How American Mismanagement in Iraq Gives Iran an Edge in Baghdad

Nibras Kazimi

On August 29, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the former president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, beseeching him to support Iraq’s prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, for a second term, according to an American source with knowledge of the conversation. Barzani was non-committal. After all, Al Abadi was the one who sent in tanks into Kirkuk last October, in retaliation to the controversial Kurdish referendum on independence, which Barzani had championed. The Americans stood with Al Abadi at the time, and seemingly washed their hands of the Kurdish leadership. Now, here they were, asking Barzani, of all people, to do them a favor. Pompeo ended the conversation with: “If you don’t say yes to Abadi then he doesn’t become prime minister.” Barzani apparently responded: “So be it.”

American mismanagement of Kurdish and Sunni politics in Iraq is not only causing it to fail in its bid to support Al Abadi, but the dissolution of Sunni politics has allowed the Iranians to lure Sunnis into their camp.

America’s policy objectives in Iraq have had one goal for the past year: keep Al Abadi in place. It is thus surprising that there has been so little work done to prepare for that. The official tasked with bringing about this goal is Brett McGurk, the “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” since October 2015, and an Iraq-hand for several administrations over the last 15 years. There is a backstory to Pompeo’s call. According to leaks that appeared in several Arabic-language media platforms, the last time McGurk met the Kurdish leader, pressing him to back Al Abadi, somewhat impolitely it seems, Barzani snapped back, telling him: “You do not get to speak to me in this manner.”

Baghdad had been abuzz with speculation that McGurk was on the outs. The added suggestion that he had alienated Barzani would have further undermined his mission. That is probably why Pompeo interceded, and then issued a tweet on September 1 affirming that McGurk was in Baghdad representing him and President Donald Trump, and that he was “doing a great job.” He added that “forming a strong Iraqi government on national basis is essential to the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

That same day, Pompeo put in another phone call to Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi while the latter was visiting Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital. It seems that this call was also related to efforts to get the Kurds on board. Allawi went to meet Barzani per McGurk’s recommendation in order to drive home the impression that a sizable Sunni bloc had thrown its weight behind Al Abadi and that if the Kurds did not make a move to catch-up, then they would lose relevance. However, Allawi could only report that his efforts had failed too.

Allawi was accompanied by two Sunni leaders, former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al Mutlag and the former speaker of parliament, Salim Al Juburi. To Barzani, the trio must have seemed an odd assortment trying to do McGurk’s bidding on behalf of Al Abadi, who had unceremoniously dismissed both Al Mutlag and Allawi from their posts in 2015 as part of a hasty reform package. The Americans did nothing to intervene or save face for those two men either. In fact, not only was McGurk fully committed to Al Abadi’s actions then, his team was signaling that “national” Sunni leaders such as Al Mutlag and former Speaker Osama Al Nujaifi were discredited has-beens who should be retired from the political scene in the post-Mosul era.

McGurk’s plan was to foster grassroots Sunni leadership and elevate it gradually to the national level. His focus was on the governors and local administrators who were managing the Sunni territories being won back from jihadists. Al Juburi was to be the only national leader to make the transition, and under whose wing new leaders could gather. Throughout 2017, efforts were made to host a variety of conferences in regional capitals and in Baghdad in order to crown Al Juburi in that role. Barzani must have sized up all those contradictions in the delegation before him, deepening his hesitations toward both Al Abadi and McGurk.

Barzani would have also been mindful that matters did not go as McGurk had planned. Al Juburi, running in the recent elections in Baghdad rather than his home province of Diyala, and as number 2 on Allawi’s slate – this time as a liberalism-espousing candidate rather than as a member of the Islamic Party (Muslim Brotherhood) – failed to win a seat. The new crop of parliamentarians representing Sunni constituencies are a motley group. Many of the “national” leaders did demonstrate that they could still win. And a number of the new proto-national leaders that McGurk was counting on did win too, but there was no vision or authority guiding them. Some of them had actually got a leg up early in their careers by cozying up to the Iranians.

Sunni representation today is deeply fractured and almost ridiculously brittle. There are two principal reasons for this: the failure by the central government, specifically Al Abadi’s cabinet, to work out a vision for Sunni Iraq in the post-ISIS era and the tampering with previous hierarchies as was attempted by McGurk. This is why rather than locking up Sunni support behind McGurk’s designate, it is the camp opposing Al Abadi – the bloc seemingly “beholden” to the Iranians and led by men such as Nouri Al Maliki and the pro-Tehran Badr Brigade’s Hadi Al Ameri – that can credibly claim today to have sewn up 33 to 38 Sunni MPs to support their bid to form a cabinet.

Nibras Kazimi is the author of “Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy.”