Iraq's Unrest is the product of a long series of American failures
One year ago, America’s two-decade-long nation-building project in Afghanistan ended ignominiously with the siege of Kabul’s international airport by the Taliban. Now, the George W. Bush administration’s other multi-trillion-dollar nation-building project in Iraq also appears to be on the verge of collapse in the wake of mass unrest that rocked the capital of Baghdad and left 10 dead and hundreds wounded late last month.
Amidst fighting between the forces of Shia Cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Iranian-backed Iraqi government, the Biden administration was forced to deny reports that it was planning to withdraw America’s embassy from Iraq as it had from Afghanistan.
The tenuous situation in Iraq, which could still potentially devolve into yet another foreign fiasco for Biden, again underscores the degree to which both the Obama and Biden administrations have mismanaged Middle East policy, in particular by repeatedly subordinating Iraqi interests in a vain attempt to appease the regime in Iran.
The deadly protests broke out in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on August 29 in response to news that al-Sadr would depart from political life. The Shia cleric had emerged as a major victor in the country’s parliamentary elections last October, but was unable to secure a governing majority thanks in part to hostility from Iran-backed Shi’ite parties.
In areas they have seized, Sadr’s supporters have made clear their hostility toward Tehran, including by tearing down banners of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani (who was killed by an American drone strike in 2020 at the direction of former President Trump) and attacking locations linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The crisis has been a long time in the making.
When Donald Trump called the 2003 invasion of Iraq a “big mistake” during the 2016 South Carolina primary debate, he was speaking nothing less than the truth. At the cost of trillions of dollars, enormous political capital, and thousands of American lives – not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – the war served to increase global oil prices and increase Iranian influence. But the invasion itself was far from the only error, and critics of the invasion, including Barack Obama and his team, all too often pursued policies that made their predictions of Iranian domination self-fulfilling. A large segment of the academic and think tank elite, regardless of their position on the invasion, embraced the conventional wisdom that Iraq was an artificial country divided between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia, with the latter sharing sympathies with their religious compatriots in Iran.
This idea served the purposes of everyone. For those who had supported the invasion and then seen the occupation collapse into insurgency, it provided a rationale for why it was not their own fault that disaster had occurred. It was the result of the flawed nature of the Iraqi state. For Democratic critics, it provided yet another way to show that George Bush and his allies were dumb, ignorant, or both, by claiming they ignored this “basic fact.” For those who wanted to continue the occupation, it provided an argument for why this was necessary, while for Obama and his advisers, who were determined to ally the U.S. with Iran instead of Saudi Arabia and Israel, it justified why a deal with Iran was “required” to secure peace in Iraq.
The problem was that this conventional wisdom was simply not true. It ignored divisions between secular urban Sunnis and their tribal religious compatriots and Kurdish Islamists and nationalists. The worst errors, however, came with the Shia. Ignored was the importance of Arab/Persian distinctions, which had led to unrest within Iran’s-Arab populated Khuzestan, or that most Shia had remained loyal to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. No attention was paid to the lack of enthusiasm for Iran’s Islamic republic among Iraq’s Shia clergy going back to the 1980s.
Instead, it was taken for granted that the conflict in the region was religious and that the Shia were unified and pro-Iranian. These assumptions led leaders like Joe Biden to call advocate for a three-way partition of Iraq, ignoring that populations were mixed and any such effort would likely trigger ethnic cleansing and mass refuge flows, leaving the resulting states without functioning infrastructure. Thankfully, despite being embraced by large parts of the DC blob, Biden’s plan was rejected by the Bush and Obama administrations, despite Biden serving in the latter.
But even if Obama’s team grasped that Biden’s ideas should be ignored, they still shared the fundamental assumptions on which they were based. This produced two conclusions. First, they believed that, with Shia Muslims accounting for nearly 65% of Iraq’s population, Iraq’s government must be led by a Shia party, regardless of who Iraqis actually voted for. Second, because Shia Muslims were perceived as being close to Iran, the Obama team assumed that any Iraqi government must be acceptable to Iran, and in turn, no government hostile to Iran could be allowed to form no matter who Iraqis voted for, especially as Obama pursued a nuclear deal with Tehran. If an anti-Iran government was formed in Iraq, it was assumed Iran would see this as unacceptable and break off the nuclear talks. The first assumption meant that the U.S. would veto any sort of secular, pan-religious party from forming a government even if it won elections. The second assumption meant that even if an anti-Iranian Shia party became the largest, the United States would not allow them to form a government without pro-Iranian parties, since by virtue of being anti-Iranian the Obama administration assumed they could not possibly be considered legitimate representatives of Iraq’s Shia, no matter how many Shia voted for them.
As with Afghanistan, democracy failed in Iraq not because it could not work, but because America never tried it. From the start, America decreed that Iraq’s governments would be formed by census, not votes, and that if the voters did not behave as their ethnicity and religious affiliation indicated they should, those votes would be set aside.
The Obama administration demonstrated what this meant when it moved to nullify the results of Iraq’s 2010 elections, an intervention which led directly to the rise of ISIS. Virtually every Sunni party had agreed to unite in a broad secular alliance led by Iyad Allawi, which extended to Shia and Kurdish parties. This Iraqi National Movement came first with 24.7% of the vote and 93/325 seats. Despite Shia Muslims making up 65% of the population, the two Shia parties – the State of Law Coalition, led by then Prime Minister and Iranian intelligence asset Nouri Al-Maliki, and the National Iraqi Alliance, which included Sadr – combined for less than 43% of the vote, implying that perhaps 15% of Shias voted for Allawi. For Sunnis, who had taken part in the insurgency, it was proof that if they took part in the democratic process and focused on trying to make Iraq work they could succeed and form a government.
Except they were not allowed to do so. Despite Allawi commanding the most seats, Maliki insisted that only a Shia party could form a government, and argued the two Shia parties combined had more seats than Allawi. Rather than pressuring Al-Maliki, dependent on U.S. aid, to step down, the U.S. instead pressured the Kurds and smaller Sunni parties to refuse to form a government with Allawi that excluded Maliki, and insisted that Allawi reach an agreement with Maliki, bypassing Sadr’s efforts to form his own coalition with Allawi, which would allow for a Sunni Prime Minister and a Sunni-Shia government united by opposition to Iran. The result was Maliki was able to wait out his rivals by refusing to resign for a year and a half, remaining as interim PM until an alternative government was formed in which he used his power to purge the government of Sunnis and dissident Shia.
These mass purges discreditedcrippled the Iraqi army at the same time as Maliki’s actions discredited Iraqi democracy. The Sunnis had played by the rules. They had taken part in elections. They had won. Then they had been denied the right to form a government. Maliki, who had won less votes and less seats, had been able to remain Prime Minister, and the U.S. under Obama had done nothing to make him respect the outcome of the election. If elections did not matter, why take part? If it did not matter if Kurds or even some Shia would oppose Iran, what point was there in forming alliances if the U.S. and Iran would veto them? Why not look to themselves? Out of this despair and betrayal, ISIS was formed, and with the purged Iraqi army collapsing, Maliki was forced out.
That brings us to 2021. In 2021, Sadr formed a broad-based alliance. It was primarily Shia in the same way Allawi’s alliance was primarily Sunni. But as with Allawi, Sadr campaigned on Iraqi nationalism and sought to present a program for government which would exclude Iran. On election day, his party won 73 seats, while his Sunni and secular allies won a further 59 seats. By contrast, the largest pro-Iranian party, again led by Maliki, scored only 33 out of 329 seats. Yet since that time, by boycotting parliament and refusing to allow any new government to be formed, the pro-Iranian parties have once again kept the existing Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in office. For nearly a year, the lame-duck government has engaged in repression against the winners of the 2021 election.
Normally if no government can be formed new elections would be called. But, likely knowing they would lose, Kadhimi and the Iranian forces behind him have refused to do so, demanding Sadr instead negotiate with them, in effect abandoning his anti-Iranian Sunni allies and joining as the junior partner in an Iran-dominated Shia government. Rather than demanding the Iraqi government honor its own constitution by calling new elections, or better yet, insisting that Kadhimi resign to make way for the winners, the Biden administration has backed these calls by demanding direct negotiations between the parties.
There can be little doubt as to why. A “deal” with Iran is near and dear to Joe Biden’s heart. By contrast, Biden has nothing but contempt for Iraq, which he has long made clear that he views as an artificial country, meaning he can have nothing but contempt for Iraqi Nationalists. But much as Obama pushed the Sunnis into a corner, provoking the rise of ISIS, Biden has pushed the Iraqi opposition into a position whereby they had no choice but to risk force before Biden signed his deal with Iran.
This is almost certainly the reason for the clashes we are now seeing. If Sadr and his allies moved before Biden made his deal, they might yet derail it. Once Biden signed his deal, the desperation not to lose it would likely cause the Biden administration to do everything possible to keep Iran’s allies in power in Iraq.
Sadr is not a nice or liberal guy. Nor is he pro-American. But he is from a family of Shia clerics going back centuries in Iraq. He has credentials as both a national and religious leader, which makes him a threat to an Iranian regime that is increasingly preparing for a generational transition to a clique around the son of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Mojtaba Khamenei, who has been accused by figures no less distinguished than his uncle Hadi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of embezzling billions. Mojtaba has responded to this criticism by waging war on his critics, especially clerics and nationalists who have the stature he lacks. Sadr’s opposition to Iran may be partially conviction, but it is also a matter of self-defense against an Iran which brooks no Shia or clerical rivals.
The Obama-Biden team has abandoned Iraq before with disastrous consequences. Given dynamics on the ground, there is no need to send troops or intervene. The Iraqis have this. All they need is to be left alone, and for the Untied States not to intervene on behalf of pro-Iranian forces who have once again lost an election. The events in Iraq are a revolt against Iran. They are only anti-American to the extent to which the Biden-Obama team refuse to allow Iraqis to have their votes count.