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Iran big winner in the Iraqi debacle 30 juin 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, USA / Etats-Unis.
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India Today, Monday, June 30, 2014, pages 28-29

Bruce Riedel *

The rampage by Sunni ISIS insurgents in Iraq not only catches the US off guard but gives Iran the handle to influence the Arab world’s largest Shia population. The stunning success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams (ISIS), a Sunni terrorist group which began as al Qaeda in Iraq in 2003, in seizing control of almost a third of Iraq in less than a week came as a shock to Washington. Blame for underestimating ISIS is already becoming a major political issue, but America has been caught off guard by al Qaeda in Iraq for well over a decade because politics distorts intelligence. In the long run, Iran will be the big winner in the Iraqi debacle.

Before the American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was virtually no al Qaeda presence in the country. In fact there was only Ahmad Fadil alKhalayilah aka Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of what is ISIS today. Al-Zarqawi, a nom de guerre, was a petty Jordanian gangster who came to Iraq in 2001 from Afghanistan to start preparing for the invasion.

He started from scratch in 2002, recruiting Sunni extremists for his organisation. Since then US president George Bush publicly telegraphed his plans well in advance of the war, al-Zarqawi had time to set a trap and built cells ready to strike after the invasion. Then al-Zarqawi blew up the UN headquarters in Baghdad, driving most foreigners out of the country. After isolating the Americans and the British, alZarqawi plunged the country into a vicious sectarian civil war, and through his extreme violence, persuaded most of Washington that the war was a bad mistake.


The Bush team knew al-Zarqawi was in Iraq before the war but did not understand what he was doing. The then secretary of state Colin Powell mentioned al-Zarqawi over a dozen times in his famous speech to the UN Security Council trying to suggest that his presence proved there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. That was a big lie; the American intelligence community knew Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and Osama bin Laden.

In fact, Osama bin Laden was suspicious of his Jordanian protege even before 9/11 and sought to keep him at arm’s length. Bin Laden exiled al-Zarqawi for a time to western Afghanistan in 2000 because he distrusted his loyalty and his extreme sectarian violence against the Shias. But bin Laden valued his efficiency once the Iraq war started.

Bush’s surge in 2006 was supposed to destroy al-Zarqawi’s evil empire. Al-Zarqawi and his first successor were killed. But decapitating the group and buying the loyalty of Sunni tribes only forced the terrorists deeper into the angry Sunni underground. Only sustained good and smart governance could have killed al Qaeda. That was something postSaddam Iraq could not produce, with or without the US. Iraqi politicians were not going to cross sectarian divisions and cease being narrow partisan warlords no matter what Washington wanted or lobbied for. But Washington convinced itself that Iraq’s al Qaeda was a spent force and the surge a great success. The Syrian civil war was a gift to the ISIS. At first, it created the al Nusra front as its own agent in Iraq. Al Nusra could be portrayed as an independent party under the leadership of one of al-Zarqawi’s former deputies, Mohammad al Golani, another nom de guerre. Then, ISIS demanded that al Nusra should accept that it was loyal to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri. The protege had turned on its leader’s heir. Ironically, al-Zawahiri had long warned bin Laden of this fate. In his last days in hiding in Pakistan, bin Laden had told al-Zawahiri he had always been right about the upstart Jordanian and his Iraqi gang. Too late.

p. 29

Al-Baghdadi, still another nom de guerre, is an ambitious man. He has successfully cloaked himself in mystery. He avoids the posturing and spotlight-seeking that al-Zarqawi craved, to his undoing. He dismisses the old al Qaeda leadership as not willing to push sectarian hatred enough. His supporters have been calling for al-Baghdadi to be accepted as the true heir to bin Laden as the leader of the global jihad.

Before taking Iraq’s second city Mosul, ISIS had already seized most of Anbar province in Iraq and Raqqah province in Syria. There it enforces a Taliban-style extreme perversion of Islam. Mosul is a much bigger prize, an ancient city with great symbolic value. ISIS also grabbed an estimated $400 million or more from Mosul’s banks, making it the richest terrorist group in history. ISIS is effectively creating a stronghold across the Syrian Desert in the heart of the Arab world, erasing the borders set a century ago by the British and French after the fall of the Ottomans.

Al-Baghdadi, like al-Zarqawi, has even bigger ambitions. Last month, the Saudis foiled a large ISIS plot to carry out attacks in the kingdom. Dozens were arrested. ISIS has recruited thousands of foreign fighters to fight in Syria. Some are reportedly being trained to go home to fight in their native lands. ISIS probably trained the French Muslim who attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels and killed four in May.

Iran apparently was as surprised as the rest of the world by the dramatic offensive in Iraq that drove the Iraqi army from Mosul and Tikrit and left Sunni terrorists on the edge of Baghdad. Iran’s intelligence services seem to have underestimated the al Qaeda-inspired ISIS, just as their western counterparts did. But in Iraq, geography, demography and history all favour Iran. Iran can easily send advisers, experts and special forces to Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq with little or no publicity. Reports that Qassem Soleimani, the top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is already in Baghdad, underscore how quickly Tehran can take action and how well-connected it is to the Maliki regime.


Tehran is also encouraging Iraq’s Shia militias to mobilise the 65 per cent of Iraqis who are fellow Shias to fight the terrorist blitzkrieg. For Tehran it is a historic opportunity to expand its influence to the west among the largest population of Arab Shia in the world. The number two in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has said “the Islamic Republic of Iran is like a lion which the ISIS terrorists can not play with. Just like they felt the sharp wrath of Iran in Syria, they will face it in Iraq”.

The Iranians blame the rise of ISIS and its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq on the 2003 American and British invasion. The irony of course is that the biggest beneficiary of George Bush’s war has been Iran. The war removed Iran’s deadly adversary Saddam Hussein who had imposed the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war on the Islamic Republic.

Iran will play lip service to the need to restore the territorial integrity of Iraq and reunify the nation. In fact, three small Iraqs—Shia, Kurdish and Sunni mini states—is better for Tehran to manipulate than a strong Iraq. Then the Shias will have the upper hand but remain dependent on Tehran.

Iranian help also comes without demands for greater power-sharing by the Shias with the others Iraqi sects, like Washington demands. Tehran wants a pliable Shia strongman, not a democrat.

Al-Baghdadi did not intend his Iraq blitz to serve Iranian interests of course, but like his mentor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s extreme sectarian violence a decade ago, it probably will ultimately benefit Iran. Meanwhile, the entire region is a bloodbath of sectarian hatred which is easy to ignite and almost impossible to stop.

* Bruce Riedel is director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. His new book, What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-1989, will be published in July.


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