And when Obama and Maliki were negotiating the terms of a follow-on Status of Forces Agreement to specify rules for treatment of a residual American force to be left in Iraq, Maliki refused Obama’s request to allow our troops legal protection from Iraqi prosecution.
Allowing an “ally” to ignore Washington over such issues erodes the credibility of American threats in other areas, such as inducing Damascus to adhere to the terms of the Framework Agreement between Moscow and Washington concerning chemical weapons. And the Iraq precedent weakens our hand in talks with Afghanistan to leave a residual presence after the withdrawal of American forces in 2014.
Maliki also has been a naysayer to Washington’s requests for protection of Iranian residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Over 3,000 Iranians have been at Ashraf since 1986, until the last departed for Camp Liberty, Iraq this month. Washington provided protected persons status to the Iranian residents under Geneva Convention sections relevant to protecting noncombatants stranded in a country during and after combat.
When U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq as 2011 ended, responsibility for protection of the Iranian noncombatants fell to Iraq. But Baghdad not only failed to protect these unarmed civilians, it also attacked them in July 2009, April 2011, and more recently in September 2013. Hence, responsibility to protect reverts back to Washington.
Washington requested Baghdad to provide protection not to attack the residents; but such requests lacked priority and urgency; hence, they reinforced the idea that ignoring Washington incurs no costs, especially when the United States treated the requests as minor ones. Even more important than being a naysayer, moreover, is being an evildoer.
Evil, like pornography, is hard to define; but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “you know pornography when you see it.” It is evil for a country tasked with protecting a vulnerable foreign civilian population to attack and kill 52 of them as the Iraqi regime did on September 1, 2013. It is evil to seize and hold seven of them as hostages. They continue to be held in a prison near Baghdad airport under control of an organization personally controlled by Maliki.
The story behind the story of the September assault is the apparent motivation by Baghdad to set the stage to seize the property of the residents without paying for it. There were ongoing talks among representatives of Ashraf residents and Iraqis over the disposition of the residents’ property left behind. To pave the way for stealing and plundering, Iraqis falsely claimed that the residents did not own any of the property.
In October 2008, I became the last private American to visit Ashraf and determined that the residents turned the land from an undeveloped wasteland to an oasis in the desert. They created power generation and water purification systems and even provided electricity and clean water to their Iraqi neighbors.
When the residents received land in 1986, it had no facilities. According to an assessment by a British firm, the September 2012 value of all moveable and immovable property in Ashraf amounts to $550 million. The false claims by Baghdad are prelude for the regime to steal rather than pay residents a fair price for their possessions. Despite efforts by the residents, the Iraqi regime has not allowed them to sell even one dollar of Ashraf property since the end of 2011.
A diverse set of institutions operate in Iraq. Via diplomacy and negative publicity they could hold the regime accountable for its actions. They include American Embassy Baghdad; United Nations Assistance Mission, Iraq (UNAMI); International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); Human Rights Watch; and Amnesty International. Most of them have condemned the attacks and blamed Baghdad. But the regime pays scant heed to them.
Of what value is one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world if American diplomats cannot persuade the Iraqi regime to protect not assault and negotiate rather than seize property of persons whom the United States promised to protect? Not much!
While protecting Ashraf residents seems at first blush to be a minor issue, it is of great strategic import regarding U.S. credibility: If Tehran and Damascus view American diplomacy as unable to persuade Baghdad to make any compromises, the Iranian and Syrian regimes are less likely to take seriously U.S. threats to use military force.
While tolerating the Iraqi regime as being a naysayer erodes U.S. credibility, accepting evil deeds by the regime erodes the American claim to moral exceptionalism in the world. Evil by Iraqi guardians is not the banal operations of faceless bureaucrats merely executing orders from above. Rather, their evil deeds are a part of a strategy for Baghdad to carry out the goal of Tehran to torture, persecute, and forcibly repatriate to Iran members of the main prodemocracy organization that rejects clerical rule in Iran. And because international humanitarian law precludes transfer of persons from one state to another if they face risk of persecution, the evil deeds committed by an American ally tars our moral status and credibility of U.S. deterrent and coercive threats.
Tanter is president of the Iran Policy Committee and was a member of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.