The Baker-Hamilton recommendations are mostly forgotten, swept away by President George W. Bush's 2007 surge of U.S. troops. That certainly improved security, but the recent bombings in Iraq are a reminder that the surge didn't usher in a new era of peace and love. Political reconciliation is still more slogan than reality -- and the neighbors are more a lurking menace than Baghdad's partners.
He is certainly right. Let's review the list of Iraq's neighbors:
Lying to the north of Iraq, Turkey has been the least menacing. Turkey has enjoyed good relations with Israel, Europe, and the US. Turkey has a robust tourism industry, and they've been able to contain extremists and provide relatively good security. But in Turkey, you may be arrested for teaching or studying Kurdish. Recently Turkey has bombed Kurdish militia inside Iraq, and most worrying, the Turks have dammed the Tigris and Euphrates at several places, squeezing Iraq's historically life-sustaining rivers and resulting in more severe droughts in Iraq. But in a country that has experienced at least 1,200 suicide bombings in the last 6 years, Turkey's offenses seem minor.
Iran (aka Persia)
Going clockwise on the map, we see Iran to the east, which shares 1,458 kilometers of border with Iraq. Persia occupied the land between two rivers for almost two centuries, and in 539 BC, Cyrus of Persia sacked Babylon and freed the Jews.
It can be argued that Iran has had the greatest influence on Iraq, especially since the rise of Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution. In 1965 Khomeini moved to Najaf, home of the Imam Ali shrine, and there he lectured and instilled in young Shia the notion of Islamic revolution and Islamic government. By the late 60s he became a marja taqlid or "model for imitation" for hundreds of thousands of Shia. By 1975 support for Khomeini the leader of the Islamic Revolution had grown in Iran and among the Iraqi Shia. The Ayatollah was forced out of Iraq by Iraqi VP Saddam Hussein in 1978, and in January 1979 the Shah left Iran. The following month Khomeini moved back to Iran and became the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, changing the course of history in the region for decades to come.
In the 70s in Iraq the Islamic Da3wa Party had gained popularity, and they too wanted an Islamic government, which put them at odds with the ruling Ba3ath Party and Saddam Hussein, who pushed aside his President-cousin Ahmed Hassan al Bakr and took control of Baghdad in 1979. By the summer of 1980, Saddam and his security apparatuses had murdered and expelled tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia and pushed Da3wa out of Iraq. In September 1980 Saddam's Iraq invaded Iran, beginning a horrible war that cost a million lives by 1988 and ruined the economies of both countries. In the 80s Iraqi Shia who were able fled by the hundreds of thousands to the US, Europe, and of course to Iran.
Today the Iranian influence in Iraq is even greater, with Da3wa in charge of Baghdad, Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council party garnering about 10% support among Iraqis, and with Muqtada al Sadr studying quietly in Qum in an effort to become the next big Ayotallah. Iran was happy to see the end of Saddam's dictatorship, but they did not want to see the the Iraq become a colony of the US. Instead, some Iraqis fear that Iraq will eventually become a colony of Iran.
In July 1990 I became a citizen of the United States of America. Less than one month after I became naturalized, Saddam's Iraq invaded Kuwait. After Bush Sr. crossed his line in the sand and built a case for war against Iraq, my father became afraid. For a while there my dad really thought I might be drafted, if it ever became a real war, which it never did become. It was interesting to see my father go through the effort to find out if I could ever be drafted into such a war. The answer was no, I couldn't be drafted because I could be considered an "conscientious objector". It turns out my help would not be required anyway, as the US military, with the help of the British and many Arab states, bombed Iraq into the Stone Age, and making life very difficult for Iraqis for many years to come.
On the face of it poor little Kuwait looks to be the least menacing of Iraq's neighbors. There are unknown numbers of Shia in Kuwait, and many of them are Iraqis who fled Saddam's tyranny. But Kuwait is ruled by a Sunni Arab family, and in general they were friendly with Saddam and shared his fear of Iran. So what happened to the love? Saddam invaded Kuwait because, basically, Kuwait was being a punk ass bitch (please pardon the vernacular), giving money (the Kuwaitis say loaning) to Saddam to fight Iran, and then after the war, after Iraq's economy was devastated, Kuwait produced oil way beyond their OPEC quota, and thus resulting in lower oil prices, which hurt Iraq's bottom line. The Iraqis also claimed Kuwait was slant-drilling into Iraq's oil field.
In the end Saddam invaded Kuwait and stole many of its riches and refused to leave Kuwait. However he intentionally kept his Republican Guard out of Kuwait, which was a wise move for him, because he would need them to put down the Shia rebellion after the war and keep himself in power. The allied forces, led by the US, pounded Iraq's army, first by 40 days of air strikes, and then by a ground invasion, killing tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, and accidentally, of course, killing thousands of Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait, and on their way out of Iraq, Saddam had his guys burned nearly 700 Kuwaiti oil wells, creating a huge environmental disaster. The US military, led by Colin Powell and Norman Swartzkoff, won a quick war in Iraq and could have easily overthrown the Iraqi dictator, but in the end Bush decided to allow Saddam to live, and ordered US troops not to intervene in the Shia rebellion. It is said Bush's decision was influenced by the Saudis, who did not want to see the Shia take control of Iraq.
Today Kuwait has good relations with Iraq, and the two countries have restored diplomatic ties. Kuwait was the only non-Iraqi Arab country to support the American overthrow of Saddam. They understood Saddam's tyranny very well. But Kuwait still wants its money back, even though Iraq's debt to Kuwait was racked up by Saddam's regime, and many Wahhabi-influenced Kuwaitis have entered Iraq and mass murdered Iraqis since 2003.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The Saudis, the founders of Wahhabism, have been a royal pain in Iraqis' asses for decades. An analysis in 2007 revealed that half of suicide bombers in Iraq came from Saudi Arabia. The majority of the hijackers on 9/11 (80%) were also Saudi. The two statistics, from two very different places, have one thing in common: Wahhabi terrorism.
KSA never wanted to see the Shia take control of Iraq, and they have ben the biggest funders of the insurgency in Iraq. The Saudis were also the biggest funders of the war between Iraq and Iran.
The Saudis did not want to see Saddam take control of Kuwait, but they did not want to see the Shia take control of Baghdad either. Thus the Saudi government, led by King Fahd, urged Bush Sr. to keep Saddam in power in 1991, and thus they funded the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq after 2003, their clerics preaching "resistance" against the "infidel" occupier and the "agents of Iran", this despite the presence of many Iranians, Arab Shia, and Americans in the Arabian peninsula. The US launched two wars on Iraq from CENTCOM in Doha, Qatar, but Qatar enjoys peace, even Starbucks, while Baghdad burns. Nevertheless the Wahhabis sent hundreds of brainwashed suicide bombers to Iraq, to murder mostly Iraqi Shia.
With full control of the oil that Saudi Shia live on and near, the Saudi royals are not interested in democracy, and they are not interested in restoring diplomatic ties with the new Iraq. “To isolate itself from Iraq, Saudi Arabia has signed a $1 billion contract with the European defense company EADS, for the construction of a 900-kilometer [562-mile] fence." Iraqis wait anxiously and hope the fence will protect them from the backward Wahhabi cultists.
I've heard the weather in Amman is beautiful. In the summer of 1991 my mother and sister visited Amman to see my aunts and cousins who fled Iraq earlier that year. By 2000 approximately half of my relatives had fled the wars and tyranny of Saddam Hussein, starting new lives elsewhere, mostly in the UK. I don't understand why those refugees did not receive the same attention that our Arab brothers have paid to recent Iraqi refugees from the current war. Jordan deserves praise for accepting such a large number of refugees, and not just Iraqi. 60% of Jordan's population is of Palestinian descent. Twice there were large influxes of Palestinian refugees into Jordan - in 1948 and 1967. Also twice there were large influxes of Iraqi refugees - 1991-1992 and 2005-2007. Iraqi Baathists have fled to Amman in large numbers.
But there is a dark side to Jordan's relationship with Iraq. The person most responsible for inciting the sectarian violence in Iraq was a Jordanian terrorist named Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He was born and raised in Zarqa, not far from occupied Palestine. Even closer to occupied Palestine is the Jordanian town of Salt, whose deranged sons were compelled to join their mujahideen-brothers in Iraq, to attack the new Iraqi government and its security forces, and to participate in the most gruesome sectarian conflict the world has seen in decades.
The Jordanian government, to its credit, has fought extremists and has at times been at the receiving end of Salafi terrorists like Zarqawi, but in my opinion they have not done enough to fight extremist and backward ideology in their country. Honor killings are still common in Jordan, and when the killers are punished, they are in most cases not punished nearly severely enough.
Syria is an enigma. Its population is 80% Sunni Arab, but for decades it has been ruled by a Baathist Alawi family that has had cozy relations with Iran since the Islamic Revolution. Syria's alliance with Iran was the reason for the split between Saddam and Hafez al Assad. Recently I asked my cousin if Alawis are true Shia, and I asked him if they are true Shia, how could they allow so many "mujahideen" to enter Iraq via Damascus and cause so much death and destruction against their Shia brethren in Iraq? "NO" the Allawites are not true Shia, he said, and even if Assad wanted to prevent Baathists and Wahhabis from planning and coordinating in Damascus, he couldn't because most Syrians are Sunni Arab, and many of them have been influenced by Baathism or the Muslim Brotherhood and maybe Wahhabism. So it is even more ironic that Syria has been supported by Shia-dominated Iran.
Syria has been home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees since 2003, and although their existence in Syria has been relatively peaceful, many Iraqis in Damascus are worried about raised tensions between the two governments. Iraqi PM Maliki has blamed Damascus for the August 19 explosions in Baghdad. In the end, the Syrian regime may decide to normalize relations with Iraq at least for economic reasons.
This Ramadhan we have seen fewer violent deaths in Iraq than in previous years, but in general Iraqis continue to suffer as a result of sectarian conflicts than seem never to end. This year the average number of deaths per day from suicide attacks and vehicle bombs (7.8) is still higher than in 2004 (5.2), but the number of deaths per day from gunfire/executions is 4.6, the lowest since 2003. With continuing violence and an inept government in Baghdad that still cannot provide security or 24-hour a day electricity to all Iraqis, there's not much to cheer about in Iraq these days. Many Iraqis are looking forward to the crucial elections in January, and many are hoping for real change in Iraq.