Cablegate: The Great Game, in Mesopotamia: Iraq and Its
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SUBJECT: THE GREAT GAME, IN MESOPOTAMIA: IRAQ AND ITS
NEIGHBORS, PART I
Classified By: Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, for reasons 1.4 b and d.
1. (U) This is the first of two cables reviewing Iraq’s relations with key neighboring states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Turkey, in the wake of the August 19 bombings. Part II reviews Iraq’s relations with Syria, in the wake of the August 19 bombings.
2. (C) Summary: Iraq’s relations with its neighbors represent a critical element in its efforts to maintain security and stability and normalize its position in the Gulf and the broader region. While Iraq made substantial progress in 2008-09 on these fronts, there remained unfinished business, especially in terms of relations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria. The August 19 bombings -- targeting the MFA, and by extension Iraq’s improving relations with its neighbors -- represent a serious setback to that progress and have alarmed senior Iraqi officials that Iraqi Sunni Arab neighbors in particular now view those earlier gains as “reversible.” Iraq views relations with Saudi Arabia as among its most challenging, given Riyadh’s money, deeply ingrained anti-Shia attitudes, and suspicions that a Shia-led Iraq will inevitably further Iranian regional influence. Iraqi contacts assess that the Saudi goal (and that of most other Sunni Arab states, to vary degrees) is to enhance Sunni influence, dilute Shia dominance and promote the formation of a weak and fractured Iraqi government. Coincidentally, Iranian efforts are driven by a clear determination to see a sectarian, Shia-dominated government that is weak, disenfranchised from its Arab neighbors, detached from the U.S. security apparatus and strategically dependent on Iran. Neither of these objectives is in the U.S. interest. In the longer term, we will need to flesh out ideas for a post-GCC security architecture that includes Iraq more fully, develops ways to contain Iranian regional influence, and shapes the special position Iraq will likely occupy in the Gulf in ways that further our interests and those of our Gulf partners. End Summary.
SAUDI ARABIA -- ANTI-SHIISM AS FOREIGN POLICY?
3. (C) Iraqi officials view relations with Saudi Arabia as among their most problematic, although they are usually careful with U.S. officials to avoid overly harsh criticism, given our close relations with the Saudis. Iraqi officials note that periodic anti-Shia outbursts from Saudi religious figures are often allowed to circulate without sanction or disavowal from the Saudi leadership. This reality reinforces the Iraqi view that the Saudi state religion of Wahabbi Sunni Islam condones religious incitement against Shia. The suspicion is that these anti-Shia attitudes color Saudi views of a Shia-led Iraq. The Saudis have traditionally viewed Iraq as a Sunni-dominated bulwark against the spread of Shiism and Iranian political influence. In the wake of bombings in predominantly Shia areas across the country in June 2009 that killed dozens, PM Maliki pointed publicly to one such statement, made by a Saudi imam in May, and noted, “We have observed that many governments have been suspiciously silent on the fatwa provoking the killing of Shiites.”
4. (C) For now the Saudis are using their money and media power XXXXXXXXXXXX to support Sunni political aspirations, exert influence over Sunni tribal groups, and undercut the Shia-led Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Iraqi National Alliance (INA). NSC advisor QIraq (ISCI) and Iraqi National Alliance (INA). NSC advisor Safa al-Sheikh told us recently that Saudi influence in Iraq was significant, perhaps more significant than Iran’s at the moment, given the financial and media assets at its disposal, and given Iran’s recent internal distractions. He described the Saudi “media message” as having shifted a few years ago from one that was hostile to the GOI and sympathetic to the insurgency, to one that focused now more on an anti-ISCI message. According to PM Advisor Sadiq al-Rikabi, the Saudis are opposed to a strong Shia-led INA. Al-Sheikh also assessed that the Saudis would try to curb ISCI and INA and throw support to Sunni groups to counter Iranian influence, steps that could end up indirectly supporting Maliki, if he continues to pursue a cross-sectarian coalition in the elections. These contacts assess that the Saudi goal (and to varying degrees most other Sunni states) is to enhance Sunni influence, dilute Shia dominance, and promote the formation of a weak and more fractured Iraqi government. (COMMENT: Coincidentally, Iran also sees as in its interest a weak Iraqi government, albeit one with Shia firmly in control.)
5. (C) Some observers see a more malign Saudi influence. A recent Iraqi press article quoted anonymous Iraqi intelligence sources assessing that Saudi Arabia was leading a Gulf effort to destabilize the Maliki government and was
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financing “the current al Qaida offensive in Iraq.” The article also quoted MP Haidar al-Abadi, a Maliki political ally, insisting that Gulf Arab neighbors wanted to destabilize Iraq. A few of our more senior contacts hint at similar malign intentions “by some neighbors,” making clear without being explicit that they are referring to Saudi Arabia.
KUWAIT: RELATIONS HOSTAGE TO CHAPTER VII CONCERNS
6. (C) Although Kuwait re-opened its Embassy and sent an ambassador in 2008, bilateral relations remain hostage to Chapter VII concerns. While the Kuwaitis have indicated some willingness to reduce significantly the amount of compensation Iraq is paying under UNSCR 687, they have insisted in return on GOI re-affirmation in its entirety of UNSCR 833, entailing acceptance of the land borders and maritime boundary between the two countries. The latter in particular is highly problematic for the Iraqi leadership, especially in an election year, according to senior contacts. At present, Iraq has unimpeded navigational access from the Gulf to the port of Um Qasr, but some two-thirds of the deep water channel of the Khor Abdullah now lies -- as a result of the 833 demarcation -- in Kuwaiti territorial waters. Some observers, such as Da’wa Party MP Sami al-Askari, have expressed concern to us that after U.S. forces withdraw fully, Kuwait will try to control Iraq’s access to the sea, “and that border demarcation will allow it.” In his view, “No Iraqi leader could ever formally recognize the maritime border.” Even PM Maliki believes this. Despite these difficulties, the Iraqi and Kuwaiti sides have made significant progress cooperating in the past six months on Kuwaiti missing persons and property. NSC advisor al-Sheikh believes that the Chapter VII issues with Kuwait will eventually be resolved and that “we do not consider Kuwait a problem country” like some of the other neighbors. Nevertheless, the border issue is an acute friction point and could, in the view of Maliki, become grounds for confrontation between the two.
IRAN’S LOOMING PRESENCE
7. (C) Iranian influence in Iraq remains pervasive, as Tehran manipulates a range of levers to mold Iraq’s political, religious, social, and economic landscape. Overall, however, the GOI views its relations with Iran in a special category, posing risks that are manageable and not viewed as existential threats to the state. Obviously many Sunni contacts -- and many of our allies in the region -- see the situation in far starker terms and fear that Iraq could fall into Iran’s political orbit and rendered unable to speak or act independently, once U.S. troops draw down. Iranian efforts are driven by a clear determination to see a sectarian, Shia-dominated government that is weak, disenfranchised from its Arab neighbors, detached from the U.S. security apparatus and strategically dependent on Iran.
8. (C) While significantly weaker than the Saudis and others on media, the Iranians fund political parties and key individuals (as other neighboring countries do), according to a range of well-informed Iraqi contacts. Shia contacts like PM advisor Rikabi and NSC advisor al-Sheikh, as well as others such as (Kurdish) FM Zebari, do not dismiss the significant Iranian influence but instead argue that it:
-- is best countered by Iraqi Shia political actors, who know how to deal with Iran;
-- is not aimed, unlike that of some Sunni Arab neighbors, at fomenting terrorism that would destabilize the government; Qfomenting terrorism that would destabilize the government;
-- will naturally create nationalistic Iraqi resistance to it (both Shia and more broadly), if other outsiders do not intervene to stoke Sunni-Shia sectarian tension; and
-- has been frozen in place to some extent in the past few months by the political turmoil inside Iran.
9. (C) According to al-Sheikh, Iraq and Iran have “very special, very frank talks” in which Iraq’s Shia-led government is able to push back effectively against Iranian influence on some fronts. Observers generally credit the Iranians with playing a more sophisticated game than the Syrians, as they try to shape the political process to their liking. These contacts acknowledge that Iran is providing some form of covert support to armed groups like the Promise Day Brigades and other small groups, but maintain they have stopped support for the big militias. It should be noted that some contacts demonstrate discomfort when asked about Iranian influence and show an alacrity for moving on to other
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neighbors in the region. TURKEY: BETTER THAN THE REST
10. (C) Relations with Turkey are relatively positive. Turkey intervened diplomatically to attempt to mediate the post-August 19 crisis with the Syrians, and unlike the Iranian effort, seems to have gotten some traction with the parties. The effort has been well-received here, even if concrete progress has been limited. The Iraqis and Turks have established a Strategic Commission that meets periodically at the ministerial level, paving the way for head of state visits marking significant economic cooperation. PM Erdogan is expected in Baghdad in October, following up on the ministerial in mid-September in Ankara. Bilateral trade is currently at $7 billion annually, and the two countries hope it will expand significantly in the coming decade. Moreover, Turkey has worked to improve its relations with the KRG, and they have significantly increased their diplomatic and commercial presence in the Kurdish areas. However, the Turks also have been active on the Iraqi political front, funding groups like the Mosul-based Sunni Al-Hudba movement, in an effort to offset Kurd influence in areas outside Kurdistan.
11. (C) It is the water issue that threatens to complicate an improving Iraq-Turkey relationship. According to DFM Labid Abbawi, Iraq needs a flow of 700 cubic meters of water for its needs but could get back with a minimum of 500. However, Turkey was only allowing a flow of about 230 cubic meters (with an uptick in August and September beyond that level). A recent visit to Turkey by the Iraqi Minister of Water was not very productive, he noted.
THE WAY FORWARD
12. (C) It will help Iraq’s efforts to maintain stability and security, and to continue moving forward in normalization with neighbors, if we and the P-5 can provide the requisite support for the appointment by the UN of a senior official (someone other than SRSG head Melkert, who already has a full plate with UNAMI) to look into the August 19 bombings. We should also weigh in with key neighbors to urge a redoubling of efforts in normalizing relations with Iraq, keeping up the pressure on Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular to return their Ambassadors. We should also caution Iraq’s Arab neighbors against efforts to inflame Shia-Sunni anxieties through their support for Sunni parties and by Shia-critical media attacks. Regarding Kuwait, we will need to work for steady progress on Chapter VII where possible, focusing on Oil-for-Food and WMD resolutions 1546 and 707, initially, with a push after elections to make progress on the Kuwait-related resolutions.
13. (C) In the longer term, we will need to flesh out ideas for a post-GCC security architecture that includes Iraq more fully, develops ways to contain Iranian regional influence, and shapes the special position Iraq will likely occupy in the Gulf in ways that further our interests and those of our Gulf partners. The challenge for us is to convince Iraq neighbors, particularly the Sunni Arab governments, that relations with a new Iraq are not a zero-sum game, where if Iraq wins, they lose. We still have work to do to convince them that a strong, stable, democratic (and inevitably Shia-led) Iraq is the best guarantee that Iraq will be able to shake Iranian manipulation and see its future bound up with that of the West and its moderate Arab neighbors.