Photo Gallery: The Iraq Disaster


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.

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

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.

A Short-Term Marriage with Iran

The Americans received different advice from another prominent Iraqi. In September 2003, the man told a staff member at the US Embassy in Amman, Jordan, that the Shiites were fundamentally grateful to America for unseating the regime led by Saddam Hussein and the country's Sunni minority. But, he added, the growing instability and sluggish pace of reconstruction in the country could heavily burden this relationship. For this reason, he advised the Americans to make a point of fostering contact with Shiite clerics.

The man also told the Americans that Shiite clerics enjoyed a greater amount of influence over their adherents than their Sunni colleagues did over theirs, explaining that: "Any Sunni can consult with God himself and decide to blow himself up in a terrorist attack." But among the Shiites, he went on, such a decision is not just a personal matter, which is why Shiite clerics can stir up -- or, more importantly, calm down -- their supporters. The Americans did not heed this advice, either -- or at least not quickly enough.

The Benefits of Loyalty to Iran

While the Americans were trying to figure out what to do, their rivals, the Iranians, were single-mindedly setting up their network in Iraq. Over time, it was becoming increasingly close-knit, bringing in individual parties and politicians, and it would eventually encompass entire provinces.

A diplomatic report from the southern province of Muthanna illustrates the creative nature of the Iranians' approaches. An influential sheik there had just returned from a trip to Iran. The official reason for his trip was a medical checkup, but the Americans learned through foreign channels that it was "more for pleasure than for medical treatment and included one or more short-term marriages … and other entertainment." In the Islamic world, "short-term marriage" is a euphemism for visiting prostitutes. Other tribal leaders had reportedly enjoyed similar perks as guests of the Iranian government.

The Americans, on the other hand, had deeply disappointed the sheik: "After he and other tribal sheikhs visited the White House and met then-President Bush in 2008, he expected to benefit financially from the Americans." But, in the end, they "did nothing for him." The embassy's comment to Washington was that: "Southern Iraqi sheikhs are well know for shifting their loyalties based on financial considerations."

Iran spends mountains of money on loyalty. According to an embassy report from November 2009, every year, Tehran pumps $100 million to $200 million (€76 million to €151 million) into Iraq for that purpose. And the man in charge of dispensing these funds is Qasem Soleimani, a brigadier general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Christopher Hill, then-US ambassador to Iraq, described Soleimani as having been "the point man directing the formulation and implementation of the IRIG's (Iranian government) Iraq policy, with authority second only to Supreme Leader Khamenei." Soleimani employs, Hill continued, "the full range of diplomatic security, intelligence, and economic tools to influence Iraqi allies and detractors in order to shape a more pro-Iran regime in Baghdad and the provinces."

The nature of Iran's ties with Baghdad is illustrated by a list of party leaders with whom General Soleimani reportedly maintains "long-standing close ties."

Indeed, this Who's Who of Iraqi politics begins with President Jalal Talabani, includes the vice president and the prime minister, and ends with the speaker of the parliament.

'A Significant Security Threat'

The Americans were extremely eager to figure out the loyalties of political leaders in Baghdad, particularly when it came to the three postwar prime ministers. For a long time, their favorite was the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi. In the immediate wake of the war, the US helped him become the interim prime minister, and it was hoping to see him emerge as the winner of the first free parliamentary elections. The embassy wrote that his election alliance stood for "promising vision for a democratic, inclusive and secular Iraq."

But Allawi lost the first election. After talking with his allies, US diplomats realized that perhaps he didn't have the leadership qualities that they had initially thought he did. His "continued absence" from Iraq while living in exile for almost 30 years undermined his authority, they wrote. The winner of those elections and the second postwar prime minister was the religious Shiite Ibrahim al-Jaafari. During his term of office, from 2005 to 2006, the situation in Iraq dramatically deteriorated.

Cables from the US diplomats reveal what went wrong. For example, according to one report from July 2005, the embassy received "frequent and fervent" requests from Jaafari and his advisers to have the US military release a certain Mehdi Abdhmend al-Khalisi from custody. The man was reportedly a "a close personal friend" of the prime minister -- and likewise supposedly innocent.

The embassy looked into the case and discovered the following: al-Khalisi had lived in Iran for 23 years and was widely believed to be the leader of a Tehran-supported group that carried out assassinations. According to one source, he was even responsible for an attack on six British police officers. In the end, the multinational forces informed the Iraqi government, including the prime minister, "that Mr. al-Khalisi poses a significant security threat."

The Maliki Era

Moreover, there were also a number of shady characters within Jaafari's government itself. For example, in September 2005, after the US Embassy in Amman had been reporting for weeks on suspicious movements of cash from Iraq, the US Embassy in Baghdad sent a memo to Washington entitled "Allegations of corruption in the ministry of defense." According to the report, the procurement director at Iraq's Ministry of Defense had spent $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion purchasing used military equipment at grossly inflated prices even after having been explicitly advised by representatives of the multinational forces not to do so. The purchases involved "Polish helicopters, Pakistani pistols, mortars and vehicles and guns and Chinese ammunition" -- in other words, junk. And a number of high-ranking politicians had reportedly also benefited from the deal.

Maliki the Untrusted

In April 2006, Jaafari was replaced by the largely unknown Shiite politician Nouri al-Maliki. When Maliki took office, the violence in Iraq was reaching a climax -- with sectarian violence claiming over 3,000 civilian victims every month -- and Washington's confidence had hit rock bottom. On Oct. 14, the US ambassador and the senior coalition commander, General George W. Casey, urged the new prime minister "to take decisive political and military steps to curb ethno-sectarian violence."

But Maliki brushed them off, claiming that the problem of civilian casualties was being "overblown by the media." He also said that he was disturbed by criticism from Western media sources and their hints about an upcoming change in the US government's strategy in Iraq. General Casey advised him to ignore this "chatter," reassuring him that America stood behind him and adding that, if necessary, his staff would stress this point in a number of interviews with the press.

American diplomats were particularly attentive when Maliki talked about his visit to Tehran in June 2008. The minutes of the conversation were not only sent to the State Department, but also dispatched as "priority" messages to the CIA and a number of American military organizations.

According to the report, "The Prime Minister portrayed himself as taking a very tough stance with the Iranians." For example, he allegedly accused Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's religious leader, of supporting particularly dangerous units of the Mahdi Army and of continuing to smuggle weapons across the border. According to Maliki, the supreme leader had "sworn 'by every oath he knew' … that he had issued a fatwa against any activities that could harm the security of Iraq."

Still, the tone of this and many other diplomatic reports on Maliki reveal just how lukewarm the Americans were about him. In fact, they didn't trust him. Moreover, the image that Maliki tried to project of himself -- as being an Iraqi patriot transcending all religious differences -- stood in stark contrast to how he administered the government in Baghdad.

Maliki the Biased

For example, Maliki only rarely had anything good to say about Iraq's Sunnis or neighboring Sunni countries. His suspicions continuously fell on al-Qaida, a Sunni organization, and its alleged supporters in Syria, a predominantly Sunni country -- even when his own interior minister and General David Petraeus, the supreme commander of the US troops in Iraq, contradicted him. In a protocol from November 2009, the general conceded to Maliki that al-Qaida had become stronger, but "he added that foreign fighter flows from Syria were down and more should be done to counter malign Iranian influences."

What's more, in early 2010, Maliki tried to purge 36 staff members -- including a conspicuously large number of Sunnis -- from the headquarters of Iraq's intelligence agency for allegedly having ties to Saddam's banned Baath Party. At the same time, he installed 47 members of his own Islamic Dawa Party -- all of whom were Shiites -- in key positions at the intelligence agency.

According to one embassy dispatch: "In the hyper-sensitive atmosphere surrounding elections, each of these moves by the prime minister is being looked at with high suspicion across the entire political spectrum." It went on to say that "by drumming out experienced and proficient officers," he had caused "serious harm" to Iraq's intelligence institutions.

Maliki the Impulsive

The authors of the report repeatedly described Maliki as "impulsive." Two dispatches show just how radically he could alter his stances. For example, one from October 2006 discusses how Maliki had complained that, "I do not have enough forces and those I have are weak." Another one, from July 2008, recounts how, during a meeting of Iraq's National Security Council, Maliki ordered "an immediate freeze on the growth of Iraqi security forces."

The reason behind Maliki's change of heart could be gleaned from a statement that his defense minister once made: Iraq's military structure is the way it is, he said, to prevent another military putsch. And there's some truth in that: Rulers in modern Iraq have tended to be deposed -- or even executed -- by their own militaries.

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