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History Repeating Itself? U.S. Bombing Iraq While Jockeying to Oust Leader It Once Favored

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As a U.S. bombing campaign in northern Iraq enters its fifth day, Baghdad is in a state of political crisis. Eight years ago, Nouri al-Maliki rose to prime minister with the help of the United States. Now the United States has helped pick his replacement. But al-Maliki is refusing to go — deploying his forces around Baghdad and accusing critics of staging a coup. The political crisis is worsening as U.S. airstrikes continue on Islamic State militants in the north. President Obama authorized the strikes last week in what he called an effort to halt the militants’ advance on Erbil, where the U.S. has a consulate and military personnel, as well as to prevent a massacre of the Yazidi minority. U.S. officials have confirmed the CIA is also secretly sending arms and ammunition directly to Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga. We are joined by Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Iraq. As the U.S. continues airstrikes in the north for a fifth day, a political crisis is escalating in Baghdad. On Monday, Iraq’s president named a new U.S.-backed prime minister to end Nouri al-Maliki’s eight-year rule. Speaking from his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama praised the developments.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, Iraq took a promising step forward in this critical effort. Last month, the Iraqi people named a new president. Today, President Massoum named a new prime minister designate, Dr. Haider al-Abadi. Under the Iraqi Constitution, this is an important step towards forming a new government that can unite Iraq’s different communities. Earlier today, Vice President Biden and I called Dr. Abadi to congratulate him and to urge him to form a new Cabinet as quickly as possible, one that’s inclusive of all Iraqis and one that represents all Iraqis.

AMY GOODMAN: According to a report in The Daily Beast, the U.S. has been pushing behind the scenes for Haider al-Abadi to become the new prime minister to replace Maliki. Under Iraq’s Constitution, al-Abadi now has 30 days to form a new government. During that time, Maliki remains caretaker prime minister, but he appears to be refusing to step down. On Monday, Maliki accused Iraq’s president of staging a coup and deployed militias and special forces on the streets of Baghdad.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: [translated] I tell all the fighters on the front lines, the volunteers and members of the armed forces, including the police and the army, who are worried about the violation of the Constitution and the attempt to circumvent it, to stay in your position and not to worry or be shaken by this constitutional violation. You are engaged in a sacred battle. And we are with you and behind you, so do not lose heart nor fall into despair, for you must win. I call on you to stay put and not to worry, because we will fix this mistake.

AARON MATÉ: The political crisis is escalating as the U.S. bombing campaign enters a fifth day in northern Iraq. U.S. officials have confirmed the CIA has been secretly sending arms and ammunition directly to Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga. President Obama authorized the strikes last week in what he called an effort to halt the militants’ advance on Erbil, where the U.S. has a consulate and military personnel, as well as to prevent a massacre of the Yazidi minority.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Iraq, we’re joined here in New York by Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Spencer.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the political crisis that’s now taking place in Iraq.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: So, this prime minister is going to be the one, right, because for the past 13 years or so we’ve seen the U.S. set up a governing council of hand-picked Iraqis to be the sovereign leadership of Iraq under U.S. occupation, then settle on Ayad Allawi. When Ayad Allawi seemed like he wasn’t working out for the U.S., it settled on Ibrahim Jaafari. With another year later, when Ibrahim Jaafari wasn’t working out, it found this previously unknown guy, Nouri al-Maliki. And now suddenly Maliki, after eight years of increased authoritarianism, overwhelming sectarianism, and really an incredibly heavy-handed attitude, along with some sort of nebulous ties both to Iran and to the United States, isn’t working out, either, and now, shockingly, isn’t leaving power. It doesn’t look like the U.S. so much is dictating events as is being dictated by them. This story that my friend Eli Lake reported in The Daily Beast talks about how the U.S. is looking for alternatives to Maliki for quite some time. Abadi seems to have been someone that both they and others within the Shiite bloc coalesced around. The interesting question is: To what degree did Iran engineer the elevation of Abadi? And who knows what happens in 30 days? Who—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, to what degree did Iran also elevate him?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Well, Iran has a tremendous amount of influence over Iraqi Shiite politics. It would be interesting to find out the degree to which Iran views him as either he’s its man or a consensus candidate it can back or someone it just sees as a strong [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: So Iran’s man is the U.S.’ man?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: It can be. I mean, for a long time Iran’s man, by default, in the U.S., whose man by default was Maliki. This has been a trend in Iraq for quite some time. The U.S. has been kind of confused about how it ultimately can keep Iraq from sort of reverting by default to a pro-Iranian foreign policy, even while it maintains its ties to the United States.

AARON MATÉ: What’s your sense of what Maliki is doing here? Is he trying to cling to power, or is he just seeking to arrange a better exit term for his departure?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: I don’t really want to judge things 5,000 miles away from where I can see them, but it doesn’t really look like he’s interested in anything other than staying in power, even to the bitter end.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the role that the U.S. is playing now, what exactly President Obama was doing. I wanted to turn to a clip of President Obama. Let’s go back to President Obama emphasizing his claim that the U.S. is launching airstrikes mainly to protect American personnel in Erbil. We’ll go to that clip in a minute, but talk about how Maliki’s role in Baghdad has affected the situation in northern Iraq and the growth of ISIS, the Islamic State.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Well, so, look at where the bombing campaign is happening, and look where it’s not happening. It’s all happening, with basically two exceptions, outside of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region that’s incredibly sympathetic, welcoming and solicitous of the United States. The two exceptions are ISIS positions besieging Yazidis, tens of thousands of them starving, dying of thirst, atop Sinjar Mountain. Where it’s not happening is in Baghdad. Where it’s not happening is around Baghdad. Where it’s not happening is where many Iraqis fear ISIS is infiltrating, acting less like the army that we’ve seen over the last 12, 13 weeks and more like a terrorist organization. There’s been sporadic bombings in Baghdad, every now and then. I think yesterday there was another ISIS announcement that the battle for Baghdad has begun. And many are watching, whether in Baghdad, whether in Erbil, whether in Washington, whether in foreign capitals, when, if at all, ISIS is going to make a push into Baghdad. What ISIS has not faced, since its campaign began in Iraq, has been a concerted opposition, someone that checks them, that attempts to hold territory, even take territory—especially take territory back—basically, act as a force to challenge ISIS. ISIS has basically had the run of the place since two divisions of the Iraqi armed services decided to retreat from Mosul.

The reason why the bombing is taking place in Erbil is only pretextually about protecting U.S. citizens, U.S. special advisers, a lot of representatives of oil concerns and so forth in Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s to make sure that Kurdistan doesn’t fall. It’s to make sure that Erbil does not become the next battleground for ISIS, for Kurdish forces that it feels it has to rely on. One of the reasons it has to rely on them is, if Baghdad should fall, if something should happen to Baghdad, if Baghdad should be overrun by ISIS or ultimately the Green Zone not be defensible, the U.S. will have to extricate its forces, its diplomats, its special operations adviser personnel, its other Defense Department personnel from the Embassy, and the only place to stage that is going to be in Erbil to get them then out of the country. They need to keep Erbil, and that’s why the overwhelming amount of airstrikes are focused around those positions.

AARON MATÉ: And toward this end, they’re also now arming the Kurds.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: That’s right. So, there are two tracks by which this is happening. One is primarily one that the CIA is in charge of, which is a direct arming campaign. I’m told these are, you know, small arms, AK-47s that aren’t in U.S. military stocks, ammunition for them—not at this point talking about missiles, talking about armored vehicles, talking about helicopters, things like that. That raises the big question of to what degree the Kurdish Peshmerga, the irregulars, the militias can overcome a deficit of force against a much better-armed ISIS. And also, there’s a second track by which the U.S. military is trying to help the Iraqi government conduct more airdrops to resupply the Kurds with their own armaments, some of which come from the United States. The U.S. military started talking yesterday about expediting that, seeing what they can do to support it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about CIA arming the Kurds more in a minute, but the issue of ISIS gaining power because of the U.S.'s man in Baghdad—the U.S. has given tens of billions of dollars to the Maliki government, or in weapons and other forms—and the role the Maliki government has played in the isolation of Sunnis, who might not support ISIS except because of Maliki's policies?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: This is a guy who, among the first things he did when—within hours of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, was arrest the leading Sunni politician, or order the arrest. He ended up having to flee. He started a campaign of harassment, detentions, arrests of Sunni forces, ex-insurgents who flipped sides to work with the United States and, by default, the Maliki government. Every opportunity that he had to sort of take steps to include the Sunni Iraqis in power, he opted against. That, to a great degree, facilitated the rise of ISIS’s entry into Iraq, gave a base of support for ISIS. ISIS, from everything that I’ve been able to glean and, you know, lots of sources on this who are not on the ground—it’s kind of a crapshoot in figuring out exactly what’s going on with ISIS, but talk about ISIS is as less of a concerted group, as rather a coalition, including a lot of Sunni organizations that feel compelled to bandwagon with them.

The question that everyone’s had has been: To what degree is ISIS going to—as its previous incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, did—overplay its hand? What degree will its brutality eventually force this coalition to cleave? Or will that require some kind of exogenous event? The Obama administration seems to think that that exogenous event will be an inclusive Iraqi government. What inclusive Iraqi government has there ever been? What inclusive Iraqi government has the U.S. ever shown any facility in being able to forge? It’s an enormous open question. Was Maliki the way he was because Iraq is the way it is, or is Iraq the way it is because Maliki is the way he was?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Spencer Ackerman is with us, the national security editor at The Guardian, part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that did the pieces on Edward Snowden’s revelations. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll also go to northern Iraq to speak with Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, who’s met with Yazidis. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: Well, on the issue of ISIS and their advance throughout Iraq, let’s turn to comments made by a senior Pentagon official, Army Lieutenant General William Mayville, speaking to reporters on Monday about the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM MAYVILLE: We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL’s operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Erbil. However, these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIL remains focused on securing and gaining additional territory throughout Iraq and will sustain its attacks against Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their positions, as well as target Yazidis, Christians and other minorities. … In the immediate areas where we have focused our strikes, we’ve had a very temporary effect. And—but I, in no—and we may have blunted some tactical decisions to move in those directions and move further east to Erbil. What I expect the ISIL to do is to look for other things to do, to pick up and move elsewhere. So, I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by ISIL.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Lieutenant General William Mayville. Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian, he’s saying that we have not effectively contained ISIS with these strikes.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Yeah, that was an extraordinary briefing. Usually when the military sets out at the Pentagon podium to talk about an ongoing campaign, you hear a lot about the success, the effects that are being achieved, the progress that’s happening and so forth. This was just doom and gloom. This was saying the airstrikes are having a limited effect, they’re temporary, they’re not really going to impact ISIS’s capabilities overwhelmingly. Now, usually when the military does that, it’s because the subtext of it is: “And we should do more. We should be escalating.” There are a lot of people over the past several weeks who I’ve talked to in military circles, Iraq veterans, like Mayville is, who have been exceptionally distraught about how rapidly it seemed that Iraq has unraveled. There’s not any appetite, that I’ve been able to pick up, for re-invading Iraq. So everyone’s sort of default policy is a more concerted air campaign that’s happening now. These are more like pinprick strikes. They’ve taken out artillery. They’ve taken out positions. They’ve taken out checkpoints. They’ve taken out convoys. But they haven’t really been part of what looks more like a campaign, something that stitches together, taking territory away, taking out command nodes, key leaders, that sort of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about the CIA’s involvement in Iraq and in Kurdistan.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Potentially fateful step, because for decades successive administrations, as sympathetic as they may have been to the Kurds, they’ve not wanted to actually arm the Kurds or have the Kurds be an explicit U.S. proxy, for the very good reason that—or, I should say, for the very understandable reason that the boundaries between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan are under fierce dispute. If it looks like a great power is backing the Kurds, it gives the Kurds far more ammunition for their separatist tendencies. And the U.S. has not really decided that it wants to see and foster an independent Kurdistan, whatever the merits of that may be. Whatever effects happen in terms of supporting an independent Kurdistan or supporting a Kurdistan strong enough to perhaps assert its independence, the greater anxiety there will be in Baghdad and the greater difficulty the U.S. will have in stitching together a cohesive government. One of the first things the Kurds did when ISIS invaded was to take disputed cities in Baghdad-controlled Iraq.

AARON MATÉ: But if arming the Kurds is not effective and if the bombing is not effective, as these Pentagon officials have told you, then in launching these limited strikes, as President Obama has, has he put himself in a position where, unless there’s massive public opposition, he’ll be forced to expand the strikes?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: I think that’s very strong in terms of a likelihood. This is the sort of thing that lends itself very well to incrementalism, which has been something that the Obama administration has both tried to resist, and yet, you know, in effect, whether it’s in Libya, whether it’s in Pakistan or whether it’s in Afghanistan, he finds himself sort of drawn into by degree. And here he’s outlined what seemed to be contradictory goals—the very limited goals of protecting U.S. personnel and making—

AMY GOODMAN: Which, of course, he could have just moved them.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Simple enough, right? And alternatively, making sure that there’s an inclusive government to at some point fight ISIS. But what you started hearing from the administration yesterday, as it was encouraging Abadi, was that more defense aid will be forthcoming, provided that Abadi gets installed as prime minister and does the things that Washington wants him to do in terms of putting, you know, Sunni faces onto a Cabinet, very reminiscent of what we heard from the Bush administration. So, at that point, Obama will be hard-pressed to resist cries from the Iraqi government, which have been long-standing for weeks now, if not months, to increasingly Americanize the war and become more of Iraq’s air force.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, before you go, Spencer, you wrote [sic] the piece, “How U.S. Actions in Iraq Fueled Rise of a Rebel.” Or, can you talk about the rebel leader of ISIS?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Well, someone that the U.S. imprisoned in Iraq eventually, the short version is, is now the emir of ISIS, is now the most important figure in the Islamic State. And the U.S. has not shown much introspection about the effect that detention has on radicalization.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the piece I mentioned was The New York Times piece about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but you also have been looking at him.


AMY GOODMAN: So, continue with what you were saying.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Detentions, this massive apparatus that the United States has set up since 9/11, overwhelmingly focused on Muslims, overwhelmingly focused on Middle Eastern and South Asian people, has now been shown, for yet another time, to have a radicalizing effect. You saw this with Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was detained and brutally beaten by the Egyptian government. This really seems to be a recurring threat. And yet you never get the sense from American officials that they’ve considered the effects they’ve had in terms of radicalization by virtue of detentions, because particularly battlefield detentions, while this has been a category that the United States has been able to find rather fungible, nevertheless have to end at some point. And as in Baghdadi’s case, they’ve ended in quite possibly the most disastrous way the U.S. could have anticipated.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, thanks so much for being with us. He is a reporter with The Guardian, part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that exposed the revelations of Edward Snowden.

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