‘We Don’t Have the Right People Advising Our President’: Q&A with Michael Pregent

Published October 8th, 2018 - 09:39 GMT
 local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra, in Iraq /AFP
local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra, in Iraq /AFP

Interview by Hayder al-Shakarchi

The following interview is part of a series published by Al Bawaba News, exploring the viewpoints, convictions, partisanship and consensus that exists in Washington D.C. around Middle East issues.

This author of this series will speak to analysts, policymakers and experts in their own words. Our aim is to provide a sense of the discussions taking place in the world's most powerful capital. This does not in any way imply an editorial edorsement of the individuals or policy proposols put forward. Al Bawaba is indepenent and does not align with any existing political party or ideological group.

Hayder al-Shakarchi is an Arab-American journalist and an international news analyst based in Washington, D.C.


al-Shakarchi: What are your opinions on the shutting down of the consulate in Basrah last week and what were the specific threats that led to the closing?

Pregent: “The threats were specifically coming from IRGC Quds force militias. Because of the threats from Iran and its Iraqi militias proxies, the U.S. consulate in Basrah was shut down and U.S. personnel were relocated to a safer place. I believe that was a huge mistake and sent the wrong message, especially the part in which the Department of State said that the U.S. would respond against Iran, and not the proxies.

What that allows Iran to do is say, “Okay, we had nothing to do with it. It’s the Iraqi proxies on their own that are doing it, and you’ve just said you’re not going to attack them.” It was a message that the U.S. will acquiesce and will capitulate to Iranian threats; that’s what I view the closing down of the Basrah consulate to be. I think it actually encourages attacks, and I’m not with it. We could have easily put more marines there and added more of a capability to protect the base, but instead we’re basically closing it up. That is a victory for Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) Commander Qais al-Khaz’ali, and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.”

al-Shakarchi: How does the U.S. feel about Barham Saleh being elected as the new president? Do you believe that he’s moderate?

Pregent: “Yes, I believe he’s moderate, but it doesn’t matter because we need somebody strong to push back, and that won’t be him. What is our biggest concern in Iraq? What are Iraqis’ biggest concerns regarding their government? That it’s heavily influenced by Iran. Will Saleh, or Mahdi, or COR Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi actually push back against Iranian influence? The answer is simply no. Saleh is a moderate; he’s not a hardliner, but he is amenable to all sides. Hence, the direction of Iraq would depend on how much U.S. engagement is in Iraq to counter Iran. The thing is: Even if Saleh was a strong U.S., anti-Iran firebrand, the president is not a key figure in Iraqi politics.

The PM is all that matters. The PM is considered a moderate, also, and what we know is that he’s a weak compromised candidate by design. Maliki was a weak compromised candidate, also. We saw what Maliki did; he was a sectarian, he was always being a sectarian. Regarding Mahdi; he can say all the right things, but can he do all the right things?

 

 

It doesn’t matter how strong the president is; all that matters is how strongly the U.S. is engaged in Iraq, especially with the PM, and if they’re engaged enough to the point in which the PM believes that he has a wall behind him [the U.S.] to push back against Iran. The new prime minister doesn’t believe that U.S. is that wall and because of that, they will continue to acquiesce to Iranian interests. Although that could easily be replaced by Iraqis, the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds are all saying, “We are that wall! Push back against Iran!” The problem is that political leaders are intimidated, influenced, paid, and corrupted by Iraq and that’s why they feel comfortable blowing up protestors.  

al-Shakarchi: Certain Iraqi factions accuse the U.S. of provoking violence during the demonstrations in Basrah. How would you react to these allegations?


Pregent: “Propaganda formed by Khaz’ali who has said as much, and propaganda formed by Muhandis who has said as much. It’s all because Iraqi militias answer to Iran, saying that the U.S. is responsible for the Shia protests for water and electricity and basic services, when in fact, these protests are legitimate. This is the first time that the Iraqi Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish population all agree that Baghdad is not working; that it is not providing basic services to the people.

This is a loud objection by the Shia population in Basrah; the city that produces the majority of Iraq’s wealth, which doesn’t have clean water, or electricity, or internet connectivity. You look at the protests, and the language used, and how they make their signs… And their signs are not only in Arabic, but in Farsi, too, because they know that the Shia religious parties that answer to Iran are responsible for squandering the economic windfalls from oil, and other things (their own political corruption.)”

al-Shakarchi: Who did the U.S. originally want to become the next PM of Iraq and how does the U.S. feel about newly elected Prime Minister-designate Adil Abd al-Mahdi?

Pregent: “The U.S. didn’t even know who they wanted. They originally wanted former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for PM since Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter Da’esh Brett McGurk had said that he was the man for the job, and since Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani had said that he was the man for the job.

However, that wasn’t possible since he had been rejected by the Iraqis and had always been viewed as the U.S. candidate and so the more that the U.S. backed him, the more capability [in Iraq] that he lost. The U.S. was basically prepared to deem anyone a ‘good choice’ because they were so concerned about the narrative. It could’ve been Badr Organization Secretary-General Hadi al-Amiri, and the U.S. would’ve responded, ‘Yes, this is good. He is not Khaz’ali and he is not Muhandis. This is good…’

In the end, we needed to ask Iraqis who they wanted, and it needed to be someone that we’d be okay with; somebody that wasn’t a part of the Islamic Dawa party. We didn’t want former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki nor Amiri. We also didn’t want Sa'irun Coalition leader Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, nor Abadi. And then, they got Mahdi: another weak and compromised candidate that can be pushed around by the Shia political parties… Somebody that would do whatever other parties want him to do, and we’re going to call it some sort of victory because we don’t have the right people advising our president.”

 

al-Shakarchi: The U.S. doesn’t have the right people advising the president? Who are you referring to exactly?

Pregent: “McGurk and Ambassador Douglas Silliman. They are not truly representing the situation on the ground in Iraq. They keep pushing out narratives that are constantly proven wrong. McGurk thought that Abadi was going to win 76 seats... He did not. McGurk thought that he could stop the Kurdish referendum… He did not. McGurk continues to be a problem. Silliman continues to be a problem.

They’re so invested in this narrative of, ‘We’ve accomplished so much since 2014; terrorism is over and there’s a new sense of nationalism sweeping the country.’ Well, if nationalism really was sweeping the country, it’s not sweeping in Baghdad. It would only be sweeping it in disenfranchised populations that are pushing back against Iran.”

al-Shakarchi: There are several PMF leaders that are on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. Now, they’re a part of the new Iraqi government. What will the U.S. do to neutralize them without dismantling the government?

Pregent: “Now that they’re in, we can’t do anything about it because that would be interfering with the government process. Ultimately, we do not want to unite the Iraqis with Iran. We do want to designate Khaz’ali and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), but that would come with the argument of, ‘The U.S. is designating Khaz’ali and so we should all unite against the U.S.’ That would lead to a ridiculous argument, especially considering all of the AAH buildings that were burned down in Iraq. Ultimately, the U.S. must designate, sanction and ensure that any political position held by an IRGC Quds force proxy is so toxic that they won’t be able to get ministries… So toxic that they won’t be able to get top positions... So toxic that Iraqi politicians would simply be uncomfortable simply standing next to them.

 

al-Shakarchi: But why did the U.S. give itself the right to get involved in the formation of the next Iraqi government while the U.S. rejected any Iranian involvement?

Pregent: “We get the right because Americans continue to die in Iraq. Ambassador Jeffrey said it best: ‘We have every right to talk about government formation in Iraq when we continue to pour money, blood, and treasure into Iraq, and it’s still not stabilized enough… It keeps incubating these threats.’

ISIS has not been defeated yet, and now we have more and more 20-year-old Americans, not being invited by Baghdad, but having to go there because of the next generation of Al-Qaeda and the next generation of ISIS that will follow. And now, we have this Shia threat with all these IRGC Quds force proxies... They’re already in Syria. They’re already threatening to go to Israel. They are threatening to disrupt Jordan. They are threatening to go into Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. And that’s why we have the right to say something: Because we fund this government. We’re the ones that guarantee the securing of reconstruction loans. We’re the guarantor of those things… We have every right to do that, especially when the Sunnis warned us about it, and we ignored them, and then the Kurds warned us about it, and we ignored them. It all needs to mean something because we have been on the ground and we have sacrificed.”

 

al-Shakarchi: It’s been mentioned that the U.S. and Iran had failed in shaping the new Iraqi government. Did the U.S. fail this aspect?

Pregent: “The U.S. was never going to win in that aspect. The U.S. truly believed that by not having Suleimani as PM, somehow the U.S. had won. The U.S. was even prepared for Amiri to be elected as PM. Basically now, there’s another recycled Iraqi leader who is 76 years old and just another moderate who says all the right things to Americans and says all the right things to Iranians. The difference is: Who exerts more influence on Baghdad— The U.S. or Iran? And it’s extremely difficult to say that the U.S. has more influence on a PM that came from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq…”

al-Shakarchi: What does the U.S. want to achieve from the sanctions against Iran? Iranians say that the U.S. is punishing the Iranian people instead of the government.  How would you respond to these allegations?

Pregent: “The Iranian people aren’t saying that, it’s the regime that’s saying that. The Iranian people solely place the blame of its economy and sanctions on the regime’s adventurism – on the regime’s terrorism – and all you have to do is listen to the statements from the protestors: “No more Lebanon! No more Iraq! No more Syria! No more Yemen! Pay attention to us!” The Iranians want the regime to change. They aren’t looking for funds from the Iranian regime, they’re looking for regime change. And the U.S. position is to continue to put pressure on this regime to make it cave, to make it suffer, to make it lose friends, to make it do things that would cause it to lose the international community. It will lose Europe, Russia, China, and the U.S. has succeeded with this thus far.”

al-Shakarchi: What other Iraqi parties that have close ties with IRGC do you have your eyes on?

Pregent: “The Badr Organization, Kata'ib al-Imam Ali… We’ve already made Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) an FTO. We’re really looking at the Badr Organization; that needs to be the next militia that’s designated. The Badr Organization is not the Ba’ath Party, in which you had to be a member of in order to be a teacher, lawyer, or have any government job. What we need now is for the Badr Organization to be targeted because we’re trying to treat it like the Ba’ath Party. This organization is an IRGC Quds Forces militia that facilitates everything that Khaz’ali wants to do, that Muhandis wants to do, that Suleimani wants to do. It’s about time we held Amiri responsible and designate The Badr Organization as a terrorist organization.”

al-Shakarchi: One could argue that the safety of Iraq had diminished as a direct result of U.S. meddling in its internal affairs for the longest time now. One could even argue that America ended up radicalizing a once-moderate people – stemming from the first U.S. invasion in Iraq – uniting the Iraqis in Anti-American sentiment, leading to more war and more deaths and more hostility towards the U.S. and thereby creating many more monsters in Iraq while it already had enough monsters to deal with, and nobody can deny that Iraqi civilians have been dying, with at least 1,000 dead since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve. Your opinion?

Pregent: “Alright, so the U.S. has made mistakes in Iraq. However, during the surge of 2007-2008, we had all the sides – Shia, Sunni, and Kurds –supporting the U.S. (for the first time) in our position to go after Al-Qaeda and IRGC Quds forces militias… At least for that two-year period. Then, that all went away.”

al-Shakarchi: And so you agree?

Pregent:The U.S. continues to get Iraq wrong, I agree with that. We continue to get Iraq wrong because we continue to listen to Iraqi politicians who sell us narratives and we continue to listen to Iraqi generals. Then there are the U.S. generals who won’t say that things are getting worse because that’s not what they do because they need to be able leave their tour saying that ‘things got better, somehow.’ And now, four years after ISIS rolled into Mosul, we continue to make mistakes.

Now, as far as the U.S. role in producing casualties in Iraq, I think it’s a lot more than 1,000. At no time in our U.S. strategy, since WWII, had we outsourced the dropping of U.S. bombs to a proxy force on the ground; we would basically say, "That building over there is full of ISIS members and we need to drop a 500 lb bomb on it.”

 

“I have never been an advocate of the U.S. air campaign in support of [predominantly] Shia forces, with their different federal police (which happen to be led by the Badr Organization and/or the Popular Mobilization Forces.) They basically punish entire Sunni towns to kill a small number of ISIS fighters. For instance, the city of Ramadi had a population of approximately 500,000 people. The entire Sunni population was exited for 1,600 ISIS fighters. We did the same thing with Mosul; 50% of the city was destroyed. The last figure I can recall was 60,000 civilians dead for 600 ISIS fighters dead. That place was demolished. We don’t know what the true casualty rate in Mosul is, but it must be upwards of 20,000, and that’s a conservative number.”

And yes… I do have a problem with what we’ve done because we passively provided air power to a force that did not view the civilian population in Sunni areas as something that should be protected; something that should be empowered to push back against ISIS instead of just get punished.  I think that’s going be the reason why we’re going to have to continue going back into Iraq to fight the next generation of ISIS and Al-Qaeda because in the end, you don’t pay today for what you do today… but ten years down the road.”

Michael Pregent is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a senior Middle East analyst. Pregent was a former U.S. intelligence officer and an adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs. Pregent has over 28 years of experience working security, terrorism, counter-insurgency, and policy issues in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia.

 

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