Joel Brinkley: Iraq wants to renew relationship

By Joel Brinkley

Hard as it may be to believe, the Iraqi government wants the United States to come back — and right away.

“We need you as a partner in a flaming region,” Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the United States, told me over breakfast recently. “And I think you need us.”

Yes, the Middle East is “aflame,” as Faily put it. And Iraq is in deep trouble, like most of the region. Almost daily, 20, 30, 50 or more people die in terrorist attacks that generally involve Sunnis killing Shiites, or vice versa. Eighty-three people died in attacks Sunday through Tuesday, bringing the total dead so far this year to more than 3,800.

But Faily said his government is not asking the U.S. to return troops to Iraq. No, he said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yanked him from his position as ambassador to Japan and sent him to America a few months ago to carry the message: We need help with governance.

I should say! In recent days, angry Iraqis have staged demonstrations over lavish wages and pensions for members of parliament — even though the parliament has been largely dysfunctional for several years, locked in partisan conflict.

While accomplishing almost nothing, the Parliamentarians awarded themselves pension benefits of about $8,000 a month, $96,000 a year. Meantime, the gross national income per capita there is $5,870, and 25 percent of this oil-rich state’s residents live below the poverty line.

Last spring, the government revoked the licenses of 10 television channels because it deemed their news reporting critical of the government. And last week, the Interior Ministry banned further anti-government protests.

With all of that, why does the United States need Iraq?

“Iraq is one of the very few countries that provides a realistic reading of the region,” Faily asserted. “But Iraq still does not read its own politics right.”

Just then, an aide, Commercial Counselor Naufel Alhassan, interjected without prompting: “This isn’t about the overflights!” Days earlier, a Maliki spokesman said Iraq would forbid any overflights of American or other planes attacking Syria.

Maliki was the one who refused to sign an acceptable agreement in 2011 that would have allowed a small contingent of American soldiers to remain in Iraq to help the government with security problems. Even then, Iraq was facing several terror attacks a month. More recently, the frequency has grown to almost daily.

Faily blamed all the violence on al-Qaida and “Saddam Hussein remnants,” the same explanation Iraqi government officials used when I was based there 10 years ago.

“Pragmatically,” Alhassan said, “you can hate the war or like the war, condemn or regret what happened 10 years ago,” when the U.S. invaded Iraq. “But now we have a lot of mutual interests.” Faily insisted that the country is not after foreign aid. After all, he noted, with all that oil, “we can pay.”

But what Iraq can’t do, he acknowledged, is field a competent government.

“We need help creating a workable budget. And who better than the U.S. to help us build up our system?” The key problem needing attention, Faily said: “Corruption.”

Transparency International’s corruption index places Iraq seven places shy of the most corrupt nation on earth.

But there’s more. The ambassador said Iraq wants help with health care, education, culture, defense, social services, the economy …

“We are sitting on billions of barrels of oil,” he added. “But no one has clean water. We need your expertise on water treatment.”

The two Iraqis noted that their country is a technological midget, too.

“Right now we have a paper-based system,” Alhassan said. “Everything is done on paper.”

And Faily added: “We can’t send any document without an original signature. So we have to scan everything.”

The U.S. would do well by befriending Iraq anew. But the idea doesn’t come without complications. To address all the problems Faily recited, the U.S. would have to send scores of advisers and specialists to Baghdad and other parts of the state.

With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the local al-Qaida affiliate, running free and killing scores of people a week, Americans at work there would become a target even more appealing than Shiites. So Washington would have to send military personnel to protect those Americans. And Maliki would not likely accept that.

Nonetheless, Faily pleaded, and tacitly threatened at the same time, “It’s unwise to abandon your investment in Iraq and leave it for the second-best, the Chinese or Russians. Don’t forget about Iraq!”

Email: joel.brinkley@stanford.edu