By David Ignatius
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister of Iraq, hinted in a television interview last weekend at one of the war's least understood turning points: America's decision not to challenge Iranian intervention in Iraq's January 2005 elections.
"Our adversaries in Iraq are heavily supported financially by other quarters. We are not," Allawi told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "We fought the elections with virtually no support whatsoever, except for Iraqis and the Iraqis who support us."
Behind Allawi's comment lies a tale of intrigue and indecision by the United States over whether to mount a covert-action program to confront Iran's political meddling. Such a plan was crafted by the Central Intelligence Agency and then withdrawn -- because of opposition from an unlikely coalition that is said to have included Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who was then House minority leader, and Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser.
As recounted by former U.S. officials, the story embodies the mix of hubris and naivete that has characterized so much of the Iraq effort. From President Bush on down, U.S. officials enthused about Iraqi democracy while pursuing a course of action that made it virtually certain that Iran and its proxies would emerge as the dominant political force.
The CIA warned in the summer and fall of 2004 that the Iranians were pumping money into Iraq to steer the Jan. 30, 2005, elections toward the coalition of Shiite religious parties known as the United Iraqi Alliance. By one CIA estimate, Iranian covert funding was running at $11 million a week for media and political operations on behalf of candidates who would be friendly to Iran, under the banner of Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The CIA reported that in the run-up to the election, as many as 5,000 Iranians a week were crossing the border with counterfeit ration cards to register to vote in Iraq's southern provinces.
To counter this Iranian tide, the CIA proposed a political action program, initially at roughly $20 million but with no ceiling. The activities would include funding for moderate Iraqi candidates, outreach to Sunni tribal leaders and other efforts to counter Iranian influence. A covert-action finding was prepared in the fall of 2004 and signed by President Bush. As required by law, senior members of Congress, including Pelosi, were briefed.
But less than a week after the finding was signed, CIA officials were told that it had been withdrawn. Agency officials in Baghdad were ordered to meet with Iraqi political figures and get them to return whatever money had been distributed. Mystified by this turn of events, CIA officers were told that Rice had agreed with Pelosi that the United States couldn't on the one hand celebrate Iraqi democracy and on the other try to manipulate it secretly.
Ethically, that was certainly a principled view. But on the ground in Iraq, the start-stop maneuver had the effect of pulling the rug out from under moderate, secular Iraqis who might have contained extremist forces. (Asked about the withdrawal of the intelligence finding, spokesmen for Rice and Pelosi declined to comment.)
"The Iranians had complete command of the field," recalls one former U.S. official who was in Iraq at the time. "The Iraqis were bewildered. They didn't understand what the U.S. was doing. It looked like we were giving the country to Iran. We told Washington this was a calamitous event, from which it would be hard to recover."
Allawi, in a telephone interview Tuesday from Amman, Jordan, confirmed that the United States had shelved its political program. "The initial attitude of the U.S. was to support moderate forces, financially and in the media," he said. "This was brought to a halt, under the pretext that the U.S. does not want to interfere." Allawi said the American decision was "understandable" but ceded the field to Iran and its well-financed proxies.
Allawi said he is trying to gather support for a new coalition of Kurds, Sunnis and secular Shiites as an alternative to the Shiite religious coalition that installed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power. Some commentators see Allawi's recent decision to hire a Washington public relations firm as a sign of the Bush administration's support, but the opposite is probably the case. If Allawi had U.S. government backing, he wouldn't need the lobbyists.
Future historians should record that the Bush administration actually lived by its pro-democracy rhetoric about a new Iraq -- to the point that it scuttled a covert action program aimed at countering Iranian influence. Now the administration says it wants to counter Iranian meddling in Iraq, but it is probably too late.