Zalmay Khalilzad: Maliki and the “Unmaking of Iraq”


July 29, 2014

Zalmay Khalilzad served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007. He later served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Khalilzad is currently a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He spoke to FRONTLINE about the years of rising sectarian violence in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s arrival on the political scene — and why he believes Iraq has since unraveled. This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on July 8, 2014.

Let’s start with [Nouri al-] Maliki. It’s 2006. [The Samarra mosque bombing] has happened. There’s violence in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere, unlike any other time. The president is looking for new direction. Tell us a little bit about what those days were like and how the United States turned its attention and interest to Maliki as somewhat of a surprising candidate for prime minister.

… The Samarra attack had a huge impact on relations between the Sunnis and Shias. Lots of civilians were killed. This was a huge setback for what we had been able to achieve with the participation of the Sunni Arabs and the elections and with the passage of the constitution.

The timing was that since the elections had occurred, there was a focus on formation of a new government. Because the system was parliamentary, there wasn’t a direct election of the prime minister. Parliament had to decide, and the biggest bloc had to nominate someone. …

Initially, the name of someone else was put forward, Ali Adeeb. Because Mr. Adeeb’s father was from Iran, he ran into difficulties in terms of acceptance from the Sunni Arabs in particular. The issue was how to unify Iraq to contain the violence particularly unleashed by Samarra, so you needed someone who could bring all communities together.

Then an alternative was Mr. Maliki. He had the representation of being more Arab. He had spent very little time in Iran. He was also known as someone who was relatively strong, had the leadership qualities. There was also no evidence of corruption.

So his name was vetted with the other two big communities of Iraq, the Kurds and the Sunnis, and they found him acceptable. Therefore, he got [elected], and there was then a lot of discussion about the program of this unity government — it was called the national unity government — what this program would be, how the various positions will be divided in the government.

Particularly there was a great deal of focus on the security ministries, that the ministers be acceptable to all three major communities, that they wouldn’t have ties to militias, because there had been a concern in the previous administration in Iraq that the ministers of interior and defense, particularly interior, tied with militias and militias that infiltrated the police force. They were entrusted by the Sunnis.

So the program and the personnel, as well as the prime minister then as a package, was presented to Parliament, and he became the prime minister.

Maliki comes to your office at one point, and you have a discussion with him about the possibility of becoming prime minister with the backing [of the United States]. … Tell us a little bit about that meeting, how you broached the subject to Maliki, and Maliki’s view about it.

… The first meeting took place in Parliament. Because he was a member of Parliament, [he] asked whether I would come and meet him there, and I said I’d be happy to do so.

So I met him there, and I asked him in the course of our conversation, after saying, “How are things going? What’s going on with the process of government formation?,” I said, “I’m surprised, given that you are more senior in the party than Mr. Ali Adeeb, that your name was not put forward.”

And he told me that “Oh, there was an impression in Najaf” — Najaf, which is the name of the city, but is where Ayatollah Sistani resides — “Najaf had the impression that the United States was against me, and therefore they didn’t want to start with someone who was not going to be able to work with the coalition, besides with the Iraqis.”

And I said: “I don’t know where they have got that impression from. The United States has no position vis-à-vis individuals as such, that we are looking to Iraqis to choose someone who can unify and can lead in this time of great need.” And he said, “Oh.”

He physically changed when I said that, and he said, “Would you not object to me, or do you not object to me?” I said: “It’s not my place to object. Can you get the Shia coalition behind [you], and would the Kurds and Sunnis support you?” That’s the criteria for becoming prime minister based on the constitution of Iraq that I had helped facilitate agreements on, because there were differences of views earlier.

Then he went away, and he came back to the residence that night, and we had further conversations.

You talked to the president about this man. Did you describe him? What was his point of view about it?

President [George W.] Bush was very interested in having this issue of government resolved, because there was violence, there was instability, there was conflict, there was kind of a vacuum of leadership. …

So everybody was distracted by their own circumstances of what job am I going to have or not? Am I going to stay in my ministry? Am I going to be at a place lobbying for positions? And the prime minister was distracted as to is he going to stay, is he going to leave?

This wasn’t a good place for a country that had as many problems as Iraq had, particularly this escalation in sectarian violence caused by Samarra in part. So he wanted to know almost on a daily basis.

I remember having, during the period that I was there, a daily conversation at least once, if not more, with the key players in the administration, particularly the national security adviser, who reported to the president, occasionally a phone call with the president as well, and once a week participating in the National Security Council meeting where the president chaired and I participated from Baghdad.

So the president wanted a strong leader to be selected. He didn’t have a preference. …

So Maliki becomes prime minister. There were weekly teleconferences with the president. … Tell us a little bit about how the relationship grew. … What were those teleconferences like, and what was Maliki drawing from them?

The first thing was that the president wanted to get to know Maliki, because this was a prime minister that he would have to work with to deal with the challenges of Iraq, which was of great importance given the number of forces that we had and the casualties we were taking, the expenditure of resources and time and effort by the president and the country.

So as soon as Maliki was confirmed by Parliament, the president wanted to speak with him. The first conversation, I remember it very distinctly because of what happened.

Maliki came to my residence again. I had a small office upstairs in the residence which had a secure phone, and the president wanted to speak with him on a secure line, so Maliki came. The office wasn’t a luxurious office. It had lawn chairs in the office on the side where there was a desk and my chair.

“And I used to keep telling him: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, the only [person]’ — once half-jokingly — ‘who can carry out the coup is sitting with me. It will be either Gen. Petraeus or Casey before him.'” So he should focus on other issues that are really far more important and more likely than a coup.

So Maliki and one of his assistants were sitting on the lawn chair as I was calling the White House to connect with the president, or the White House was calling me; I don’t remember which way. Probably they were calling me.

As I answered the phone, the president came, and the president was being very friendly with me and nice, and we were having conversations about issues that didn’t seem to be of great significance to Iraq. I wanted to terminate that conversation to give the phone to the prime minister, who was sitting uncomfortably on the lawn furniture, but the president was prolonging it with me.

I said to the president that the Iraqi prime minister is waiting, and the president told me: “Zal, I’m trying to do you a favor. I want the prime minister of Iraq to know that you and I have very close personal relations, so that he would take what you say based on what he’s observing as representing my views, and this will be good for you.” And I appreciated it. That’s why I remember that incident.

That was the first time that they had the conversation, and I think, fortunately, the president wanted to know where Maliki was and what his thinking was, what his priorities were, what kind of a leader he was going to be.

But partially, also, he wanted to help him be a leader: what do you do, what don’t you do. For example, some of our military folks who began to interact with him found Maliki to be, if you like, a micromanager in terms of military operations. He wanted to be able to reach out to a captain or a colonel, bypassing everyone between him as the commander in chief and the colonel, to order him to do a specific operation, go inspect a particular house in this neighborhood based on the intelligence he had received, or go arrest this particular person, or go carry out this operation against this group that may have required a use of force.

Our military folks were very concerned about that. They thought that you should learn that the commander in chief doesn’t call an operator himself and order them to carry out an operation, because an operation requires a lot of different elements of security forces to get involved, and there is a chain of command. …

So the president saw, based on what he was hearing from us, his team on the ground, what he could do to help Maliki be a better leader, a more effective leader, or what a leader ought to operate like.

… [In] 2006, the other problem, of course, is the violence in the streets. So this leadership problem, I guess as it was seen, was hopefully solved?

Well, the government was formed. Maliki became prime minister. A Kurd, Mr. [Jalal] Talabani, was elected to a second term as president. There was a Sunni speaker of Parliament.

The Cabinet was divided with some ministers from the Kurds, some from the Shias, some from the Sunnis. And the securities ministries, the minister of interior and minister of defense, were people that were acceptable to all three communities.

So there was progress on the political track, but the security challenges continued.

And meanwhile our policies were being re-evaluated as well, and Gen. [George W.] Casey’s light foothold strategy was being questioned, so there was talk of a surge as a possible way to go. What was some of the debate about? Were you involved in some of that debate?

Very much so. There was a discussion going on as casualties were increasing. As the political environment in Washington and in the United States was being affected by that, people were questioning whether we knew what we were doing in Iraq.

The administration, responding to the situation in Iraq and the situation in the United States, wisely started a discussion of what should we do? Should we stay the course, which had been approached, until the results of the review became sanctified, or do we change, and change to what? And there was a variety of schools of thought, proposals, the end of which I think there was a change in the military strategy.

I don’t believe there was any change in the political strategy, which was to keep the three communities to cooperate, to build on the outreach that we were doing before with the Sunnis.

My approach had been first to bring them into the political process, that it was very important for their interests for them not to boycott the political process but to participate in it.

I argued with them that if they don’t participate in the political process, if their area becomes just insurgency- or terrorist-infested, there will be numerous security problems in their area: Their educated people will run away; economic development will not occur; that extremism will grow and all of that will change the level of prosperity against them, which they had been more prosperous than other parts of Iraq before, and that United States had not come on a kind of sectarian agenda.

Because some of them argued with me that since the 9/11 terrorists had been all Sunnis, that we had been motivated by the desire to take revenge on the Sunnis, and therefore we came to Iraq to take Iraq from the Sunnis, give it to the Shias, so that the Sunnis will be punished, I told them, “Don’t project your way of thinking onto the United States,” that we wanted an Iraq that worked, that all communities participated, that everyone’s rights were respected, because we were invested now in Iraq’s success.

Having convinced them to participate, then we were reaching to them to come to agreement on going after the terrorists together, and mainstreaming them by them participating also in the security system. So we continued with that and then even more with the surge.

But at the same time, we changed the military strategy by sending more forces and doing more population protection strategy besides going after the terrorists and us focusing on winning, if you’d like, or bringing about more security rather than purely focusing on transitioning the responsibilities for its security to the Iraqis. That was the big change in my view.

… Why do you think the president came to that point where he said: “Enough. We’re going in a very new direction”? …

I think that the situation on the ground and the consequences of that is what caused it. The [situation] on the ground was violence, Iraqis killing each other, violence against the coalition forces.

The consequences of that was the perception in the United States that we didn’t know what we were doing, that we were losing, if you like, and the pressure to disengage completely and accept defeat, if you like, in Iraq.

… We came to a view that the military strategy needed to change, and we needed to go to a more population protection-centric approach… [in which] you secure one area where the people live, and then you reduce the forces there to keep it secure, but then you move to another area to secure it.

Essentially that idea then was resurrected by Gen. [David] Petraeus during this period in a war college, and with support of others, the president embraced that and then that required more forces.

And after discussions with Maliki as to whether he would cooperate if the president was going to take this big decision, as he did, and Maliki agreed with it.

Then the surge happened, and I think the success was conceptual change at one level, then execution of the plan, but it was part of a bigger set of circumstances that became helpful.

One was the turning of the Sunnis away from supporting the insurgency and Al Qaeda. That had to do, in part, with our outreach to them. It had to do in part with the excesses of Al Qaeda in terms of treating the population in the Sunni areas. Their brutality, their backwardness, their oppressiveness began to cause a split.

Also important, in my view, was the Iraqi forces. We had invested heavily in them, and the numbers grew, and they began to play a bigger role. That also, besides our surge, was important.

And lastly, I think Maliki’s role was also important. He did take on some of the Shia militias that were feeding opposition in the Sunni area and getting the Sunnis to look at the resistance, as they called it, or the militias or even the terrorists as their militia.

I think it was a very positive, virtuous combination that came together. But clearly our decision, the decision of the president about the surge, was important.

… Sunnis were on the payroll basically, the idea being that number one, it was a way to defeat Al Qaeda; number two, it was a way to reintegrate Sunnis into the political system. Was that part of the thinking as this was developing?

The thinking of integrating the Sunnis into the political process precedes the surge. If you look at the 2005 period, we were heavily focused and engaged to bring the Sunnis, who had boycotted the election of January 2005, to participate in the election of December 2005, to engage them at all levels.

At the political level, I myself met with many of them in Iraq, in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia, … in Turkey. And then at the lower levels, at the military level, forces in Anbar, the Marines were engaging them to point out the benefits of participation and the risks of not participating and our kind of neutrality — or if you like, in terms of sectarian tensions, that we weren’t here to favor one sect over another — and to show sympathy and empathy for the legitimate aspirations.

For example, when they complained that they were being tortured, their prisoners, by the Interior Ministry forces, we raided the Interior Ministry and found what was going on and did a report and gave it to the government. Since we were investing so much money and resources into building these forces, the forces had to behave in a way that was acceptable to all Iraqis. …

But what happened during the surge was to build on it, to increase it, particularly this desire to bring the militias to work with us, of people involved in the insurgency or the tribes that were helping the insurgency to shift sides, to come with us to fight the extremists on the one hand, but also then to be integrated into the Iraqi security forces to make those security forces as representative as possible. …

How is Maliki in accepting these directions? … Some people say he undercut some of these initiatives. Some say that his heart wasn’t in it to some extent, because he had a more sectarian background. … Was Maliki cooperating?

There was, in the initial period when he became prime minister, a lot of doubt about him, because part of what our military wanted to do in order to increase security was to also do things in the Shia areas, because we thought that the conflict had become sectarian. …

We thought that the problem had become Shia militia who, especially in the aftermath of Samarra, had taken law into their own hands, carrying out operations against the Sunnis.

“He was here, Maliki, in Washington, when the Hashimi issue was bubbling up, and he was getting instant messages and emails and he was expressing some happiness… I advised him that he ought to be very sad.”

Of course some of the militias were also fighting our forces with help from some elements of the structure in Iran, but now they were also involved, the Shia militias, against civilian Sunnis.

So therefore we wanted to be able to act, for example in Sadr City, if cars carrying VBIEDs, vehicle-borne IEDs [improvised explosive devices], we wanted to restrict and search cars coming out of Sadr City into the rest of Baghdad.

That created political problems for him, because that delayed people getting into work and away from work by hours. So Maliki was coming under pressure from his political base saying, well, you can’t punish the entire population because of this.

And we were saying, well, if you want to control the explosion of these IEDs that are brought by vehicles, you need to do that. So that created questions about how serious he was.

Or when we saw militias organizing to carry out operations, raiding that area, again in a place like Sadr City, which was heavily populated, he objected to that, [his] saying the political implications of that had to be taken into account — he had to be informed; he had to approve those processes — raised questions in the minds of our officers and soldiers as to, is he serious about wanting to control these forces or not?

And when we wanted to bring more Sunnis into these forces, again, his base sometimes objected. He always feared and shared those fears with me that are we sure who we are bringing in? Because we may be bringing in [Ba’athists] of the Saddam era, and once they get into the security forces, they will carry out a coup and take over again.

And I used to keep telling him: “Mr. Prime Minister, the only [person]” — once half-jokingly — “who can carry out the coup is sitting with me. It will be either Gen. Petraeus or Casey before him.” So he should focus on other issues that are really far more important and more likely than a coup. …

Did you ever, while sitting across the table, look him in the eyes and wonder, what happens when the United States leaves? What happens when our forces are not here? Will he follow through on the commitments that he has made? …

I did not think of a situation in the foreseeable future that I was operating within that we wouldn’t have forces there.

I had a clear sense from my conversation with the president and with Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld before and Secretary [Robert] Gates — less so; our overlap was shorter– that we would want to maintain some level of presence in Iraq over time. So that was not a scenario that I considered seriously because of the directive that I had.

Because why? What was the importance of remaining there, having the troops there long term?

Because the perception, the belief, the policy was that we want to build a long-term partnership with Iraq, and that partnership involves political, diplomatic cooperation; that partnership involves economic cooperation, and that partnership involves security cooperation, and that in their realm of security, some level of security presence was envisaged to be part and parcel of that.

We weren’t using the terminology of “permanent bases,” because post-Cold War, we weren’t doing permanent bases. But having “forward presence,” having some presence in some facilities in Iraq for the long term as part of a security operation, as part of a strategic partnership, was very much envisaged. …

… Did the surge in any way resolve the Iraq sectarian divide?

I believe it mitigated it. It didn’t resolve it, because I think problems like sectarianism don’t get resolved. They get either increased or decreased, modulated, managed, contained. … I think we played a role of mitigating, containing, reducing the tension.

So 2009, a new president is elected. … What’s the lay of the land in Iraq? And what’s the effect of this new president, with a very different attitude toward Iraq, coming in?

The lay of the land in Iraq is security is improving, an improved level of violence. The number of casualties is way down compared to 2006.

There are issues, clearly, still. There is yet no oil law, no de-Baathification reform, some of the unfinished business of the earlier period. But production of oil is increasing. There are positive developments, particularly in the security area.

You’ve got the new administration beginning to discuss the SOFA, to reduce dramatically the force. There are the preparations for an Iraqi election and new election in 2009.

“Maliki was concerned as to whether he was going to be treated like a Bush appointee. … Was he going to be held at arms’ length?”

And there is also kind of the regional environment that is still unsettled. There are disagreements between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Relations between Iraq and Saudis have not improved. …

And this new president, with a very new set of goals as far as Iraq, what kind of reverberations did that send through Maliki’s government?

I think Maliki was concerned as to whether he was going to be treated like a Bush appointee, and the relationship will be weakened as access to the president. The interaction with the Americans at the high level would continue, or was he going to be held at arms’ length because he had come to power during President Bush’s period and had developed a good working relationship with President Bush?

He was quite attuned to the domestic politics of the United States, how unpopular the war had become, and how in the presidential race in the United States the Iraq war was one of the defining issues; who stood where on this war even inside the Democratic Party. So he was concerned about what was going to happen.

And what does happen?

I think the president delegates the handling of Iraq. Generally the belief was there, and those of us in the United States felt it was delegated to Vice President [Joe] Biden, who had traveled to Iraq extensively as a senator, and the immediate focus was on coming to some kind of agreement on SOFA. And the president did say that he was prepared to keep a residual number of forces in Iraq.

Then at the same time, the Iraqi election was front and center. And once the Iraqi election had occurred, Mr. [Ayad] Allawi’s party, called Iraqiya, won more seats than Maliki’s party.

I felt the success of those two parties also showed political progress in Iraq, the waning of sectarianism and the rise of cross-sectarianism, because Iraqiya was a secular party that had a lot of Sunni support but had some Shia support as well. For it to go from 25 seats in the previous election to 92 seats in the 2009 election showed increased support for secular or cross-sectarian and less support for sectarian parties.

And Maliki, who had been the leader of a religious party, a Shia religious party by one of its leaders, adapted by establishing a new party called the State of Law, which had nothing to do with a sect as such, and he was the second largest party. He too moved away from being sectarian.

These two were the two biggest political forces, the State of Law and the Iraqiya, afterward. So government formation became a preoccupation of the administration as well.

… [Maliki] was not having his weekly conversations with the president of the United States anymore. He knew that the president made a speech in January where he basically made it pretty plain that we were moving out of there no matter what. Did he in some ways decide that the Bush years are over, this is a very different world; I’ve now got to protect my power base? …

… I remember when I went to see him in it may have been sometime in mid-2009 to late 2009. We were talking about how things were going. It was just him and one of his ministers whose Arabic and English were good, because sometimes we would speak a little bit in Arabic, and then in order to be clear that we understood each other, we would use an interpreter.

We talked about President Bush and how is he relating to this administration, since I knew the interactions with the previous administration. He was quite nostalgic and said, “How is President Bush? I wish I could talk to him,” and so forth. I said, “Do you want to talk with him?” He was very enthusiastic. “Can I really talk to him?”

I had picked up my cell phone and called President Bush’s office in Dallas, and within a few minutes they were talking with each other. And I could tell that he missed the ability to reach out. …

“I think the consequences [from the U.S. pullout] are that a vacuum was created that was filled by regional rivals, with Iran coming in and gaining more influence in Baghdad and in the south.”

I thought that Maliki was a little uncertain where things were going because of that absence of the kind of connectivity that he had with President Bush.

So the 2010 election takes place. The United States basically backs Maliki, is the one to sort of name the new government, despite the fact that he had less seats. Is that important? Some people say that’s a turning point, that if Allawi had been allowed to set up the government, if Maliki had been pushed out of the prime minister role, it might have allowed more of a chance for power sharing, more of a secure Iraq moving forward, alleviating some of what happens afterward that we’re seeing today.

It would have been very important, in my view, to follow the constitution of Iraq in order to maintain support for the process and to show that being cross-sectarian pays off. It has political consequence.

And to ask Allawi to form the government, he may have or he may not have succeeded in forming a government. Although he was the largest bloc, he wasn’t the majority, and therefore he would have had to convince some Shia, Kurds and some of the Sunnis who had separate parties of their own to vote for him.

But that did not happen. Instead Maliki maneuvered, used the judiciary in a politicized way by getting a judgment from the court that said the bloc that even forms after the election, if it’s larger than the bloc that won the election, as they were before the election, can lead in forming the government. And we kind of bandwagoned with that, rather than pushing back and saying the constitution had to be followed.

And an even bigger mistake, in my view, was in retrospect, that once the government had been formed with Maliki leading, … the package that was part of the agreement on the staffing of the government — establishment of this new position of a senior group of a strategic council that Ayad Allawi was to chair — was never formed.

Some of the other agreements that were in place on policy issues did not occur, and we became much more disengaged after intense engagement in the formation of the government with a vice president and the president being hands-on, calling. Then we didn’t push, pursue, cajole to have these other elements also be implemented.

Then add to that the absence of a SOFA and total withdrawal and the deterioration of the region, all of this then impacted Iraq.

We had secret meetings with them, and Allawi and Maliki were in the room. There were agreements that they would go in certain directions, and in the end they refused. It failed.

It didn’t work. It was not implemented. It failed. I think that was a serious setback, in my judgment.

And we no longer had the impetus to push harder?

I think there may have been a number of factors. One may have been that we declared victory when the government finally was formed. There was a sigh of relief, because it had almost been 10 months of wrangling without a government being formed, almost a world record. And so a government was formed, so that was a big success.

Then our level of engagement, the intensity of engagement necessarily declines, because we’ve achieved the big success with all the other grubby details to get the whole package implemented.

In my judgment we tried. It isn’t that we tried. We didn’t try hard enough, persistently enough to make those happen. And then our focus became more on the forces and the withdrawal of forces.

… What was the core reason at this point that we didn’t seem to have the influence that we had had in the past?

My judgment is that one, they probably did not see it as make or break in our relationship with them. If Maliki had believed that this was of great importance to the United States, that it would have severe negative implications if he didn’t, I think he would have listened. …

And second is that I think our agenda shifted to the SOFA issues much more, and I think that also affected Maliki.

… Did the Obama administration make a huge mistake there? What’s your take over the back-and-forth between Maliki and Obama and the final results there?

There are several factors that I think are important here. One is that in the process of government formation, after the elections, Maliki became more dependent on Iran, because he needed to keep the Shia support for himself to remain prime minister.

And Iran had its own conditions for support of Maliki, one of which was, it appears, not to have a SOFA with the United States, not to allow residual U.S. forces there. So that was one impression.

And I believe Maliki may have acquiesced during that period of government formation, perhaps believing that he can change his mind later on and get away with it. But he did make, it appears, that commitment to the Iranians to deal with the issue at hand, which was for him to become prime minister and have their support.

A contentious point some people say never happened. Other people say that it did happen.


Some people there were reporting that there was an agreement that our government actually had in their hands that defined that stipulation. You do believe it’s true?

I believe that there is merit. I’m not entirely confident. I think there is merit to this idea, because it was very clear that the Iranians did not want, … that there shouldn’t be a SOFA agreement.

… So another reason for [Maliki] to stand by the idea that there would be no legal protections for soldiers…

I think he tried, in my own view, to find the middle path, to have his cake and eat it too, and to manage the various constituencies, which was that he would give executive branch immunity from prosecution in Iraq to the Americans but not to take it to Parliament, where he thought his rivals would score political points against him and put him in a difficult position vis-à-vis Iran as well. …

I think as these issues were being discussed, the numbers were coming down of how many troops we would really keep in Iraq. And based on my conversation with some Iraqis, they came to a view that for this few a number, should the prime minister pay the political price of going to Parliament to fight it out, and that we weren’t really working very hard to help him in getting support from the other political forces, some of whom were friendly with us. …

The troops have pulled out. There are grand ceremonies. It’s treated like a victory. The president speaks of it that way. The vice president speaks of it that way. How did you view it?

I thought, and I argued at the time, that this was not the right outcome, that we needed to maintain a residual presence, and that we weren’t taking any casualties; that Iraq was an important country; its future was important for us and for the region, and that given our role on the political-economic fronts, that having a security presence, it was going to enable us to play those roles more effectively.

And that the Iraqis had not developed, in terms of political and security relations, whether it was with regard to dealing with extremism and terrorism in the north part in terms of Kurdish forces and Iraqi forces, where we at times would have before three-way meetings to deal with problems as they arose, and that we were a kind of cushion, a mediator, that the removal of that would be negative for Iraq and therefore for our interest in Iraq in that region. So I was very concerned about it.

And the consequences long term from the decision is what, do you think?

I think the consequences are that a vacuum was created that was filled by regional rivals, with Iran coming in and gaining more influence in Baghdad and in the south.

Turkey, another rival for influence and a rising power like Iran, came into more influence in Kurdish region and among some Sunnis, and a variety of Arab countries also competing with each other for the Sunni areas and therefore pulling the country in different directions.

And you add to that then the issue of the unraveling of Syria a little later, and Maliki becoming more fearful with the challenge to Bashar [al-Assad], and the opposition being predominantly Sunni, and that if they succeed in Syria he could be next; and Iran, wanting to help Bashar, pushed Maliki as Iran gained more influence in Iraq to side more and more with Bashar, polarization further increasing inside Iraq, because the Sunnis did not support the policy of supporting Bashar, and as Maliki’s suspicion and fears increased, he became more sectarian in his approach toward the Sunnis.

And also, as his relation with Turkey deteriorated, his relations also with the Kurds of his own country began to deteriorate.

Some people point to the start of all of that, the day after the troops leave, [Tariq] al-Hashimi’s house is surrounded, his own vice president, and after that there are other crackdowns on Sunni leaders. What was that all about? … Was that the death of the power sharing that all of you had worked so hard to achieve?

I think that was a very negative signal. I remember that he was here, Maliki, in Washington, when the Hashimi issue was bubbling up, and he was getting instant messages and emails and he was expressing some happiness that this kind of evidence, as he saw it, against Tariq Hashimi was gathering or being gathered by security people.

I advised him that he ought to be very sad, not happy that he was coming across evidence like that; that he, Tariq Hashimi, whatever else one could say about him, that he had been one of the first Sunni leaders that had agreed to participate in the political process, and in that process his brother and sister were murdered by Al Qaeda because he had made that decision to participate, and that that was worth a lot, and that he needed to make sure that this wasn’t some manufactured thing, because from his demeanor, I suspected that he was pleased and that maybe somebody was feeding him things knowing that he would like to receive that kind of thing, and that would be very unfortunate for Iraq.

And it’s not only that one. It was after that that other moves were made [against] others —

Against Finance Minister [Rafi al-] Issawi. I used to tell him that one of the attributes of a leader is to be able to work with others, to give them credit, to make sure they also are seen as valuable, contributing, and that I noticed after a few months of observing him as prime minister that he had a hard time with that: giving credit to others, bringing them in and building a relationship with them.

And I remember one meeting which I think, who can you work with, because I was hearing so many complaints from other members of the government. And that has been, I think, one of the persistent issues with him.

But he did some great things in the earlier period. I think he showed enormous courage when he went to Basra to take on [Muqtada al-] Sadr’s militia. He took some tough decisions with to Sadr City. I think he rose to the challenge on those issues. But he has had some failings, particularly in his second term. …

… Do you think that Obama’s national security team was too caught up in domestic politics, that it wasn’t focused on the long-term importance of Iraq?

I think so. I think they were not that interested in Iraq. They weren’t elected, I believe, to do Iraq. And they have been, for the most part, not that interested to make a serious effort with regard to Iraq.

I think this is clear when you talk to Iraqi leaders generally until recently. I think with the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] terrorist movement, there is again a perception of maybe re-engagement. But prior to that, there was a broad belief that the United States, the Obama administration felt that Iraq was behind us.

Was this a radical mistake for the administration?

I think so. I think the mistake was not only in Iraq but also in Syria. I believe that maintaining a residual force in Iraq would also have a positive effect on the crisis in Syria, because I think it would have been far less likely that Iran would have been able to overfly or use the land routes to support Bashar. It would have been less likely for the two wars to become intertwined or the two conflicts, Iraq and Syria. …

“I believe that maintaining a residual force in Iraq would also have a positive effect on the crisis in Syria, because I think it would have been far less likely that Iran would have been able to overfly or use the land routes to support Bashar.”

The radicalization of the Syrian opposition that ISIS is one of the manifestations of is the result of the desperate situation of the Syrian opposition, where in this brutal war only extremists can continue to fight, where you believe in life after death, where you believe everything is the will of God, or you have some extreme views.

Moderates don’t survive in environments where barrel bombs, chemical weapons and such things are being used. I think we will pay a price for that, what we did in Iraq and we did or didn’t do in Syria for time to come.

How dangerous is this situation?

I imagine that you get a terrorist group in the heart of the Middle East in the thousands, with people from all over the world participating in it, with access to huge and imaginable resources when you compare it to Afghanistan — where I also served, where the terrorists and extremists were there, but they didn’t have access to the kind of resources — and the geographic location is far more threatening, first to the area, of course, but then to the region and to the world. So I think this is going to be a preoccupation for sometime to come.

Does it prolong the war on terrorism into the unlimited future? …

I think terrorism will be with us for decades to come. To overcome it, societies of that region need to be normalized, transformed. … And therefore, especially in this more integrated world, we can’t really isolate ourselves from [it] by coming home.

We need to deal with it, and we need to be involved, build the right coalition, the right presence, military posture to deal with it.

… The whole phenomenon of ISIS. A lot of people have come in and … said that there were warning signs for months, a year before, of what was going on. … And yet our government didn’t seem to want to react, didn’t seem to want to believe that it was possible that they would be dragged back into this thing. What’s your take on all of that?

Unfortunately, I’ve had the experience that sometimes wishful thinking can have a distorting effect. And the desire not do something has a distorting effect on how you see the facts, unfortunately. It does happen.

I believe, based on conversations with locals, such as the Kurdish leaders, that they have been warning for some months before about the rise of ISIS and the threats that they were going to present to Maliki’s government — they didn’t take it seriously — and to others, including ourselves. And I think we underestimated the rapidity with which the situation changed. …

… What’s the solution? …

We need to have a two-track approach, in my view. First track, we have to, as the president has done, work with the Iraqis to see if a true unity government can be formed.

The timing is good because the Iraqis have just had an election. They need to form a new government. This is an opportunity to put a government together — Iraqis obviously have the primary responsibility — that can address the legitimate grievances of the Sunnis, and then working with that government and with the local leaders and get the Sunnis to take on the ISIS terrorists.

To some extent, repetition of what happened the last time, we have to redo that. But on the other hand now, with no forces there, with much less of a footprint, how much do we know about the situation on the ground, who the leaders are, what arrangements can be made to turn them to work with us and with Iraqis government against ISIS? But that’s a necessary one.

Two, if Iraq doesn’t do that, if they can’t form a unity government, I think it’s likely that the Kurds would want to go in a separate direction to protect themselves from the Shia-Sunni civil war and all of the problems that this is causing.

And it may be that as a result of this, problems and not being able to cooperate, the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, that we may not be able to work with the Baghdad government, as it may go more under the influence of Iran, because it could not meet our condition that there has to be a unity government before we do a lot with them on the security front, that we will have to protect our interests against this terror from Erbil, from the Kurdish region.

So we need to hedge by also being able to adjust the second track, being able to work with local forces if the center ultimately, does not work. I believe that we need to take another look at the threat, which is very serious and growing, and adjust our posture, be agile enough to deal with it.

I think for Iraq the formula is power sharing at the center; federalism, the Sunnis running their own areas, while participating in the central government; the Shia, they run the south and they obviously dominate in Baghdad; and the Kurds are looking more it seems like a confederal arrangement, even more autonomy to run their own affairs. So [produce] their oil, have their own recognized borders.

And it’s a tough challenge whether the Iraqis are going to be able to manage that, to come together even with our help and, given where we are, our influence. And so therefore, while we count on and hope for a unity government, we need to also prepare to protect our interest should that not happen.

In ’05, when you first arrived there, did you think that this might be the way this would all end, or did you have different hopes?

No, I had the hope that the problem of sectarianism will be a transition issue.

In fact, Prime Minister Maliki, I remember him telling me that “Look, you need to be patient with us. Because of Saddam and his brutality and his bad treatment of the Shia, we’re going through a phase of sectarianism. We’re going to overcome that. We have tribes that are half Shia/Sunni, and we have a huge number of intermarriages.”

This is just a problem of transition, and it has been a painful and too long a transition. It improved, and it’s gotten worst. I know looking at it from a historic perspective, these 10 years are a very short time, and terrible things have happened in the history of Europe based on religion, sects.

But now it’s playing itself out in front of the world, and it seems like a very long time. People are not as patient as they used to be. And then with the connectivity, we’re not as protected from the challenges that it poses.

So I have to say it has turned out far more difficult mostly for the Iraqis than I had hoped and worked very hard to avoid.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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