Iraqi ‘Soft Line’ on Syria Snubs Obama Policy in Nod to Iran

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Photographer: Adam Berry/Bloomberg

When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke up about the government crackdown in Syria, it wasn’t the hard line that President Barack Obama would want from a U.S. ally in the Middle East.

“I hope that demonstrations in Syria will not be quelled by force,” Maliki told the Iraqi television al-Sumaria on Aug. 13, in his first public response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s five-month crackdown on dissidents. Assad should “respond to the people’s demands and quicken the implementation of reforms.”

The position of the Iraqi leader, whose ascent to power followed the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is out of step with the Obama administration, which is rallying international support for oil and gas sanctions on Syria and today called on Assad to step down.

“It is embarrassing for Washington in general for the Iraqi executive to be taking a soft line on Syrian repression,” said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor of Middle Eastern history. “When faced with a choice of favoring U.S. or Iranian policy, Baghdad tilts to Tehran.”

Assad is fighting the strongest challenge to his regime since he inherited power from his father 11 years ago. He has responded by sending his army to suppress protesters, killing more than 2,000, according to the United Nations.

Testing U.S. Reach

The crackdown is testing the reach of U.S. policy in a country where it has little influence. It’s in the interest of the U.S. that Iraq, where 47,000 American troops remain, acts as a counterweight to Iran, Syria’s steadfast ally in region.

When saying that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” President Barack Obama also announced new sanctions on the Syria, including the freezing of Syrian government assets in the U.S. and a ban on imports of Syrian petroleum products to the U.S.

The stance of Maliki, whose Shiite Muslim party has strong ties with Shiite-led Iran, contrasts with criticism and action against Syria taken by other nearby nations. Tunisia yesterday joined Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain in recalling ambassadors from Damascus. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Assad that the “time for words will be over.”

Even Lebanon, the only Arab country on the UN Security Council, didn’t block a statement from the 15-member body that condemned the violence. Lebanon’s government is dominated by the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah movement and its allies.

Stalled in UN

In New York, attempts by the U.S. and Europe to pass a UN resolution to stop the carnage in Syria are stalled. Russia, which as one of five permanent members has veto power, has indicated it will block steps that go further than an Aug. 3 statement condemning the use of force by Syria’s government.

The war in Iraq has cost 4,478 U.S. lives as of Aug. 16 and $750 billion. The two nations are discussing how many U.S. troops may stay in Iraq to continue training Iraqi forces past the end of the year, when their agreement on the deployment expires.

“Iraq, supposed to be the demo case of U.S. power to people in region, is a strong demo of its limits,” said Scott Lucas, professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham in England. “What we have is failure on every level, and Obama got trapped in the same mindset as Bush.”

The U.S. has also seen Iraq favor other nations in business deals and choose Chinese over U.S. companies when buying weapons and telecommunications equipment. China National Petroleum Corp. is the biggest single investor in Iraq’s oil and gas industry.

Bush’s Decision

In 2008, on the anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, former U.S. President George W. Bush said he made the “right decision” by invading Iraq because a “free Iraq will be an example for others of the power of liberty to change the societies and to displace despair with hope.”

Maliki’s eight-month-old government has shown authoritarian tendencies and forms foreign policy based on political expediency rather than ethics, Cole said.

Iran has extended its political, economic and religious influence in Iraq and become its biggest trading partner. Iran plans to increase its trade with Iraq from $6 billion to $10 billion dollars, Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said on Aug. 15.

Iranian-backed militant groups pose a bigger and more long-term threat to Iraq than an al-Qaeda affiliate that this week killed more than 60 people in one day, said U.S. Army Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, top spokesman for the force in Iraq.

‘Political Engagement’

The Iraqi government is increasingly seeing the militant groups “for the threat they really are,” Buchanan said in an Aug. 17 interview in Washington. “They have the capacity to deal with them, but dealing with them can’t be limited to military means. It also requires political engagement with the Iranians who are ultimately providing that support.”

Iranian companies have invested in Iraqi banking and reconstruction, especially in the cities of Najaf and Karbala, home to some of the world’s most revered Shiite shrines, which welcome hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims each year. Last month, Iran signed a contract for the construction of a 2,500-kilometer (1,554-mile) gas pipeline, which will cross Iraq and deliver Iranian gas to Syria.

Iran “has established influence within the Iraqi territories the extent of which it never dreamed,” Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Muslim, told the London-based al-Hayat newspaper in an interview published Aug. 11. “The presence of the U.S. forces in Iraq all the past years of occupation has not encroached upon the Iranian influence; on the contrary, it’s getting wider.”

Sadr Trend

Iran’s links to Iraq’s political class extend to the Sadr Trend, the political organization of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Followers of Sadr, who has trained in Iran to become an ayatollah, have claimed responsibility for recent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. Sadr said earlier this month that U.S. military trainers will be targeted if the two nations agree to extend the program past this year.

-- With assistance from Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Jim Rubin, Heather Langan, Karl Maier

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