Home The Washington Diplomat October 2013 Iraq: Powder Keg Waiting to Explode?

Iraq: Powder Keg Waiting to Explode?

Iraq: Powder Keg Waiting to Explode?

In the two and a half months since Lukman Faily took over from Jabir Habib Jabir as Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, suicide bombers, cars booby-trapped with explosives and fighters armed with everything from machine guns to rocket-propelled grenades have killed nearly 3,000 Iraqis and maimed more than 6,000.

In fact, this July — the month Faily presented his credentials to President Obama — was the country’s deadliest since 2008. That month alone, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, 1,057 Iraqis were killed and another 2,326 were wounded.

With ordinary Americans overwhelmingly reluctant to get involved in another Middle East conflict despite the bloodshed ripping apart Syria, Iraq’s neighbor to the west, the last thing Faily might be expected to demand is more U.S. involvement in a country where 4,486 U.S. soldiers died between 2003 and 2012. After invading it a decade ago, Americans have pretty much washed their hands of Iraq.

Yet American involvement is exactly what the new ambassador wants. And he swears the current violence is not merely a continuation of the sectarian bloodletting the U.S. invasion unleashed, as the once-dominant Sunni minority was relegated to second-power status by the Shiites who now control the government.

“We are absolutely confident that what’s taking place is terrorism. It is not sectarian violence — definitely not,” the Baghdad-born envoy told us. “This is pure terrorism taking advantage of the security situation in Iraq.”

The situation is being exacerbated by Syria’s civil war, which during the last two and a half years has claimed more than 100,000 lives and created an estimated 2 million refugees — 168,000 of whom have fled to Iraq.

Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri
Ambassador Lukman Faily

“The refugees in themselves create instability in the region, in addition to the flow of weapons and fighters crossing the border between our two countries,” Faily said. “We know that any further deterioration of security in Syria will have an adverse effect on us.”

Faily, 47, spoke to The Washington Diplomat from the mansion that has served as Iraq’s embassy here since 2009. The elegant structure, fronting Massachusetts Avenue right off 35th Street, is impressive. But it pales in comparison to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which, at 104 acres, is the largest, most expensive diplomatic mission on Earth (although since its construction, the State Department has dramatically scaled down its ambitions in the war-torn nation).

The Baghdad embassy’s size is directly linked to the once-enormous presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, which fell from a high of 248,000 at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 to virtually zero on Dec. 18, 2011, when the last U.S. soldiers left Iraqi territory under cover of darkness. Today, the only Americans in uniform there are the 160 Marines guarding the embassy itself.

“Now that U.S. forces are gone from Iraq, we are redefining our relationship with the United States,” Faily explained. “It’s likely that the number of U.S. officials in Iraq will be significantly reduced over the next few years. So we’re trying to understand exactly what our mutual interests are — in trade, security, culture and other elements. Right now we are in the discovery mode.”

And one thing Faily is discovering is that democratically elected Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister since 2006, is viewed in Washington as increasingly inept, authoritarian, repressive and allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some Iraqis even say they were better off under Saddam Hussein — the man whose death warrant Maliki signed half a year after taking office.

Today, death has once again gripped Iraqi streets. Maliki’s government has consistently downplayed casualty counts, but it’s clear that Iraq is suffering through its worst bout of carnage since sectarian violence peaked in 2006 and 2007, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

Despite a labyrinth of checkpoints in Baghdad, car bombs now routinely blow apart markets, mosques, school playgrounds, soccer fields and funerals. On Sept. 21, a wave of attacks killed more than 90 people, including Shiite mourners in funeral tents. On Sept. 11, explosions near a Shiite mosque killed at least 35 people. Two days later, back-to-back roadside bombs killed 30 mostly Sunni worshippers outside a mosque. Two days after that, a string of assaults killed nearly 60 in mostly Shiite-majority cities. On Aug. 28, coordinated bombings took the lives of more than 80 people. Three days earlier, nearly 50 people were killed. Another 80 died celebrating the end of Ramadan.

Throughout the attacks, the sectarian overtones have been chilling. Gunmen shot women preparing a Sunni man for his funeral. Four children of a Shiite family were slaughtered at knifepoint in their home. Beheadings are back. Neighborhoods are segregated. Insurgents scan IDs at checkpoints to determine if passersby can go through. The lucky do; the unlucky are executed.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose fighters have recently infiltrated Syria, are doing their best to spark a sectarian war and undermine government efforts to maintain stability. But the government isn’t blameless either.

Maliki has been accused of sidelining the Sunnis politically and conducting indiscriminate dragnets in Sunni strongholds that have only enflamed tensions.

Photo: Robert Smith
Baghdad has been the site of near-daily bombings and attacks. According to the United Nations, nearly 5,000 Iraqis have been killed since the start of 2013.

“Deploying additional troops and special forces, arresting more people, and attempting to subdue whole swathes of society through intimidation produces the opposite of the desired effect: it consolidates the split between Sunni Arabs and Baghdad’s central authorities,” said Maria Fantappie, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Maliki, who partly owes his power to the U.S., ought to know this best, insofar as Washington pursued this approach before, concluding that it would not succeed.”

Peter Harling, Middle East project director with the International Crisis Group, says that Maliki — a Shiite — must do more to integrate Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi political process, negotiate local ceasefires with Sunni officials, and “cooperate with local actors to build an effective security strategy within their provinces and along the Iraq-Syria frontier” as the country’s prepares for next year’s parliamentary elections.

“This time around, U.S. firepower would not be available, and Iraq’s volatile strategic environment would present far greater challenges than a weak state could hope to overcome,” Harling warned. “Maliki’s strength typically has resided in his ability to present himself as a national leader. He would be well advised to do so again.”

Some 97 percent of Iraq’s 32 million inhabitants profess Islam; of these, roughly 65 percent are Shiite and 35 percent Sunni. But many Sunni leaders say they are marginalized in Iraq’s political order — a feeling of discontent that only seems to be growing stronger by the day.

Yet Faily insists that “the primary issue is terrorism, not the Sunni-Shiite divide. The people of Iraq have shown again and again that they don’t want sectarianism.”

To make his point, Faily pointed to the recent gubernatorial elections in Anbar, geographically the largest province in Iraq.

“Extremists have not won elections, the moderates have won elections — which proves the issue of Iraq is way beyond that,” he told us. “Terrorist organizations are promoting, enticing and cajoling society to push away from democracy and the rule of law. Some people are not happy that our prime minister is a Shi’a. But the constitution allows for diversity; it doesn’t even mention the words Sunni or Shi’a. We want to coexist and live in harmony. However, we have to admit that the region itself is becoming more sectarian.”

Ambassador Faily, who is both a Shiite and a Kurd, concedes that Iraq faces enormous obstacles as a struggling democracy, but that “the vast majority of incidents are not people shooting each other. It’s not a war mentality. It’s terrorist activity — car bombings of mosques and churches, terrorists blowing themselves up.”

But Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doesn’t buy the argument that terrorists are to blame for the dramatic uptick in bloodshed this year.

“The violence is not simply the product of extremists and terrorist groups. Iraq’s growing violence is a product of the fact that Iraq is the scene of an ongoing struggle to establish a new national identity — one that can bridge across the deep sectarian divisions between its Shiites and Sunnis as well as the ethnic divisions between its Arabs and its Kurds and other minorities,” he argued in a report published Sept. 9.

a5.iraq.glance.story“Iraq does have great potential, and its political divisions and ongoing low-level violence do not mean it cannot succeed in establishing stability, security and a better life for its people. Iraq cannot succeed, however, by denying the problems it faces, the growing level of violence and the responsibility of Iraq’s current political leaders for its problems.”

Faily said his government is confronting the country’s problems head on, “working on a number of fronts” along the road to reconciliation.

“We’re trying to dry the wells which feed into terrorism. We have a great deal of appreciation for the effort, resources and money — and sweat and blood — of the Americans,” he told The Diplomat. American taxpayers forked over about $60 billion for reconstruction efforts in Iraq (in addition to roughly $1 trillion for the war itself).

“We have also paid dearly ourselves,” the ambassador added. (Estimates of Iraqi deaths during the war range anywhere from 100,000 on the low end all the way up to 600,000.)

“We are not letting anybody else do the fight,” Faily said. “We’re moving from a dictatorship to democracy, and this is costing us a great deal. What we are going through may take decades for other societies to go through.”

It helps that Faily’s country has oil in the ground — lots of it.

More than twice the size of Idaho, Iraq boasts the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves and is now the world’s third-largest petroleum exporter after Saudi Arabia and Russia, and ahead of Norway, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Every day, its oilfields produce 3.4 million barrels, of which 2.75 million barrels are exported.

“We’re likely to substantially increase those numbers,” the ambassador said. “The IEA [International Energy Agency] has projected that in the worst scenario, we’ll be around 5 to 6 million barrels a day by the end of this decade. In the best scenario, we’re talking about 10 million barrels [per day] by 2025.”

Faily said Iraq is determined to avoid the “oil curse” suffered by countries that are totally dependent on petroleum exports. It’ll do so, he said, “by establishing our agricultural sector, so that we don’t need to import food. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity in agriculture and infrastructure.”

Credit: UN Photo / Rick Bajornas
A member of the Baghdad Electoral Commission seals up ballots during the country’s 2009 election. Since then, the sheen of democracy has lost its luster for many Iraqis, as Sunnis complain of being marginalized and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki increasingly consolidates his grip on power.

Oil exports alone account for $100 billion in annual revenues, or 95 percent of the total. That gives Iraq a fairly large safety cushion — and makes it a lucrative customer for U.S. defense contractors, construction companies and telecom firms. Faily said Iraq already enjoys one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Iraq’s GDP grew 9 percent in 2011 and 8.4 percent in 2012, according to the World Bank. In 2013, growth will clock in at 8.2 percent, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Yet corruption remains a huge issue. In early August, the United Nations revealed that more than 50 percent of the 31,000 civil servants participating in a recent U.N. survey said corruption is getting worse, not better. Despite billions of dollars invested in Iraq’s security forces, some Iraqis (mostly Sunnis) view the police as more predators than protectors, accused of bribery, extortion and even extrajudicial killings. And the fact that al-Qaeda insurgents easily overran Abu Ghraib prison in July, freeing hundreds of hard-core fighters, doesn’t exactly speak to the competence of Iraq’s security forces.

Faily said corruption is an enduring legacy of the war that the government must root out. “One of the key reasons we have corruption is that it was inherited. That created a culture of corruption, and now we have more revenue from oil and the political situation is unstable.”

But Faily’s government is pressing ahead in its bid to boost investment.

“We’re already talking about spending $500 to $600 billion for redeveloping our infrastructure and repairing the devastation of the last 30 years,” he said. “We have quite a shopping list with the United States for military hardware.”

And what a shopping list it is.

Since July 25, reports Defense News, the Pentagon has notified Congress that it’s on the verge of selling Iraq billions of dollars worth of military equipment and maintenance support to help the country fight a resurgent al-Qaeda movement at home as well as a potentially explosive Kurdish independence movement in the north, Syria’s civil war to the west, and “the potential of a nuclear Iran along its eastern border.”

Among the deals: a $2.4 billion package for 681 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and 40 truck-mounted launchers, Sentinel radars and three Hawk anti-aircraft batteries with 216 Hawk missiles.

There’s also an additional $1.9 billion in potential deals that include 50 Stryker infantry carriers, 12 helicopters and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of maintenance and logistical support for American-made military vehicles still in use in Iraq. And don’t forget General Dynamics’s $900 million sale of 50 nuclear, biological and chemical Stryker reconnaissance vehicles.

In all, an estimated $10 billion worth of U.S. military sales to Iraq are pending.

“Over the last six weeks, I have had more than 30 congressmen and senators for one-on-one talks. I’m confident because our demands are reasonable and immediate. People appreciate the urgency of what we’re asking for,” Faily said. “The key issue has been overflights. You’re asking us to stop Iranian flights [over Iraqi airspace], but we haven’t got the tools to do it.”

Those overflights have been a thorn in the U.S.-Iraq relationship. Some members of Congress balk at giving Iraq extra arms, saying Maliki has given free reign to Iranian planes carrying weapons to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered government in Syria. Conversely, the Iraqi government says it simply doesn’t have the military means to force Iranian planes to land for an inspection.

Faily says he wishes Iraq could do more — though he doesn’t see how that’s possible without an integrated air defense system.

“We have limited capabilities. We’ve been asked to stop Iranian planes and inspect them, but we have no control over that corridor,” he complained. “We do not want to fuel weapons into that dangerous region of Syria. And Turkey shouldn’t do it either. In this war of attrition, everybody’s losing out.”

And Iraq has been one of the biggest losers. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a merger between al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Syria, has given rise to some of the most lethal fighters in Syria. Although Maliki hasn’t fully thrown his weight behind Assad as some had feared, the civil war is aggravating hostilities between Iraq’s Sunnis, many of whom side with the rebels battling Assad, and the Shiites who back the Syrian president.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Luke P. Thelen
Attacks used to primarily target Iraqi police officers and recruits but have spread to markets, mosques, school playgrounds, soccer fields and funerals.

Maliki has said violence is seeping into Iraq, but the government vows it won’t be engulfed by Syria’s civil war.

“Iraq’s streets have become a battleground for sectarian people who are motivated by hatred and religious edicts and daring to kill innocent people,” the country’s Interior Ministry admitted Aug. 15 following coordinated car-bomb attacks that killed at least 34 people across Baghdad. “It is our destiny to win this battle which is aimed at destroying the country and turning it into another Syria.”

Yet Syria is exactly why some U.S. lawmakers have reservations about sending more weapons into the combustible region. Of equally grave concern is the possibility that Maliki could morph into a mini-Assad and some day use those weapons on his own people, much the way the Egyptian military cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood this summer, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths.

In late August, Iraqi security forces in riot gear prevented demonstrators in Baghdad from protesting the Maliki government’s pension program. Anti-government activists claim police beat and arrested dozens of participants.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in August, countered that “the government has not resorted to the same methods that were recently used or deployed in Egypt.”

He added that the United States needs to stand alongside Iraq to consolidate its gains and prevent it from slipping into a Syria-like chaos. “Nothing will endure that we have built together unless we win the war against terrorism,” he warned.

Yet the legacy of the Iraq War now haunts U.S. policymakers grappling with a response to Syria, as a war-weary American public refuses to drag U.S. soldiers into another Mideast quagmire. The ironies aren’t lost on Faily.

“We are participating in the search for a political solution in Syria that will reduce the violence and diminish the role of extremists,” Faily wrote Sept. 3 in a guest column for California’s San Jose Mercury News. “For Americans, Syria is more than 5,000 miles away. For Iraqis, Syria is right on our doorstep, requiring pragmatic solutions.”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Faily is seeking pragmatic solutions of his own, working to drum up business back home. He’s been crisscrossing the United States, pushing investment in Iraq at a variety of business conferences and seminars. A glance at the embassy’s snazzy new website pulls up press releases about Faily’s recent trip to California’s Silicon Valley, where he met with top executives at Google, Cisco and Qualcomm.

A marathon runner, Faily seems well suited to the task. Before coming to Washington, the eloquent yet soft-spoken diplomat was Iraq’s ambassador to Japan. Before that, he spent 20 years in exile in Great Britain — during which time he actively opposed Hussein’s dictatorship and held senior IT management positions at both Ceridian Centrefile and Electronic Data Systems, now part of Hewlett-Packard.

Faily has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science from Manchester Metropolitan University; he also has an MBA in technology management and a post-graduate degree in computing for commerce and industry.

To help get its message across, the Iraqi Embassy has hired an army of lobbyists and consultants. “This is the first time Iraq has done this kind of outreach. Historically, the overreach of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had not given us enough bandwidth to do it ourselves,” said Faily, admitting that “it’s not cheap” — but that such efforts are finally bearing fruit.

“The Iraqi voice has to be heard on Capitol Hill. The U.S. ambassador will not be able to do that on his own,” he told The Diplomat. “We need to have our own perspective. We are here to re-emphasize the mutual benefits and Iraq’s geopolitical importance.”

As Faily wrote in a July 2 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal at the start of his U.S. charm offensive: “Though most Americans probably believe that Iraqis are fed up with the U.S., the truth is that Iraqis appreciate what the U.S. has done and are looking for more U.S. involvement — not more sacrifice of blood and treasure, but more diplomatic, political, trade, investment and economic partnership.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.