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American Failure and Iraq’s Crisis

American Failure and Iraq’s Crisis

Wednesday, 17 August, 2022 - 06:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

The current political crisis in Baghdad appears to be the beginning of the end of the Iraqi political system created under the American umbrella of 2003-2011. I was the director of the American Embassy political affairs office most of the time between 2004 and 2009, and I acknowledge a sense of both regret and personal failure. The Americans didn’t write the Iraqi constitution. Iraqis wrote it. The Americans, however, insisted the Iraqis finish writing their constitution according to an American schedule determined by Paul Bremer’s occupation authority.


Our Embassy knew in 2005 that the schedule was not realistic but Washington rejected our advice to change the timeline. The Americans did not create the muhassasah system that allows Iraqi political parties to exploit control of ministries for money and jobs. Iraqi political parties established this system. The Americans, however, exercised pressure on those political parties to build coalition governments that encouraged the establishment of muhassasah. And the Americans exercised pressure for Nouri al-Maliki to be prime minister in 2006 and again in 2010.


Most important, the Americans committed two big strategic mistakes in the early years of the new Iraqi republic. First, the Americans – myself among them – were naïve about the militia problem.

In September 2003 when I was Paul Bremer’s representative in Najaf, the Badr Corps detained me at gunpoint for four hours before releasing me. Therefore, when I worked at the American Embassy starting in 2004, I knew the danger of militias to security and stability in Iraq.


However, the Americans focused on the total elimination of al-Qaeda in Iraq, not total elimination of the various Iraqi militias. Thus, while we fought militias like Muqtada Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi we also welcomed militia members, whether from Anbar or Salah ad-Din or Hilla or Sadr City or Basra to join the political process. We encouraged them to join political parties or form political parties and compete in elections.


Our thinking, and it was naïve thinking, was that the militia leaders would relinquish their weapons and work only inside the parliament and with the cabinet of ministers to secure projects for their communities. The militias, however, kept their weapons and the Iraqi government never made a serious effort to disarm them. The Americans accepted this because we didn’t want to face a bigger or longer war. After the return of American military forces to Iraq in 2014 the Americans aimed to destroy ISIS only. We accepted tactical alliances with militias loyal to Iran in the cause of destroying ISIS. Of course, Iran has played a dirty game in those years, but the Americans also carry a share of the responsibility for the proliferation of militias now undermining stability and the political process in Iraq.


The second strategic mistake is related to the first mistake because it gave the militias and their political party allies more resources. We had a superficial understanding of corruption in the new Iraqi republic, and the Americans even tried to reinforce institutions to fight corruption such as the Commission of Integrity and the establishment of inspectors general in the different ministries.


Also, the American occupation authority allowed the continuation of the Iraqi Board of Supreme Audit from the Baathist government. The Americans had a small program of technical assistance for these institutions, but it was never a priority. For example, my political office had 20 diplomats who analyzed every political dispute in Baghdad to the smallest detail in order for us to play our mediator role when needed between the quarreling Iraqi parties. The American ambassador and his political team helped contain many crises in Iraq in those early years of the new republic.


By contrast, our anti-corruption assistance office had two employees and they didn’t speak Arabic. They worked in another building far from the office of the Ambassador and the political section. Thus, the Embassy knew in 2007 that Prime Minister Maliki’s office was interfering with the Commission on Integrity with respect to hiring employees and also interfering in corruption investigations.


The Embassy also knew pressure from Prime Minister’s office and militias led the first two directors of the Commission on Integrity to resign in 2007. However, we did not react. We were focused completely on immediate political crises, not the long-term problem of growing corruption. If you live long enough, you finally see the long-term arrive. Now, in 2022 the widespread corruption in the Iraqi state and the resulting failure to rebuild infrastructure like electricity and water networks threatens the existence of the Iraqi republic itself. These short-sighted failures about militias and corruption in Iraq 10-15 years ago should caution those who overestimate the capabilities of the United States. I hope Iraqis find a peaceful exit from the current crisis. I know the Americans don’t have the answer.


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