America’s voice in Iraq: from a boom to a whimper

Ernesto Londoño / The Washington Post /

BAGHDAD — The United States set the tone for its new relationship with Iraq a decade ago with a bombing campaign dubbed “shock and awe,” and spoke with a booming voice during the ensuing years as it shaped the country’s future.

Today, the volume of America’s voice here has been reduced considerably. With no troops on the ground to project force and little money to throw around, the U.S. has become an increasingly powerless stakeholder in the new Iraq. It has failed to substantively rein in what it sees as government abuses that have the potential to spark a new sectarian war. It also has had little success in persuading Baghdad to stop tacitly supporting Iran’s lethal aid to Syria, an important accelerant in the conflict.

The disengagement from Iraq after a war that cost Americans an estimated $1.7 trillion offers sobering lessons as the U.S. continues to wind down its war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a process that looms as potentially more complex.

“America could still do a lot if they wanted to,” Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, the most senior Sunni in the coalition government, said. “But I think because (President Barack Obama) is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq.”

The United States is dismantling the vestiges of a police training program once envisioned as its signature contribution to postwar Iraq, having come to terms with the fact that Iraqis had no interest in a multibillion-dollar investment designed to bolster the country’s troubled judicial system.

Plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence along a disputed frontier in northern Iraq that has kept Arabs and Kurds on a war footing were also abandoned, in large part because officials in Baghdad didn’t want the Americans there. Manpower at the fortresslike U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is dropping rapidly. The mission and its three consulates now have 10,500 people, most of them contractors, down from over 16,000 based in Iraq a year ago. By the end of the year, the number will fall to 5,500.


American officials acknowledged in interviews that they have lost sway in Iraq but said the United States maintains considerable influence, in large part because Washington remains Iraq’s main defense supplier. When political crises erupt, they said, Iraqis usually call the embassy first. “The fact that they run to us indicates that they do see us as having some influence, some leverage,” said one senior U.S. official.

In some ways, two senior U.S. officials said, having a smaller mission in Baghdad, with no U.S. troops, has set the tone for a healthier relationship. They noted, for instance, that once American troops withdrew at the end of 2011, Shiite militias stopped lobbing rockets at the embassy.

“The smaller our presence, the more strategic our presence, the more effective we can be,” said another senior U.S. official involved in Iraq policy, adding that American officials routinely deliver tough messages to the Iraqi government in private.

No one in Iraq is calling for a return to the time when the U.S. acted as an occupying power, dictating the tenets of the constitution and running the country’s security policy.

But senior Iraqi officials lament that the United States has become little more than a bystander on hugely consequential matters, perhaps most notably a renewed effort by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to marginalize senior Sunni politicians. Al-Maliki’s government accused the country’s former Sunni vice president of links to terrorism in December 2011, forcing him into exile.

Last December, similar allegations drove another prominent Sunni, Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, to seek refuge in his native Anbar province. The case triggered a wave of protests in Sunni areas that have exacerbated sectarian tension and led to calls for a Sunni uprising to topple al-Maliki’s regime. Meanwhile, al-Maliki’s government has reconciled with leaders of Shiite militias that were responsible for the killing of large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, allowing them to delve into politics.

“I would describe the policy as: Let’s try to keep a lid on Iraq with as few resources as possible and as little energy as we possibly can,” said Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “Our influence has diminished enormously.”

The man at the top

Other critics say the United States has erred by investing so heavily in al-Maliki. In 2010, during Iraq’s disputed parliamentary election, the United States was widely seen as having backed him for the job of premier over the rival, Sunni-backed faction, which won two more seats. U.S. officials offered conflicting views on the degree to which their support for al-Maliki was overt, but every official interviewed agreed that al-Maliki has become increasingly hard to work with and influence.

“The U.S. put personalities ahead of building institutions and supporting democracy,” said Emma Sky, who worked at the time as a political adviser to the top U.S. general in Iraq.

Washington sought in vain to get al-Maliki to call for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster in the summer of 2011. U.S. officials have since protested what they see as Baghdad’s complicity in allowing Iran to ferry lethal aid to Syria using Iraqi airspace, to little effect. Baghdad has said it is not willfully assisting Iran.

Some former U.S. officials said the United States would have had more influence if Washington had managed to negotiate a bilateral deal to keep some 10,000 troops in the country. “I think it would be a powerful signal in Iraq, to Iran and in the region that the United States is engaged, involved, interested and effective,” former ambassador Ryan Crocker said during a recent forum on Iraq.

Nadjha Khadum, an Iraqi journalist who runs the independent Ur News agency, said she, like many Iraqis, came to see a U.S. military role in Iraq as a necessary evil. Without it, she said, there is no outside power capable of restraining Iraqi politicians from destructive behavior.

“They were a security valve for Iraq,” Khadum said. “They were a balance for the government.”

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