Is Iraq an Iranian Proxy?

Inquiring minds want to know.

In recent weeks, the U.S. media has highlighted Iraq's ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran -- namely, how it has helped Iran subvert the international sanctions regime and enabled Iranian support to the Syrian regime. This is leading to uncomfortable questions over whether the new Iraq is an ally of the United States, as President Barack Obama's administration claims, or a client state of Iran, as many of its neighbors fear.

In fact, Baghdad's political allegiances are not so easy to pigeonhole. To understand Iraq's foreign policy, it is important to recognize how domestic and regional environments shape its behavior.

The Iraq war had three unintended consequences in the Middle East. First, it dramatically shifted the regional balance of power in Iran's favor, due to the toppling of Saddam Hussein's vehemently anti-Iranian regime and the destruction of Iraq's military. Iran's resurgence, along with the extension of its influence into Arab countries, sets off a struggle for regional leadership between Iran on one side and the United States and Saudi Arabia on the other. This competition manifests itself today in Persian-Arab and Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Middle East.

Second, the Iraq war brought about the evolution and growth of jihadi groups -- Sunni extremists who were inspired to fight U.S. forces in Iraq and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Such groups see new opportunities in the Arab Spring to expand their power in the region. Although al Qaeda in Iraq has been weakened, it is threatening a revival, boosted by the perceived successes of jihadi groups in Syria. On Sept. 28, for instance, al Qaeda launched an attack on a prison in Tikrit, freeing dozens of its members. This was part of the terrorist group's "Destroying the Walls" offensive, which has seen a wave of attacks throughout Iraq over the last few months.

Third, the war led to a bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq, as various militias competed to fill the power vacuum created by the overthrow of the Baath regime. Iraq is still emerging from this civil war: Most stakeholders are participating in the political process, but they still maintain the capacity to fight. Mistrust and fear prevent the implementation of power-sharing agreements, and the specter of a return to civil war still lurks in the background.

The fragility of the Iraqi state harms its ability to project a consistent, coherent foreign policy. Iraqi politicians are gripped primarily by the desire to protect and expand their own power and resources. To do so, they often look for foreign patrons: It is no secret that many of Iraq's politicians take funding from neighboring countries, as well as from state coffers. Unsurprisingly, there is little willingness across the political spectrum to push forward a law in parliament that would reveal details of party financing. However, though Iraqis may be influenced by their "donors," this does not mean they are controlled by them.

It's not just foreign patronage that skews Iraqi policy -- it's the pernicious influence of sectarianism, which the Iraq war heightened. This phenomenon has come and gone in waves through the centuries -- in recent memory, the 1979 Iranian revolution reverberated across the region, creating apprehension in other states that feared its influence on their Arab Shiite populations and on local Islamic movements.

Today, sectarianism has replaced the Palestinian cause as politicians' most reliable means to rally support -- and to distract from their own failures to deliver. While many of Iraq's elites have become increasingly wealthy thanks to the increase in oil exports, Iraq's people still struggle to receive basic services, such as electricity.

Identity politics also undermines Iraq's attempts to establish a consistent foreign policy. For instance, some Shiite politicians portray the alternative to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a fundamentalist Salafi regime, which will support the creation of a "Free Iraqi Army" -- Sunni rebels funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- to overthrow Iraq's Shiite government. Some Kurdish politicians also play on fears that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is turning into a dictator who will deploy U.S.-supplied F-16s against the Kurdish people. Meanwhile, some Sunni politicians claim that Iraq is becoming an Iranian client state led by Shiite clerics.

These tensions have led to questions about the viability of the Iraqi state. Some observers portray Iraq as an "artificial" state made up of three homogenous and antagonistic communities -- Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. They argue that it was held together only by dictatorship and that Saddam's removal inevitably led to fighting due to "ancient hatreds." But that is an inaccurate reading of Iraq: While Iraq's different peoples have at times had a troubled history with the country's rulers, relations between the communities themselves have been mostly peaceful over the centuries -- much more so than relations between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Iraqi tribes have members who are Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish, and intermarriage has been common since the time of the monarchy.

It's the explosion of sectarian hatred following the U.S. invasion that is the anomaly. During the Iran-Iraq War, Shiites constituted around 80 percent of the foot soldiers and 20 percent of the officers of the Iraqi Army -- and fought loyally for the Iraqi state. Most Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs are Iraqi nationalists -- even though they have different interpretations of what the concept means and what Iraq's foreign-policy orientation should be. Sunnis tend to believe that Iraq should be aligned with the Arab world against Iran, while Shiites believe some Sunni countries pose a threat to them.

The question is: What equilibrium will Iraq find? Will it revert back to authoritarianism, with its leader crushing dissent, this time with U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped security forces? Some people certainly worry it will. In the old Middle East, dictatorship produced extremism -- today, new elites may use the very methods that were once used against them to put down threats to their rule.

Will Iraq's elites reach agreement on the rules of the game by which politics will be conducted? One positive indicator of this was the recent willingness of political parties from different coalitions to work together in parliament to prevent Maliki from increasing the number of commissioners on the Independent High Electoral Commission, as they believed it would be to his advantage.

Will the next elections bring to power new elites who pursue a national agenda, providing Iraqis with a positive vision of the future? In the new Iraq, everything is possible.

Iraq's relationship with the United States also depends on the answers to these questions. While Kurds tend to be highly supportive of the United States, Iraq's Arabs are more ambivalent. Sunnis feel a sense of disenfranchisement in the post-Saddam political order, complaining that they were held collectively responsible for the previous regime. Many Shiites remain suspicious of U.S. motives as well -- even if the United States portrays itself as the country that overthrew their tormentor and put them in power. The followers of Moqtada al-Sadr are a textbook example of this: After being excluded from power in 2003, they mobilized their base around resistance to the U.S. occupation and blamed the United States for supporting Saddam. They also hold the United States responsible for imposing sanctions on Iraq, which caused great suffering to the Iraqi people -- and left the Baath regime with an even tighter grip on society.

Some Iraqi politicians believe that a regional sectarian war is brewing, with the United States on the side of the Sunni countries against the Shiites. They fear that the United States may sacrifice Iraq's Shiites in its confrontation with Iran -- betraying them as it did in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush called for Iraqis to rise up against Saddam -- and when they did so, stood by while they were slaughtered.

The United States faces many pressing questions that will deeply affect how it is viewed by Iraqi Shiites. For instance, will U.S. support for the Syrian opposition bring a Salafi government to power? Will the United States remain silent in the face of Saudi and Bahraini oppression of their Shiite populations? Will the United States and Israel bomb Iran's nuclear program?

Many Iraqis fear for the future of their country, due to both problems of their own making and those coming from outside Iraq's borders. Iraq still struggles with the incapability of politicians to advance truly national interests, the incompetence of the bureaucracy, and regional struggles that pull Iraqis in different directions. Should Syria break down into sectarian enclaves, the reverberations will be felt in Iraq. Many Iraqis predict the end of the nation-states created by Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

Iraq finds itself walking a tight rope, caught between the United States and Iran -- as well as in the proxy war playing out between Sunni and Shiite powers in the region. Iraq's government calculates that the United States needs it as an ally to keep oil flowing and to have it buy U.S. weapons. But as U.S. influence declines, Turkey and Iran are once more filling the power vacuum in the region. Iraqis have seen this movie before.



We Are All Malala

Why can't Pakistanis condemn the Taliban for shooting a 14-year-old girl?

KARACHI — On Oct. 9, masked Taliban gunmen stopped Malala Yusufzai, a 14-year-old Pushtun girl from Pakistan's scenic Swat area, identified her, and then shot her. A day later, the girl lies in a hospital bed, battling for life after doctors removed the bullet from her head. As Pakistanis, all of us, in some way, are fighting the same broader struggle with misogyny and ignorance. We are all Malala.

In the eyes of the Taliban, Malala's crime was campaigning for the rights of women to get an education. She shot to fame by writing on the BBC's website about the horrors of living amid a Taliban insurgency, and openly condemned the Taliban for prohibiting girls from going to school. She nearly paid for it with her life. A Taliban spokesman called her crusade an "obscenity," and said that if she survived, the Taliban would try to kill her again.

The Taliban blow up Sufi shrines; worshippers at mosques; and men, women, and children in markets. They go for maximum carnage, taking dozens of lives either with the help of remote-controlled bombs or by luring in dazed, brainwashed nutcases to commit suicide in public by detonating dynamite strapped around their waists. The Taliban have also targeted specific individuals: senior police officials, politicians, captured soldiers, journalists, and even some religious scholars belonging to Muslim sects and sub-sects that the Taliban consider heretical. Now, add to this list of victims a 14-year-old schoolgirl specifically targeted because the Taliban think she ridiculed and defied the dictates ordained by God and his scriptures.

Who is responsible for the Taliban's murderous rage? A number of TV journalists, talk-show hosts, religious parties, and even some non-religious ones have continued to connect U.S. drone attacks in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan with the spree of death unleashed by the Taliban and the sectarian outfits allied to them. Fearing both the extremists and losing support from those swept up in the anti-American wave, they find it difficult to condemn Taliban atrocities without mentioning drones.

Pakistani moderates have accused Taliban supporters of being naive, or worse, of being apologists. The so-called apologists have retaliated by labeling their accusers "liberal fascists," or even "American-CIA agents." They complain that these "liberal fascists" are always quick to condemn attacks from the Taliban, but remain quiet when U.S. drone strikes kill innocent people.

This argument contains enough rhetorical power to win instant approval from a people squirming in a country ravaged by economic crises, crime waves, unabashed corruption, terrorism, a civil war in the north, a government and military dangerously ambiguous toward the Islamists and the Taliban -- a society whose soul is being constantly pulled from all sides by the growing ranks of revivalists claiming that their understanding and interpretation of Islam is the most correct and accurate.

This argument starts to seem somewhat hollow when those claiming to fight a holy war against the United States and Pakistan are caught flogging women in public and blowing up schools. It starts to sound somewhat superficial when Taliban gunmen storm a schoolbus, shooting a 14-year-old girl in the head and neck amid the screams of terrified schoolchildren.

In the late 1960s, leftist intellectuals locked horns with right-wing Islamic ideologues to debate the ideology of their country and what it meant to be a Pakistani. The ideologues, with the help of mighty usurper Gen. Zia ul-Haq, won. Through textbooks, media, and politics, they advocated a Pakistan for which jihad was required.

But when such a jihad for a pious, powerful, and just Pakistan mutated into a mad grab for street and state power by violent sectarian organizations and outfits like the Taliban, the country plunged into an awkward existentialist and identity crisis.

Today, even the most educated Pakistani (especially if he or she is young), cannot differentiate between articles of faith ordained by God and the discourses of Islamic ideologues, who emerged at the end of the 19th century with the desire to Islamize society from below so that an Islamic state could be constructed from above. Secular or moderate Islamic scholars can distinguish between what the Prophet Mohammed taught, and the more modern laws that condemn blasphemers to death or the hudood laws that have imprisoned thousands of women in jails for rape. Their rape. But very few Pakistani Muslims are willing or able to make the same distinction.

At times, one can find a Pakistani hesitating to condemn a killer who murdered another person for suspected blasphemy. Though a tragically large number of people jumped with joy when a man assassinated the supposedly blasphemous governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January 2011 (he had spoken out against the country's blasphemy laws), even more Pakistanis were thrown into a mental quagmire, trying to figure out if the killer did the right thing.

Forget about comprehending the matter through secular reasoning: A man who commits cold-blooded murder deserves to be tried. It was as if many felt that condemning the killer or his act amounted to condemning Islam itself.

In Malala's case, thankfully, no one showered rose petals on the perpetrator, like some lawyers did after Taseer's murder. A flood of statements condemning the young girl's shooting came pouring in from politicians, military men, journalists, and common people. But only few were ready to explicitly mention, or even condemn, the perpetrator: the Taliban.

Some of Pakistan's gallant politicians and wise ulema refused to speak out from fear. Others kept silent to safeguard their belief that the drones are bigger culprits than men who have thus far killed more than 36,000 civilians, soldiers, and police in our country.

I hope it is Malala's fate to convince a confused population that the crisis facing Islam today results not from the intrigues of other faiths or different ways of life, but from those claiming to be its most vehement defenders.