By Shaho Amin
These days Ali Khedery is chairman and chief executive of Dragoman Partners LLC, an international strategic advisory firm. But he may be better known as the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq.
Khedery was special assistant to five American ambassadors in Iraq and senior adviser to three chiefs of US Central Command from 2003 through 2010.
Later, he was chief political negotiator Exxon Mobil's entry into the Kurdistan Region. Earlier this year, he spoke to Rudaw’s Shaho Amin.
Do you think that Iraq will remain together or will it be partitioned?
I hope Iraqis, Arabs, Shiias, Sunnis and Kurds along with minorities like Christians find a way to resolve their differences. I hope. However, I’m not especially optimistic that’s the case.
I worked in Iraq since 2003. I have many friends across Iraq from all the different communities. But what I see today worries me and saddens me very much. Because what I see today is the polarization of the society.
Nobody, I think, views themselves as Iraqis first. And that, I think, is tragic.
Kurds, view themselves as Kurds first; Sunnis view themselves as Sunnis first; Shiite view themselves as Shiite first.
Nobody, I think, views themselves as Iraqis first. And that, I think, is tragic. But understandable, because of four decades of misrule under Saddam and the Baath [Party] and [former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki] and Dawa Party.
There is a distinction between hope and reality. You said you hope to see Iraq as a unified country. You think in reality Iraq still can be a unified country?
I think the sad reality is that both in Iraq and in Syria, again because of 40 years of misrule under Bashar al-Assad and Hafiz al-Assad and the Baathists and then Saddam and Maliki, I don’t think that those countries can be held together anymore. That’s the conclusion that I have reached recently.
So what do you think they should do then?
This is a very difficult question. I think frankly the answer lays with Iraqi themselves. Either, you know, after 2003, we all worked together around the table in Baghdad in 2005.
Mam Jalal [Talabani], kak Masoud [Barzani]; the other leaders of Iraq; we all sat there with American ambassador. We worked together to draft a new Iraqi constitution. That was passed through the referendum. Overwhelmingly approved.
The system that was adopted after 2005 was a federal system. It was supposed to delegate authorities to regions like Kurdistan and Iraqi provinces. It was supposed to weaken somewhat the federal government to ensure that dictatorships like Saddam’s in practice would never be repeated.
Unfortunately, what we saw under Prime Minister Maliki was a recentralization of power.
Unfortunately, what we saw under Prime Minister Maliki was a recentralization of power. Renewed signs of dictatorship. Renewed signs of sectarianism. And that’s what has ultimately reignited the Sunni insurgency which created a civil war which led to creation of things like Daesh and the Shiite Islamist militias.
And these two things really I think are mirror images. A group of radical militant Sunni Islamists, Daesh, a group of radical Shiaa Islamists, the Hashd [al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units].
And I don’t think those two things can ever destroy each other. Like, I don’t think that Hashd can destroy Daesh. I think it only can strengthen it. You can’t defeat evil with evil. You can only defeat evil with justice.
You remind me of your article published last July in the Washington Post regarding Maliki and you mentioned that you supported Maliki to become prime minister but in 2010, you advised [US Vice President] Joe Biden not to support him again. Why?
It’s very important to remember the situation in 2006. With all due respect to my friend Dr Ibrahim Al-Jaafari who was prime minister from 2005 to 2006, the period that he was prime minister was catastrophic for Iraq.
That’s when we saw the abuse of like the Jaderiya Bunker or the torturing, that’s when the Samara Mosque bombing happened. That’s really when the civil war took off. Also again with the greatest respect, he proved to be an indecisive and incapable leader as the prime minister of the country.
So what we needed then, and that was the decision then president George W Bush personally made. He did not think that Jaafari could continue to run the country effectively. So the president ordered that we look for a new prime minister to support.
And as you know, in Dawa party there were three leaders: Ibrahim Jaafari was the head of the London office, Ali al-Adib was the head of Tehran office, and Maliki was the head of the Damascus office. So we just went down the list. Jaafari was not qualified. Ali Adib had a Persian father which would have created some tensions inside Iraq.
So the number three in the list was Maliki. We had some reservations because of the history of the Dawa Party and its affiliation with, for example, blowing up the American Embassy in Kuwait in early 1980s. But, again, the Iraqi people had voted in the elections. The Dawa Party had basically won those elections.
So we decided to go with Maliki because he was the least worst option. By 2010 I lobbied the White House against prime minister Maliki’s return and the reason why was actually quite simple. Although I considered the prime minister and his staff and his son and others to be friends, this was not personal. The reality was prime minister Maliki was the right man for the job from 2006 to 2010.
Why was he the right man then?
Because you needed a security minded individual like Abu Usra (Nuri Maliki) is to restore order in the country. And indeed that’s what he did. He attacked Al-Qaeda. He attacked Jaish al-Mahdi. He restored order in Basra and Amara and Karbala and the southern cities. With assistance, obviously, of the American military.
With all due respect to my friend Dr Ibrahim Al-Jaafari who was prime minister from 2005 to 2006, the period that he was prime minister was catastrophic for Iraq.
By 2010, I was arguing to the White House what we needed was a more moderate Shiite Islamist, somebody like Adel Abdul Mahdi to become the prime minister. Because Dr Adel is an economically minded person. He is a French-educated economist. I had wanted, another good friend, Dr Ayad Allawi to become prime minister based on the election results. But that was not possible because of the Iranian veto.
Many Iraqi leaders turned from Tehran and told us that the Iranians had a veto on Dr Ayad becoming the prime minister. So it was impossible to form a coalition around his government. Although I still think he should have been granted 30 days to form his government.
Who was more powerful in Iraq, Iran or the US?
I think every day that passed since 2003, American influence was being reduced and Iranian influence was being increased. It was just by virtue of geography and history and religion and culture. The United States was never to be able to compete with Iran in the long term influence.
So, what we needed was by 2010, we needed to form a government around secular moderate Western-leaning figure. Like the Kurdistan Alliance, like Iraqiya, like moderate elements of the Shiia Islamist coalition. So that you have a government of national unity which would not create sectarianism and dictatorship. And would not reduce a Sunni insurgency and another civil war.
Instead, what the White House did was it chose to back a deeply divisive sectarian figure like prime minister Maliki. We ignited the civil war and that’s why we have Daesh today. And that’s why we have the Hashd today. It’s because of the prime minister Maliki and American missteps.
You were supervising the situation either from America or in Iraq. What did you find out?
By 2010, I was at Central Command with General David Petraeus overseeing the American military operation across the Middle East. And we were deeply troubled by what we were beginning to see of prime minister Maliki.
After the election results came out in April 2010, we saw indications that Prime Minister Maliki was influencing the judicial system to produce a favorable outcome. And that was what we believed, some of us believed, inappropriate. And again an early sign of increasingly dictatorial tendencies.
In fact, I came to a meeting in Baghdad in April 2010 to see prime minister Maliki with a senior delegation that were guests of General Petraeus. He told us in that meeting that he believed the United States, Britain, United Nations and the Saudis had conspired together to produce Ayad Allawi as the victor of those elections. And I can tell you that it’s just simply not true.
So do you think if the prime minister was not Maliki, the situation in Iraq would not have come to what it is today?
What the White House did was it chose to back a deeply divisive sectarian figure like prime minister Maliki.
Absolutely. 100 percent. Look what Maliki did. As, again, some of us predicated.
The British ambassador, the Turkish ambassador, myself, General Raymond Odierno, the commander of US forces in Basra, Robert Ford was our deputy in Basra and Baghdad then became our ambassador in Syria. All of us. It was not just me alone. All of us were warning the White House that prime minister Maliki was again exhibiting increased sign of sectarianism and dictatorial tendencies.
What he did after he took power was, he proved us correct, frankly. He did not fulfill his promises that he made to the US government, in my presence. He did not disband the office of the commander in chief. He did not relinquish control of the Iraqi Special Forces to the defense ministry; he kept personal control of them.
He had secret prison and torture facilities in the Green Zone which he personally controlled. He went after vice president [Tariq] Hashemi. He went after finance minister Rafe Isawi. He physically crushed the protests during the Arab Spring and in Hawija.
So what he did, obviously with Kurdistan, he began an economic war with Kurdistan, depriving people from their salaries, depriving Peshmarga who are fighting on the frontlines against Daesh and Al-Qaeda, of their salaries.
He initiated an economic war against Kurdistan just like Saddam Hussein used oil as a weapon against Kurdistan. And that was entirely inappropriate for a leader of Iraq to do after 2003 and the liberation of Iraq.
Let’s talk about now. Do you think or does the American administration believe that Iraq can practically become three parts: Shiite, Kurds and Sunnis?
I don’t believe so. I don’t believe they have reached that belief. Which I think is very dangerous.
What do you mean by dangerous? It’s dangerous for the Americans or for the Iraqis?
He did not fulfill his promises that he made to the US government, in my presence.
It’s dangerous for the whole world. I don’t believe that the Obama administration recognizes the reality on the ground.
A: Because it would admit defeat and it would admit that the [President Barack] Obama strategy was an absolute catastrophe. They have bet, since 2009, since President Obama came to power, they bet that you should have strong central government in Baghdad with Nuri Maliki at its top.
They did not support increased powers and authorities for the Kurdistan Region, for Basra, for other provinces, for the Sunni provinces that you remember wanted to form a region like Kurdistan. They continued to back prime minister Maliki personally, not only in 2010, but after that; again after the Hashemi arrest, after the Isawi arrest, after Maliki was allowing Iranian planes crossing to Syria to resupply Bashar al-Assad in his campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
They continued to support prime minister Maliki and his government. And they continued to press the American Congress to sell Baghdad F16s, Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 tanks, and continue to train and assist Iraqi military. This is a violation of American law which is actually the most troubling thing of all of this.
In United States we have a law called the Leahy Law and that forbids any US administration from providing assistance to human rights violators like Maliki’s government was.
So, simply, was America wrong when they withdrew from Iraq?
I think the emphasis should always be on the political process. The reality was 10,000 US soldiers in Baghdad would not have made any difference whatsoever. What you needed, again, was, and this is why I always focus on the situation in 2010, what you needed was a national unity government. Not with Kurdish faces and Shiite faces, Sunni faces.
What you needed was the faces, the right people, but you also needed a new way of doing business. This is why, again, I supported my friend Dr. Adil Abdul Mahdi. Because Dr Adil has a different way of doing business. He’s not like prime Minister Maliki. He’s an inclusive figure; a uniting figure. He’s somebody who worked closely with both President Barzani and President Talabani for 40 or 50 years.
I think the emphasis should always be on the political process.
He has excellent relations with Sunni countries. He has also good relations with Iran which is natural. I’m not saying Iraq or Kurdistan should not have relations with Iran. I’m saying there need to be respectful relations between two sovereign entities. Not Iran expanding to Iraq.
And as the intelligence minister of Iran, advisor to President [Hassan] Rouhani, recently said, he said the Iranian empire now controls the entire Middle East and Iraq is its capital. I don’t think that is respectful of Iraq or its sovereignty.
So now what will America do for Iraq?
Well, again, I think American and Iraqi interests overlap by 90 percent. Iraqis, Kurds and Arabs, all want security and stability and peace and prosperity. And the United States, despite what many conspiracy theorists may think, the United States wants the exact same thing.
Security, stability and prosperity for Iraq because that stability in the Middle East and for the whole world reduces the support for al-Qaeda and fundamentally provides Americans and the United States more security.
I think again, but at this point the situation has deteriorated so much in places like Iraq and Syria alike now increasing in Yemen and Libya, the problem now is we have radical militant Islamist groups, Sunni and Shiia ascending to become more and more powerful every day.
And moderate forces like the political leadership in Kurdistan or some of our Gulf Arab countries, they are becoming endangered because you see a polarization in the societies across the Muslim world. Not only in the Middle East, but also in places like Indonesia and Malaysia.
What the United States should be doing is acknowledging that it won the war in 2003, but lost the peace since then. So that’s the first thing; admit that you have a problem.
Number two, you should identify your friends, like our friends in Kurdistan, like our friends in Arab Gulf countries. And you have to identify who our enemies are. Our enemies are the radical militant Islamists, entities like Hamas, a Sunni [group], Hezbollah, a Shiite entity; the Assad regime which has now killed 200,000 Syrians wounded a million Syrians, displaced millions of refugees.
Also frankly you have to admit that many powerful entities within the Iraqi government and Baghdad - Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah - these groups killed and wounded thousands of Americans but also thousands of Iraqis.
And obviously the Islamic Republic of Iran, which could be a country with a wonderful people, wonderful rich history, but its government has used terrorism for 30 years to kill and hurt thousands of people across the Middle East, in the United States and elsewhere.
And I think it’s time to identify those enemies, identify those friends, support your friends like our friends here in Kurdistan and directly confront the enemies like Hezollah or the Hashd or the Quds force.
So in addition to Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the militants, now there is Hashd al-Shaabi. Do you think the Hashd al-Shaabi will bring the right future or stability to Iraq, or vice versa?
I think American and Iraqi interests overlap by 90 percent. Iraqis, Kurds and Arabs, all want security and stability and peace and prosperity.
No, I do not, and I’ll tell you very specifically why I do not think they’re an element of stability. Last week, during the Sulaimani Forum, which I believe you attended as well, I had conversations with all of the Iraqi leaders in attendance, Kurdish, but also the Arab leaders from Baghdad.
One senior Iraqi minister told me that the Hashd al-Shaabi had received $2 billion now from the Iraqi finance ministry. Another told me, this is a Shiite Islamist, he told me that he shared my concern, my deep concern, that once Daesh is defeated or severely degraded that Asaib and Badr and Kataib and the other groups that are parts of Hashd al-Shaabi will return to Baghdad and Basra and the Shiite areas and fight between themselves.
The sectarian conflict becomes intra-Shiite. Just like you have some of the Sunni groups fighting each other. Like the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda and ISIS and the moderate Free Syrian Army, just like you have in Syria. And just like you saw over the past 10 years, people forget, as you know, in Kurdistan, let’s be honest, there has been tensions between KDP and PUK.
In the south you have the same thing. You had tensions between the Supreme Islamic Council and the Sadr group and Dawa and the other groups. So now they have more weapons more money, they have more men than ever. And it’s very likely that once the battle with Daesh is finished they will return to Baghdad and Basra and terrorize the Shiite just as much as they terrorize the Sunni citizens.
Again, we saw evidence of this throughout the past decade, since 2003, you had Jaish al-Mahdi in Sadr City in Baghdad, kidnapping residents of Sadr city, torturing some of them, killing some of them, demanding money, and blackmailing some of them. So this is nothing new.
Now some people, even politicians in Kurdistan, are saying that con-federalism is the best choice for Kurdistan. Do you think America supports this or not?
Not yet. I think the United States, I don’t speak on behalf of the United States government any more obviously, but I believe that the American policy continues to be supportive of a strong government in Baghdad, strong government in Damascus, hoping that Iraq and Syria can be held together as individual countries.
How can they achieve this? They are practically not [individual countries], can they?
I don’t believe they can, which is why I have written and spoken out publically in many times now against the Obama strategy.
What should America do as an alternative?
I think, again, what it needs to do is, number one, admit that we won the war but lost the peace; number two, we need to identify our real friends across Iraq and the Middle East like Kurdistan.
When you say “identify real friends” is the way to deal with this, what should they do? We don’t want to be part of Iraq anymore as Iraq has fallen into sectarian war. There is no stability in Iraq, that’s what Kurds would say.
You know, President Massoud Barzani is a very smart and thoughtful and wise leader. He once told me something very simple but very important, he said: the Shiite fear the past, the Sunnis fear the future and the Kurds fear both.
And what that means is, the Shiite fear 1,400 years of oppression; the Sunnis fear that the Shiite will do to them what they did to them; and the Kurds fear both Sunni and Shiite oppression.
Again, rightfully so, given that Maliki and Saddam have used oil as a weapon against Kurdistan. And some Hashd commanders are now threatening Kurdistan after Daesh is defeated.
It’s very likely that once the battle with Daesh is finished they will return to Baghdad and Basra and terrorize the Shiite just as much as they terrorize the Sunni citizens.
I understand the fears of all three communities. They are well founded. It makes perfect sense. But this is why it’s important for the leaders of Iraq to use the political process to try to defuse the tension rather than always refer to history and use weapons to resolve these differences.
We were talking about the Hashd al-Shaabi, particularly the abuses of people as long as they are powerful in Iraq. What do you think of the future of the Hashd al-Shaabi?
Well, last month, in February, I wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine in the United States, detailing the abuses of the Hasd al-Shaabi. Again the same groups, Asaib Ahl al- Haq, Badr, Kataib Hezbollah, the same groups that were responsible for killing and wounding thousands of US soldiers in Iraq and also many thousands of Iraqis, have been put under the government’s umbrella of “popular mobilization” as the Hashd al-Shaabi.
They’re being given Iraqi salaries, they’re been given US weapons from the Iraqi government and from the Iranian government and they are being told to fight. Last week, at the Sulaimani Forum, I asked Falah al Faiaz, the Iraqi national security advisor, I said: is it true that an internationally recognized terrorist by the United Nations and United States, Abu Mahdi Mohandes, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, is it true that he is your deputy and is the one leading the operations in Tikrit? He said, yes he is.
I said, is it true that our friend Hadi Ameri, the former Iraqi transportation minster and the commander of Badr, is the one leading the operations in Diyala? He said, yes. I said, I have helped recently uncover the videos that ABC News and United States used and showed of the Iraqi government army police and Hashd al-Shaabi abuses - the same war crimes and atrocities that Daesh is committing. Beheading individuals, executing teenagers, executing and torturing unarmed men.
I said, are these things true? And have you held anybody accountable in Baghdad? He said in times of war, these are extraordinary circumstances and we have to use extraordinary measures. See, this is deeply troubling, for us in the United States because you cannot defeat evil with evil. You can’t use the same tactics that Daesh is using to defeat them.
All you’re going to do with the Hashd al-Shaabi is strengthening Daesh. What you need to do is replicate the experience that we did 2005 and 2006: You must reach out to the Sunni Arab tribes, you must give them real power-sharing in Iraq and Syria. Because if you don’t, you will have a broad regional war between Sunnis and Shiias.
You can’t use the same tactics that Daesh is using to defeat them.
At the conference in Sulaimani, Mr Faiaz and other Iraqi leaders criticized you for showing a bad image of Hashd al-Shaabi, [They said] but in reality they are not bad.
I think, I hope, that the majority of Hashd al- Shaabi and the Iraqi military is not doing bad things. However, as today’s Human Rights Watch report detailed, as a United Nations report will soon detail, it’s not yet out but I have seen a copy of it, it will soon show that the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi police, and the Hashd al-Shaabi, they have all been committing war crimes and atrocities.
And, indeed, you ask any minister in Baghdad [and] they will tell you privately, not publically, they will tell you that various Iraqi units, since 2003 have again been complicit in torture, rape, murder and other war crimes.
The simple reality is these are things that Saddam was used to do. These are things that al-Qaeda does, these are things that Daesh does. We are supposed to be better. The United States of America is supposed to be better. Our partners in Baghdad are supposed to be better. We should not be resorting to the same means as Daesh or al Qaeda itself. We should be better.
And these are simple realities, as these videos show. And these videos were not leaked or stolen. These videos were posted on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram by Iraqi special forces members themselves. They were celebrating torturing somebody. They were celebrating murdering an unarmed civilian, they were celebrating beheading individuals and placing the heads on top of Humvees.
Some people believe that Hadi Ameri is becoming the same as Qasim Sulaimani in Iraq. Do you agree with this?
No, I don’t. Hadi Ameri is not the same as Qasim Sulaimani. Hado Ameri works for Qasim Sulaimani. You have seen, again, this is not a secret any more. [It] was a secret for many years, but not a secret any more. Badr was formed in Iran during the 1980s. It was part of the Revolutionary Guards. It fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq war.
It returned to Baghdad as responsible for eliminating specific individuals at Iran’s instructions. It participated in the Iraqi government, and now it is part of the Hashd al-Shaabi. And you’ve seen a picture, I’m sure, on Twitter of Hadi al-Ameri and Qasim Sulaimani hugging each other or praying with Abu Mahdi al Mohandes the two of them. I fully support the defeat of Daesh, obviously, but, again, you cannot take individuals like Kataib Hezbollah or Asaib Ahl al- Haq, which are responsible for killing and wounding thousands of American and coalition soldiers [and] thousands of Iraqi civilians, Sunni and Shiias.
You can’t bring them into government, call them Hashd al-Shaabi, which is the Arabic version of Basij by the wa,y and pretend that they are forces of good. They simply are not. They have a track record, recognized by many governments around the world of war crimes and atrocities and abuses.