John Kerry Drops Into Iraqi Tumult 10 Years After Invasion

Kerry visits Baghdad to mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and to push Baghdad not to help Iran arm Syria's Assad

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Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks to his helicopter on the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on March 24, 2013, at the end of his visit to the Iraqi capital

Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Iraq over the weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop allowing Iranian flights over Iraq to help Syrian strongman Bashar Assad.

The fact that high-ranking U.S. officials must still make surprise visits to Iraq shows the security situation remains tenuous at best 15 months after the last U.S. troops withdrew. Though the violence has not reached the levels of the civil conflict from 2006 to 2008, sectarian unrest has been rising in Iraq. “It is difficult for some to find the way to strengthen their democratic institutions and develop its full economic potential, and now that our forces are gone, to ensure that it’s going to be able to stand on its own two feet with respect to the security challenges,” Kerry told reporters in Baghdad. “If the Iraqi democratic experiment is to succeed, all Iraqis must work together so that they can come together as a nation.”

The theme of Kerry’s trip, State Department officials said, was “engagement.” But it comes at a time when the U.S. is reducing its presence in Iraq from 16,000 embassy and consulate staffers and contractors a year ago to 10,500 today to an expected 5,100 by the end of the year. Without troops and a large diplomatic presence and a declining investment by U.S. companies — most U.S. oil companies have forsaken their investments in the southern oilfields to drill in the Kurdish lands in the north — many say America’s influence on Iraq is waning just as Iran’s is growing. “I would say that the main lever that we have is that we are able to demonstrate or provide an alternative,” a State Department official said. “We’re not insisting that [al-Maliki] choose either-or, but we want to be able to demonstrate that he has other friends in the region and he doesn’t have to rely only on Iran for support.”

In recent months, Sunni unrest has pushed the Iraqi government into a political crisis, prompting the Cabinet to delay provincial elections next month in two Sunni states. Kerry pushed al-Maliki to reconsider the delay. Al-Maliki, who represents the Shi‘ite majority in Iraq, has been fighting with his Sunni Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, who resigned earlier this month in fear of his life after government forces tried to arrest him. Kerry also met with the Sunni Speaker of the Parliament, Usama al-Nujayfi, who has been pushing Sunnis to boycott the Cabinet. Kerry urged him to work within the political process, not leave it. Sunni areas have been pushing for greater autonomy, like that enjoyed by the Kurdish province in the north. “The country is coming apart at the seems,” says Marwan al-Muasher, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Jordanian Foreign Minister. “There is no stable Iraqi democracy. The Sunni-Shia divide is being played out every day in Iraq.”

Al-Maliki has also been fighting with the Kurds over oil contracts, exports and drilling in disputed lands. Some 60,000 troops — 30,000 Iraqi army and 30,000 Kurdish peshmerga — have been mustered along the Iraqi-Kurdish border in a tense standoff for the past four months. The Kurds have suspended all oil shipments to Baghdad and, in defiance of al-Maliki, have begun to export directly to Turkey. Kerry spoke with Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani by phone as Barzani was in Erbil. Kerry reminded Barzani of “the importance of maintaining the unity of Iraq, that separate arrangements with Turkey, with anybody else, any other country, undercut the unity of the country, that the Kurdish Republic cannot survive financially without the support of Baghdad,” a State Department official told reporters.

For the first time, the Parliament voted last month to limit the Prime Minister’s term, signaling that al-Maliki is losing the support of the coalition government. The vote holds no legal sway, as the Cabinet is responsible for drafting laws in Iraq, but it does suggest that al-Maliki could soon lose a vote of confidence.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iraq's PM Nouri al-Maliki

Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right

Meanwhile, the war in Syria has been raging next door. Earlier this month, dozens of Free Syrian Army soldiers were slaughtered in Iraq reportedly by al-Qaeda extremists, after fleeing fighting across the border. Iraq’s Sunni population has been unsettled by their perception that al-Maliki is, at least tacitly, helping Iran bolster Assad, a fellow Shi‘ite, by allowing overflights. For his part, al-Maliki has condemned the Assad regime, and the Iraqis insist they cannot check the contents of every plane that flies over their country. But Kerry expressed similar U.S. concerns, offering more information about suspect flights from Iran to Damascus. “I made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President Assad and his regime,” Kerry said of his “very spirited” discussion with al-Maliki. “I also made it clear to him that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful — how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals.”

In marking the 10th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion, Kerry was somber, yet hopeful. “We all want to see Iraq succeed. There’s such an enormous investment of our treasure, our people and our money in this initiative,” Kerry said. “The world has an interest in seeing Iraq take a leading role in the region as a functioning democracy, and I believe that if Iraq remains inclusive and cohesive, it has the best chance of succeeding.” Notably, Kerry was speaking alone — no Iraqi official had joined him, as is often traditional for such visits.