U.S. President Barack Obama has kept his election promise so far: the U.S. is currently on track to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. In what state will the United States leave Iraq? Dr. Alexander Shumilin (Ph.D. in History) heads the Center for Middle East Conflict Analysis at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies. In an interview with Samir Shakhbaz, he speaks about the consequences of the near decade-long presence of American troops in Iraq.
Samir Shakhbaz: Good afternoon, Mr Shumilin. Barack Obama has kept his word. American troops are leaving Iraq. In fact, the last combat brigades have already left. There is still a residual force of 50,000 whose main mission is to train Iraqi security forces. Many consider the war in Iraq a failure. Have the actions of the U.S. military produced any positive results?
Alexander Shumilin: I don’t consider the war a failure. A lot has been achieved, despite very serious setbacks. The situation in the region is gradually stabilizing. In fact, it makes sense to consider the counterfactual: What would have happened if Saddam Hussein had remained in power and continued to pursue his policies from several months before his overthrow? We would have seen growing tension in the region and more support for extremist movements.
We have conflicting views on the changes that have taken place in Iraq. There are no assessments that state definitively what positive and negative changes have occurred. However, there is no doubt that a significant number of Iraqis welcomed Saddam’s downfall. They don’t want American troops in their country, but they also want stability – but not the stability of dictatorship they had under Saddam, which was achieved through mass oppression.
The overthrow of Saddam’s regime is an indisputable achievement. It was followed by the process of forming a new state, which has also brought positive results. Americans managed to fill the post-Saddam vacuum with a political system that sought to accommodate the interests of Iraq’s various religious and ethnic groups. Unlike five years ago, Iraq is now actively forming a democratic political system that reflects its national features, although it is still not entirely functional. The United States is leaving Iraq. The predictions that America would subdue Iraq and turn it into its colony have not come to pass.
Samir Shakhbaz: I’d like you to comment in more detail on one negative aspect. Is there a chance that Iraq, which was a secular state under Saddam, could turn into an Islamic republic? It is undeniable that the influence of fundamentalists has increased enormously in this country.
Alexander Shumilin: This is not the biggest threat in Iraq. Islamic states are states where one branch of Islam is dominant. Iraq is unlikely to turn into an Islamic state because of its religious diversity. Moreover, Islamic clerics are barred from politics in Iraq. Their domain is strictly religion, and they play only a consultative role. The emergence of an active Shiite clerical establishment in Iraq will immediately signal the potential for growing Iranian influence. We should not forget that traditionally the elites in Iraq have always been predominately secular.
Samir Shakhbaz: Obviously, the downfall of Saddam’s regime has upset the balance of power in the region. In the 1980s, Iraq kept Iran in check, but its ability to act as a counterweight began to wane over time. When Saddam’s Iraq finally collapsed, Iran reemerged on the international stage. Incidentally, some believe that life for Israel has become much more complicated and dangerous since Saddam was overthrown.
Alexander Shumilin: I disagree. Under Saddam, Israel faced a dual threat from Iraq and Iran. Saddam provided both material and ideological support to Palestinian terrorist organizations. For instance, he paid $25,000 to the family of a shahid, a suicide bomber. Furthermore, Iran and Iraq competed for influence over terrorist groups in the region, and had this not come to an end, this rivalry would have no doubt increased terrorist attacks against Israel. As for Iran, it was and is a threat.
Samir Shakhbaz: Russia has lost its positions and influence in the region, especially in Iraq. Is this changing now? How can Russia restore its influence? Or maybe it has no need to?
Alexander Shumilin: Russia was destined to lose its influence because its interests and projects depended too much on Saddam remaining in power. But the private companies that disassociated themselves from his regime in time have been able to maintain their positions, for instance LUKoil. Saddam cancelled all LUKoil’s contracts two months before the U.S. invasion for disloyalty to his regime, but this was ultimately a good thing for LUKoil. It was able to regain all these terminated contracts largely because it had distanced itself from Saddam at the right time.
Bilateral relations collapsed, indeed. The new post-Saddam government kept its promise and considerably downgraded relations with Russia. However, a clear trend towards the restoration of bilateral ties has emerged over the last two or three years. The Iraqi leadership asks Russia for help on security and economic issues more and more often.
On the whole, the Iraqi government is pursuing a policy of balance in international relations, and we have seen this in the past two or three years. The prospect of a full restoration of ties between Russia and Iraq is becoming increasingly likely, which is confirmed by the visits of Iraqi officials to Moscow and increased contacts at the state level.
Samir Shakhbaz: Thank you for your time and comments.