The Mullahs' Eyes on Iraq

The specter of U.S. troop withdrawal has the Islamic Republic counting down the days.

Amid heightened concerns that Iraq’s democracy is becoming increasingly vulnerable to an array of internal political and economic threats, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki strongly repeated his stance that the remaining 50,000 US troops will be gone from his country by the December, 2011 deadline. Not surprisingly, the main beneficiary of this action appears to be, once again, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Despite objections from both Iraq’s army chief of staff and the US commander in Iraq, Maliki said Iraqi security forces were more than capable of filling the American void, arguing they are “able to take responsibility, to maintain security and to work efficiently.”

Maliki’s comments came after a recent meeting in Baghdad with Speaker of the House John Boehner, one in which Boehner afterwards released a statement that read in part, “Just four years ago, a terrorist insurgency was killing innocent civilians and wreaking havoc across the country. Today Iraq is a different country.”

However, Boehner’s statement proved to be a little premature. Hours after its release, two suicide car bombings blistered Baghdad, killing nine people and wounding 26. It was just the latest in a string of amplified insurgent attacks across Iraq over the past several months, assaults that have led the State Department to issue a warning that “no region should be considered safe from dangerous conditions.”

Added into this fearful and dangerous atmosphere has been a string of increasingly violent nationwide demonstrations centered on political reform, ones which call for an end to widespread government corruption, better government services and better paying jobs. The protests -- which began in February -- have killed at least 14 people and wounded hundreds.

So, while popular opinion in Iraq may seem to be on the side of Maliki, not all Iraqis -- most notably Sunnis and Kurds -- are desirous to see a final exodus of American troops during this chaotic time.

That sentiment was best expressed by an advisor to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who said in March, “In practical terms, Iraq is already divided. If the U.S. withdraws its troops as scheduled at the end of this year, it will trigger the splitting up of Iraq. There will be civil war, maybe even a regional war.”

Unfortunately, the specter of an Iraqi civil war reared its head following the recent ominous comments made by Muqtada al-Sadr, the notorious anti-American cleric who led the brutal Shiite Mahdi Army that killed untold thousands of Iraqis during the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq from 2004-2007. In a statement to supporters, al-Sadr promised to revive his militia if the American “occupation” is extended.

In an effort to extinguish this fuse, Maliki said through his media adviser, “The security agreement cannot be extended without the acceptance of all the Iraqi political forces.”  Of course, it’s no surprise Maliki took this course of action, as he owes his second term as prime minister to al-Sadr’s endorsement, one which required Maliki to offer several positions in his cabinet to al-Sadr loyalists.

Still, it may have come as a surprise to Maliki when al-Sadr subsequently added new criteria to his bottom line demand of an end to an American military presence in Iraq. In a rhetorical challenge to his supporters, al-Sadr asked, “What if their companies and embassy headquarters will continue to exist with the American flags hoisted on them? Will you be silent? Will you overlook this?”

Al-Sadr's exhortation is all the more relevant, as the American embassy in Baghdad – already the largest US diplomatic mission in the world -- is scheduled to double to 16,000 employees by January 2012. Absent a US military presence, their protection will be the responsibility of a combination of private contractors and inexperienced Iraqi security forces.

However, if Maliki is concerned about the ongoing turmoil and the potential negative effects it may have on his nation’s future, he certainly doesn’t seem too affected. As he has boastfully said, “Our country is now the most stable and secure in the region,” noting that “there are downsides, but everything is put on the right track.”

Although this may be a matter for debate, what isn’t in question is who will most benefit if things do go south in Iraq. Just as it has taken advantage of regional uprisings throughout 2011 to destabilize its Sunni Arab rivals, Iran is already well on its way to take advantage of any Iraqi security and political instability.

Despite the conflagration of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and Iranian efforts to incite horrific sectarian violence in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, Iran’s ties to Iraq have actually grown increasingly closer as the US presence diminishes. To wit, through a series of economic agreements, Iran is now Iraq’s largest trading partner. Iran has also created politically influential ties with Baghdad’s government through Shiite proxies such as al-Sadr and the Iraqi Shiite coalition.

For Iran, a weakened and compliant Baghdad government would allow it to use Iraq as a platform for widespread Iranian regional influence. In fact Iran’s efforts on this front have produced some early successes. For example, through Iranian encouragement, Iraq has forcefully made attempts to evict and send into exile the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group based in northwestern Iraq and one the Islamists most fear. Moreover, Iraq has energetically taken up the Iranian policy stance against the Sunni Arab crackdown on Shiite uprisings in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

Some are very concerned with Iran’s role in this drama. As Iraqi political advisor Wrya Saeed Rwandzi warned, “Iran is openly fighting the secular democratic forces in the entire region. They are more dangerous than al-Qaida.” In fact, he went on to say, “Obama is doing nothing. The U.S. has no clear policy, and is sending contradictory messages.”

That viewpoint, of course, rings distressingly true, as Obama has seemed -- at best -- indifferent to America’s strategic role in Iraq and -- at worst -- dangerously injurious. Yet, having campaigned on a pledge in 2008 to end the entire American presence there and now facing re-election in 2012, Obama looks increasingly likely to cut ties altogether.

But this is not a fait accompli, as was perhaps indicated by comments made by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates shortly after he returned from a visit to Baghdad. Gates said the offer for the United States to remain in Iraq was still on the table: “My basic message to them is [for us to] just be present in some areas where they still need help…But they have to ask, and time is running out in Washington.”

Unfortunately, as events are continuing to prove, time may be also running out on the future hopes for Iraq’s nascent democracy as well.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog,