At Sea in the Desert US Diplomats Bewildered and Bamboozled in Baghdad

Roughly 5,500 classified cables from the US Embassy in Baghdad paint a grim picture of why America's stunning military victory over Iraq devolved into disaster: The Americans allowed themselves to get entangled in the Sunni-Shiite conflict while being systematically outmaneuvered by the Iranians.

By and


There hadn't been a US Embassy in Baghdad for 14 years when the United States and Iraq resumed diplomatic relations on June 30, 2004.

On that day, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari wrote to his American counterpart, Secretary of State Colin Powell, that it was "great honor" to accredit US Ambassador John Negroponte. "I look forward to developing friendly and constructive relations between our two nations," Zebari wrote.

But it was under bizarre circumstances that these relations got started, as can be seen, for example, by the location the Americans chose for their new embassy: an ostentatious former palace of Saddam Hussein nestled in a bend of the Tigris River. And the plans of the US diplomats moving into this palace were every bit as grandiose as the statues the deposed dictator had left behind.

Still, they had little idea of the challenges that lay ahead. Indeed, America's relations with the liberated Iraq have been anything but "friendly" and "constructive." Within just five years, the State Department went through five ambassadors and an army of analysts and consultants. And what made them fail can be gleaned from over 5,500 secret and confidential dispatches from the embassy in Baghdad.

New Kids on the Block

When the first diplomats arrived, Iraq was in ruins. Most of the ministry buildings had been looted, schools and universities had been gutted by flames, and police officers and soldiers could do little more than sit at home while the country fell apart. The Iraqis -- whether Arab or Kurd, Sunni or Shiite -- were all fighting for influence and resources. A rebellion had begun -- and one that the Americans couldn't fathom.

One of the first names to emerge in the diplomatic reports coming out of Baghdad was that of a young Shiite leader named Muqtada al-Sadr. Little was initially known about him, other than that he came from a family with a long line of religious clerics and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. But, in the months and years to follow, he would go on to become a crucial figure in the religious war that the country was headed into.

"Last week, influential Shia leaders … asked Prime Minister Allawi to defuse the tension … by dropping, at least temporarily, the charges against Muqtada al-Sadr," Ambassador Negroponte wrote during his second week on the job. "They told Allawi it would be preferable for Sadr's militia, the Jaysh Al Mahdi (JAM), to become a political movement." In retrospect, this was good advice. But, in what turned out to be a crucial mistake, nobody followed it.

ORIGINAL: The Key Iraq Cable
Click on the headlines below to read the full texts...
June 14, 2008, Bagdad: "pm maliki recounts his june 7-9 visit to tehran"
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches ...

<<158199>> 6/14/2008 6:50 08BAGHDAD1784 Embassy Baghdad SECRET//NOFORN


S e c r e t baghdad 001784


E.o. 12958: decl: 06/12/2018 Tags: iz, ir, prel, pgov, pinr Subject: pm maliki recounts his june 7-9 visit to tehran

Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Patricia A. Butenis for reasons 1.4 (b), (c) and (d).

1. (S/NF) Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's June 7-9 visit to Tehran featured meetings with all of Iran's senior leadership, but Maliki told S/I Ambassador Satterfield that he went to visit Supreme Leader Khamenei, agreeing to the other meetings solely out of protocol. The Ministers of Defense, Finance, Water Resources, and Electricity joined the Prime Minister for the visit. Maliki noted that Khamenei was strongly opposed to SOFA/SFA agreement on both political and religious grounds, but had suggested that it was Maliki's decision to make. Maliki claimed he confronted the Iranians about lethal assistance to extremist groups. While Supreme Leader Khamenei denied this support, he did pledge to look into issue of Iranian weapons entering Iraq and to speak with Muqtada al-Sadr about SG activities. IRGC-QF Commander Soleimani told PM that Iranian lethal assistance had stopped as promised, but Al Maliki was dismissive of Soleimani,s assurances. Minister of Defense al-Mufraji concluded an MOU to resolve lingering issues from the Iran-Iraq War period. Septel reporting will address economic and other aspects of visit, as well as local and regional media reaction. End summary.

2. (S/NF) Iraqi PM Maliki and MOD Abd al-Qadr al-Mufraji briefed S/I Satterfield and PM MinCouns Ries June 11 on the PM's just concluded visit to Iran. Prime Minister Maliki had been accompanied on the trip by Minister of Defense Abd al-Qadir Mufraji, Minister of Water Resources Abd al-Latif Al-Rashid, and Minister of Finance Bayan Jabr al-Zubaydi. Maliki told Satterfield that his purpose in going to Iran was to see Khamene,i. He agreed to see others, including Ahmadinejad and some ministers under pressure from his staff who argued it was necessary for protocol, but he considered these other meetings irrelevant.

SOFA/SFA: Iran Unalterably Opposed, But PM Must Decide --------------------------------------------- ---------

3. (S/NF) Khamenei, he said, was unalterably opposed to the SOFA/SFA on political and religious grounds. Nonetheless, Khamenei reminded Maliki of his exile in Iran as a member of the anti-Saddam opposition. The Iranian government had never stood in his way then when he sought to attend conferences in Western countries. Likewise, Khamenei concluded, Maliki would need to make his own decision on this matter, leaving the impression that it was "on the PM,s head" regarding his choice to continue negotiations with the U.S. The Iranians said the SOFA/SFA would ultimately prove damaging to Iraq, as the Americans would use Iraq as a platform to attack other countries in the region. Maliki said he countered that Iraq "had no choice" but to seek continued assistance from the U.S., as Iraq needed U.S. support to develop its armed forces and thus achieve greater stability and security in the country. The PM said he had made a measured, "logical" presentation to Khamene,i and to IRGC-QF head Soleimani ) but had not moved them, although other Iranians with whom the delegation met had shown greater understanding. Amused, the PM said he had challenged Khamene,i to "give us 17 of the Ilyushins Saddam sent to Iran" if Iran really wanted to be such a good friend to Iraq. There had been no response.

PM Presses on Iranian Arms and Sadrist "Gangs" --------------------------------------------- -

4. (S/NF) The Prime Minister portrayed himself as taking a very tough stance with the Iranians on their support for Shia extremists in Iraq. He said he told Khamenei that relations with Iran could be quite positive if Iran ceased interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. Iran's support for JAM "Special Groups" was "hurting the image of Iran among Iraq,s Shia population" and Iran needed to change its behaviors. The PM said he had brushed aside discussion of the one billion USD soft loan Iran was offering (see septel on discussion with Finance Minister Jabr) and other economic issues saying that only what Iran did on the problem of the Sadrist &gangs8 counted. He pointed to the trouble they caused, between Iraq and Iran and amongst the Shia in Iraq as well and asked why the Iranians were persisting in providing support for these groups.

5. (S/NF) Maliki said that he had presented "Iraqi evidence) not U.S.-provided evidence" to Soleimani and Khamenei on Iranian training and equipping of the JAM Special Groups. Confessions by JAM personnel "and others," photos of weapons ("I told them labels said made in Iran, and other "Iraqi" information had all been laid out to the Iranian leader. Unlike on past occasions, Maliki said the Iranian response had not/not been denial. Soleimani had asserted that the training and weapons supply must have been done "without authorization" and would be investigated. The Supreme Leader had sworn "by every oath he knew" (Maliki said he attached no credibility whatsoever to all this) that he had issued a fatwa against any activities that could harm the security of Iraq. Therefore, he was shocked, shocked to learn that "someone must be violating my orders" and would investigate what had happened. He also undertook to talk to Moqtada al-Sadr about the activities of the Special Groups. Commenting on the relationship between Soleimani and Khamene,i, Maliki said that it was a "mistake" to see Soleimani as an independent actor. "He follows Khamenei,s line completely and without Khamene,i he would be nothing."

Basrah Campaign: The "Magic Key" --------------------------------

6. (S/NF) The PM characterized his campaign in Basrah as the "magic key" which changed the dynamic with the Sadrists and, he implied, with the Iranians. The GOI,s successes in Basrah and Sadr City had created an image of a stable, capable government that others should respect. The PM said he had read through with Khamene,i and Soleimani the "14 points" that constituted the GOI,s conditions put forward in Basrah and Sadr City to the JAM. He had made clear to the Iranians that if the JAM abided by the GOI,s demands a peaceful resolution ) which ultimately would have to be the "dissolution of the JAM as a military force" ) would be possible. But if the JAM continued to challenge the authority of the state, Maliki said he had told the Iranian leader that the GOI "would strike, would strike, would strike" at the groups involved until they were "destroyed." "If Iran is helping them, then Iran must understand we will not exercise restraint." Maliki said the Iranians claimed to support the GOI,s position and would press Sadr to announce his intentions publicly. The PM said that he had declined to meet Moqtada al-Sadr while in Iran (although others in his party had attempted and failed to make contact). He did this deliberately to avoid the perception that he was willing to negotiate.

7. (S/NF) The PM told Satterfield that he had demanded that the Iranians cease referring in public statements to Iraq as an "occupied" country or to MNF-I as an "occupier." Neither was correct and the assertions were damaging to the GOI. The Iranians had promised to act; the PM said, "we,ll see." Finally, the PM said there had been a long conversation on the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), noting that the Iranians were adamant that MEK were committing violent acts in Iran from their base in Iraq. The Iranians said that they knew that the Americans have MEK on the terrorist list, but they also protected them. Maliki reiterated to Satterfield his long-standing request that the U.S. "do something" to end the presence of the MEK in Iraq, which he argued provided a pretext for Iran to engage in its own unhelpful activities.

xxxxxxxxxxxx Offers Views of Visit -----------------------------------

8. (S/NF) In a separate meeting on June 12 xxxxxxxxxxxx that the primary goal of Maliki's visit to Iran earlier this week was to persuade the Iranians to stop arming and training Sadrists. xxxxxxxxxxxx admitted that he was not sure the Iranians got the message: even though the atmospherics were warm, the Iranians claimed that they had already ended their support of Sadrist militants. "I'm not sure they gave the Prime Minister a real commitment to stop," xxxxxxxxxxxx. He assessed that it was too early to tell whether the visit was a success (he deemed it 50/50 for the moment) and said we would need to watch carefully over the next few days to see whether there is any indication of a change in Iranian behavior.

Defense Minister Abdul Qader al-Mufraji ---------------------------------------

9. (S/NF) In a separate meeting June 11, DefMin al-Mufraji offered his views on the visit to Satterfield and Ries. Corroborating the PM,s account of events, Al-Mufraji said the atmosphere of the meetings overall was positive with respect to the strength of the GOI presentation. In his meeting with Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Najjar, he said that he had mirrored the PM,s challenge (above) to Khamene,i for Iran to provide concrete assistance to Iraq,s armed forces ) raising the "Ilyushin" request. The Iranians had not responded.

10. (S/NF) In reference to the purported "defense/security agreement" signed during the visit, al-Mufraji confirmed that the agreement was in fact a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU covered land and sea border issues, (updating border agreements reached in the 1975 Algiers Accord), mine clearance in border regions, and recovery of remains of soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Referring specifically to mine clearance, Al-Mufraji noted that many of the remaining mines were in the mountainous border region, and were slipping down mountains onto the Iraqi side, threatening local farmers and shepherds. The two governments are reportedly planning to establish bilateral working groups to address the various aspects of the MOU.


Over the coming years, the man who read the petition to the Americans ("he "wouldn't let us have a copy"), Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, was to become a key source for the Americans on information about the Iraqi government. Rubaie would eventually serve under three consecutive prime ministers. And he was also extremely talkative. In fact, before long, US diplomats started groaning about Rubaie's "rhetorical acrobatics" and "theatrical sighing."

It remains unclear what Rubaie personally thought of Muqtada al-Sadr even three years later, after al-Sadr's militia had murdered thousands of people. But he advised his own government and the coalition troops not to take an "excessively kinetic" stance toward the Mahdi Army, believing it would only increase the risk of "uncontrolled violence."

Whom to Follow?

Early on, Rubaie pointed out a fundamental conundrum that has plagued all postwar Iraqi governments: The Iraqi leaders had to ask themselves who they should follow. And their choices were either the Americans, who had liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, or Iran, their powerful neighbor that would still be there long after the US military has withdrawn.

For Iraq's Sunni minority, the choice was clear: Shiite Iran is the enemy. But, among Iraq's Shiite leaders, Rubaie told the Americans there were two camps: the "moderates" leaning toward America and the "conservatives" toward Iran. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the first elected prime minister, belonged to the second camp. Rubaie said that al-Jaafari wanted a security strategy that was jointly coordinated with Iran -- in other words, direct collaboration between their two intelligence agencies.

Rubaie also suggested that the US and Iran should use Iraq as an occasion for putting aside their differences. Some things might stand in the way of this, he admitted, such as Iran's nuclear program and the activities of Iran's Revolutionary Guards in Iraq ("a great danger"). But, Rubaie said ironically, the fact that the new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards could perhaps give him the "flexibility to make the tough decisions required" to reduce the mistrust between Washington and Tehran. But, irony aside, this was a colossal misjudgment.


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