In late 2010, Iraq was mired in a political stalemate after ambiguous parliamentary elections left the country without a government for ten months. At the same time, the U.S. was negotiating with the country’s leadership to figure out the levels and legal status of U.S. troops that would remain in Iraq after combat operations ended the next year.
These twin impasses were solved through a behind-the-scenes deal brokered by the head of Iran’s covert foreign operations that was readily accepted by the U.S. The agreement, which the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins described in detail in a September 2013 piece in the magazine, left Nouri al-Maliki, a pro-Iranian Shi’ite with despotic and sectarian tendencies, in charge of the country. It deepened Iran’s meddling with the fragile politics of its western neighbour, and sent Iraq on the path to state failure.
As Filkins explained, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force, used “a complex array of enticements,” partly involving a proposed Iraq-Syria oil pipeline, to get Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders onboard with Iran’s preferred government in Iraq.
This government installed Jalal Talabani, “a longtime friend of the Iranian regime” as president. And as part of the deal, Maliki and his allies would “insist that all American troops leave the country.”
According to Filkins,
The Americans knew that Suleimani had pushed them out of the country but were too embarrassed to admit it in public. “We were laughing at the Americans,” [a] former Iraqi leader told me, growing angry as he recalled the situation. “Fuck it! Fuck it!” he said. “Suleimani completely outmaneuvered them, and in public they were congratulating themselves for putting the government together.”
The deal meant that Ayad Allawi, a pro-American secularist whose party won the most parliamentary seats, wouldn’t become Prime Minister. In Filkins’s telling, “the Americans pushed him aside in favour of Maliki” as Suleimani’s government came into shape. Writes Filkins,
[Allawi] told me that Vice-President Joe Biden called to tell him to abandon his bid for Prime Minister, saying, ‘You can’t form a government.’ Allawi said he suspected that the Americans weren’t willing to deal with the trouble the Iranians would have made if he had become Prime Minister. They wanted to stay in Iraq, he said, but only if the effort involved was minimal. “I needed American support,” he said. “But they wanted to leave, and they handed the country to the Iranians. Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.”
Nine months after Filkins’ article was published, Iraq really would start looking like a failed state, with Sunni Jihadists controlling much of the north, and multiple Iranian Revolutionary Guard brigades reinforcing the Shi’ite south.
From one point of view, the Obama administration knew in late 2010 it had to pull most of its troops out of Iraq, and wanted to leave the country with something resembling a government that could keep the place stable. The administration might honestly have seen the Iranian-brokered deal as the best among a series of bad options, especially given the then-unsettled future of the U.S.’s military presence in Iraq.
It’s also possible the administration never really planned on investing its energy in a deal with the Iraqi government that would have left large numbers of American troops in the country — not with Obama’s campaign promises and anti-war bona fides on the line. So, it let the new Iraqi government form knowing the U.S. was leaving soon anyway. After all, just a couple years earlier, Americans had elected Obama partly out of a desire to end the war in Iraq.
There’s some irony to the latter possibility. As the crisis escalates, Obama has left open the possibility he could call in airstrikes in support of the Iranian government in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant.
By wanting to get out of Iraq for good, the administration might have contributed to a situation that could have exactly the opposite result.
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