing IDP demands for local integration,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 31 December 2012.

2013 UNHCR country operations profile – Iraq, UNHCR: the UN Refugee Agency, January 2013.

Ali, Ahmed. “Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi Anti-Government Protest Movement: Iraq Update,” Iraq Update, Institute for the Study of War, 28 October 2013.

The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2014, White House website, submitted to Congress on 10 April 2013.

Gordon, Michael R. and Schmitt, Eric. “As Security Deteriorates at Home, Iraqi Leader Arrives in U.S. Seeking Aid,” The New York Times, 1 November 2013.

President Obama’s Press Conference with Prime Minister Maliki (video, transcript), White House website, 12 December 2011.

Erik K. Gustafson

About Erik K. Gustafson

Erik is EPIC's founder and director. As a U.S. veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, Erik has devoted his life to humanitarian action and empowering youth in support of Iraq's peace and development.