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How Barack Obama lost Iraq

The recent news out of Iraq is reminiscent of the dark days of 2004 before President Bush’s surge largely pacified the country. Earlier this month, Israel’s Debka File reported that ISIS, the Iraqi al Qaeda affiliate, had captured the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi from government forces. Fallujah was proclaimed the capitol of a new Islamic caliphate. On January 18, CNN reported another in a series of bomb attacks. The latest bombings killed 19 people and wounded at least 74.

Barack Obama's disinterest in extending the status of forces agreement with Iraq threatens the stability of the entire Middle East.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

Iraq’s slide back into chaos has its roots in 2011 when the last U.S. soldiers left the country. The Obama Administration and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been engaged in months of negotiations in an attempt to reach a new status of forces agreement that would allow American soldiers to remain in Iraq to help support government forces. (The Bush Administration had signed a status of forces agreement that required U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.) When these talks failed, the stage was set for President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to remove U.S. forces and end the war in Iraq.

Unfortunately, as pointed out by the Atlanta Conservative Examiner, it was much easier to remove U.S. troops than to end the war. President Obama’s assumption was that American forces were the cause of the fighting in Iraq and that if American forces were removed, the war would end. That turned out not to be the case, partly because of Iran.

In the absence of Saddam Hussein, Iran has grown into a larger threat in the region. According to NBC News, relations between the two countries had been frosty for decades before the Iranian revolution in 1979. Iran, known as Persia until the 20th century, is comprised primarily of Shia Muslims. The Shia also make up a majority of Iraq’s population even though Saddam and his ruling Baath party were Sunni. Saddam’s control of Iraq was threatened by the Islamist revolution in Iran, leading Saddam to invade Iran in 1980. The war dragged on for eight years.

After the U.S. toppled Saddam, the Iranians revealed that they were developing nuclear weapons. As the U.S. and its European allies worked to diplomatically halt the Iranian weapons program, Iran began aiding Shia militants in Iraq. As far back as 2006, ABC News reported that Iran was directly supplying Iranian made weapons to Iraqi militants. The Washington Post reported that coalition forces captured Iranian agents, suspected to be members of the Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guard, in Iraq. The New York Times reported on evidence that Iraqi Shiite fighters were being trained in Iran as late as 2010.

While the Obama and Bush Administrations reached out diplomatically to Iran, the Iranians were actively engaged in a proxy war against the U.S. and the Iraqi government. A look at history shows that Iran has actually been engaged in a shadow war against the United States since 1979. It was less than three years ago that federal agents disrupted an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. by blowing up a restaurant in the District of Columbia. Given the history of Iran with both Iraq and the United States, it is not surprising that the radical Islamist regime would move to fill the power vacuum left in Iraq as the U.S. withdraws.

The logical move to protect the U.S. gains in Iraq would have been to negotiate an extension to the status of forces agreement that would allow U.S. forces to remain and assist the Iraqi government in a limited capacity. This agreement would have been in the interest of both the United States, which wants stability in the Middle East, and Iraq, which needs to prevent a resurgence of sectarian violence in order to maintain control of the country.

In October 2011, Foreign Policy magazine reported that even though the Iraqi government had acceded to allowing 8,000 to 20,000 American soldiers to remain in Iraq, the status of forces talks fell apart over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops. The Obama Administration insisted that the immunity be granted in the treaty, something that was not politically possible for al-Maliki government and something that Bush Administration had not demanded in the previous status of forces agreement.

A former senior congressional staffer told Foreign Policy that a treaty agreement was never required. “An obvious fix for troop immunity is to put them all on the diplomatic list; that's done by notification to the Iraqi foreign ministry," he said. "If State says that this requires a treaty or a specific agreement by the Iraqi parliament as opposed to a statement by the Iraqi foreign ministry, it has its head up it’s a--."

In their 2012 debate, Paul Ryan charged that Vice President Joe Biden “was put in charge of those negotiations and he failed to get an agreement” according to the Washington Post. Biden denied the charge, but a month earlier the New York Times had reported that Mr. Biden had chaired a videoconference on Oct. 6, 2010 where he had advanced the idea of replacing Iraqi president Jalal Talibani, a Kurd, with Ayad Allawi of the nonsectarian Iraqiya party as a counterweight to Prime Minister al-Maliki. Talibani would be shifted to the post of foreign minister as a consolation prize, a plan that elicited a retort of “Thanks a lot, Joe,” from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ultimately Talibani refused to step aside.

During the conference, Biden proclaimed, “Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise. I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA (status of forces agreement).” Biden was ultimately proven wrong.

Read Part two: How Obama lost Iraq

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