Belmont Club

Iraq on the edge

Iraqi’s fugitive Sunni Vice President told American journalist Eli Lake that he would support a Sunni breakaway from Iraq”, a development which could spark a civil war. Asked if he believed Iraq could disintegrate into three countries—Sunni, Shiite and Kurdistan—as many analysts feared at the height of the Iraqi civil war in 2006, Hashemi said, “I hope not, but believe it or not, all options are in front of Iraqis.”

Hashemi was one of America’s closest political allies in Baghdad, but he blames the Obama administration for failing to act more forcefully. “I talked to the ambassador,” he said. “We are really disappointed and frustrated with the Americans, they have done zero in terms of these problems. I am not betting on them doing anything. They tell us they will try their best, but we think this means nothing.”

The vice president has been on the run since the weekend warrant was issued. “Unfortunately I cannot go to Baghdad right now, my office is occupied, all of my computers have been seized by authorities loyal to Maliki,” he told the Beast. “My house is being investigated and all my computers and papers have been seized there. My office staff has been asked to leave.”

The Washington Post says there may still be time to salvage the situation and urged President Obama to reconsider its past policy and lean on Maliki.

The Obama administration appears blindsided by the crisis. It shouldn’t be so surprised. It risked just such a breakdown when it disregarded the recommendation of its military commanders that some U.S. forces remain in Iraq to help guarantee against a return to sectarian conflict. Sunni and Kurdish leaders also urged U.S. officials to broker a deal for a stay-on force with Mr. Maliki; now they say their worst fears may be coming to pass. “The Americans pulled out without completing the job they should have finished,” Iyad Allawi, the leader of the secular political bloc supported by most Sunnis, told the Reuters news agency Tuesday.

But the President had only a few days ago praised Maliki for leading “Iraq’s most inclusive government yet” as he declared his withdrawal a resounding success. The WaPo adds, “it didn’t take long for those words to boomerang. No sooner had Mr. Maliki returned to Baghdad than he launched what looks like an attempted coup against the country’s top Sunni leaders. Though the outcome is still in doubt, Iraq’s fragile political order appears in danger of crumbling just days after the departure of U.S. troops.”

U.S. diplomats in Baghdad are trying to help Iraq’s Kurdish president and foreign minister defuse the incipient conflict; Vice President Biden was on the phone Tuesday to Mr. Maliki and the Sunni speaker of parliament. Washington’s leverage includes the promised sale to Mr. Maliki’s government of F-16 warplanes and training for Iraqi pilots.

Mr. Maliki has said he wishes to maintain a strategic partnership with the United States. If that’s true, Mr. Obama might still rescue the situation by delivering the message he failed to communicate in public last week: Such an alliance cannot be maintained with an Iraqi government that pursues a sectarian agenda or seeks authoritarian power.

Meanwhile, Maliki has told the Kurds to turn over Hashimi, an act which may set the clock ticking.  “Maliki, calling on the Kurds to hand over Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi who has taken refuge in their autonomous region, said he wanted Hashemi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya block to end a boycott of parliament and of his year-old power-sharing government.” If they refused, he said, they could leave the government entirely.  That was yet another act which set the fuse going. There are altogether too many fuses burning for safety’s sake. And the question is, who’s goint to put them out?

Maliki’s ultimatums have set up a a showdown. It is an axiom that an officer who issues an order that is likely to be refused by his subordinates risks not only a specific disobedience but the complete collapse of his authority. If the Kurds defy Maliki, what then?  One possible scenario was supplied by the Iraqi foreign minister, a Kurd, who darkly hinted that foreign powers might be tempted to intervene in Iraq and plunge it into turmoil. He was probably referring to Iran and Syria.

In an interview with Reuters, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, said that the country’s domestic schisms risked inviting more interference from outside:

“As long as your internal front is fragmented and not united … others who want to interfere will be encouraged,” he said. “That’s why it is very important to deal with this crisis as soon as possible.”

He was suggesting, in case it had not yet occurred to President Obama, that Syria and Iran could start a civil war in Iraq and use the ensuing conflagration as a bargaining chip to turn off the Arab Spring directed against Damascus or the sanctions beating down on Iran.

But Washington still has a few chips of its own. One enormously valuable asset has not been turned over to Iraq: the American biometric database of 3 million Iraqis. “‘Centcom has the database,’ says the command’s chief spokesman, Army Maj. T.G. Taylor, who says it contains files on three million Iraqis. The U.S.-sponsored Iraqi government, in other words, doesn’t control a host of incredibly specific information on its citizens.”

For much of the war, U.S. troops carrying viewfinder-like scanning devices kept digital records of the Iraqis they encountered. Some Iraqis got their unique identifiers recorded because they were suspected insurgents on their way to detention centers. Residents of violent cities like Fallujah would only get to return home from travel if they showed U.S. troops an ID card complete with biometric data. Iraqis underwent iris scans when they wanted to join the police. So did Iraqis who worked on U.S. bases. …

The digital database is the property of Central Command’s intelligence shop in Tampa, Florida. It is conspicuously not in the control of the Iraqi government. Taylor says that the Iraqis might be able to access the database’s contents if they go “through the [U.S.] embassy” in Baghdad.

With the United States gone, CENTCOM has no direct application for this information. However, as suggested above, the Shi’ite politicians would find it invaluable in any campaign of suppression against the Sunnis and the Kurds. Diplomats may now consider it valuable leverage in whatever engagement enterprise they are embarked upon.

The biometric data will enable its possessor to accurately identify an individual no matter where he goes. It is a marvelous technical achievement, just as the US military mission to Iraq was a marvelous military accomplishment. But the uses to which such military victories and intelligence databases are put are dependent on the wisdom of policy, which of course the public should have every confidence in.

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