An Interview With Sean Kane At The United States Institute Of Peace

Iraqi tribes and wise men have eased the tension meant to spur sectarian discord between Karbala and Anbar.  -Nouri Al Maliki, following the massacre of 22 Shia pilgrims in September.

As the last U.S. troops depart Iraq, there remain many questions as to what kind of nation they leave behind. On the surface, the signs are distinctly troubling. A Shia dominated Government is failing miserably on corruption and human rights and the recent arrest of over 600 Sunni’s accused of plotting a coup was widely condemned as a crude sectarian purge.

According to The International Crisis Group, anti-corruption efforts in Iraq are now actually in decline, subject to political interference from an increasingly arrogant kleptocracy. Seasoned observers, including Jack Keane, Reider Visser, Frederick Kagan and Joel Wing have all expressed grave concern in recent months.

While politics in Iraqi parliament is in a state of paralytic deadlock, Maliki’s actions are increasingly fomenting division. Salahaddin province recently declared autonomy in the wake of the recent purge. Other provinces have spoken of autonomy purely citing Baghdad’s ineptitude. Demonstrations and dissenting journalism have so far been met with pro government thuggery. Can Iraq’s increasingly disenfranchised Sunni minority tolerate this, or will they once again succumb to the narrative of al-Qaeda?

Far from combating that narrative, Maliki is strengthening it. He is increasingly turning to Moqtada al-Sadr to beef up his parliamentary majority. If, as it has been alleged, al-Sadr was under Iranian pressure to back Maliki, Iraqi’s who say the U.S. has handed the country to Iran “on a golden plate” may be correct. So, the recruiting material for AQI increases, even as Iraqi Special Forces and intelligence capability begins its perilous journey in the absence of significant U.S. support.

What kind of support that entails is yet to be seen, but we cannot get into a situation where Maliki’s government looks both ways. Iraqi politicians who feel they can do just enough to please the U.S., publicly condemning attacks on foreigners in Iraq next year while privately supportive of Iran will come to regret such a strategy. Likewise, the U.S. and her allies will be keen to avoid similar problems we now see with the Pakistani government.

Without skilful use of America’s leverage, that scenario could yet emerge. In December 2010, the UN gave the go ahead for Iraq to develop civilian nuclear technology, and while this is some way off, we have seen in Iran how quickly foreign assistance can help even a covert programme. So, a long list of challenges, and that’s before we even consider the Arab/ Kurd disputed territories.

But these gloomy developments are only one side of the story. Iraq, like so much of the Middle East, is mercurial and very difficult to predict. For America, as Sean Kane highlights here,

It may be worthwhile now for U.S. policy makers to explore ways to promote common American, Turkish and Iraqi interests in a strong and stable country that after the U.S. troop withdrawal can maintain a balance in its complex relationship with Iran.


Turkey is Iraq’s biggest trading partner, and like the US they now have several consulates in Iraq. Their PM Recep Erdogan recently offered Turkish forces to train the ISF- more of a gesture, since this would inflame Kurdish sentiment, but Erdogan’s shunning of Assad, to the extent of facilitating the Syrian SFA makes him look an increasingly reliable friend in the region.

And as Kane reminds us, Iraq’s relationship with Iran is complicated, as intra Shia disputes have demonstrated. If it was simple, observers might have expected the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade to battle the coalition in the streets of Najaf and Karbala in 2004. The Badr had long been nurtured in Iran, but in the end it was the Jaish al-Mahdi that the coalition had to fight. While elements of the Badr organisation are accused of smuggling EFP’s into Iraq, the great majority of them refrained from violence toward the coalition, instead fighting bloody clashes with the Mehdi Army.

Paradoxically, it is al-Sadr who accused The Badr Organisation of being Iranian stooges who baulked at helping the 1991 Intifada against Saddam. Seven years after the battles in Najaf, its citizens are merely tired of militias and violence. In Sadr City earlier this year, JAM clashed violently with Asaib al-Haq.  In July, Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zurfi was bold enough to threaten any remaining militias in the holy city after 2012 with criminal status, and according to a recent report in the NY Times, Najafi’s are also just tired of low quality Iranian goods.

That is certainly a sign that soft power in Iraq may well win the day. Currently, a French company have landed a contract to build a Basra to Baghdad high speed rail link. Iran has also secured contracts to upgrade Iraqi rail services. In the end, Iraqi’s may vote with their feet and wallets on which way to turn- the nation with enough soft power to inspire change. Until then there are some important considerations on developments both within, and outside Iraq.

 As someone whose experience has provided him with a wide angle view of Iraq and it’s fault lines, Sean Kane is well placed to answer some of my questions on the challenges facing the civilian led Iraq mission 2012. Currently waiting on his next assignment to Libya, Sean was Senior Program Officer with USIP’s Iraq Programs.

Prior to joining the institute, he worked as a Political Affairs Officer with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul and Kirkuk from 2006 to 2009, where he advised the Iraqi government on a wide range of issues from oil revenue sharing to disputed internal boundaries.

RT: The Coalition went into Iraq with lofty ideals about creating great Iraqi state institutions- the “top down approach.” It has been argued that the real focus should have been at the local level- to prevent violence. In 2012, is it time to focus efforts for reconciliation and Rule of Law at the government level, or is the local level still the key to peace?

SK: This is not an either-or choice, initiatives on both levels are required. USIP has done substantial work in Iraq since 2004 in fostering local level dialogue and reconciliation and we have tended to achieve the greatest results when broader national level circumstances are pushing parties together. Conversely, when national level politics have been stuck, this has filtered down to everyday life.

I have seen this particularly in my work in Kirkuk with USIP. Although it has been possible to make grass roots progress on confidence building in this disputed province, local tribal leaders and NGOs have been very direct in saying to me that it will be difficult to make major progress on disputes in the province as long as national politics are stuck.

RT: Events in Bahrain have fueled the Sadrist narrative that the West has an agenda of domination rather than democracy and sparked protests in Iraq. In reality, the Obama administration has called for and funded reform across the region, including in Bahrain. Sadrists have marched in support of Libyan rebels, but is there anything we can do to combat al- Sadr’s narrative of Western imperialism?

SK: Bahrain has perhaps been the place in the region where U.S. values and interests have collided most directly in the wake of the Arab Spring and it is not surprising that the Sadrists have tried to point out American policy inconsistencies there.

However, the Arab Uprisings have also posed challenges to the Sadrists in maintaining a consistent narrative. This is most clear in Syria where Muqtada al-Sadr has issued strong statements in support of Bashar al-Assad despite the parallels that some Iraqi Shia see between the Syrian popular uprising and their own historical struggle against Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Ba'ath.

Following President Obama's announcement that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq at the end of 2011, there may now be an opportunity to challenge the Sadrist narrative of the need for armed resistance to Western imperialism. Prime Minister Maliki has already said that last week's developments remove "all justifications" for "crimes" under the excuse of a U.S. troop presence in the country and that all should now support the Iraqi Security forces. One of Maliki's advisors was even more blunt saying that: the withdrawal of U.S. Forces should "end Iran’s excuse for supporting armed militias in Iraq under the pretext of resisting the occupier."

RT: There’s been fearful talk of the IRGC’s influence in Iraq- from business and politics to intimidation and assassination. But a recent report on Najaf in the NY Times, as well as the Mayor of Najaf’s recent threat to militia’s suggests Iran’s influence in Iraq has it’s limits. Is Iranian influence exaggerated?

SK: Iranian influence in Iraq should not be discounted, especially in southern Iraq. After 2003, Iran has directly benefited from the ouster of its old foe Saddam Hussein, which transformed a mortal adversary into a friendly state that Tehran hopes can be used help to change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Iran has since steadily expanded its economic and political influence in Iraq and through its support for Shia militias in particular, demonstrated an ability to ruthlessly use hard power means to pursue its goals. At present, many members of Iraq's Shia-led government have close ties to Tehran and are generally desirous of good relations with the Islamic Republic.

However, Prime Minister Maliki and Iraq's other leaders do not want to become completely beholden to their eastern neighbor, who is a centuries-old rival that Iraq fought a horrific almost decade-long war during the 1980s. As the U.S. departs Iraq, the major counterweight to Iranian influence on the ground is Turkey, which consciously sees itself in political and economic competition with Tehran for influence in Iraq.

It may be worthwhile now for U.S. policy makers to explore ways to promote common American, Turkish and Iraqi interests in a strong and stable country that after the U.S. troop withdrawal can maintain a balance in its complex relationship with Iran.

RT: The U.S provides surveillance assistance to Turkey in their fight against the PKK. Kurdistan Alliance MP Mahmood Othman recently condemned this, saying that Americans can’t be trusted (although the PKK are widely condemned internationally.) Do you think this will damage relations between the U.S and Iraqi Kurds?

SK: There is potential for U.S. assistance to Turkey in its fight against the PKK to impact Kurdish-American relations, but it has not yet materialized. Mahmoud Othman is a respected independent Kurdish politician who is giving voice to popular Kurdish sentiment. However, his views do not necessarily represent those of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Indeed, KRG President Massoud Barzani condemned the most recent attacks by the PKK in Turkey as "targeting Kurdish-Turkish brotherhood" and criticized PKK activities as harming Kurdish interests. This provides some cover for U.S. surveillance assistance to Turkey.

Notwithstanding this, Kurdish leaders are certainly against Turkish artillery and airstrikes against the PKK in northern Iraq and would have a harsher reactions to major sustained land incursions. But so far they have not focused on the American assistance to Turkish operations. This will probably continue to be the case as long as operations stay at the current level, where the strikes are relatively confined to sparsely populated areas near the Iraqi-Turkish border. If the campaign inside the Kurdistan region is dramatically expanded however, this calculus and the Kurdish appraisal of the American role could change.

RT: Do you think there is finally a constructive dialogue between the Baghdad government and the Awakening tribes, or is it a relationship still defined by mistrust and fear?

SK: While it does appear that the potential for a wider conflagration resulting from the killing of the 22 Shia pilgrims in an administrative district that is claimed by both Karbala and Anbar has been contained for now, the way in which this incident quickly became a national issue illustrates the deep seated tensions which exist between Anbaris and the national government.

The basic view in Anbar remains that the province will not get a fair shake on services or local control of security forces as long as Shia political parties rule Baghdad. Given that the American military was perhaps the primary advocate for integrating the Awakening into government institutions, how the tribes' relationship with Baghdad evolves now that a full U.S. troop withdrawal has been confirmed could be a useful indicator of future reconciliation prospects in the country.


Sean Kane is a Senior Program Officer with USIP’s Iraq Programs. Prior to joining the Institute, he worked as a Political Affairs Officer with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul and Kirkuk from 2006 to 2009. He has also been a Senior Program Officer with the US Governments Millennium Challenge Corporation, where he conducted economic growth analysis of developing nations. Additionally, Sean has worked for the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been an Associate Lecturer/Researcher with the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and a Senior Research Analyst at the U.S.-based strategy consulting firm Dove Associates.  He has a B.A. from Bowdoin College and a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.  He has also studied at the London School of Economics.

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Comments

As the author of this piece, I'd like to point out a couple of things.

I mentioned that "Salahaddin has declared autonomy," which is a bit misleading. Under the Iraqi constitution, a province has to request a referendum on the issue. Several provinces have requested referendums with the aim of attaining greater autonomy, including Basra, who sit atop some of the world's biggest oil reserves. Anbar recently held a meeting on the topic. So it is very serious, but I did not mean to imply that partition in Iraq can happen on request (it can't)Reidar Visser is the best man to read on this subject.

Also, since the piece was published, DoS has mentioned that defence contracts with Bahrain will be frozen until there are improvements in their human rights record. Contracts are waiting on the report that Bahrain is preparing. This measure was initiated by four Democrat senators who wrote to DoS. This is surely a good measure both for the security of Bahrain and Iraq.

The potted history of Iraq's intra Shia dispute is mostly from Moqtada al- Sadr by Patrick Cockburn, which I am currently re-reading.

Also, I did not mention China's growing trade with Iraq. No doubt we can count on them to do business with Iraq regardless of what their government actually do.

There are so many other things that this article does not touch on. Thanks to Sean Kane for taking the time to do the interview.