Out of Iraq

Originally published in Los Angeles Times
October 27, 2011

President Barack Obama talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki during a secure video teleconference before announcing the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq on Oct. 21, 2011. (White House)

Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq.

The American withdrawal, which comes after the administration's failure to secure a new agreement that would have allowed troops to remain in Iraq, won't be good for ordinary Iraqis nor for the region. But it will unquestionably benefit Iran.

President Obama's February 2009 speech at Camp Lejeune accurately defined the objectives of American policy in Iraq as being "an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."  He then outlined how the U.S. would achieve that goal by working "to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists."

Despite recent administration claims to the contrary, Iraq today meets none of those conditions.  Its sovereignty is hollow because of the continued activities of Iranian-backed militias in its territory.  Its stability is fragile and perhaps ephemeral, since the fundamental disputes among ethnic and sectarian groups remain unresolved.  And it is not in any way self-reliant.  The Iraqi military cannot protect its borders, its airspace, or its territorial waters without foreign assistance.

While President Obama has clearly failed to achieve the goals for Iraq that he set five weeks after taking office, Iran, in contrast, is well on its way to achieving its strategic objectives. Since 2004, Tehran has sought to drive all American forces out of the country, to promote a weak, Shi'a-led government in Baghdad, to develop Hezbollah-like political-militia organizations in Iraq through which to exert Iran's influence and intimidate pro-Western Iraqi leaders, and to insinuate its theocratic ideology into Iraq's Shi'a clerical establishment. It has largely succeeded in achieving each of those goals.

Preventing the extension of a Status of Forces Agreement allowing American military forces to remain in Iraq has been the primary goal of Iranian activities in Iraq since 2008.  In that year, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told the Washington Post that he had seen intelligence reports suggesting that Tehran and its agents bribed Iraqi leaders to derail a new agreement. Iranian-backed militants also attempted to conduct an intimidation campaign to deter Iraqi officials from signing the extension.  But back then, the Iraqi Security Forces and American troops had just defeated the Shi'a militias in major battles in Sadr City and Basra and driven their commanders back into hiding in Iran.  Their attempts to drive the U.S. out at the end of 2008 failed.

This year, however, Shi'a militants were able to execute a campaign of targeted assassinations. They also increased rocket and IED attacks on American and Iraqi security forces using technologies that they had tried unsuccessfully to field in 2008 but have since perfected.  Militias that had been badly damaged during a surge by U.S. forces were able to reconstitute during the protracted government-formation process, because Iraqi politicians were unwilling to support attacks on groups affiliated with Moqtada al Sadr, whose backing was needed for Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki's continued premiership.

Opponents of the U.S. presence in Iraq have long argued that the withdrawal of American forces would reduce anti-American sentiment and violence, denying the militias their excuse for continued operations.  Sadr does not see it that way.

Two days after the President's announcement, he declared that even an expanded American diplomatic presence in Baghdad would be a continued occupation.  Speaking of American diplomats in Iraq, he said, "they are all occupiers and resisting them after the end of the agreement is an obligation."  This declaration was the more remarkable in that he had announced on Thursday, before President Obama's speech, that a residual American presence could be accepted after a "complete withdrawal", payment of "compensation," and the signing of a new agreement.  Far from assuaging Sadr's anti-Americanism, the announcement of American retreat has apparently fuelled it and driven him (or his Iranian backers) to seek an even greater success through continued attacks on the American Embassy and its personnel.

Many Americans felt a sense of relief when the president announced: "America's war in Iraq is over."  That relief must be tempered, however, by the recognition that Tehran has achieved its goals in Iraq while the U.S. has not.  Henceforth, Iranian proxy militias are likely to expand their training bases in southern Iraq and use them as staging areas for operations throughout the Persian Gulf.

An Iraq dependent on Iran for its continued survival will undercut any sanctions regime that the international community places on Iran to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons.  And the unresolved ethnic and sectarian disputes in Iraq are likely to devolve into armed conflict once again.  In a year that also saw the Arab Spring, it will ultimately be Iran that emerges ascendant in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.  America's defeat is nothing to be relieved about.