Iraq's State of DisUnion

Ali Allawi, formerly Iraq's Minister of Defense, gives his unflinching analysis of the president's plan for Iraq, which he says is directed as much towards Iran as it is Iraq. In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Allawi sharply calls into question the sovereignty Washington allows Baghdad, the Iraqi government's freedom to craft its own Iran policy, the wisdom of hastily hanging Saddam, and the viability of a centralized state.

Surging Towards Iran?

NIo: What is your opinion of the president's Iraq plan, which he promoted last night in the State of the Union and announced on January 10? Do you believe that putting some conditions on the U.S. commitment, based on Iraqi progress towards reconciliation, would focus the effort or prove counterproductive? What about the proposed increase in U.S. troops?

AA: I'm not a military strategist, but looking at it on the surface, I think 20,000 additional troops to complement the 130,000 already there doesn't seem to be a great boost in the troop numbers. So I don't think it's purely a military gesture, and I don't think it will have a very significant effect on the military equation.

But it's part of a multi-pronged strategy that basically will ratchet up the pressure on the Iraqi government, propose an alternative to it, and at the same time escalate the costs that Iran may have to bear if it continues to confront or challenge the United States in Iraq.

NIo: So in your view, the troop increase is in part intended to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, could you elaborate on that?

AA: Well I think it's clear-the role that Iran has in the Iraqi crisis. It is extremely important and significant, particularly its effect on the Shi‘a Islamist political parties.

And as much as the United States, or the Bush Administration, has objected to possibility of negotiations with Iran, the only alternative course that they have is to confront it, and to challenge it, and to raise the cost of its apparent intervention in the Iraqi crisis.

This of course creates a serious problem for the Iraqi government itself, which is to an extent anchored around the Islamist parties of the United Iraqi Alliance. On the surface it appears to be a contradiction. I mean how can the United States expect that by confronting Iran and Iraq, it is going to get the support of the UIA, which is to some extent dependent on Iranian support-ongoing support-politically and otherwise?

So it's a way of trying to break this conundrum. Now I don't think it's likely to succeed because the only thing that can happen out of this strategy is basically the breakup of the United Iraqi Alliance. You are going to get possibly a new governing majority in parliament, but that would not necessarily reduce the violence or the instability inside the country.

NIo:And what about putting conditions based on Iraqi progress toward reconciliation?

AA: Well I mean the conditions that he's talking about, in many ways they are not really new. They seem to be a way of pressuring what is supposed to be a sovereign government by threatening to withdrawal the support of the United States to the government. Which makes the entire process of having a sovereign government somewhat suspect.

NIo: Regarding those questions about Iraq's level of sovereignty, do you think that the Iraqi government in Baghdad is free to establish a relationship with Iran that is completely independent from U.S. policy towards Iran? Could Iraq then have a dialogue on its own terms and would such a dialogue lead to neighboring countries, like Iran, restraining the groups that they have ties with, that they have an affinity with?

AA: Well, I mean, the United States has a series of problems with Iran, ranging from the nature of the regime itself (which goes back to the days of the hostage crisis in the early ‘80s), right through the confrontations they had with Iran throughout the 1990s in the Gulf, and into the issue of nuclear weapons, which seems to be dominating the agenda now. So these are a set of issues and problems the United States has with Iran. They are not necessarily problems that the Iraqi government should take on board, especially given this very fragile nature of both the government itself and the society emerging out of decades of dictatorship.

So it is not normal, let's say, that Iraq should adopt the U.S. security agenda as it relates to Iran and make it its own. Iran is a neighbor, we can't really overlook the fact there are links of geography, of history, of common religion, and so on. The relationship that Iraq needs to have with Iran has to be an independent, neighborly relationship based on the mutual interests of both countries, not necessarily subject to the strategic imperatives of the U.S. government.

But we have now, I think, been confronted with the Iraqi government having the support of the United States being withdrawn if it does not, as it were, toe the line when it comes to Iran, and especially if it does not toe the line with the administration's interpretation as to Iranian meddling in internal Iraqi affairs.

So this, I think, creates a very complex problem for the Iraqi government, because either you accept the American security agenda and see yourself as part of it-in which case you have to take whatever repercussions emerge from that, including perhaps greater escalation in the domestic level of violence and instability-or you accept the fact that the United States may prevail in this confrontation with Iran, in which case a new a political landscape is drawn for the Middle East.