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Kerry disappoints in Iraq

Many in Baghdad feel opinion from across the political and sectarian spectrum is being ignored by the US, once again.
Last modified: 23 Jun 2014 20:39

A few days ago I was walking in the US embassy in Baghdad. This is the largest US embassy in the world and cost $750m to build.

It was eerily quiet.

Most of the staff have been evacuated and the grand office buildings look increasingly like a folly of optimism, assuming that the architect thought that one day ‎this embassy would help create the ideal Middle Eastern democracy.

‎Although Iraq is a democracy, it is hardly ideal.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, is in Baghdad on a short visit to push for a solution to Iraq's crisis.

The images of him and Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, sitting together are telling: neither is comfortable. As metaphor for the US-Iraqi relationship, it's a revealing one.

The tone of Kerry's words, however, is diplomatic. He is reinforcing the administration's message that Iraq must form a united government as quickly as possible and that it wasn't up to the US to choose Iraq's leaders.

His words have not gone far enough for many people here.

Dr Saeed Rasheed is a professor at Baghdad University. He says "the message that John Kerry brought to Iraq and Iraqis is disappointing".

There's good reason for the scepticism. Iraqis feel they've been here before with the Americans.

'Americans dictating terms'

‎Dr Rasheed says that the Americans once again are dictating terms.

"This message was not encouraging by all means because Iraqi politicians were expecting Kerry to discuss US help to Iraq on a military level, especially when there is an open war with terrorism, not to discuss the formation of the next government or the political situation."

There's good reason ‎that the US is hesitant to go all out militarily once again in Iraq.

The US thought its major combat operations had ended in the country not once but twice.

The first time a confident President George Bush flew onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on an S-3B viking aircraft on May 2, 2003, and gave a speech under a huge banner declaring "Mission Accomplished".

We know now it wasn't.

Then on December 18, 2011, the US pulled its ‎final troops from Iraq in a moment that President Obama heralded at the US military base Fort Bragg.

He said then: "We leave behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq."

Now the US is once again focused on Iraq, but what can it do? The answers aren't simple.

The Syrian connection

Certainly among some Iraqi politicians from all parties, there is a feeling that there can be no defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq without action in Syria.

It's in Syria that ISIL has its safe havens. It's from there that ISIL commands and controls its Iraqi campaign.

But the US hasn't so far aggressively pursued action in Syria.

We find ourselves in a situation where the Sunni rebels have a unified position on Iraq and Syria but the international community and Iraq doesn't.

That's a situation ISIL understands and has taken advantage of.‎

The group knows that the pariah status of the Syrian government means it can take and hold territory there without fear of international intervention.

In Iraq ISIL also understands that the International appetite to send major combat forces into Iraq is simply non-existent.

Eleven years of US occupation means that domestically it simply will not play well with the electorate in many Western countries.

Increasingly it looks like that solving Iraq without Syria and vice versa is unlikely.

Many people have told me here that before the US arrived, there were no ISIL-type groups, that the US role here has been detrimental on almost all levels.

But given that Kerry's words didn't promise real action, many here feel that Iraqi opinion from across the political and sectarian spectrum is simply being ignored by the US, once again.