OPINION | INTERNATIONAL
November 04, 2020 – 06:30 PM EST
BY C. ALEXANDER OHLERS, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill
U.S. presidential elections have had a significant impact on Iraq, from the 2002 decision to invade Iraq to the 2020 strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a contentious history in Iraq that may have many Iraqi leaders in fear of a Biden victory.
Directly after taking office, President Obama appointed Vice President Biden to oversee U.S. operations and diplomacy in Iraq. At that time, Iraq had begun to stabilize. The once-formidable al Qaeda in Iraq had been all but defeated and relegated to the outskirts of Mosul and civilian deaths fell to about one-fourth of what they had been before the “surge.”
But by the end of the vice president’s first term, civilian casualties in Iraq rose by almost 400 percent to over 20,000, and ISIS (a.k.a. ISIL, IS, Daesh) flew its black flag from Syria through northern Iraq to a point about 60 miles outside of Baghdad.
What happened during the period that Biden oversaw Iraq? In 2009, Iraqiyya, a multi-sectarian and moderate political party founded by Sunni leader Rafe al-Essawi and Shia leader Ayad Allawi, challenged then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition in the 2010 national election and won with a narrow victory.
Iraq’s parliamentary system designates that the winning electoral party has the first shot at forming a coalition government with other parties. Maliki, however, influenced the court and had the interpretation of the law altered that led to a six-month standoff in which Maliki, backed by Iran, retained power but was unable to form a coalition government.
Joe Biden and the Obama administration faced a decision: to support the democratic results of the election or to back Maliki’s bid to retain power. Against the advice of Ambassador Robert Ford, a six-year diplomatic veteran of Iraq, General Ray Odierno and others, Biden and then-Ambassador Hill decided to backstop Maliki and the State of Law Coalition.
The administration’s reasoning is not entirely clear. Michael R. Gordon and retired Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor report in their book, “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama,” that Vice President Biden was convinced that Maliki would deliver a Status of Forces Agreement.
Another interpretation is that the Obama administration, which was in the process of negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (Iranian Nuclear Deal), succumbed to Iranian interests. In line with this view, Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi attested that a senior member of the U.S. administration (possibly Biden) communicated that the U.S. would never back a prime minister from Iraqiyya, “because of Iranian opposition to this notion.”
Regardless of the reason, Biden’s fateful decision to support Maliki would seed political turmoil in Iraq that, according to General Petraeus and others, paved the way for the rise of ISIS.
Upon securing the premiership, Maliki reneged on several power-sharing agreements with Iraqiyya. Instead, the prime minister moved to consolidate power by exerting control over independent Iraqi institutions and appointing high-level security positions without required constitutional approval that transformed Iraqi security forces into sectarian instruments. The Status of Forces Agreement never materialized, and immediately after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, Maliki placed tanks in front of the homes of Sunni leaders in the Green Zone.
In 2012, the Iraqi government attempted to intercept and arrest the Iraqiyya leader and then Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi using a roadblock with two hovering choppers. Essawi and his convoy were tipped-off in advance and escaped to Anbar province in an incident that sparked Sunni protests. Similarly, Sunni Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi fled to Kurdistan to avoid imminent arrest and was sentenced to death in absentia, and Sunni MP Ahmed al-Alwani was apprehended in a raid that killed his brother and several of his bodyguards.
Maliki also disbanded the Sons of Iraq (the Awakening movement) that spearheaded the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq during the “surge.” By 2011, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was on the rise under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, fueled in part by Sunni and Kurdish discontent, the absence of U.S. forces and the degradation of Iraqi security forces. By 2014, ISIS was recruiting approximately 30,000 fighters from 86 or more countries, expanded through networks across the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and commanded an international propaganda and terror campaign.
In late 2014, the Obama administration sent troops to Iraq under Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), but much too late to quell the insurgency. Furthermore, counter-ISIS operations relied heavily on Iranian-backed militia groups, or PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces), that are loyal to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and then-General Qassem Soleimani.
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Although PMF groups, such as the Badr Organization, were active in Iraq before OIR, they proliferated to over 100,000 fighters during Vice President Biden’s tenure. Their expanding influence solidified with Maliki’s creation of the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) in 2014, which legitimized PMF militia groups under Iraq’s security framework and funneled Iraqi funds to the Iranian-backed militias.
In 2018, PMF leaders formed political parties under the Fatah Alliance and won the second most seats in the 2018 election, nearly taking control of the government. The PMF remains a powerful political and military proxy for Iran that threatens to render Iraq an Iranian client state.
C. Alexander Ohlers is a former senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq and currently serves as a visiting fellow at the University of Tennessee.