A fortnight before the battle got underway in Iraq to retake the city of Fallujah from the so-called Islamic State, I sat down with a native son of that restive town, Sheikh Khamis al-Khanjar. He was once a central power broker in Iraq’s political system and is now an exile with, it would seem, many millions of dollars at his disposal to try and buy his way back in.
As we talked in the lounge of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tallinn, Estonia, where we were both attending the annual Lennart Meri Conference, Khanjar touched on the core problem bedeviling Iraq, of which ISIS is only one manifestation. The United States, he believes, is almost autistically focused on the issue of Sunni jihadism at the expense of broader social cohesion and geopolitics, particularly Tehran’s meddling in the affairs of its next-door neighbor. The very integrity of the modern nation-state a Western superpower tried hubristically to reinvent in Mesopotamia 13 long years ago is now in mortal jeopardy.
“Instead of saying, ‘We need to keep Iraq united,” Khanjar said, echoing a favored American talking point, “we must admit that Iraq is no longer united and ask what can we do to bring it back together. Iraq is on the path to disintegration.”
“Again today, we are repeating the mistake of betting completely on one person: Abadi,” Khanjar said. He was referring to Iraq’s prime minister, a Haider al-Abadi, a U.S. ally who has faced popular revolt against his dysfunctional government and seems ever less in control over Iraq’s security apparatus.
Abadi, Khanjar concedes, is an improvement on his dire authoritarian predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, when it comes to “allegiance to Iran,” but “when it comes to the Sunnis, we’ve seen no change.”
“Our detainees are still detained,” said Khanjar. “Daily killings are still happening. And we have displacement and refugees. Worst of all, there is still no U.S. appetite to give the Sunnis a voice or role in the political process.”
A member of the Albu Issa tribe, Khanjar is a wealthy businessman and philanthropist who now lives in Dubai. A former western diplomat described him to me as “probably the most thoughtful Sunni Arab I’ve ever met.” But his personal history in Iraq is complicated. He allegedly made his fortune by working with Saddam Hussein’s regime, principally the dictator’s sons Uday and Qusay, and then running off with the money once that regime was toppled in 2003.
Critics also accuse Khanjar of having financed both the anti-American insurgency during the first half of the U.S. occupation, and then the Sunni Awakening factions that partnered with the U.S. military to beat back al-Qaeda. In many cases, these factions consisted of former insurgents.
The same ex-diplomat who called him the most thoughtful Sunni Arab said of Khanjar’s reputation, “There are in Iraq no good guys and no bad guys. They’re all hybrids—because otherwise they’d be dead.”
More recently, Khanjar had been a founding father of the Iraqiya coalition, a political bloc supported by the Sunni parties and headed by the secular Shiite and former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi (a longtime favorite of the CIA), who brought with him a dozen or so Shia MPs. Iraqiya came out ahead, albeit by a slender margin, in the 2010 parliamentary election and, at least according to Iraq’s constitution, ought to have been given the first crack at forming a government. Instead, incumbent Prime Minister Maliki and his State of Law bloc was accorded that privilege by his own extralegal skullduggery and public American backing.
The State Department believed that Iraqiya would never cobble together enough seats for an outright majority, although American military commanders, notably Gen. Raymond Odierno, warned that Maliki was a sectarian thug who was dangerous to the well-being of Iraq’s already tenuous national security and social cohesion. Odierno was right.
Maliki purged his own Sunni cabinet members—including his own vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi—with spurious “terrorism” allegations. He then suppressed popular anti-government protests with violence and stole billions from public coffers that might have otherwise gone toward a nationalistic security policy. The resurgence of the group now called the Islamic State owes much to the reaction against Maliki’s ignominious tenure.
Khanjar remembers this period as one of American betrayals and question-begging screw-ups.
“At the time I was visiting foreign leaders in the region,” he recalled of Iraqiya’s frenetic shuttle diplomacy in the wake of the 2010 election. “Every time I’d go, they’d tell me that President Obama was pressuring them to tell me to give up the premiership. I used to meet with the Americans personally, too. It’s not about us giving the premiership to Maliki, I used to tell them. We have millions of people who believe in violence and we convinced them to vote, not use arms. If we just give it up, they will lose faith in this process and return to violence.” That they famously did.
Today, the sheikh is reduced to waging a quixotic lobbying effort, alongside Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Ninevah province and Rafia Hiyad al-Issawi, the former Iraqi Finance Minister and one of Maliki’s purge victims, to drum up greater U.S. support for a semi-autonomous Sunni federal region in Iraq. Their vehicle for doing so is the Oﬃce of the Arab-Sunni Representative for Iraq, which last year opened a headquarters in Washington, D.C. Khanjar reportedly spends $65,000 a month to keep the operation afloat.
Plainly, it’s not going very well. Neither Nujaifi nor Issawi have been granted visas to travel to the United States—retribution, they say, for their prior trip in 2015 during which they lambasted their own government. Nor has Khanjar’s return to the ballot box borne fruit. Kirama, the party list backed by the sheikh in the 2014 parliament elections, won just one seat out of 68 Sunni MPs.
“During my last meeting in the Emirates with U.S. officials, I told them we have a trust crisis between Sunnis and the central [Iraqi] government,” the sheikh said, somewhat understating matters. How might trust be regained? I asked. He relayed three suggestions.
First, Washington should pressure Iraq’s state television to stop sectarian incitement or displays of chauvinist religiosity. “Get rid of the Shia call to prayer, make it a national TV station.” (Khanjar himself owns Al Fallujah TV, a network that had been based in the city now under ISIS control.)
Second, it should demand a ban on pictures of political leaders from other countries: “Why are there posters celebrating Khomeini, Khamenei, Rouhani? We should keep Iraqi politics about Iraqi political leaders.”
Third, “don’t allow people to fly flags that are not Iraqi flags. We have Hezbollah flags even in government installations. There are Iranian flags. Would your federal government allow Mexican or Canadian flags to be flown on its buildings?” (Such a measure could actually come at a cost to many Sunnis who toted the Saddam-era Baathist flag in 2013 protests.)
These seemingly modest reforms were couched in the language the Obama administration was best suited to appreciate: strategic communications. And yet the response with which Khanjar was met was underwhelming. “During one meeting, a U.S. government official told me: ‘Well, you guys are asking for some really complicated things.’”
The sheikh let out a mirthless laugh. “That’s how the meeting ended.”
Like many Sunnis in Iraq, not to say the broader Middle East, Khanjar has come to believe that even such small requests cannot be satisfied because the United States is no longer seriously interested in containing or reducing Iranian hegemony. No, the White House allowed Maliki to “steal” an election six years ago, and refuses to exert pressure on the Iraqi government now. This analysis ignores the U.S. pressure put on Maliki to resign in 2014 after his government lost Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to an ISIS onslaught that had taken Fallujah a few months earlier. But, by Khanjar’s lights, Abadi is not that different.
The primary objective of the U.S., Khanjar says, has always been to strike accommodation with its main adversary in the region, using negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program as a pretext for creeping rapprochement.
One hears this refrain everywhere now, from anti-regime activists and rebels in Syria, to Saudi and Turkish diplomats in Washington, to former Obama administration officials to—sotto voce—Democratic and Republican operatives stumping for Hillary Clinton.
It’s an assessment that once seemed only the latest installment in a long line of perennial Middle East conspiracy theories, given credence by only handful of hawkish critics of the president’s foreign policy Washington.
But thanks to Jeffrey Goldberg’s revealing exposé of the “Obama Doctrine” in The Atlantic and David Samuels’s controversial profile of Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes in The New York Times Magazine, such thinking veers perilously close to the conventional wisdom.
Realigning the United States away from its traditional Gulf State allies and its only regional NATO ally, Turkey, toward the Islamic Republic in a utopian quest for “equilibrium” does seem a pillar of the administration’s policymaking. And even if it is not, the Sunni perception that it is has had lasting and deleterious consequences for U.S. interests and influence in the Middle East.
“They wanted to progress on the Iran nuclear deal and at the time the Iraqi government was playing a mediating role between the U.S. and the Iranians,” Khanjar said. “I know that Secretary [of State John] Kerry has called many Iraqi officials and told them to bring Iran closer to the table. What was very interesting to us is that Kerry would meet with or talk to individuals accused of killing American soldiers, like Hadi al-Amiri.”
That would be Iraq’s former Minister of Transportation and the head of the Badr Organization, a prominent Shia militia. Al-Amiri is also an operative of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps; although an Iraqi national, he actually fought on the Islamic Republic’s side in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. Video footage of him commanding Khomeini’s infantry on the battlefield against Saddam crops up routinely on social media, chiefly to embarrass the Iraqi government, which claims to be fighting on behalf of all Iraqis with Amiri’s heavy-lifting assistance.
That assistance takes the form of Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs, a broad consortium of (mostly) Shia militias and splinter groups which Amiri leads internally. Some of these groups are loyal to Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose moderation and rejection of sectarianism have long been a saving grace in a country where both are in short supply. But many of more of these militias are Iranian proxies who avowedly fight under a banner of holy war rather than counterterrorism.
That’s why a good number of them have also been deployed to Syria to “protect Shiite shrines,” thinly veiled code for propping up Bashar al-Assad’s flailing regime—not by fighting ISIS, of course, but by fighting various rebel groups including those backed the Gulf States and the CIA.
The PMUs have also committed war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, very often with U.S.-made weaponry and materiel earmarked for the Iraqi Security Forces, whose officers have also been accused of carrying out anti-Sunni abuses, or standing idle while militias do so. Yet, this being Iraq, no one is ever held to account because the very actors in the government who might credibly investigate such atrocities are ideologically beholden to or under the thumb of the perpetrators.
The Badr Organization, for instance, now runs Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which includes the country’s Federal Police tasked with ensuring law-and-order in areas liberated from ISIS, or, as the case may be, refusing to punish reprisal acts of murder, abduction and torture against Sunnis.
For Khanjar, another grievance among his constituents is Iraq’s secret informant law, a “medieval” statute by which he claims the overwhelming majority of Sunni detainees have been victimized: “If you and I right now disagree over the coffee cup you have, I can go to the Iraqi police station and tell them, ‘I think he had explosives near his coffee cup or in his bag.’ You are immediately detained. You have three or four years to clear your name. But you are tortured in prison until you confess. And perhaps you will be executed. We have many people who, I can assure, you have never harmed a cat, yet are prosecuted under this law.”
According to numerous press reports, the PMUs are now integral to the stalled Iraqi government campaign to penetrate Fallujah. Moreover, this offensive dubbed “Operation Breaking Terrorism” took the United States by surprise—the Pentagon thinks Mosul should be the top priority.
The move on Fallujah appears to have been orchestrated by Iran. Why? Arguably to put an end to devastating ISIS terrorism in nearby Baghdad since Fallujah is a launch pad for many of the recent car bombings that have killed scores of civilians. But another suspected motive of moving the recapture of Fallujah forward on the calendar was to distract from roiling internal Shia crisis in the government, broadly characterized as one between Iraqi nationalists and pro-Iranian fifth columnists.
This crisis has twice led to the ransacking of the Green Zone and government buildings by loyalists of populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and now threatens to topple the government. Although well intentioned, Abadi has proven unable to introduce a raft of economic and political reforms because he is not fully in control of his own state.
Washington’s role in the Fallujah operation is therefore not only secondary, it is also ambiguous. CENTCOM has conditioned U.S. air support on the promise that the PMUs refrain from entering the city where even the 50,000 “human shields” held captive by ISIS are bound to judge invading Shia Islamists as a paltry alternative to their current occupiers. The militias, Fallujah tribal leader Majid al-Juraisi, told the Washington Post “are sectarian just like Daesh [ISIS] is sectarian… We reject their involvement in this campaign—completely.”
For this reason, only the Iraqi military, special forces, and Sunni tribesmen fighting alongside them are technically allowed in. Nevertheless, the PMUs are firing artillery into Fallujah and are arrayed at the outskirts of it.
More worrying still is the fact that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps heavyweights, such as spymaster Qassem Soleimani, who runs the expeditionary Quds Force, and Mohammad Pakpour, who runs the IRGC’s Ground Force, have been photographed very near the front lines, conferring with commanders of Iraq’s Badr-controlled Federal Police, no less.
An early proposal, after the resignation of Maliki and the appointment of Abadi, was the formation of a National Guard to patrol Sunni-majority governorates. The Guard would, theoretically, be stronger than the local police but not as strong as the Iraq army.
Crucially, troops from outside a given governorate would not be allowed in without the express invitation of the governorate’s governing council. Washington not only supported the idea, it encouraged Iraqi Sunnis to demand it of Baghdad, according to Khanjar. But the prime minister couldn’t deliver.
“Abadi couldn’t even get his own allies to vote for this law, even though he told the Americans he would,” Khanjar said. “It was us and the Kurds. Abadi never even sent the bill to parliament. Of course, they also tried to dilute the law, saying the troops would have to follow the prime minister and that he could send troops from one governorate to another without the governor’s approval.”
Khanjar is convinced that the United States has no real plan for integrating Iraqi Sunnis into the state because it’s too busy acquiescing to what he calls the “Hezbollah-ization” of Iraq’s security sector.
Iran, he believes, has used the exigency of war against ISIS as an opportunity to carve out an uninterrupted swath of territory from its own borders through Iraq and Syria, reaching all the way to Lebanon—also known as the Shia crescent. And the PMUs are becoming their own de facto political faction in the mold the Party of God. Amiri and his subordinate, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also follows orders from Tehran, are busy forming a “political wing” for the PMU, of which Muhandis is the most senior commander. He is also, as of 2009, a U.S.-designated terrorist because, according to the Treasury Department, he “committed, directed, supported, or posed a significant risk of committing acts of violence against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.”
“Iran has given instructions to Amiri and al-Muhandis to copy the Lebanese model like with [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah, to find someone to control this political wing,” Khanjar said. “This is why Abadi and Sadr are pushing back. They will be nobodies in Shia politics if this happens.”
There is some evidence that, if not actively facilitating this expansionist project, the Americans are at least naively flattering it at their own expense.
In March, Steven Walker, the U.S. consul in Basra governorate, visited injured PMU fighters in hospital in a gesture of gratitude for their service to the anti-ISIS coalition. His good deed did not go unpunished.
Commander Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji took to the YouTube channel of his Iranian-backed Abu Fadhl al-Abbas militia, to denounce Walker as “evil” and to warn him not to try that again. “We are the sons of Khomeini, who said that if America is pleased with us, we must conduct soul-searching… We are the sons of the resistance that has let you taste the bitterness of defeat.” Al-Khafaji also blamed the United States for providing “ISIS with aid, weapons, plans, and aerial cover,” a common trope of the Revolutionary Guards’ propaganda narrative against the coalition.
Khanjar mentioned this recent episode of a U.S. official extending his hand of friendship to a hostile Iranian proxy, only come away with a palm full with spit. “This is U.S. policy in a nutshell,” he said derisively.
Nor is Iran the only outside actor trying to undermine U.S. interests in Iraq. Hezbollah-ization, Khanjar said, has come with the approval and encouragement of Vladimir Putin, whose own capital has risen steadily in Iraq since ISIS sacked Mosul two years ago.
A joint operations room exists in Baghdad’s Green Zone where officers of Iranian, Russian, and Syrian intelligence, and commanders of Iraq’s PMUs convene to coordinate their own war effort, apart from the coalition’s. Abadi apparently had no foreknowledge of the creation of such a facility, nor did Iraq’s Defense Minister Khalid Obeidi, according to Khanjar. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Soleimani drafts the “plans for military operations” that Muhandis then carries out in Iraq; the Quds Force commander also “approves arms and ammunition deliveries from Iran” to the PMUs. The only daylight between the Russians and the Iranians, Khanjar said, is on the issue of Kurdish independence: Moscow is for it, Tehran is against it.
The Kremlin, playing all sides, is also trying to win over Iraq’s Sunnis by issuing invitations to the more co-optable and politically insignificant ones to come to Moscow. According to Khanjar, “These Sunnis come back and try and tell their people, ‘The U.S. doesn’t care for you, they’re not going to protect you.’”
Khanjar fears it may well be too late to convince his sect otherwise and that this will lead to an inexorable return of violent Sunni revanchism well after the caliphate lies in dust. He reckons that “80 percent” of ISIS are native Iraqis from Sunni communities, though the majority doesn’t believe in the ISIS ideology. They’ve cast their lot with the barbaric cult out of desperation and resentment for years of disenfranchisement and persecution. The answer to what ails Iraq, if there is indeed an answer at all, is political, not military. Otherwise, he maintains, ISIS will give way to its sequel.
“The U.S. gave us a military solution in 2006 and 2007 to defeat al-Qaeda,” he said. “We got rid of them but we got something ten times worse. If we just do the military solution again, yes, we will be victorious but God help us what comes next.”
As we concluded our interview in Tallinn, we were politely interrupted by Estonia’s 39 year-old Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur, who wanted to be introduced to the sheikh. “It’s very nice to see all your ministers are young and handsome,” Khanjar told the official. “Why are all our ministers old and ugly?” Pevkur offered that perhaps youth and attractiveness were the secrets to the marked success of the small Baltic nation and NATO member, which suffered through a far worse and far longer occupation than Iraq. Khanjar smiled.