December 22, 2009 | NOW Lebanon

The “Lebanonization” of Iraq

Over the past few weeks, several important statements have come out of Iraq – both from Iraqi officials and top US commanders – regarding the recent bomb attacks in the country and their perpetrators. These statements paint a telling picture of the geopolitical situation in Iraq, which lies at the heart of Washington's interests in the Gulf.

Nuri al-Maliki has pointed the finger at Syria for the attacks, and conventional wisdom suggests that the Iraqi prime minister has been alone in doing so, largely for electoral reasons. In fact, Maliki's views are shared by many of his colleagues. For instance, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari recently told journalists at the Manama Dialogue that “ntelligence confirms that Saddamist Baathists are working from Syrian soil and enjoy the support of [the Syrian] intelligence services.”

Similarly, Defense Minister Abdul Qader al-Ubeidi noted during a parliamentary hearing that there were “clear indications pointing to [involvement of] the Baath and Al-Qaeda, and to outside parties that financed [the operation].” The identity of these “outside parties” was made explicit by Major General Jihad al-Jaberi, the director of Iraq's counter-explosives unit. Al-Jaberi claimed that the perpetrators – whom he identified as Baathists in cooperation with Al-Qaeda – received logistical support from Syria and financial support from Saudi Arabia. He noted that they used “standard ordnance that came from abroad… This requires money and very large support from Syria or Saudi Arabia.”

The details of the logistical support provided by Syria were further noted by Interior Minister Jawad Bolani. He told parliament that a suicide bomber who attacked the Foreign Ministry last August made a call to Syria before detonating his load, a detail revealed through his recovered SIM card.

More damning were the statements of Major General Hussein Kamal, the Interior Ministry's chief of intelligence and investigations. He claimed that Iraqi officials had suspicions that the August 19 and October 25 bombings were planned at a secret meeting held between Al-Qaeda in Iraq members and Iraqi Baathists in the Syrian city of Zabadani. The meeting – implicitly organized under the auspices of the Syrian regime – was to chart out a new strategy to target the Maliki government. This was also reflected in Zebari's comment on how “talking about these groups as mere volunteers is inaccurate, for they are experts with political objectives.”

So, the political background and nature of the attacks are well understood across the Iraqi government. Adding credibility to this reading were the remarkable statements by the top US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. Not only did Odierno identify the political purpose of the attacks, linking them to the parliamentary elections early next year; not only did he acknowledge that there was “movement of fighters or explosives coming from Syria”; he also stated that over the last year or so, Al-Qaeda and what he termed “some of the Sunni rejectionist groups” had “started to work together [and to] coalesce at the local level,” so that the difference between them was often a question of “semantics.” Al-Qaeda and Baathists are “both involved,” Odierno noted; “they are coordinating at the local level.”

The commander of US Central Command, General David Petraeus, added to Odierno's remarks in an interview with the Al-Arabiya satellite channel a few days ago. For the first time, Petraeus stated that Saddam Hussein's former henchman, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, was “living freely in Syria.” He also pointed to the campaign that Duri and Muhammad Younis Ahmad, another Baathist figure (and a protégé of the Syrians) who is wanted by Baghdad, were launching under Syrian auspices. “They are now allowed to openly call for the toppling of the government of Iraq,” Petraeus observed.

These powerful statements by Iraqi and US officials ought to force us to reconfigure our entire thinking about so-called “non-state actors” and their behavior in Iraq, as well as on how to approach counterinsurgency there. Clearly, those killing Iraqis are doing so in conjunction with, and under the patronage of, outside states working to shape political outcomes through violence. In other words, this violence is mainly regime-driven.

Iraq has become a playing field for regional rivalries, and the Iraqis are the ones today paying the heaviest price. Iran has spent years expanding its powers in Iraq, disapproves of Maliki's independence, and seeks to cut him down to size. Syria is striving to use its clients to carve out a political role for itself on the Iraqi scene. And Saudi Arabia, eager to contain Iran on its doorsteps in Iraq and Yemen, and fearing the consolidation of a Shia-dominated order in Iraq, has found parallel interests with Syria.

As the United States, through its ongoing withdrawal, creates the perception of a growing vacuum, regional states are stepping in to grab a piece of the Iraqi pie. The lack of public attention paid in the US to the statements quoted earlier, and their implications, affirms how far Iraq has dropped in the American national consciousness. This can only be to the detriment of America's interests and to those of its Iraqi ally.

Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.