The United States has spied extensively on Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi government leaders, the American investigative journalist Bob Woodward has revealed.
“We know everything he says,” the journalist quotes one source as saying, in The War Within, his fourth book on George Bush’s presidency. The US administration’s decision to spy continually on Mr Maliki shows deep distrust of the Iraqi leadership by the US. The surveillance took place even while Mr Maliki was speaking to Mr Bush by video-phone once a week.
The Iraqi government reacted furiously on Friday and said it would ask the United States for an explanation, although Mr Maliki and other Iraqi leaders are unlikely to be shocked or surprised that the US has been spying on them.. “If it is true…it reflects that there is no trust,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.
Though this motive is not referred to in Mr Woodward’s book the prime aim of US espionage targeting Iraqi officials has been to find out the true relations between the Baghdad government and Iran,. Washington has been deeply suspicious of Mr Maliki and his predominantly Shia government for maintaining close relations with Tehran even while the US was threatening to go to war with Iran.
At one moment in 2006-7 US officials in Iraq were complaining privately that they could not get enough information about more sophisticated and lethal roadside bombs killing American troops because so much of the US intelligence effort was focussed on the Iraqi government. “Hundreds of our people were doing nothing but listening to Iraqi officials,” said a source.
The American troop ‘surge’ of 2007 when 30,000 additional US troops were sent to Iraq to pursue more aggressive tactics was not the main reason for the fall in violence in Iraq over the last sixteen months says Mr Woodward in ‘The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008.’
Instead he claims that “ground breaking” new covert techniques enabled US military and intelligence officials to find, target and kill insurgent leaders in rebel groups, particularly in al-Qa’ida in Iraq. In its summary of Mr Woodward’s book, to be published on Monday, the Washington Post, of which he is associate editor, says he does not reveal the code names of this assassination campaign because of national security concerns.
The origin and degree of success of the ‘surge’ is politically important in the US presidential election because the Republican candidate John McCain says that he was an early advocate of the strategy and it has brought the US close to military victory.
Denying this, Mr Woodward concludes that there were four factors leading to the reduction in violence in Iraq: covert operations, troop reinforcements, the decision by the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to restrain his Mehdi Army militia, and the rise of the Awakening Movement in the Sunni community opposing al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
There certainly was an increase in assassinations of Sunni rebel leaders in early 2007 timed to coincide with the beginning of the ‘surge’. But the weakening of al-Qa’ida came primarily because al-Qa’ida alienated the Sunni by trying to take full control of the anti-American resistance and also provoked a sectarian war with the Shia in which the Sunni were largely defeated.
Despite Mr McCain’s claim that the surge has wholly altered the military picture in Iraq, the Pentagon has recommended that the 146,000 US troops currently in Iraq be reduced by only 8,000 men by next March, White House officials said today. The number of American soldiers in Iraq at that time will be slightly greater than before the surge began in January 2007.
Mr Bush and his military commanders regarded each other with mutual distrust prior to the appointment of Gen David Petraeus, Gen George Casey’s successor, as US commander in Iraq. “Casey had long concluded that one big problem with the war was the president himself,” Mr Woodward writes. “He later told a colleague in private that he had the impression that Bush reflected ‘the radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, “Kill the bastard! Kill the bastards! And you’ll succeed.”
Mr Woodward writes very much from a Washington viewpoint even where he is critical of the White House. He assumes that little happens in Iraq that is not initiated by the US. In the summary of the book published so far there is little mention of the central role of Iran and the Shia-Sunni conflict inside Iraq in determining the level of violence.
The prime minister spent long years of exile in Syria and his most important ally in Iraq is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq which was founded on Iran’s initiative in Tehran in 1982. So Mr Maliki and his associates were welll used to Syrian and Iranian security monitoring their activities.
Overall, the extent of US surveillance of its Shia and Kurdish allies in Iraq reveals a deep anxiety in Washington that in supporting a government in Baghdad dominated by Shia Islamic parties it has promoted a government that is closer to Iran than the US.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.