Iraq’s slide back into chaos has its roots in 2011 when the last U.S. soldiers left the country. The Obama Administration and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been engaged in months of negotiations in an attempt to reach a new status of forces agreement that would allow American soldiers to remain in Iraq to help support government forces. (The Bush Administration had signed a status of forces agreement that required U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.) When these talks failed, the stage was set for President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to remove U.S. forces and end the war in Iraq.
Unfortunately, as pointed out by the Atlanta Conservative Examiner, it was much easier to remove U.S. troops than to end the war. President Obama’s assumption was that American forces were the cause of the fighting in Iraq and that if American forces were removed, the war would end. That turned out not to be the case, partly because of Iran.
In the absence of Saddam Hussein, Iran has grown into a larger threat in the region. According to NBC News, relations between the two countries had been frosty for decades before the Iranian revolution in 1979. Iran, known as Persia until the 20th century, is comprised primarily of Shia Muslims. The Shia also make up a majority of Iraq’s population even though Saddam and his ruling Baath party were Sunni. Saddam’s control of Iraq was threatened by the Islamist revolution in Iran, leading Saddam to invade Iran in 1980. The war dragged on for eight years.
After the U.S. toppled Saddam, the Iranians revealed that they were developing nuclear weapons. As the U.S. and its European allies worked to diplomatically halt the Iranian weapons program, Iran began aiding Shia militants in Iraq. As far back as 2006, ABC News reported that Iran was directly supplying Iranian made weapons to Iraqi militants. The Washington Post reported that coalition forces captured Iranian agents, suspected to be members of the Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guard, in Iraq. The New York Times reported on evidence that Iraqi Shiite fighters were being trained in Iran as late as 2010.
While the Obama and Bush Administrations reached out diplomatically to Iran, the Iranians were actively engaged in a proxy war against the U.S. and the Iraqi government. A look at history shows that Iran has actually been engaged in a shadow war against the United States since 1979. It was less than three years ago that federal agents disrupted an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. by blowing up a restaurant in the District of Columbia. Given the history of Iran with both Iraq and the United States, it is not surprising that the radical Islamist regime would move to fill the power vacuum left in Iraq as the U.S. withdraws.
The logical move to protect the U.S. gains in Iraq would have been to negotiate an extension to the status of forces agreement that would allow U.S. forces to remain and assist the Iraqi government in a limited capacity. This agreement would have been in the interest of both the United States, which wants stability in the Middle East, and Iraq, which needs to prevent a resurgence of sectarian violence in order to maintain control of the country.
In October 2011, Foreign Policy magazine reported that even though the Iraqi government had acceded to allowing 8,000 to 20,000 American soldiers to remain in Iraq, the status of forces talks fell apart over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops. The Obama Administration insisted that the immunity be granted in the treaty, something that was not politically possible for al-Maliki government and something that Bush Administration had not demanded in the previous status of forces agreement.
A former senior congressional staffer told Foreign Policy that a treaty agreement was never required. “An obvious fix for troop immunity is to put them all on the diplomatic list; that’s done by notification to the Iraqi foreign ministry,” he said. “If State says that this requires a treaty or a specific agreement by the Iraqi parliament as opposed to a statement by the Iraqi foreign ministry, it has its head up it’s a–.”
In their 2012 debate, Paul Ryan charged that Vice President Joe Biden “was put in charge of those negotiations and he failed to get an agreement” according to the Washington Post. Biden denied the charge, but a month earlier the New York Times had reported that Mr. Biden had chaired a videoconference on Oct. 6, 2010 where he had advanced the idea of replacing Iraqi president Jalal Talibani, a Kurd, with Ayad Allawi of the nonsectarian Iraqiya party as a counterweight to Prime Minister al-Maliki. Talibani would be shifted to the post of foreign minister as a consolation prize, a plan that elicited a retort of “Thanks a lot, Joe,” from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ultimately Talibani refused to step aside.
During the conference, Biden proclaimed, “Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise. I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA (status of forces agreement).” Biden was ultimately proven wrong.
In September 2011, President Obama said that he would like to keep between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but, according to the Washington Post, he had not begun negotiations three months before the withdrawal deadline. That November, the Washington Post reported that the vice president was in Iraq seeking to negotiate a continued American presence in Iraq. Many critics pointed out that retaining such a tiny, ineffective U.S. force in Iraq might prove more dangerous than a complete withdrawal.
Author and military expert Max Boot savaged Obama in the Wall Street Journal for not taking the negotiations seriously. Boot noted that President Bush was able to get a deal for a status of forces agreement in 2008 when even more U.S. troops were in Iraq. Boot noted that the immunity issue was covered by a Memorandum of Understanding rather than a treaty in other Middle Eastern countries where American soldiers are deployed.
Boot also pointed out that Obama frequently undercut his own negotiators. By frequently bragging about his plans to “end the war in Iraq,” Obama signaled to Iraqis that he was not serious about maintaining a presence. Further, the Iraqis knew that the number of troops that Obama was willing to commit were far less than the 20,000 deemed necessary by military leaders. Iraqi leaders “were not willing to stick their necks out for such a puny force,” according to Boot, “that may not even have been able to adequately defend itself, much less carry out other missions.”
Even before U.S. troops left, Iraq began to fall into Iran’s orbit. In June 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran was wooing the leaders of three key U.S. Middle East allies: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2012, Iran began overflying Iraqi airspace on an almost daily basis in order to deliver arms and supplies to the Assad regime in Syria. CNN described in March 2013 how Secretary of State Kerry had discussed the matter with al-Maliki, who noted that the Iraqi Air Force had a very limited capability to stop the overflights. Three months later, the Iraqis warned Israel against transiting Iraqi airspace during any attempt to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities according to the Times of Israel.
The Iraqi government is now widely acknowledged to be sympathetic to Iran. The Huffington Post reported in June 2012 that Iran is likely propping up the al-Maliki government behind the scenes. Debka File calls Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “pro-Iranian” and says that the Iraqi defeats in Anbar were humiliating for Iran which had “heavily backed the Iraqi army offensive.” After the debacle in Fallujah and Ramadi, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported that the Iranian government had pledged support for Iraq’s fight against “terrorism and extremism.” Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is also an Iranian proxy while al-Qaeda supports rebel factions attempting to oust him. The dynamic is partly one of Sunni versus Shia. Al Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim organization while Iran and the Iraqi government are primarily Shiite.
In the end it appears that the expiration of the status of forces agreement provided Barack Obama with a way to fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw American soldiers from Iraq. The immunity issue provided a convenient way to blame the Iraqi government for the failure to reach an agreement. The president’s delegation of negotiations to Vice President Biden, a man that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” is perhaps the best indication of how little importance Obama attached to Iraq’s security. Where Obama preferred to withdraw and abandon America’s influence in the Middle East, Iran was more than willing to assume the role of the Middle East’s dominant power.
Read the full story on Atlanta Conservative Examiner