Former NSC staffer Raymond Tanter: Who Lost Iraq?

Guest Commentary

President Obama receives Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House on Nov. 1. The talks are to focus on the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) that governs relations between Baghdad and Washington following American troop withdrawal in December 2011.  The presidents also are to discuss regional issues, most probably including Iran and Syria.

The visit highlights a gap between principles of the SFA and abhorrent practices of the Iraqi regime against its political opponents and Iranian dissidents in Iraq. Obama’s complicity in such practices whets the appetite of al-Maliki to take more egregious actions contrary to U.S. interests.


The visit offers Obama an occasion to condition sale of U.S. military equipment to the cessation of al-Maliki’s maltreatment of his opponents and Iranian Mojahedin, who live under prisonlike conditions in Iraq.

“Who Lost Iraq?” recalls the Cold War debate over which American was responsible for turning China from friend to enemy in 1949-1950. Although Democrats are blamed for losing China, revolutionary leader Mao Zedong might have been more responsible for rebuffing American efforts to reach out to him than President Harry Truman.

The main culprit for turning a budding American-Iraqi partnership in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq into an adversarial relationship is Nouri al-Maliki. But unless appeasement of al-Maliki ceases, Obama is likely to be blamed for losing Iraq.

The SFA lists as an accomplishment U.S. provision of more than $100 million during the last eight years for election support, in particular for political party development. But al-Maliki has practiced the politics of persecution of his opponents.

Political accommodation across sectarian lines broke down after al-Maliki used security forces in an attempt to seize Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on false charges that he ran hit squads against government officials. Harassment of al-Hashemi occurred as the last American troops began to depart Iraq. Al-Maliki had his judiciary try Hashemi in absentia once he fled the country; based on evidence gotten from torturing Hashemi’s bodyguards, an Iraqi court sentenced him to death by hanging.


Al-Maliki also failed as an ally with Obama on top regional issues, including Iran, Syria and Bahrain. In the situation of Bahrain, for example, al-Maliki publicly supported Iranian-backed rebels in Bahrain — a crucial American ally.

I had the opportunity to interview Hashemi in Brussels in October. He advocated publicly and elaborated privately on his support of humanitarian rights for Iranian Mojahedin in Camps Ashraf and Liberty, and was opposed to al-Maliki’s aggression against them. He repeatedly criticized al-Maliki for violating fundamental rights and for the lack of safety and security for Iranian asylum seekers who would resettle to third countries, but Iranian-inspired attacks and de facto imprisonment prevent them from departing Iraq.

Another supposed achievement of the SFA is to provide funds in support of vulnerable populations, including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Washington provided more than $313 million in humanitarian assistance for Iraqi IDPs and conflict victims. Although Iranian dissidents — the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq — in Camp Liberty are not Iraqis, they are certainly a vulnerable population.

Not only have the Mojahedin had to pay their own expenses in virtual detention in Iraq, they were attacked three times in Camp Ashraf by Iraqi forces using American equipment and tactics; al-Maliki has been implicated in holding seven Mojahedin as hostages.

Even absent the SFA, Baghdad is responsible under international law to provide security for the Iranian Mojahedin. Washington granted them “protective persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Withdrawal of U.S. forces in late 2011 causes accountability to transfer to Iraq, and if Baghdad does not comply, responsibility reverts back to Washington.

Defense and Security is one of eight areas for cooperation between Baghdad and Washington under the SFA. In addition to an initial purchase of 18 F-16 aircraft in September 2011, Baghdad expressed its interest in purchasing a second set of F-16s, and Washington reconfirmed its commitment to the sale. As of June 2013, there have been more than $14 billion in equipment, services and training purchased by Iraq for its military and security forces through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program.

Arms transfers are an opportunity for Congress to assist Obama make difficult choices he might feel uncomfortable taking. After hearings, Congress might conclude that al-Maliki’s role in maltreating his political opponents and holding seven Mojahedin as hostages warrant holding up arms transfers to Iraq.

Without congressionally mandated conditions on arms sales to Baghdad to save him, Obama would compete with al-Maliki for the dubious prize of turning a promising post-Saddam friendship into enmity, and hence for having lost Iraq.

Raymond Tanter served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. His latest book is "Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents."