Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Mosul End Game: A New Beginning for Iraq or a “Perfect Storm” for Renewed Sectarian Conflict?

Nuri al-Maliki meets with Iran Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, 2014
How will the impact of the Islamic State’s defeat in Mosul impact Iraq?  Will the so-called Islamic State’s expulsion from the city offer a reset for Iraqi politics or will it result in a new wave of sectarianism?  Unfortunately, current political and economic conditions do not bode well for a post-Mosul Iraq.

Many of the problems facing a post-Dacish Iraq have been created by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.  As is well known, Maliki’s sectarian policies during his second term as prime minister, from 2010 until he was removed in 2014, alienated Iraq’s Sunni Arab population (and Iraq’s Kurds)  It largely explains why large segments of Mosul’s populace was initially sympathetic to the Islamic State.

The Iraq Army’s heroic efforts, backed by KRG Peshmerga and Federal Police, in liberating Mosul are on the verge of being undermined by political machinations in Baghdad.  These involve the complicity of the Iranian government as is works behind the scene to establish a dominant political position in Iraq.  Nuri al-Maliki has facilitated the expansion of Iranian influence as part of his effort to return to power.   He has been helped in this process by the squabbling among the Sunni political elite in Ninawa and al-Anbar provinces and political dysfunction in the KRG.

When Iraq’s declining oil revenues are added to this toxic mix, the funds needed to rebuild Mosul and Anbar cities are enormous.  Complaints by Anbaris that promised reconstruction funds haven’t been forthcoming, accompanied by accusations that some funds have been stolen by corrupt politicians, don’t auger well for the future.  With Maliki having effectively blocked all efforts at reform, we see Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi waning power as he loses influence to Maliki and his Iranian allies.

While the Obama administration never considered Iraq a major foreign power priority, at least there was an effort to counter sectarianism and sustain some “soft power” policies, e.g., USAID and State Department funding for education projects. The Trump administration’s lack of interest in Iraq, beyond the military struggle against the Dacish, signals to Iran and its Iraqi minions – Maliki and the militias Iran funds – that they have an open road forward to pursue sectarian policies. 

Because there are few forces working to prevent the spreads of sectarian tensions, Iraq is ripe for more instability.  In this context, terrorist forces will still find fertile soil for continued recruitment of disaffected elements in Iraqis society.  Thus we can predict the continued strength of terrorist forces in Iraq who will exploit the rise in sectarianism.

Terrorist activity will be reflected in continued suicide bombings in Iraqi cities, targeted killings of Shi’a and secular forces, especially Baghdad, guerilla attacks on the police stations, military bases and government agencies, and efforts to recruit disaffected Sunni Arabs.  Continued political instability will be fostered by state-sponsored corruption and the lack of improvement of social services.

Since the beginning of the attack on Mosul during the fall of 2016, the Iraqi Army has developed significant social and political capital in Mosul, and throughout Iraq, as a result of its efforts to mitigate civilian casualties, increasing its own losses, its providing of food and medicine to Mosul inhabitants, and treating inhabitants of liberated areas with respect.  A comprehensive national reconciliation strategy is needed to insure the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul

Qais al-Khazzali
Meanwhile, Nuri al-Maliki has attempted to position himself to return to power through strengthening his ties to Iran and the militias it supports, namely those led by Hadi al-Amiri, Qais al-Khazzali and Abu Mahdi Muhandis.  He also has built a strong financial network, likewise dependent on ties to Iran. (

As oil prices decline, patron-client relations have been damaged. Maliki’s ability to offer politicians financial opportunities linked to Iran provides another sources of funding while forging closer bonds with the Islamic Republic, while creating an extensive patron-client network in Iraq.  While Prime Minister, Maliki privileged Iranian economic and commercial interests in Iraq.  For example, he did nothing to protect Iraqi agriculture. 

al-Maliki with Abu Mahdi Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri
Already weakened by the UN sanctions of the 1990s and complete neglect by Saddam Hussein’s regime Iraq’s agrarian sector was in a downward spiral even before the US invasion.  Once the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) foolishly removed subsidies for Iraqi agriculture in August 2003, using the argument that the state has no business subsidizing agriculture (a remarkable assumption given the extensive subsidies of American farmers by the US government), Iraqi agriculture was unable to compete with Syrian and especially Iranian imports.

While prime minister, questions were often raised as to why Maliki would favor Iranian imports over Iraqi products.  One area was in the production of kiln fired bricks used in construction, an industry whose origins can be traced to ancient times.  Nevertheless, Maliki ordered Iranian bricks and seriously undercutting the economic viability of Iraqi brick production.  In retrospect, it is clear that Maliki was already developing economic ties to Iran. 

Although Maliki has been in the forefront of Shica politicians pushing de-Bacthification, he has concentrated on former Bacthists he considers his enemies, while making alliance with other Bacthists when he finds such alliances convenient. Thus his sectarian policies are clearly instrumental and designed to promote his political and financial interests.

Estimates are that he diverted over $500 billion while prime minister between 2006 and 2014 (  Thus it is not unlikely that reports that he is worth $40 billion are true Iraqi former PM Nouri al-Maliki's wealth is estimated at $40 billion are true.

Sources have revealed that Maliki made his wealth through manipulating the Iraq Central Bank's accounts as well as engaging in shady projects inside and outside Iraq. (  Indeed, one source places Maliki’s among of the 10 richest people in the world (, along with his son Ahmad  who purchased the most expensive resident in the woprld near Paris for $301 million in 2016 (  All this wealth is thanks to his being chosen by the Bush administration – despite doubts of many of President Bush’s advisors - to become prime minister in 2006.
50,000 sq. ft. estate of Ahmad Nuir al-Maliki near Versailles
Maliki’s sectarian policies were bad enough when he was prime minister.  However, Iraq cannot afford another body blow after the Dacish is finally expelled from Mosul, and Ninawa and al-Anbar provinces.  First, the costs of rebuilding Mosul, Falluja, Ramadi and other cities and towns are already beyond the capacity of Iraq.  Nevertheless, state corruption continues unabated.  Iraq cannot afford to lose any funds it is able to mobilize for this effort.

Second, the populaces of Dacish occupied areas have experienced significant trauma.  Iraq does not have the psychological personnel and agencies to treat even a fraction of those who suffer from a wide variety of problems such as PTSD.  If the Federal Government in Baghdad fails to promote national reconciliation, the job of addressing the psychological problems of those in areas liberated from the Da ’ish will be made all the more difficult.

Third, the entire education system in areas formerly controlled by the Dacish needs rebuilding, not just materially but in terms of a curriculum which will promote national reconciliation.  Teachers need new texts and lesson plans to address the ambiguity, lack of trust, fear of what the future may bring, among their students.  Efforts to promote trust and reconciliation will fall flat if the Federal Government is promoting national policies which are fundamentally sectarian.  

Perhaps most important is creating new jobs for displaced persons, many of whom have no place of employment to which to return. Thousands of small businesses have been destroyed, depriving many Iraqis in areas formally controlled by the Islamic State of work.

Highway 1 - Baghdad-Amman
The hand of al-Maliki can be seen in the opposition to an American firm, the Olive Group, repairing and operating Highway 1, which runs] from Baghdad to Amman through al-Anbar Province as a toil road with security covering the artery.  In earlier, more peaceful times, the highway generated $1 billion per month in cargo revenues (  

However, Iran has mobilized its political supporters, including the militias it funds, to oppose the project which would create thousands of construction jobs to al-Anbar.  Iran is concerned that the 25 year concession awarded by the al-Abadi government will give the United States too much influence in Iraq.  Abadi sees the project as one which will help economic development, and at no cost to Iraq.  The Highway 1 Project is just one of many indicators of how sectarian politics undermines Iraq’s economic growth and political stability.

Are there political forces in Iraq which can prevent Maliki from promoting his sectarian agenda?  The coalition which Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr controls, the Sadrist Trend, is the only powerful movement opposed to Maliki and his State of Law Coalition.  Sadr has positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist and has reached out to Sunni Arabs and secular Shi’a, as well as the .lower classes which form the social base of his movement.  However, Sadr does not have the backing of Iran or much of the political elite.

What is desparately needed is a national dialogue on national reconciliation.  A national conference which brings together politicians, clerics, civil society activists, academics, youth, and tribal leaders is critical to reestablishing the trust needed to rebuild Iraq.  Such a conference would send an important symbolic message to all segments of Iraq society that a new sociopolitical model is on the political agenda.

Does the Trump administration have an interest in urging the Iraqi government to pursue a national reconciliation agenda?  Whether Trump himself is aware of or willing to urge the Iraqi government in such a direction is unclear.  However,  one member of his security team, National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen H.C. McMaster, certainly understands the critical need to not see the military defeat of the IS in Mosul become the end of US involvement in Iraq.

Hopefully, McMaster will educate Trump as to the need not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Bush administration was culpable in creating politail instability through the counter-productive polices it followed after the overthrow of Saddam Husayn.  The Obama administration was guilty of neglect.  

It’s time for the United States to pursue a policy in Iraq which will help Iraq produce a positive outcome.  The military defeat of the Islamic State offers such an opportunity.  Is the Trump admionstyration up to the task?

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Donald Trump and the Middle East: the First 100 Days

As Donald Trump reaches his first 100 days in office, the verdict on his domestic accomplishments is in.  Aside from a dramatic rise in the value of equity markets, a development last seen in the 1980s, his accomplishments are largely limited to a set of Executive Decrees.  Two of the most important, his attempt to bar immigration by Muslims to the US, and his effort to punish sanctuary cities by depriving them of federal funds, have been halted by federal judges.

Trump has caused a furor with his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), severely curtail environmental regulations, end federal funding for Planned Parenthood and women’s health services, eliminate funding for a wide variety of critical services for small communities, transfer huge amounts of wealth to the rich and avoid complying with federal ethics laws.

Much less attention has been directed at the first 100 days of Trump’s foreign policy.  Has he been more successful here or does he fall short along with his domestic policy?  What has he accomplished in the Middle East, the most unstable and volatile area of the world?

There are 3 categories which can be used to measure what Trump has accomplished in the Middle East.  First, what appointments has he made and what are the quality of those appointments?
Second, what actions has he taken regarding the major problems facing the region, such as terrorism, the Syrian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Turkey’s move towards authoritarian rule, and the Saudi-Houthi war in Yemen, just to name some of the most prominent issues?

Third, has Trump formulated the beginnings of a coherent policy towards the MENA region?  Has he largely pursuing the foreign policy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, or has he struck out in new directions?  Or is Trump’s policy unclear?

The record on appointments indicates mixed results on the Middle East.  There is no question that replacing former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, currently under criminal investigation for not reporting fees he received from the Russian government, was a positive step.  Flynn, who is known for his caustic rhetoric and “shoot from the hip” policy style, was a poor choice for NSA, especially regarding a complex region such as the Middle East.

Lt. General H.R. McMaster appointment as Flynn’s replacement was an excellent choice.  Many of us remember Lt. Colonel McMaster’s brilliant strategy during the Iraq insurgency following the US invasion of 2003.  He was one of the few American military officers in senior positions who listened to Iraqi officers and local officials and formulated his military strategy building on their advice.  (Compare him, for example, to commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez).

The results McMaster achieved stood out as did those of General David Petraeus who likewise learned that Iraqis knew their interests and understood the military situation much better than Americans who had only recently arrived in Iraq. 

General James Mattis may not have evoked a lot of confidence among civilians when he was first appointed Secretary of Defense given his nickname “Mad Dog.” However, he has proved to be a competent military and policy strategist.   A veteran of the Afghan and Iraq wars, he forced troops under his command to treat civilians with respect, saying that, “Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it's a victory for al-Qacida and other insurgents.”

Unfortunately, the list of top foreign policymakers, with regard to competence in the Middle East and elsewhere, ends here.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be a quick learned but has relatively no experience in the Middle East, except for the interests of his former company, Exxon Mobil, of which he was CEO.  Many analysts have questioned the ex to which he actually has any significance influence in foreign policy making in the Trump administration.

Perhaps the most troubling appointment is Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been assigned a considerable number of foreign policy portfolios, including the highly sensitive Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  At 36, Kushner has no experience in domestic or foreign policy making but has been given a wide range of portfolios, any one of which would challenge a seasoned policy-maker.  

Kushner’s main claim to fame is that he is the wife of Ivanka Trump.  The important point here is that Trump feels more comfortable surrounding himself with relatives, close friends or former business associates, rather than with tried and true experts, whether in domestic or foreign policy.  This inclination is not only a problem regarding his policy-maker choices, but the large number of policy-making and ambassadorial posts which still haven’t been filled.  Trump was quick to fire all ambassadors immediately after taking office but has only had a handful confirmed to date.

Trump’s foreign policy decision-making can be divided into 2 categories - military and non-military. His decisions in both areas leave much to be desired.  Most prominent in the mind of mass publics, whether domestic or foreign, was his decisions to bomb Syria and Afghanistan.

The attack on the Shayrat Syrian air force base on April 7, 2017, was in retaliation for Bashar al-Asad’s use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikun in the northwestern province of Idlib which is largely controlled by anti-government Islamist forces.  The US attack on the airbase, from which the jets took off to drop the chemical armed ordinance, was widely praised, both in the US and abroad.

The other bombing was the use for the first time of the  largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, the 21,000lb GBU-43/B Massive Airblast Ordinance Bomb – the so-called “mother of all bombs” – to purportedly destroy a warren of caves and tunnels in the Nangahar mountains of Afghanistan.  The bomb, which shook houses miles away from the site and killed 92 Da  ish fighters, is clearly a powerful and awe-inspiring weapon.

Despite the messages sent by these 2 attacks, the bombing of a Syrian airbase and an underground base of fighters loyal to the so-called Islamic State (Dacish) did little to change the political dynamics in either country.  Syrian warplanes were using the airbase the day after the US bombed it, because the Tomahawk missiles do not have the capacity to crater a runway.  In fact, photographs of the airbase indicated that only some old concrete hangers had been destroyed.  At $600,000 per Tomahawk missile, one has to ask whether the cost was worth or whether another site more damaging to the al-Asad regime should have been chosen.

In Afghanistan, US and Afghan troops were forbidden to approach the bombed site to gather forensic evidence until 2 days after it occurred.  The reason seems clear – not all of the Dacish fighters had not been killed and cleared from the area.  Indeed, fighting between Afghan and Dacish fighters continued for days after the attack.

On April 21, a small group of Taliban fighters entered an Afghan military base for new recruits, many of whom had never handled a rifle, and killed and wounded 140 soldiers after Friday prayers.  The worst attack on the Afghan military in 16 years led to the resignation of the Defense Minister and the  Army Chief-of-Staff.  Despite the use of the MOAB, Afghanistan seems nowhere near being secure.

In a third area of military policy, Trump has followed the Obama administration’s lead and continued to support Saudi Arabia in its destructive war in Yemen.  Its struggle against Houthi rebels, who are only loosely tied to Iran, is seen as a proxy war for control of the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab/Persian Gulf.

However, the Trump administration has intensified US support for the Saudi monarchy, in effect given it carte blanche to engage in whatever military behavior it sees fit.  The outcome has only been to bring Yemen to the verge of a failed state which will play in to the hands of terrorist groups, especially al-Qacida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Aside from military strikes, Trump has signaled his support for authoritarianism in the MENA region.  Unlike Pope Francis who criticized Egyptian president cAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi for his authoritarian rule during an April 28th meeting during his visit to Egypt, Trump’s meeting with al-Sisi earlier in the month included only parasite for the Egyptian leader.

More recently, Trump was one of the few  world leaders to praise President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for passing a referendum which would greatly augment the president’s power, eliminate the position of prime minister, give the Turkish president much greater control over the Turkish parliament and judiciary and allow him to remain in office until 2029.  That the referendum was characterized by irregularities and only passed by a small percentage of eligible voters seem also to have been unimportant to Trump.
Trump calls Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to congratulate him on the Referendum victory
While many leaders criticized the referendum process, which included approving without review at least 165,000 votes which had not been certified, the US supported Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian political system.  That many intellectuals, journalists, judges, school teachers, and professionals are in prison on unspecified charges also seemed not to bother President Trump.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Trump has demonstrated the same incoherent policy which has characterized much of his domestic policy.  On the one hand, he promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  However, there has been no talk of implementing that change since he took office.

In one of the most bizarre appointments, Trump nominated his former bankruptcy attorney, David Friedman, to become ambassador to Israel, which will likely occur this June.  Friedman was influential in having Republican Party support for a two-state solution – Israel and Palestine – removed from the party platform.  He supports settlements on the West Bank and, in effect, the seizure of Palestinian land.

At the same time, Trump has made noises that increased Israeli settlement on the West Bank is “not helpful,” and will soon meet with Palestine National Authority (PNA) President Mahmud Abbas.  During the presidential campaign, Trump boasted that he would bring the Israelis and Palestinians together and bring about a solution to a problem which, to date, has been intractable.  His designated envoy to seeking a settlement between the 2 parties, Jared Kushner, does not seem to hold any fixed positions on the dispute.

In Iraq, the Trump administration created a bitter taste by including Iraq – supposedly one of our closest allies in the Middle East – among the countries to which the Muslim ban would apply.  It was only after more sane heads prevailed, certainly including NSA H.R. McMaster, that Iraq was removed from the list. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which has engaged in the export of its virulent and violent Wahhabi ideology, which is hostile to Shica, Christians and Jews, and Sunni Muslims who don’t follow its creed, and contributed to terrorist activity in myriad countries was left off the list.  Undoubtedly, this omission had something to do with it status as a major oil producer, purchaser of US arms, and perhaps even based on Trump family business interests.


Despite considerable rhetoric and bluster, the Trump administration  has not developed any new policy towards the Middle East.  Much of what Trunmp and his advisers are poursuying constitutes a continuation of Obama policy.  No oen would expoect, in any event, a new policy to emnerge within the frist 100 days of any American president's term.

However, the erratic nature of Trump's behavior in foreign policy, not just in the MENA region but elsewhere (think about the aircraft carrier fiasco in Korea, his reversal of China as a "currency manipulation," and NATO now becoming "relevant"), has undermined US credibility globally.

As "shock and awe" demonstration in Iraq, the use of overwhelming firepower will not take the US very far in the Middle East.  Afghanistan is not closer to stability today than it was before the the dropping of the "mother of all bombs."

The key problem is that the Trumnp administration lacks the temperament to engage in the long-term, nuanced and detailed policy analysis which is required to bring about meaningful change in the Middle East.  H.R. McMaster notwithstanding, the personnel surrounding Trump view the world through a binary lens - pro-US/anti-US.  This form of thinking will only lead to greater, not less, instability in the region.

If Trump thinks that by supporting dictators, such as Erdoğan and al-Sisi, and supporting wars that lead to failed states, such as Saudi Arabia';s relentless bombing is causing in Yemen, he is in for a rude awakening.  The Middle East is a highly complex region.  Unless and until Trump recognizes that there are no simplistic solutions to the region's problems, he will find himself facing yet another disastrous policy failure to add to his domestic policy travails.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Youth: The Hidden Treasure of Iraq (and the MENA region)

Youth group leaders at the Inter-Faith and Inter-Cultural Youth Camp
This past December I participated in the training of youth group leaders at the Inter-Faith and Inter-Cultural Youth Camp at the University of Kufa in Iraq.  The youth group leaders came from all parts of Iraq and represented Iraq’s tapestry of ethnic and religious groups: Shica, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Sabaens and Shabak.  The young men and women with whom I had the pleasure to interact were some of the most impressive youth I have met during my many years of visiting Iraq.

The training was organized by the UNESCO Chair in Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies, and was funded by a grant from the IREX Foundation.  Iraq’s first UNESCO chair is held by co-chair, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, University of Kufa, and co-chair Sayyid Jawad al-Khoei, director of the al-Khoei Institute in al-Najaf.
The Youth Camp was extremely successful and raised the question of the role of youth in rebuilding Iraq following the end of authoritarian rule.   Constituting more than 70% of the Iraqi population, youth represent a huge resource which has yet to be utilized to address Iraq’s many economic, social and cultural needs.  The question thus becomes: why have youth been so neglected by political leaders and how can they better contribute to rebuilding post-Bacthist Iraq?

In my study of Iraqi youth over many years, it is clear they have been consistently left out of the country’s social and political equation.  Virtually all Iraqi youth with whom I’ve interacted feel that they are not respected.  Many argue that they are viewed with suspicion because the country’s political elites view them as a demographic which threatens the status quo. The pattern and attitudes towards Iraqi youth reflects similar attitudes in much of the developing world.  Why are youth seen as threatening?

The instability and weak political institutions in many developing countries, combined with a lack of resources, make it difficult for youth to find a place in society.  With the lack of employment opportunities, youth are highly discontented and often politicized.  This discontent is enhanced when youth see the corruption and nepotism which characterize the political systems in which they live, favoring the relatives and friends of political leaders.

Youth are often in the forefront of political change.  In the Arab Spring, for example, it was youth who organized the demonstrations and political movements which successfully toppled four of the MENA region’s longest serving dictators, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen.

Of course, youth do not always contribute in positive ways to nation-building.  They often constitute the shock troops that enable sub-national militias, such as Hizballah in Lebanon, and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, and are the reason terrorist organizations, such as al-Qacida and the Islamic State have been successful.

However, the Western and regional media focus on youth who challenge political systems in the MENA region belies the many youth who are working within the system to bring about progressive change.  This is certainly the case in Iraq where many youth organizations are engaged in a wide variety of activities, including conflict resolution, finding employment for youth and promoting gender equality.
Faculty of Law & Political Science democratization class , University of Kufa, with Drs. Hassan Nadhem, Rich & Davis
My experiences with a number of Iraqi youth groups illustrate their potential to have a positive political and social impact, not just in Iraq but throughout the MENA region.  First, youth thirst for change.  In March, 2016, I taught a course on democratization at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Kufa with my colleague, Dr. Roland Rich, former Executive Director of the United Nations Democracy Fund.   

The students' enthusiastic interest in the topic was striking.  Indeed, Dr. Rich and I found it difficult to leave the classroom after our lectures were finished because students had so many questions, and wanted to continue our discussions.

When students asked us what could be done to bring meaningful democratic change to Iraq, Dr. Rich and I asked them if they were registered to vote.  When the class responded affirmatively, we asked whether they might consider forming their own political organizations, e.g., a youth party (hizb al-shabab).  The students viewed this suggestion very favorably.  However, without the institutional support and mentoring by members of the political class in Iraq, such an initiative would be very difficult to implement.
Drs. Roland Rich, Kamal Nadhmi & Eric Davis visit the Institute of Development in al-Najaf
A second encounter with youth during my March 2016 trip to south-central Iraq was the visit Dr. Rich and I made to the Institute for Development, Economy and the Media in al-Najaf.  Active in all Iraq’s 18 provinces, the Institute seeks to find employment for Iraqi youth.  It is also works to protect women’s rights, an important issue following the collapse of Saddam Husayn’s regime, given the relaxation of protections for women during the severe UN sanctions regime of the 1990s. 

One of the important services the Institute provides is to intervene on behalf of women whose husbands engage in spousal abuse.  The Institute’s female employees take women to local prosecutors to stop the violence and seek to have their husbands become involved in counseling so that the abusive behavior doesn’t continue.

In training youth group leaders in Iraq this past December, I had the privilege working with several colleagues, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina from George Mason University, Dr. Ayad Anbar and Dr. Hassan Alsarraf, from the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Kufa, and youth working with the UNESCO Chair for Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies.

The training involved a mix of Iraqi history on which to model contemporary social and political behavior and projects by Iraqi youth.   Here the notion that Iraqis have not been inherently sectarian, but have enjoyed a lengthy history of inter-ethnic and inter-sect cooperation, was used to bring to the group’s attention several important examples from Iraqi history.

My approach was to employ the concept of “historical memory” in my training module. I began with three “historical modules” which illustrate how deeply Iraqis value learning, education and culture and show Iraq’s important contributions to world civilization.  I also emphasized how these historical traditions demonstrate how Iraqis can live together.

I used three models from Iraqi history to promote the idea of Iraq as a society, polity and cultural entity.  These models were intended to allow Iraqis of all different groups and ideologies to come together to celebrate Iraq’s contributions over time to world civilization, to the surrounding Middle East and, most importantly, towards developing an Iraqi society which has endured, despite great hardship.

Ancient Mesopotamian civilization, cultural contributions made under the Abbasid Empire (750-1258 CE), and the modern Iraqi nationalist movement (1908-1963) each offer an inspirational and non-sectarian example which can provide guidance for national reconciliation in contemporary Iraq.
Frieze in US House of Representatives

Ancient Mesopotamians developed the world’s first language, cuneiform.  Renowned traders, they needed a means for keeping track of the goods they sent to kingdoms beyond the Fertile Crescent.  The first use of the world “freedom” - amagi in ancient Sumerian - was developed in Mesopotamia.  Ancient Iraq also boasts the first parliament and the first recorded time in which a parliament exercised control of decision-making by an executive, in this case requiring the king to obtain permission to go to war.

For sectarians who would seek to claim ancient Mesopotamian accomplishments for Semitic peoples, there are records of the word “Curd” being discovered dating back to 3000 BCE.  Thus all of Iraq’s ethnosectarian groups can revel in its contributions to the world.
Hammurabi frieze-US Supreme Court

Although it came to an ignominious end in 1258 CE, the Abbasid Empire made major contributions to world civilization.  The development of algebra (al-jabr) and chemistry (al-kimiya) were accompanied by machines such as a rudimentary computer.

One of the most important contributions was made by the Caliph al-Ma’mun (806-831 CE).  A rationalist sympathetic to modern knowledge, al-Ma’mun sent his advisers to the far reaches of the empire and beyond to gather all knowledge of the known world.  He decided to build a combination library and university in which to house this knowledge which was known as the “House of Wisdom" (Bayt al-Hikma). By the  middle of the 9th century CE, Bayt al-Hikma had the world's largest collection of books.
Scholars studying at the Bayt al-Hikma-Yahya al-Wasiti drawing
Among the literature which was translated were books on Greek politics and literature.  These books were translated from the Arabic into Latin during the European Renaissance and later into other Western languages.  Thus Iraqis can be proud of the manner in which an important of Western cultural heritage was preserved by Iraqi Arab scholars.

A third module focused on the Iraqi national movement which began to coalesce in the last quarter of the 19th century, but rapidly developed after the Young Turk Revolt of 1908.  With the Young Turks seeking to “Turkify” the remaining provinces of the Ottoman Empire, in an effort to create what they considered a modern nation-state with a single language and cultural heritage, Iraqis rejected calls to make Turkish the official language of government and the education system.

The "identity politics,” sparked by the Young Turk Revolt, intensified with the British invasion of 1914.  The refusal of the British to give Iraq independence led to a powerful uprising – the June – October 1920 Revolution (al-thawra al-cIraqiya al-kubra).  The 1920 uprising was noted for the solidarity of Iraq’s constituent ethnic groups, particularly the Shica, Sunna, Christians and Jews.

When the British sought to use the traditional colonial “divide and conquer” strategy, Iraqis purposely engaged in behavior to resist it.  Sunnis and Shica prayed in each other’s mosques – a practice still used today – and made self-conscious efforts to bring Christians and Jews into demonstrations against the British.

As I document in Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (, the Iraqi nationalist movement was characterized by four qualities: inter-ethnic cooperation, strong social justice and civil society impulses, a vigorous press, and artistic movements which valorized national-popular culture and traditions and stressed opposition to political authority through non-violent means.

The Iraqi nationalist movement offers a vision of Iraq which counters the sectarian conflict and violence which characterized the post-2003 US invasion.  While beyond the scope of this post, it can be strongly argued that the US’s role in the construction of a political system which was placed under the control of “carpetbagger” sectarian entrepreneurs explains much of the difficulty Iraq has faced ion developing a stable, democratic political system after 2003.

In addition to having the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of Iraqi youth, I also had the opportunity to visit an active youth group, al-Moja, in Kufa.  This organization offers youth in the Kufa-Najaf area the ability to gather to discuss important issues of the day, borrow books on a wide variety of topics (in Arabic) from a large lending library, the ability to work on social media projects and to use a large artists' space.

Lending library at al-Moja youth organization, Kufa, Iraq
Spending an evening at al-Moja was eye-opening.  The youth who attended offered a diversity of well-thought throw ideas and opinions about many critical issues facing Iraq, from employment to education to women's rights to the need for the government to provide meaningful social services.  That faculty members from the University of Kufa were present at the gathering, and clearly had good relations with its members, was likewise impressive.

Empowering youth to implement positive social and political change

If Iraqi youth are to empower themselves, the impetus must come from them.  No "top-down" approach, whether by the older generation - be it Iraqi or foreign - can help them achieve their aspirations and goals.  The fact that many youth have alreasdy organzied themselves into civil society organzbaitions offers a hopeful sign for the future.

The topic of empowering youth is a complex one and will provide the topic for a new post to be uploaded in the near future.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Iraq in its Geo-Political Context: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria

Recently I made a presentation to the Italian Navy at its base in the Venice Arsenale, “Iraq in its Geo-Political Context: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria.”  The talk offered my thoughts on recent political developments in Iraq, particularly how they have been affected by its neighbors. What type of arguments did I offer?
Entrance to the Venice Arsenale Naval Base and Museum
It was appropriate to make such a presentation in the Arsenale, the first industrial complex in the world, whose etymology can be traced to the Arabic language.* Begun in 1104 CE, the Arsenale developed a shipyard in which some of the most technologically advanced ships of the time were built using assembly line techniques.  Still a shipyard today, as well as a naval base, the Arsenale covers a large portion of Venice.  It is the reason Venice was able to dominate the Adriatic Sea, the Veneto and later parts of Italy’s terra firma, the Dalmatian Coast and the eastern Mediterranean Basin.
Comandante Paolo Gregoretti, base commander

I began my analysis with the proviso that understanding Iraq and its political development is only as good as the conceptual framework on which such understanding is built.  Specifically, framing Iraqi politics in the narrow sense of sectarian identities – namely using the “unholy trinity” of Shica Sunni and Kurdish identities – or through an abstract concept known as “Islam,” provides limited insights into Iraqi politics.

Rather than focusing on the recurring problems generated by framing Iraq through such well-worn stereotypes, a theme of many prior posts on The New Middle East (, I was more interested in examining how Iraq has been influenced by “neighborhood effects.”  Specifically, I sought to avoid a narrow case study which views Iraq as a “stand alone” nation-state.  Instead, I sought to demonstrate how the impact of Iraq’s neighbors both constrains domestic policy-making as well as offer opportunities for new political initiatives.

The verbiage emanating from neighboring regimes in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria belies the underlying power struggle within the eastern MENA region.  No longer the military power it once was under Saddam Husayn, Iraq has become a battlefield for other regional states.  Thus to understand Iraqi politics, requires a broader purview than focusing on its domestic politics alone.

Iran and Iraq
It is ironic that the most powerful external actor in Iraq today is Iran, once characterize by the George W. Bush administration as a member of the “Axis of Evil.”  However, Iran exercises more of a veto power in Iraq than the ability to control the country’s politics on a day to day basis.
Venice Arsenale Officers Club
The core of Iran’s power is in the degree to which its commercial and construction sector has penetrated Iraq’s economy.  Hotel construction in the shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala’ is dominated by Iranian companies.  Imports of Iranian fruits and vegetable have devastated what was already a weak and neglected agricultural sector under Saddam’s regime.  In many respects, Iraq can be viewed as a satellite of the Iranian economy.

Of course, Iran exercises important political influence as well.  This influence has been magnified by the role Shica militias or Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs/al-hashad al-shacbi) are playing in fighting the so-called Islamic State (Dacish).  While not all PMUs are under Iran’s control, those which are have given Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces the opportunity to send military personnel into Iraq to train and oversee militia activities.  Working alongside the PMUs, Iranian forces are privy to much intelligence information, including US cooperation with the Iraqi Army.

More disturbing is the integration of PMUs into the Iraqi Army. This power play is meant to insure the continued political influence of pro-Iranian PMUs after Dacish is defeated. Having loyal units within the Iraqi Army gives Iran an ongoing say in military policy. 

Although the presence of loyalist PMUs within the Iraqi Army is viewed by many Iraqis as a dangerous development, an influential political committee, comprised of powerful Shica as well as Sunni politicians, has proposed a new law for a comprehensive process of national reconciliation which would be offered as a national referendum. Part of the proposed new legislation is the elimination of the PMUs. 

One long term aspect of Iraq-Iran relations which has not been given much attention is the developing commercial ties between the private sector in Iraq and Iran.  Many Iranian firms operating in Iraq are arms of the Islamic Republic. 
However, there are private sector firms which do not support the massive corruption which plagues the Tehran regime and its Revolutionary Guard forces.  To the extent that the private sectors in both countries can develop positive economic ties, there is the possibility of a counter-veiling forces developing to promote moderate political forces on both sides of the border.

Turkey and Iraq
Turkey poses a serious threat to Iraq’s stability.  Much of Turkish foreign policy under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reflects his desire to create a “new Ottomanism.” In this vision, Turkey would shed its secular Kemalist republic and establish a new Islamist state, a process which is already well underway.

As the Erdoğan regime has assumed an increasingly authoritarian character, it likewise has become much less predictable in its behavior, not just in domestic but in international politics as well.  The three variables which structure Iraq-Turkish relations are those related to the Kurds – in Turkey, Iraq and Syria - the type of regime which will emerge after the Syrian civil war, and oil resources in northwest Iraq.

After the toppling of Saddam Husayn in 2003, Turkey was most concerned with the model that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) might provide for its own rapidly expanding Kurdish population. For a time, it seemed as if this issue would be tempered by negotiations between the Erdoğan regime and the Iraqi Kurds, especially after the Turkish energy giant, Genel, began investing in the KRG and oil began to flow into Turkey.

The formation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), led by a partnership between chairwoman, Figen Yüksekdağ, a Turk, and Selahittin Demirtaş, a Kurd, undermined the negotiations.  This was especially true after the party performed well in Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections and then became Turkey’s third largest party after the June 2015 national parliamentary elections. 
Erdoğan found the idea of a secular, leftist coalition between Turks and Kurds, one which sought to transcend the ethnic divide between the two communities, an anathema.  He was angered that the 2015 parliamentary elections did not provide his AKP with enough votes to emend the Turkish constitution.

The Kurds angered Erdoğan from another perspective as well.  His regime has watched with increasing concern and trepidation as the Syrian (Rojava or Western) Kurds have established and institutionalized their own semi-autonomous region in northeast Syria.  The model of the Rojava Kurds has been more appealing to Turkey’s Kurds, with whom they are closer culturally and ideologically, than the authoritarian and corrupt model offered by Iraq’s Kurds and the KRG.

That the Rojava Kurds have established a regime which promotes gender equality, fights corruption, and treats the many minorities living within its region with respect and tolerance provides a sharp contrast to the sectarian and corrupt practices of the Erdoğan regime and the AKP. That one of the Rojava Kurds’ cantons (administrative units) is ruled by a female Prime minister, Hevi Ibrahim Mustafa, and that women and men co-direct administrative and civil society organizations, contravenes the conservative gender politics of the AKP.

How do these developments affect Iraq?  First, Turkey has maintained a very equivocal relationship to the Dacish in Syria and Iraq.  With one of the most powerful armed forces in the MENA region, it has the capacity to crush the Dacish and eject from their presumptive capital of Raqqa, less than a 100 miles south of the Turkish border.  Instead, the Erdogan regime has allowed the Rojava Kurds and, more recently, Iraq’s Kurds, to bear the brunt of casualties in Iraq’s efforts to defeat the Dacish.
Nevertheless, Turkish troops have been stationed inside Iraq without the permission of the Iraqi government, despite requests by the Iraqi government that they be withdrawn.  In another disturbing move, Erdogan is now training KDP Pesh Merga forces to help it seize territory from the Rojava Kurds, using the excuse of fighting the PKK.
In what appears to be an effort to gain access to oil resources in northwest Iraq, Turkish forces have also begun training Sunni militias to offset the power of PMUs loyal to Iran.  This is why Turkey stationed its special forces troops near the village of Bashiqa in northwestern Iraq (

Thus Turkey, even more than Iran, has been actively involved in destabilizing Iraq.  On the one hand, it seeks to create a wedge among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds through developing an alliance with the KDP to fight the Rojava Kurds and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).  On the other, it promotes Sunni Arab identities in region around Mosul at a time when many Iraqi politicians are working to supersede the Shica-Sunni divide. 

Turkey also seeks to use Iraq’s Turkmen population to enhance Turkey’s interests in Iraq.  Having a major presence in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Turkmen still maintain cultural ties to Turkey based on their Turkish heritage. Divided into Sunni and Shica communities, often based along tribal ties, opportunities exist for manipulating divisions among the Turkmen based on tribe and/or sect which can serve the Erdoğan’s interests.

Erdoğan mischief-making in Iraq will be somewhat constrained by his recently established working relationship with Russia. From a low point in relations after Turkey downed a Russian jet which had strayed into its airspace in November 2015, Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin have developed a rapprochement.
No longer does Erdoğan stridently call for removing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from power.  Nor does he attack the Islamic Republic of Iran for its support of al-Asad and for sending Revolutionary Guard trainers into Syria.  Because Russia is allied with both the Asad regime and Iran, Turkish relations with Russian now trump Erdoğan’s severe distaste for Bashar al-Asad.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is not as actively involved in domestic Iraqi politics as Iran or Turkey.  Nevertheless, its regional policies impact Iraq in a negative manner. Ever since the fall of Saddam Husayn, the KSA has feared that the rise of Shica political parties in Iraq threatens to make it a surrogate of Iran. The ongoing “Cold War” between the KSA and Iran, which will only intensify in coming years, means that Iraq will remain a “battleground state” for the foreseeable future. 

Even before the ouster of Saddam and the Bacth, the KSA sought to undermine Iraq and prevent it from reestablishing a powerful army which could threaten the kingdom and the Arab Gulf as it did with the seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 and the January 1991 Gulf War. One of the ways the KSA sought to subvert Saddam was to fund Sunni Arabs who would be willing to promote its violence-prone, anti-Shi a, and culturally atavistic Wahhabi ideology, especially in the Sunni majority provinces of al-Anbar, Ninawa and Salah al-Din.  During the harsh United Nations sanctions regime of the 1990s, women were paid to wear the hijab and men were paid to pray.

Saddam’s so-called “Faith Campaign,” begun in 1993 and designed to coopt Sunnis who had become disenchanted with the Bacthist regime, especially after the post-Gulf War UN sanctions regime had destroyed the national economy, made Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces fertile soil for Wahhabi recruitment.  Funds which poured into Iraq did not just come from the KSA alone but from private Saudi donors, including those from other Arab Gulf countries.

KSA hostility to its Shica minority, which inhabits the important oil producing provinces of the country’s northeast, makes the Iraq model where Shica rule a largely democratic political system particularly galling.  Indeed, Iraq’s efforts – often half-hearted and hesitant – to bridge the sectarian and ethnic divides which developed after the collapse of Saddam frightens the KSA because of the model it provides not just to Shica Saudis but to Saudi society as a whole.

Although a comprehensive study has yet to be completed, there is no doubt that the KSA, Arab Gulf states, and private citizens in these countries (who have been given free rein to support radical Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq) have been a major source of promoting sectarian identities in Iraq.  Until the Wahhabi-Sacud family axis is broken, and the struggle with Iran tempered, KSA interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs will continue.

Syria and Iraq
Of all Iraq’s neighbors, Syria provides the most serious political problems.  Of course, is differs from Iran, Turkey and the KSA by not having a strong regime which can directly interfere in Iraq’s domestic politics.  Nevertheless, the Syrian civil war has greatly harmed Iraq’s efforts to develop a stable political system following the 2003 US invasion and occupation.

After Saddam was ousted, Syria did little or nothing to prevent radical Islamists from organizing in eastern Syria and crossing its borders into Iraq.  Damascus became a refuge for much of the remnants of the Iraqi Bacth Party and a venue for planning ways to undermine the new post-Saddam Iraqi state.
Of course, Dacish used Syrian territory to plan its attack on Mosul which it seized in June 2014.  

While the policies of former Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, facilitated the seizure of Mosul, had the city not been seized by the Dacish, the PMUs would not have had any raison-d-ȇtre to be formed. Further, Iran would not have subsequently had the opportunity to gain military advantage through developing its own loyalist militias.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army has suffered huge losses in its campaign to retake Mosul.  Urban fighting has been extremely difficult as the Dacish have had a long time to prepare for the assault. With the drop in oil prices, Iraq is ill prepared to spend the large sum of funds needed to support the campaign to eliminate the Dacish, US financial and military support notwithstanding.

Finally, the Syrian civil war has opened doors for Turkey to interfere in Iraqi politics, particularly through is efforts to influence intra-Kurdish politics and relations.  By supporting the authoritarian and corrupt KDP leadership of the KRG in the person of President Masoud Barzani, the  Erdoğan regime is hindering efforts at reforms in the KRG and, by extension, efforts to achieve national reconciliation and a stronger federalism in Iraq.

Iraq, “neighborhood effects” and the future
While Iraq cannot control the behavior of its neighbors, it can control its own domestic politics.  Here the recent efforts to achieve national reconciliation, which are absolutely critical after the defeat of the Dacish and the retaking of Mosul, are critical.  National reconciliation undermines the ability of external powers to manipulate sectarian and ethnic cleavages for its own advantages.

Despite its populist and often inflammatory political rhetoric, the Sadrist Trend, unquestionably the most powerful political movement in Iraq, is strongly behind a nationalist politics and hostile to efforts to build political coalitions along sectarian lines.  If a new Sunni movement develops – one which realizes that radical Islamism offers nothing but death and destruction – and can be brought into a national coalition, then Iraqi politics could emerge much stronger after the Dacish is militarily defeated.

In addition to building cross-sect and cross-ethnic coalitions, Iraq needs to tackle its rampant corruption.  Sectarian and corruption – with the concomitant lack of social services – produce a toxic brew which could reignite support for political extremists.  The military destruction of the Dacish is only the first step in convincing marginalized groups in Iraq, especially Sunni Arab youth that extremism offers nothing but a dead end (no pun intended).

Telephone reports from Mosul indicate that the fears which Moslawis had about the Iraqi Army when it first approached Mosul were misplaced.  Its bravery and caution in fighting street by street battles, in an effort to reduce civilian casualties, and the assistance it provided to Moslawis once they were liberated from the Dacish, has given the army a new and highly favorable status in Iraq.  

Including more Sunni Arab forces within the army will go a long way towards assuaging the fears of residents in Iraq’s Sunni Arab majority provinces that the post-Da ish period will result in a return to the status quo ante. Here is an opportunity for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Hayder al-cAbadi to demonstrate that Iraq is entering a new era, one that addresses the needs of the Sunni Arab population, as well other groups, such as the Yazidis, who were severely harmed by the Dacish.

Whether the ties which developed between the Iraqi Army and the Pesh Merga during their joint efforts against the Dacish will produce any long-term ties still waits to be seen.  However, the post-Dacish era is the time to push forward with strengthening federalism, to incentivize Iraq’s Kurdish population to remain within the country, and likewise devolve more administrative and financial power to Iraq’s 18 provinces.

The US should remain actively involved in providing training to the Iraqi Army which was critical in standing up the elite Counter-Terrorism Force and other military units.  The ties between the Iraqi and US armies will work to insure that the professionalism which it demonstrated in the anti-Dacish campaign continues once the terrorists are finally defeated in Iraq and Syria.

*From the Arabic Dar al-Sinaca, or industrial area (lit., “abode of building”).