Michael Weiss

How we got here

The main American liaison to Iraq’s Sunni tribes says the current crisis actually started in 2010

An Iraqi young boy holds a gun from the window of a vehicle carrying volunteers joining Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities on June 16, 2014 in the capital Baghdad

The American military official best acquainted with the social fabric of northern and central Iraq says that the disintegration of the country was entirely preventable. Col. Rick Welch spent just under seven years in Iraq and served as Gen. David Petraeus’s chief liaison to the Sunni tribes of Fallujah and Ramadi and to various Shia tribal militia groups, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s now-reconstituted Mahdi Army.


Welch was integral to the so-called “Anbar Awakening,” which turned a lot of former insurgents – or insurgency sympathizers – into US allies against Al-Qaeda. Since retiring from the army, he has resumed his law practice in Ohio but has kept up with these hard-won friends, who have painted a dire picture of what life is like under the Nouri al-Maliki government. If the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the former Ba’athists of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order have managed to plow through Anbar Province with such ease, Welch argues, it is because the Sunnis of Iraq felt they had no recourse but to align with such elements.


“Maliki, in my opinion, is just as much an enemy to democracy in Iraq as ISIS is,” Welch told me last week in a wide-ranging interview. “He pushed them so far that they had to rise up. They tried to get reforms, but they couldn’t get them. There were dragnet arrests; Sunni women were thrown in prison to get to the men. Tribal honor was on the line and revenge thinking was on the line. Maliki made this crisis.” And it was abetted, the colonel says, by US obliviousness of or indifference to what was a noticeable degeneration in Baghdad even before the American troop withdrawal in 2011.


Maliki’s dubious return to power in 2010, a return that the Obama administration welcomed at the time, was one such warning sign. “The time when Iraq needed the keenest and sharpest minds that understood it was in that 2010 pre-election and immediate post-election period, because Maliki pulled a quick one with his Supreme Court,” Welch said. “Everyone before the election thought that the party or list that won the most votes was the one who was allowed the first chance to form the first government. When [former Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi’s group won the most votes, everyone thought he’d form a government. Maliki went to the Supreme Court and said, ‘Whoever can get the alliance with the most lists after election forms the government.’ That’s when we needed a strong US personality to stop this erosion of democracy.”


Welch is highly critical of American diplomacy, which he believes did nothing to restrain an invidious Maliki before it was too late. “We didn't have the right ambassador in place in 2010, before the election,” he said, referring to former US ambassador to Baghdad Christopher Hill. “Hill had no Middle East experience. He didn’t demonstrate any understanding of the culture or dynamics of what was going on there. One senior State Department official told me, ‘We’re trying to make the embassy look normal.’ A ‘normal’ embassy in Baghdad – can you believe that? The joke of the day was, if you want to know what the embassy is doing, go to the PX [supply office] on Thursday, and look at how much alcohol was on the shelf and compare that to how much was there by Saturday. Everyone was behaving as if Iraq wasn’t still a conflict or war zone.”


Things only grew worse in 2011, when the United States withdrew completely from Iraq and Maliki wasted no time purging all of the Awakening elements from the Iraqi Security Forces, driving his Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi into exile on spurious “terrorism” charges and otherwise overseeing a comprehensive campaign of political dispossession of a minority sect. Washington stood by as a “spectator” rather than a participant in the unfolding crisis. Welch said: “The Sons of Iraq, the tribal leaders, would complain about the purges and what Maliki was doing. But the State Department’s talking point was, ‘We’re really sorry to hear that but Iraq is a sovereign country, we cannot interfere.’”


A moderate tribal leader countered this nonsense: “You cannot interfere? Didn’t I see President Obama authorize the bombing of Libya? Wasn’t that a sovereign country? And didn’t I hear President Obama interfere in Egypt and say that Mubarak had to go? And didn’t I hear the president interfere in Syria and say the same of Assad? And didn’t you invade our country, and aren’t you still here? What we hear you say is that you won’t intervene to stop a rising dictator here and restore the democracy you brought to us.”


The perception among Sunni tribesmen at this time was that the United States had made a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, and so the fate of Sunnis in Iraq was negligible. It’s a conclusion I’ve heard repeatedly from Syrian activists and rebels in the last three years, and what may have started out as paranoid suspicion now looks a lot like the conventional wisdom. The Obama administration’s seeming incompetence in its handling of the Syria catastrophe, and now the collapse of Iraq, suggests that while the P5+1 countries negotiate a permanent nuclear deal in Geneva, an entente cordiale with the Islamic Republic may be in the offing in the Levant and Mesopotamia. John Kerry made noises to that effect, as have the White House’s happy surrogates in the press.


But the notion that Iran is suddenly an ally-in-waiting to help contain or defeat jihadist ultras strikes Welch as especially ludicrous. “We should not be allying with Iran under any circumstances,” he said, adding that during his tenure in Iraq, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is now running Baghdad’s security apparatus, was the number one enemy of US interests as it financed or armed Sunni and Shiite extremists to forestall the construction of a functioning government. And blindness to the IRGC’s spoiler role, or its successful co-optation of the Iraqi government, long predates the fall of Mosul.


“I remember meeting a political officer in the embassy in Baghdad who said, ‘Col. Welch, you don’t really buy the conspiracy theory that Iran is meddling in Iraq and trying to undermine democracy, do you?’” Welch related. “I replied: ‘You mean, you don’t?’ Then she said, ‘I meet with parliamentarians every day and they deny Iran is doing anything untoward.’ I told her, ‘Do you want to see the intel on those people?’”


In December 2011, Welch wrote an op-ed which was never published, warning the US government not to withdraw politically from the country as it had done militarily. “Iraq is once again on the brink of geographic division, ethno-sectarian violence, and perhaps civil war or wider regional conflict,” it read. “If all the United States does is continue to watch things happen and arm its diplomats with weak, unrealistic, and incongruent talking points, then Iraq’s democracy will be lost, Iraq as a nation-state will be destroyed, and the region severely weakened or engulfed in violence.”


Shortly after our interview, Welch sent me an email he’d received recently from one of his former reconciliation advisors. The message relayed was as tragic and angering as the present circumstances. It’s also worth quoting in full:


“I will try to find out a way out of Iraq within the coming days because the situation here is very bad, thousands of Shia militias are now in the streets of Baghdad and they are fully armed with ‘American’ weapons. The government of Maliki, according to Iranian orders, is distributing these groups in all of Baghdad, especially in the Sunni areas and more intensely in the Baghdad belt. Most of these groups were volunteers from the south who are following [Ayatollah Ali] Sistani’s fatwa for jihad and – imagine – most of them are aged 10 to 16 years old. Now a kid who is 10 years old, wearing some green clothes and carrying an American weapon, is walking through Baghdad with total freedom to kill anyone! The U.S. government must play a real role in this difficult time, otherwise the region is going to become more unstable. Wishing to hear from your side. Thank you.”

"Now a kid who is 10 years old, wearing some green clothes and carrying an American weapon, is walking through Baghdad with total freedom to kill anyone!" (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

“You cannot interfere? Didn’t I see President Obama authorize the bombing of Libya? Wasn’t that a sovereign country?”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I am very glad "we got here". Let the British-made artificial monster of a country that Iraq is collapse and splinter. It should have been done 100 years ago, but the British wanted to crave out ungovernable lego-countries so they can continue to muck around for oil and railroad. Let Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia fall apart and redraw the borders based strictly on sectarian bases. Then, later, when these entities have had enough time to settle on their own, they can federate into a bigger entity that preserves the local autonomies. Just like Europe is doing, and just like the Arab Emirates are doing.

    June 26, 2014