Category Archives: Iraq

A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Yazidi women in both Syria and Iraq have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS — but they will be caught up in Trump-era restrictions on refugees all the same. (Reuters)

There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, commonly known as Tehrangeles, that is home to up to a half-million Persian Americans, most of whom fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic republic or who are their second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren, all of them American citizens. 

The neighborhood runs along Westwood Boulevard, and it is home to some of the wealthiest Angelinos. But under the executive action that US president Donald Trump signed Friday afternoon, their relatives in Iran will have a much more difficult time visiting them in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in the United States). The impact of the order, over the weekend, proved far deeper than originally imagined last week when drafts of the order circulated widely in the media.

The ban attempts to accomplish at least five different actions, all of which began to take effect immediately on Friday:

  • First, the order institutes a ban for 90 days on immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
  • Secondly, the ban initially seemed to include even US permanent residents with valid green cards with citizenship from those seven countries (though the Department of Homeland Security was walking that back on Sunday, after reports that presidential adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon initially overruled DHS objections Friday). But it also includes citizens of third countries with dual citizenship (which presents its own problems and which the White House does not seem to be walking back).
  • Third, it institutes a 120-day freeze on all refugees into the United States from anywhere across the globe and an indefinite ban for all refugees from Syria.
  • Fourth, it places a cap of 50,000 on all refugees for 2017 — that’s far less than nearly 85,000 refugees who were admitted to the United States in 2016, though it’s not markedly less than the nearly 55,000 refugees admitted in 2011 (the lowest point of the Obama administration) and it’s more than the roughly 25,000 to 30,000 refugees admitted in 2002 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
  • Fifth, and finally, when the United States once again permits refugees, it purports to prioritize admitting those refugees ‘when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.’ It’s widely assumed that this is a back-door approach to prioritizing Christian refugees. More on that below.

In practice, it’s already incredibly difficult to get a visa of any variety if you are coming from one of those countries, with a few exceptions. But formalizing the list is both overbroad (it captures mostly innocent travelers and refugees) and underbroad (it doesn’t include potential terrorists from other countries), and experts believe it will hurt US citizens, US businesses and bona fide refugees who otherwise might have expected asylum in the United States. On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Arizona senator John McCain admitted as such:

Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism. At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies. Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.

On the campaign trail, Trump initially called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country; when experts responded that such a broad-based religious test would be unconstitutional, Trump said he would instead extend the ban on the basis of nationality.

Friday’s executive action looks like the first step of institutionalizing the de facto Muslim ban that Trump originally promised (thought it would on its face be blatantly unconstitutional).

Of course, as many commentators have noted, the list doesn’t contain the countries that match the nationalities of the September 2001 hijackers — mostly Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t contain Lebanon, though Hezbollah fighters have aligned with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. It doesn’t include Egypt, which is the most populous Muslim country in north Africa and home to one of the Sept. 2001 terrorists. Nor does it include Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nor Pakistan nor Afghanistan, where US troops fought to eradicate forms of hardline Taliban government and where US troops ultimately tracked and killed Osama bin Laden.

This isn’t a call to add more countries to the list, of course, which would be even more self-defeating as US policy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bannon and Trump, anticipating this criticism, will use it to justify a second round of countries.

In the meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout is only just beginning (and certainly will intensify — Monday is the first full business day after we’ve read the actual text of Friday’s executive order). Already, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, citing the obligations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, disavowed the ban. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used it as an opportunity to showcase his country’s openness to immigration and welcomed the refugees to Canada. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister who shared a stage with Trump in Washington on Friday afternoon, distanced herself from the ban, and British foreign minister Boris Johnson called it ‘divisive.’

But the most direct impact will be felt in relations with the seven countries directly affected by the ban, and there are already indications that the United States will suffer a strategic, diplomatic and possible economic price for Trump’s hasty unilateral executive order.  Continue reading A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Chalabi’s legacy, for good and for bad, is a post-Saddam Iraq

Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld relied in significant part of Ahmed Chalabi and the INC in the prelude to the 2003 Iraq invasion. (Rabih Moghrabi / AFP)
Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld relied in significant part of Ahmed Chalabi and the INC in the prelude to the 2003 Iraq invasion. (Rabih Moghrabi / AFP)

Ahmed Chalabi, known to most Americans as the Iraqi exile who shepherded faulty intelligence to the Bush administration that became the basis for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died today at age 71 of a heart attack.iraq flag icon

Chalabi died in his home in Baghdad.

Though Iraq today is as clear a candidate for failed state as anywhere in the world, that obituaries will dutifully report that fact — Chalabi died at home in Baghdad — is perhaps the most salient element of Chalabi’s checkered legacy. No single Iraqi national was more responsible for bringing together the elements that would topple Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist regime in Iraq.

It’s true, of course, that Chalabi was a corrupt and shadowy figure, and you could have suspected that from the 1980s onward when he fled Jordan amid charges of bank fraud and embezzlement from the Petra Bank that Chalabi founded and ran throughout the decade.


RELATED: Don’t blame Obama for Iraq’s turmoil. Blame Maliki.


It’s also true that Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC, المؤتمر الوطني العراقي) never had any true grassroots following in Iraq during the Saddam era. When Chalabi finally returned to Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, he quickly found that Iraq’s Shiites turned to figures who hadn’t fled into exile for decades — religious authorities like Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr in the 2000s and Ammar al-Hakim in the 2010s, all of whom had far more credibility with everyday Iraqis.

It’s equally true that Chalabi was one of the most vocal advocates for the ‘de-Baathification’ process that disbanded Iraq’s national military and excluded many Sunni figures (not all of whom were necessarily sympathetic to Saddam) from Iraq’s new government. That decision is now viewed as perhaps the most destabilizing thing that Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority would do in Iraq. Chalabi, who hoped to narrow the political competition in post-Saddam Iraq, helped create the sense of alienation among Iraqi’s Sunnis that would, in turn, lead to the sectarian conflict and civil war of 2006 and 2007. In an interview last year with Al Monitor, even Chalabi agreed that his vision for a democratic Iraq hadn’t materialized, though he mostly blamed the United States for that:

Iraq is now in a very difficult situation. This is not what we had hoped for when we worked to liberate the country from the regime of [former President] Saddam Hussein. However, what happened was not a surprise.

What happened could have been avoided. The fundamental problem lies in the fact that the United States was working in contrast to what we were working on, and what we had planned. The United States went in the direction of announcing an occupation, while our goal (in the Iraqi opposition), according to an agreement before the start of military operations in 2003, was to form a sovereign national Iraqi government that was recognized by a decision from countries in the [UN] Security Council. [This government would] be committed to holding free elections, so that it could subsequently ratify a constitution.

And yes, it’s true that as Washington became increasingly disenchanted with Chalabi, he turned to Iran as his patron. US policymakers pinned their hopes on other Shiite leaders, like Ayad Allawi, a London-based exile who founded the Iraqi National Accord in 1990, and eventually Nouri al-Maliki, the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية‎). Allawi proved to have as little grassroots support as Chalabi, and he lasted less than a year as prime minister. Maliki proved to be a far more skilled politician than Allawi, but his initial success as a unifying nationalist in the 2009 elections gave way to an increasingly sectarian administration that excluded prominent Sunnis from the vice-presidency and key ministries and that became increasingly alienated from US officials. Disappointment with Iraq’s squabbling politicians was so bad that, after the 2013 elections, Chalabi incredulously became a candidate for prime minister in 2014 before Islamic Dawa and its allies eventually coalesced around Haider al-Abadi. To the end, Chalabi scrambled to win over allies from any community, religious or secular, Kurdish or Arab, Sunni or Shiite, in his plan to ride to Iraq’s rescue as the man with a plan to crush the jihadist ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State.  Continue reading Chalabi’s legacy, for good and for bad, is a post-Saddam Iraq

Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement


So much for US president Barack Obama’s statement last week* that the United States doesn’t have a strategy to combat the Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) in Syria, which has taken control of eastern Syria and, more alarmingly, large parts of northern and western Iraq.USflag

In a stunning address for a president whose 2008 election owed greatly to his stand against the US war, Obama announced that he would lead a broad coalition to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State, and it will include airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria and the deployment of 425 more ‘military advisers’ to Iraq.

Obama compared the new US military action against Islamic State in the same category as the Obama administration’s targeted efforts in Yemen and Somalia and against al-Qaeda. Furthermore, he warned that the operations would not involve combat troops or significant ground forces. In that sense, it’s true that Obama’s latest mission against Islamic State is more like its previous efforts against Islamic radicals elsewhere and less like the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But that’s not the whole story. As the Obama administration’s efforts continue to unfold, here are five points worth keeping in mind that explain why the United States is entering arguably its fourth war (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) in the Middle East since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, what’s at stake going forward, and what the future might hold for the United States and the region.  Continue reading Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement

Meet Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s likely next prime minister


With his appointment by Iraq’s new president Fouad Massoum, Haider al-Abadi (حيدر العبادي‎) is almost certain to become Iraq’s next prime minister — even as two-term prime minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to attempt to stop Abadi’s selection by any means possible. iraq flag icon

So who is Abadi? And what does his selection mean for Iraq’s political future?

Like many leading figures in the Shiite opposition movement, Abadi spent much of the Saddam Hussein era in exile, in his case in London. In 2003, like so many other exiles, returned to Iraq when the US military eliminated Saddam’s Baathist regime.

From the outset, Abadi took a leading role in Iraq’s new government. An electronic engineer, Abadi served as communications minister in the Iraqi Governing Council that reigned between September 2003 and June 2003. Most recently, Abadi was elected deputy speaker of Iraq’s parliament last month in what’s been a four-month process to elect new national leaders, following the country’s April parliamentary elections.

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RELATED: Latest Iraqi parliamentary steps
indicate Maliki’s replacement

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Abadi’s appointment has the support of a majority of the Shiite bloc that Maliki once led, the State of Law Coalition (SLC, إئتلاف دولة القانون), and Abadi himself is a member of Maliki’s party, Islamic Dawa (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية‎), the leading force in the SLC. Up until his appointment replacing Maliki, Abadi was as a key Maliki ally, for example, siding with Maliki against Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister and former Dawa leader who was kicked out the party in  2008 when he moved to establish a competing group.  Continue reading Meet Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s likely next prime minister

Latest Iraqi parliamentary steps indicate Maliki’s replacement

Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristan

With US and Iranian officials publicly pressuring Iraq’s parliament to form a new national unity government as quickly as possible, Sunni and Kurdish (and, increasingly, many Shiite) leaders seem united on one thing — they’re not enthusiastic about giving Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki a third term in office.iraq flag icon

Iraq’s parliamentarians took a small step toward forming a new government yesterday when they elected Salim al-Jubouri as the new speaker of the 328-member Council of Representatives (مجلس النواب العراقي‎). In post-Saddam Iraq, the speakership is reserved for a Sunni, the presidency is reserved for a Kurd, and the premiership for a Shiite. Each official has two deputies such that each group — Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish — winds up with one major office and two deputy offices. Accordingly, when the Iraqi parliament chose Jubouri as the speaker, it also chose his two deputies.

It was the vote to appoint Iraq’s Shiite deputy speaker, however, that may hold some clues to the rest of the government formation process. The new speaker has fully two weeks to nominate a candidate for the Iraqi presidency, which means it could take a full month to appoint the president who thereupon has another 15 days to appoint a prime minister.

Though Haidar al-Abadi, a Maliki ally, ultimately won the deputy speakership, he faced an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Ahmad Chalabi, who’s gunning for the premiership.

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RELATED: Don’t blame Obama for Iraq turmoil — blame Maliki

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There’s been a considerable amount of chatter inside and Iraq about the sudden rehabilitation of Chalabi, a figure upon whom US officials relied heavily in their decision to launch a military invasion against Saddam Hussein in 2003. But for all the talk of his sudden rise, he remains a longshot to become Iraq’s next prime minister.

All the same, Abadi’s rise also signals that Maliki won’t continue as Iraq’s prime minister, either. Abadi is not only a member of Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (إئتلاف دولة القانون), he’s a member of Maliki’s party, Islamic Dawa (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية‎). In April’s parliamentary elections, which now seem a lifetime ago in Iraqi politics, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) won 92 seats, by far the largest bloc in the parliament, itself holding a majority within the Shiite majority. Though , the State of Law Coalition will continue to drive the process within the Shiite bloc, generally, it’s farfetched to think that other SLC leaders, not to mention the legislators of the two other Shiite groups, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement (التيار الصدري) and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ICSI, المجلس الأعلى الإسلامي العراقي‎), would agree to hand over two of the three top offices, including the premiership to Islamic Dawa.

That makes it very likely that the Shiite leadership will turn to another figure, such as Iraq’s former oil minister, deputy prime minister and, as of four days ago, its new foreign minister, Hussain al-Shahristani (pictured above), who is a top SLC figure from outside Islamic Dawa. Continue reading Latest Iraqi parliamentary steps indicate Maliki’s replacement

Amid Iraqi turmoil, Kurdistan settles new regional government


The conventional wisdom is that with the growing crisis in the rest of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan has never been better.iraq flag iconkurdistan

‘Better’ is a relative term, of course.

But for a region that also features severe corruption, intense political rivalries, a bloated and unaffordable public sector and fiscal dependence (for now, at least) on Baghdad, Iraqi Kurds have reason for optimism.

With Kurdish peshmerga forces in full control of Kirkuk, the Kurdish regional government can now lay claim to the entire historical region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, notorious for his crackdown against Kurdish identity and nationalism, encouraged Arabs to relocate to what Kurds (and Turkmen) consider their cultural capital.

Under Article 140 of Iraq’s newly promulgated 2005 constitution,  the national government is obligated to take certain steps to reverse the Saddam-era Arabization process and thereupon, permit a referendum to determine whether Kirkuk province’s residents wish to join the Kurdistan autonomous region. Like in many areas, from energy to electricity to education to employment, Iraq’s national government has made little progress on the Kirkuk issue. Kurdish leaders now say they will hold onto Kirkuk and its oil fields until a referendum can be arranged. Realistically, there’s little that Baghdad can do to reverse Kurdish gains.

That, in time, will give Iraqi Kurdistan the oil revenues that it needs for a self-sustaining economy, in tandem with growing Turkish economic ties that crested last year with the completion of a pipeline between Kurdistan and Turkey that allows the Kurdish regional government to ship crude oil out of Iraq without Baghdad’s approval.

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RELATED: Don’t blame Obama for Iraq’s turmoil — blame Maliki

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In that regard, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-’Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which now controls much of northern and northeastern Iraq, including much of al-Anbar province and northern cities like Mosul and Tikrit, has been a boon for the cause of Kurdish nationalism.

ISIS, which has newly re-christened itself simply the ‘Islamic State’ (الدولة الإسلامية‎), has declared a 21st century caliphate over the territory it holds in Iraq and in eastern Syria, with ambitious, if unrealistic, designs on Baghdad and parts of Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia:


Sentiment is so heady these days that the Kurdish regional president, Massoud Barzani (pictured above), despite the hand-wringing of US and Turkish officials, has called for a referendum on Kurdish independence — in months, not years:

We will guard and defend all areas of the Kurdish region – Kurd, Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian, Chaldean, all will be protected. We will endeavor to redevelop and systematize all regions of Kurdistan. We will use our oil revenue to create better and more comfortable living conditions for our citizens. And until the achievement of an Independent Kurdish State, we will cooperate with all to try to find solutions to the current crisis in Iraq. With all our might, we will help our Shia and Sunni brothers in the fight against terrorism and for the betterment of conditions in Iraq – although this is not an easy task.

Amid that backdrop, the various political parties formed a new Kurdish regional government last week, two months after Iraqi national parliamentary elections in Iraq and fully nine months after Kurdish regional elections.

As the United States leans on the Iraqi parliament to form a new government quickly, in order to combat more effectively the ISIS threat in Sunni-dominated Iraq, the Kurdish example is instructive. If it took nine months to reconstitute the Kurdish regional government, is it plausible to expect Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to form a national government, under crisis conditions, in just two months?

Even under calmer conditions in 2010, it took Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki nine months of coalition talks to build Iraq’s previous government. Though Maliki’s Shiite-dominated State of Law Coalition (إئتلاف دولة القانون) won the greatest number of seats after the April parliamentary elections, many Iraqis fault his heavy-handed style for the sectarian crisis in which Iraq now finds itself.

In the first meeting of Iraq’s 325-member Council of Representatives (مجلس النواب العراقي‎) last week, Sunnis and Kurds alike walked out on Maliki, and there’s not much hope that a second session on Tuesday will result in additional progress.

Continue reading Amid Iraqi turmoil, Kurdistan settles new regional government

Don’t blame Obama for Iraq turmoil — blame Maliki


A week ago, the biggest story in Iraq was the prospect of seemingly endless post-election coalition talks among Iraq’s secular political elite, negotiations that seemed destined to restore Nouri al-Maliki to the premiership for a third consecutive term.iraq flag icon

But the sweeping offensive last week by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-’Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which burst out of Iraq’s western al-Anbar province, has now overshadowed Iraq’s April elections, bringing into serious existential question the concept of Iraqi nationhood altogether. ISIS previously took control of Fallujah and Ramadi in January, where it joined forced with Sunni tribal leaders and others angry with Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But with a force of just 700 insurgents, ISIS easily took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, last week. It followed up by taking Tikrit, another Sunni-majority northern city and the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein. ISIS also briefly took control of oil refining center of Baiji, though government forces have now wrested control back. That leaves much of western and, now, northwestern Iraq, in the hands of ISIS and allied Sunni militias.

Sensing an opportunity, the Kurdish peshmerga quickly moved into Kirkuk, another oil-rich town historically claimed by Iraqi Kurdistan as its capital but controversially left outside of the formal borders of the Kurdish autonomous region in post-Saddam Iraq. Though it’s an embarrassment for the Maliki government to have ‘lost’ Kirkuk to the Kurds, it’s the least of his worries. Kirkuk is probably much better off under Kurdish control than under what ISIS hopes will become a jihadist caliphate that extends from northern and western Iraq through eastern Syria. It’s difficult to believe that the central Iraqi government will have enough power anytime soon to force the Kurds to relinquish Kirkuk (or its rich oil reserves).

The end result is something of an asymmetrical tripartite Iraq.  Continue reading Don’t blame Obama for Iraq turmoil — blame Maliki

Maliki bloc leads after Iraqi parliamentary election results announced

Though Iraqis voted on April 30, it took the better part of May for election officials to announce the results, which appear to be good news for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.kurdistaniraq flag icon

Heading into the elections, Maliki led a coalition of mostly Shiite parties, the State of Law Coalition (إئتلاف دولة القانون), dominated by Maliki’s own Islamic Dawa Party (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية). Maliki could rely on 89 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives (مجلس النواب العراقي‎), Iraq’s unicameral legislature, but he governed as the head of a larger ‘national unity’ coalition after running on a broadly cross-sectarian, nationalist platform in the 2010 elections.

Iraqis, tired from the fierce Sunni-Shiite violence between 2006 and 2008, seemed weary of fighting, and the Iraqi political scene was then turning toward nationalism and away from sectarianism.

In those elections, Maliki’s State of Law coalition was actually bested by Ayad Allawi, a Shiite former prime minister who led a Sunni-dominated, cross-sectarian coalition, ‘al-Iraqiyya, the Iraqi National Movement (الحركة الوطنية العراقية).

Allawi, however, wasn’t as successful as Maliki in building a governing coalition, so Maliki remained prime minister.

Here was the Chamber of Representatives on the eve of elections:


In the past four years, Iraq has witnessed a return to sectarian violence. After US forces left the country at the end of 2011, terminating a bloody eight-year military occupation, Iraqi security forces struggled to maintain the period of relative calm in which the 2010 elections took place.

Instead, by the beginning of 2014, Maliki was regrouping after radical Sunni militias had taken control of parts of western al-Anbar province, including its largest city, Fallujah. Militias are also taking advantage of the Syrian civil war to stir mischief on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. The rise in Sunni-Shiite tension comes as relations between the northern Kurdish autonomous government and the central Iraqi government are also fraught over the issue of oil revenues.

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RELATED: What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?

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Meanwhile, Iraq’s ‘national unity’ government has performed horribly. With corruption running rampant, and with minister more concerned with turf than performance, the country faces daunting problems — power outages, a weak non-oil economy, massive unemployment among a rapidly growing youth population, tax collection failure, among other problems.

So in 2014, Maliki ran a campaign designed to maximize votes within his own Shiite Iraqi community — and it’s a strategy that seems to have worked:


Maliki’s State of Law Coalition actually increased its share of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives from 89 to 92.

As Zaid al-Ali, a former legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq writes in his excellent new book, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy, the immediate results matter less than the fact that Iraq’s politics are stunted by elites who shuffle for power at the expense of governance:

Under the current constitutional and legal system, elections will not produce any real alternatives to Iraq’s ruling elite. The fortunes of some parties may rise, while others may see their popularity wane somewhat; but the chances of anything emerging outside the current crop of incompetent and corrupt politicians are vanishingly small…. In all likelihood, Iraqis will choose to stay away from the polls in increasing numbers, leaving the politicians to play an aggrandized version of musical chairs while everyone else just watches.

Maliki wins contest among Shiite Iraqis

Maliki’s focus on winning Shiite votes effectively turned the 2014 election into a contest among competing Shiite groups, most notably the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, المجلس الأعلى الإسلامي العراقي‎), headed by  Ammar al-Hakim, and the Sadrist Movement (التيار الصدري), headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, the former militia leader who returned to Iraq after four years of self-exile in Iran (and who, ostensibly, made a fuss earlier this year over his ‘retirement’ from Iraqi politics).  Continue reading Maliki bloc leads after Iraqi parliamentary election results announced

Competing Shiite groups to determine Iraq’s next government


It’s been barely over two years since all US military personnel left Iraq in December 2011, but you could be forgiven if you think that it feels much, much longer. iraq flag icon

When Iraqis go to the polls to vote today, it won’t likely make front-page headlines in the United States, even as Iraq moves away from national unity and toward growing sectarianism once again.

The last time that Iraqis went to the polls, the country seemed like it was on the mend. The destructive civil war from 2006 to 2008 that divided Baghdad (and much of the rest of Iraq) on Shiite and Sunni lines had subsided, thanks in part to a ‘surge’ of US military force and the ‘Awakening,’ a movement Sunni Iraqi leaders to combat radical elements like al-Qaeda. Iraq’s prime minister since 2006, Nouri al-Maliki, was running for reelection on a nationalist platform just as much as he was running to emerge as the leading Shiite power broker.

Fast forward four years, and Iraqis now seem less sanguine about the future than at any time since 2008. Even though Maliki (pictured above) is favored to win a third term as Iraq’s prime minister, Iraq’s future is an uncertain as ever. Exacerbated by the three-year civil war in neighboring Syria, sectarian tensions are once again on the rise. Corruption and mismanagement among Iraq’s ruling class has corroded the ability of its government to deliver even the most basic of public services, to maximize oil revenues or to provide sufficient power in Baghdad or elsewhere in the country. Members, both Sunni and Shiite, of Maliki’s ‘national unity’ government have spent the past four years fighting over access to power rather than working on policy solutions. In reality, the ‘national unity’ government, as headed by Maliki, has contributed to Iraq’s growing disunity. What’s more, it’s brought a disturbing lack of accountability — because everyone’s inside the government, there’s no opposition to hold the government accountable and there’s no credible alternative-in-waiting.

Dissatisfaction is growing at an alarming rate among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority — note that Sunni Arabs roughly constitute around 20% of Iraq’s population, with Shiite Arabs comprising around 60% and Iraqi Kurds comprising 20%.


That’s left much of the western al-Anbar province under the control of more radical Sunni groups that are also fighting against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Clumsy attempts last December by the Maliki government to assert control over Fallujah and other cities in the Sunni-dominated west only served to empower Sunni resistance, including a fair share of radical jihadists, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-’Iraq wa-sh-Sham‎), which formerly held itself out as Iraq’s homegrown branch of al-Qaeda, and which is active in Syria as well. But the violence is no longer confined to the west — an alarming number of suicide bombings and other attacks are on the rise all across Iraq, from Baghdad to Basra, the oil-rich province in the far south.

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RELATEDWhat is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?

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Radical groups have warned Sunni Arabs against participating in today’s elections on threat of violence. But parts of the Sunni west are so dangerous that the central Iraqi government won’t even be able to conduct elections there. The unrest follows Maliki’s systematic exclusion of top Sunni figures from government, including Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled to Iraqi Kurdistan and then Turkey after Maliki’s forces tried him for murder and sentenced him to death. From the army to the central bank to the oil ministry, Maliki has skillfully excluded his ostensible Sunni partners in favor of Shiite allies.  

Meanwhile, in the north, Iraqi Kurdistan has forged ahead with an increasingly autonomous government that’s avoided many of the missteps of the central government, even as Iraqi Kurdistan pulls further away from Baghdad. For example, the Kurdish government is now shipping 100,000 barrels of oil a day through a pipeline to Turkey, thereby exacerbating relations with Baghdad to the point that Maliki has suspended  the 17% of the Iraqi budget allocated to the Kurds. As Iraqi Kurdistan continues to prosper as an oasis of stability with a relatively successful democracy and a strong economy that is attracting a growing amount of foreign investment, it’s sharing less and less in common with the rest of Iraq that seems to be heading into turmoil.

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RELATED: Bordered by chaos, Iraqi Kurdistan holds elections in relative oasis of peace and democracy

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So amid all the gloom, what should you expect from the voting in today’s parliamentary election? Continue reading Competing Shiite groups to determine Iraq’s next government

What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?


So is it 2004 or 2014?  Iraq is once again making headlines, and second-guessing over both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s performance with respect to the US occupation of Iraq is in the news with the publication of former defense secretary Robert Gates. iraq flag icon

What do you need to know about Iraq these days?  Here’s a list of the top 10 question you probably have about the current turn of events there — and probably more than you wanted to know about the state of governance in Iraq today.

So did terrorists take control of Iraq last weekend?

Not quite.  A group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-‘Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which formerly styled itself as Iraq’s local branch of al-Qaeda, took control last Friday of parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, the two largest cities in al-Anbar province.  There are signs, however, that ISIS may already be retreating from Fallujah, with Sunni tribesmen (particularly loyal to neither the government nor ISIS) now wresting back control of both cities.  Iraq’s Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki signaled earlier this week that he planned on launching a military offensive to retake the city using Iraqi national forces, a move that seems surely to cause even more sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.  For those of you who’ve forgotten, al-Anbar, at over 53,000 square miles, is the largest of 19 governorates in Iraq, by far the largest province.  Its population is just 1.56 million of Iraq’s 31 million people, but it forms part of the heart of Iraq’s Sunni population — about 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim and about one-third of them are Sunni.  Al-Anbar’s geography is even more strategically vital, because it borders much of eastern Syria, northern Saudi Arabia and the northeastern tip of Jordan.

What is ISIS? I thought that was the spy agency in the animated Archer series.

ISIS formed in 2003 as a conglomerate of diverse Sunni groups, largely as a response against the US invasion.  It fairly quickly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and soon even became as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and it had its heyday between 2004 and 2006, when US forces killed its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  But ISIS’s modern iteration only really emerged in spring 2013, when it started making mischief in northern Syria, and the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo.  ISIS, like most hardcore Salafist groups, wants to institute sharia law throughout the Middle East, and ISIS’s leaders dream of creating a new caliphate that stretches from Arabia to central Africa.  More realistically, it’s now fighting for dominance in northern Syria and Sunni-dominated western Iraq.  Western media outlets are quick to proclaim this weekend’s turn of events as ‘al-Qaeda regains ground,’ but ISIS is really more interested in holding power in Iraq and Syria than in exploding planes into buildings in New York City.  Its current leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s wider anti-American goals, though, and that’s earned him a $10 million bounty, courtesy of the US state department.

Why is Fallujah such a big deal, anyway? 


Fallujah holds an important symbolic value because it was the hub of the Sunni counterinsurgency early in the US occupation of Iraq and, in 2004, it became the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the US occupation.  One story about Fallujah in National Journal this week managed to quote seven Americans (and not a single Iraqi citizen) about the costs of Fallujah’s recent tumult, and an NPR piece noted that many US veterans are crestfallen that their sacrifices a decade ago may have been for naught.  That tells you just how important Fallujah is in the narrative of the US involvement in Iraq.

After the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, US forces were actually forced by insurgents to withdraw, though in the second battle in November 2004, US troops finally took the city, but not without a year or two of further guerrilla attacks.  The two battles of Fallujah were responsible for some of the highest casualties of the Iraq War, though many more Iraqis died (some by the controversial use of white phosphorus) than US or allied troops.

The city, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates River, is just 69 kilometers away from Baghdad and, taken together with Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar governorate, comprises one of the chief Sunni-majority cities in Iraq.  Deposed president Saddam Hussein took extra special care to keep Fallujah in his good graces between 1979 and 2003.

So that means Iraq is moving back toward civil war?  Continue reading What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?

Bordered by chaos, Iraqi Kurdistan holds elections in relative oasis of peace and democracy

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If there’s any positive monument to the US-led occupation of Iraq, it’s the relative autonomy and stability of Iraqi Kurdistan, the northern sliver of Iraq.kurdistaniraq flag icon

Iraqi Kurds are voting in a parliamentary election today that’s likely to have profound consequences for the future governance of a region that serves as a bulwark against the sectarian conflict in the south of Iraq, a government in Turkey to the north that remains largely unfriendly to the Kurdish minority and a civil war to the west in Syria.

The election is notable because the Kurdish president of Iraq Jalal Talabani, who is more responsible for today’s autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan than any other Kurdish politician, lies ill in Germany after suffering a stroke last December.  Talabani’s absence makes it likely that the pro-independence party he founded in 1975, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, یەکێتیی نیشتمانیی کوردستان) will suffer losses in today’s election.

It’s also notable because, for the first time since Iraqi Kurdistan gained autonomy, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, پارتی دیموکراتی کوردستان), will run on separate tickets after an often uneasy alliance first struck in 1992 — the two parties ran on joint tickets in the previous 2005 and 2009 elections, with a joint KDP/PUK administration.  KDP leader Masoud Barzani (pictured above, left, with Talabani, right) has served as president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region since 2005.

Home to between 5.5 million and 6.5 million of Iraq’s 31 million residents, Iraqi Kurdistan first obtained autonomy in the early 1990s after the sustained efforts of Kurdish nationalist figures like Talabani in the 1970s and the 1980s, when Iraqi Kurds found common cause with Iranian Kurds during the horrific Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.  After the imposition of a no-fly zone by US-led forces in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan started to emerge from the iron-fisted rule of Ba’athist strongman Saddam Hussein.

The Kurdish government and the national Iraqi government continue to fight over the sharing of oil revenue and internal territorial disputes, especially from near Kirkuk, where Kurds constitute around 50% of the population, though it lies technically outside of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.  Nonetheless, Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy was cemented with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Saddam.  Even as the rest of Iraq crumbled into civil war between Sunni and Shiite militia, Kurdish Iraq only strengthened and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, became one of the few peaceful urban centers in Iraq.  Talabani, who is a Sunni Muslim, became the president of Iraq in April 2005, as an Iraqi leader with primary associations to his Kurdish identity than to the already toxic sectarian rift between Sunni and Shi’a that would come to dominate the rest of the 2000s.

Continue reading Bordered by chaos, Iraqi Kurdistan holds elections in relative oasis of peace and democracy

Remembering the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led Iraq invasion

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Retired U.S. colonel Ted Spain lists 10 mistakes that the United States made in its Iraq invasion in March 2003 in a succinct and insightful piece in Foreign Policy today.USflagiraq flag icon

Virtually all of them — from the intelligence failures to the inability or incapacity to provide for post-invasion law and order to the flippant attitude of the U.S. to building diplomatic ties in advance of the invasion — have to do with inadequate pre-war planning.

It reminded me of a cartoon that a friend rediscovered from The New Yorker over the weekend (pictured above), a poignant commentary on just how much hubris American policymakers, chief among them the Pentagon strategists under the leadership of U.S. Donald Rumsfeld, displayed in March 2003 before the Iraqi invasion.

It’s unclear today that the United States or the Middle East is more secure for having removed Saddam Hussein from power.  Lawrence B. Lindsey, at the time head of U.S. president George W. Bush’s national economic counsel, was essentially sacked for suggesting that the war might cost up to $200 billion.  It ended up costing $800 billion, nearly 4,500 U.S. troop deaths, 32,000 wounded and today, the U.S. military doesn’t even have so much as a small outpost in Baghdad since the absolute withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011.

Furthermore, the horrific prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib cost the United States whatever moral legitimacy it still had left a year after the invasion, which morphed from a quest to rid the country of phantom weapons of mass destruction into an aimless occupation to develop a democratic Iraq into a darker, counterinsurgency effort to stop a painful sectarian civil war.

And that’s even if you believe that the faulty intelligence that led U.S. political leaders to believe that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction (it wasn’t — Saddam was posturing in large part to posture vis-a-vis Iran) was merely gross negligence and not outright manipulation and fraud.

Saddam was certainly no angel — and with the civil war in neighboring Syria reaching nearly a two-year anniversary under strongman Bashar al-Assad, the two countries provide quite a damning indictment for the Ba’ath Party (حزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي) in the two countries where it has been the dominant party in the last half of the 20th century.

But it’s certainly clear that Iraq is no better off for having suffered through the invasion and its aftermath.  Iraq today is, mercifully, a long way from the sectarian violence that marred in the civil war from 2005 to 2008 but today, clear strains exist among the Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish Iraqis.

Millions of Iraqi citizens were either displaced in the sectarian violence or fled the country entirely, and an estimated 120,000 Iraqi citizens were killed in the fighting. 


Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki (نوري المالكي) (pictured above), who leads a Shi’ite coalition in the Iraqi parliament, is hardly a secular democratic leader, and protests have increasingly opposed his government in recent months — despite a 50% increase in Iraqi oil production since taking power in 2006, Sunnis in Baghdad now stridently oppose the al-Maliki government.  The Iraqi parliament passed a law earlier this year limiting the speaker of the Iraqi parliament and Iraq’s prime minister and president to just two terms in office — that means al-Maliki will not govern Iraq after expected parliamentary elections in March 2014.

Those elections, by the way, will occur just months before another war-torn country in which the United States still has troops, Afghanistan, is set to select a successor to the term-limited president Hamid Karzai (حامد کرزی) after 12 years in office.

Iraq ranked in 2012 as the ninth-worst failed state in The Fund for Peace’s failed state index.  It’s perceived as the world’s 18th most corrupt country in 2012 according to Transparency International.  Though it’s made many gains in the past five years, it still ranks as just 131 out of 186 in the United Nations Human Development Report for 2013.

Above all, it bears repeating:

An estimated 120,000 Iraqi citizens died

You can’t place the blame for all of those deaths directly on the U.S. military or the Bush administration or Donald Rumsfeld.  But it’s indisputable that the invasion that the United States launched 10 years ago this week led to the unraveling of Iraqi civil society that unleashed the violence that led to those deaths.

If there’s one overweening lesson that the next generation of American security experts take away from the Iraqi war, whatever strides or obstacles that Iraq faces in the decades ahead, it’s that inadequate planning can doom even the most flawless initial invasion into a decade of painful, costly and terror-filled destabilization.

Thanks to Timothy Stewart-Winter for the cartoon by Robert Mankoff, which ran in The New Yorker in 2003.