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Cablegate: The Great Game, in Mesopotamia: Iraq and Its

VZCZCXRO2989
OO RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHIHL RUEHKUK
DE RUEHGB #2561/01 2670322
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 240322Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4812
INFO RUCNRAQ/IRAQ COLLECTIVE

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BAGHDAD 002561

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/18/2019
TAGS: PGOV PREL IZ SY KU IR TU
SUBJECT: THE GREAT GAME, IN MESOPOTAMIA: IRAQ AND ITS
NEIGHBORS, PART II

Classified By: Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, for reasons 1.4 b and d.


1. (U) This is the second of two cables reviewing Iraq's
relations with key neighboring countries. this cable focuses
on Iraq's relations with Syria, in the wake of the August 19
bombings.

2. (C) Summary: Iraq's improving relations with its
neighbors in 2008 and early 2009 represented a critical
element in its efforts to maintain security and stability and
normalize its position in the Gulf and the broader region.
The August 19 bombings -- targeting the MFA, and by extension
Iraq's improving relations with its neighbors -- represent a
serious setback and have alarmed senior Iraqi officials,
suggesting that Iraqi Sunni Arab neighbors in particular now
view those earlier gains as "reversible." These fears help
explain the rapid deterioration in relations with Syria and
the GOI's demand that the UN intervene to investigate the
August 19 bombings, so as to put Syria on notice that the
international community is scrutinizing its use of Iraqi
Ba'athist proxies to interfere in Iraq. Iraq's relations
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Turkey are covered in Part I
of this message. End Summary.

PROGRESS WITH THE NEIGHBORS, 2008-09
------------------------------------

3. (C) From 2008 through much of the summer, Iraq's
relations with its neighbors were on a positive trajectory
overall. The breakthroughs in regional engagement began in
the fall of 2008 (following sustained USG pressure), with the
UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait all sending ambassadors to Baghdad,
along with Jordan, the Arab League, and Syria. Iraq also
began its regular participation in the GCC 3 in 2008. While
there was less formal movement in 2009, the positive trend
continued, as the GOI named 58 new ambassadors and the
Egyptian government took steps to return its ambassador. The
continuing signs of improvement in security in Iraq in 2008
and the first half of 2009 provided a growing sense that Iraq
was becoming a much more secure place and getting strong
enough to ward off, or at least better control, neighbors'
meddling in its internal affairs.

4. (C) However, not all the trendlines were positive during
this period. Despite pressure from us, the Saudis refused to
send an ambassador (although they received Iraq's ambassador
in Riyadh), reflecting Riyadh's and King Abdullah's, in
particular, deep-seated doubts about a Shia-led democracy in
Iraq. Relations with other key countries in the region,
including Syria, Kuwait, and even Turkey, also experienced
varying degrees of drag on positive movement, ranging from
foreign fighters issues in Syria to Chapter VII issues in
Kuwait and water shortfalls from Turkey. The perception
among many Iraqis during this period was that despite the
gains in normalization and regional integration, Iraq was a
pitiful (former) regional giant, preyed upon and held back in
various ways by neighbors intent on keeping it weak and
taking advantage of it.

AUGUST 19: A THREAT TO NORMALIZATION TRENDS
-------------------------------------------

5. (C) The August 19 bombings which severely damaged the MFA
and the Ministry of Finance buildings and Baghdad's
residents' sense of improving security, brought these
negative trendlines into sharp relief. The bombings undercut
the perception of normalization that had become a commonplace
over the past eighteen months (and undercut PM Maliki's
platform of having delivered on security). Iraqis, both
official and unofficial, believe it was no accident that one
of the main targets, and the one that suffered the most
Qof the main targets, and the one that suffered the most
damage, is the MFA, symbol of Iraq's efforts to build
relations with its neighbors and normalize its position in
the region.

6. (C) In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, FM Zebari
made accusations that one or more of the neighboring
countries had conspired with al-Qaeda, possibly using
proxies, to support the bombings. In a meeting with the
Ambassador, PM Maliki referred to a "momentum of
interference" that was building in the lead-up to the January
national elections. Zebari described the next 5-6 month
time-frame as "a period of maximum danger" for Iraq. The
bombings were meant to convey the perception -- welcomed by
some neighbors, he insisted -- that the security and
normalization in Iraq of the past two years were "reversible."

DO THE NEIGHBORS HAVE IT IN FOR IRAQ?
-------------------------------------

7. (C) Iraqi contacts speculated that regional unease about

BAGHDAD 00002561 002 OF 002


a Shia-led Iraqi government, and about the democratic
character of that government, a model that could eventually
undermine the legitimacy of more autocratic regimes in the
region, helped explain why some neighbors would prefer a weak
and unstable Iraq, where security and political gains of the
past two years are rolled back. Acting NSC Advisor Dr. Safa
al-Sheikh described the neighbors as bent on intervening in
Iraq, especially in the months leading up to the January 2010
elections. While some used proxies to foment violence,
others restricted themselves to money, media (propaganda),
and meddling, all designed to help shape electoral
coalitions, and block or further individual political
careers, in order to better control Iraq and keep it weak,
politically fractured, and pliable, insisted al-Sheikh. PM
Maliki told the Ambassador that neighbors feared a resurgent
Iraq that would capture too much of "the limelight."
According to Maliki, neighbors also feared Iraq's "golden
connection between Shia and Sunni Islam," a legacy that gives
Iraq special precedence in the region. His argument is based
on a well-acknowledged fact that Iraq is the grand junction
of Shia and Sunni Islam as well as of the Arab world and
Persia, making it, therefore, both strategically vital but
also vulnerable. The view of key contacts here is that some
of Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors have concluded that in a
stable, peaceful Iraqi democracy, Sunni political power in
Iraq would be finished. These Arab neighbors, therefore,
conclude that the only way the Sunnis will ever come back
into power in Iraq is in the wake of a period of sustained
instability and violence that de-legitimizes democratic
governance and the Shia as Iraqi political leaders.

RELATIONS WITH SYRIA IN CRISIS
------------------------------

8. (C) Relations with Syria suffered the most precipitous
decline in the wake of the attacks, with mutual recalls of
Ambassadors and public statements making clear the GOI felt
Syria was complicit. While Syrian support for Iraqi
Ba'athists has long been a significant bilateral irritant,
the GOI's public claim that Syrian-based insurgents were
responsible for August 19 represented a significant shift.
To the al-Maliki government, the problem was now seen as an
existential threat to the state and the GOI could no longer
treat the issue with routine diplomacy, especially given
fears these attacks were only the first wave. According to
Maliki and al-Sheikh, senior Iraqi security officers had seen
a growing body of intelligence in the months leading up to
attacks indicating significant cooperation between Iraqi
Ba'athists and al-Qaeda, although Sheikh acknowledged that
the proof for Iraqi Ba'athist involvement in the August 19
bombings had been assembled "somewhat quickly." He explained
that at the cell level, Ba'athists participate with some
al-Qaida groups -- usually disguising their Baathist
sympathies -- and often dominate the local groups because
they have highly prized skills such as experience handling
weapons and explosives.

9. (C) Iraqi officials make clear that despite the current
problems with Syria, they foresee the possibility of improved
relations in the future. PM Maliki recently stated that Iraq
wanted a harder-line USG policy toward Syria only to the
extent it would help compel Syria to stop misbehaving and be
a better neighbor. The problem, according to Maliki and
others, is that Syria is a neighborhood menace with a history
of fomenting violence and inciting instability in the region
-- and it viewed these tactics as part of the standard tools
Q-- and it viewed these tactics as part of the standard tools
of diplomacy. Iraq's problem is that it is too weak on its
own to intimidate Syria into behaving. With no troops "to
mass on the border" as a threat, as Turkey had once done, and
taking his cue from Lebanon's experience following the Hariri
assassination, Maliki felt he had no recourse but to take the
issue to the UNSC, hoping this diplomatic "stick" might
persuade Bashar and his regime to back off. Iraq is looking
to the United States and other members of the P-5 to endorse
the appointment by the UNSYG of a senior official to
investigate the August 19 bombings and external support for
terrorism in Iraq. (NOTE: Not all Iraqi officials agreed
with the PM's approach. On September 5, Iraq's three
presidents -- Talabani, Hashimi and Abd al-Mahdi -- issued a
statement calling for containing tension between Iraq and
Syria through diplomatic channels, an obvious rejection of
Maliki's insistence on UN involvement. END NOTE.)

10. (U) Iraq's relations Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and
Turkey are covered in Part I of this message.

HILL

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