Why Iraq's Leader Balks at U.S. Demands

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The U.S. tried to deflect criticism of the Iraq war this week by announcing a series of timelines and performance benchmarks for Iraq's government to disband sectarian militias and other goals aimed at preventing a civil war — all the while making it clear that U.S. patience has limits. But no sooner had the U.S. made this declaration than Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki virtually dismissed it. Not only did he reject the notion of timelines, but he scolded the U.S. for attacking commanders of the Shi'ite Mahdi Army in Baghdad. TIME.com asked Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, one of America's foremost experts on Shi'ite politics and culture in Iran and beyond, to explain why Maliki and the U.S. can't seem to stay on the same page.

TIME.com: The U.S. is demanding that Prime Minister al-Maliki tackle sectarian militias, but Prime Minister al-Maliki is pushing back against deadlines and castigating the U.S. for military operations against some of those militias. Are Washington and Maliki on a collision course?

Juan Cole: Maliki is protecting himself by being feisty, showing Iraqis that he is not taking orders from Washington. But he also has a serious policy dispute with the U.S., and a sense of betrayal. They promised him, last summer when they launched the major security offensive to retake Baghdad, that the U.S. would take care of Sunni guerrilla movement in Baghdad before moving against Mahdi Army [the Shi'ite militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose stronghold is in Baghdad]. That way, Maliki could to go to the Shi'ite elders in Baghdad and say, you are safe, you no longer need militias and they are a source of discord, so they must be disbanded. But the Americans failed to dislodge the Sunni insurgents, and then they go after the Mahdi army anyway — and that enrages Maliki because it weakens his government in such a way that it could fall.

So Maliki's outrage over attacks on the Mahdi Army are not a matter of principle; it's about the fact that the U.S. hasn't first done what it said it would do, which was to eliminate the threat of the Sunni insurgents in Baghdad. The reason Shi'ite communities believe they need militias is to protect them from the Sunni guerrillas, which they say the government and the U.S. are not doing. And Maliki can't go and tell them to get rid of their militias while they remain vulnerable to attack by Sunni guerrillas.

TIME.com: Maliki has no militia of his own, unlike two of the key components of his coalition — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the movement of Moqtada Sadr. How plausible is it to expect that SCIRI and the Sadr movement will give up their militias?

Juan Cole: It's not plausible for them to give up their militias entirely. They have, of course, been willing to see those militias incorporated into state institutions — SCIRI's Badr Brigade has been incorporated into the Interior Ministry forces [in whose uniforms they are accused of sectarian killings], while the Mahdi Army has been drawn into the police force in some parts of the country — but they tend to be incorporated in ways that retain their militia identity. The calculation of the U.S. and Maliki last summer was correct: The militias exist because Shi'ites feel insecure. And that feeling of insecurity has been deliberately provoked and reinforced by Sunni insurgents who have targeted Shi'ites. The Shi'ites are tired of getting blown up, and they believe that if they arm themselves and set up checkpoints in their neighborhood, they can provide their communities with the protection that the government and the Americans are failing to provide. So, it's like a B-movie standoff in which there are four people all pointing guns at each other, and nobody wants to be first to put theirs down.

It's also worth remembering that Shi'ite politicians commanding militias are not following a Western political model in which participating in government at the same time as maintaining a private militia is unthinkable. The only country in the region with which they're familiar that has elections, a parliament, a president and so on, is Iran. And many of the institutions in Iran, since the revolution, have a dual character. So Hakim and Sadr think of their militias as analogous to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which exist as a paramilitary institution separate from and not entirely integrated with the regular military — and which can be deployed and manipulated by various charismatic figures, as President Ahmedinajad has done to help get himself elected.

TIME.com: There is a lot of speculation in Washington that James Baker's Iraq Study Group will recommend that the Bush Administration talk with Tehran to seek a common approach to stabilizing Iraq. How could Iran help?

Juan Cole: Iran has enormous influence over the Badr brigade, which was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and they could bring a lot of pressure to bear on Hakim, and Moqtada Sadr, to rein in the death squads. If Baker suggests talking to Iran, that would make a lot of sense. The U.S. interest in Iraq and Iran's interests in Iraq are actually congruent. The idea that Iran is being unhelpful or is somehow helping the Sunni insurgency has no basis in reality. Tehran does not want Iraq to break up: They're as worried as Turkey is about the Kurds becoming independent. They want a united Iraq, a democratic Iraq in which the Shi'ites' majority makes itself felt. They obviously want their preferred Shi'ite leaders, such as Maliki and Hakim, to be in power, rather than, for example, a former Baathist Shi'ite such as Iyad Allawi [the former prime minister installed by the U.S.], or Moqtada Sadr, who is viewed by Iran as a loose cannon who they would prefer to see marginalized. Tehran is even willing to see the Sunnis given more power in Iraq in order to help keep the country together.

So, the U.S. and Iran actually want many of the same things in Iraq, and it makes perfect sense for them to cooperate. It's a self-defeating policy of the Bush administration to fail to recognize Iran as a tacit ally in Iraq.

  • For more of Professor Cole's insights on Iraq, read his excellent daily blog Informed Comment.