Iraq Is Backing Syria’s Dictator. Why The Heck Did We Go To War Again?

Iraq has become so dependent on Iran for its survival that it is endorsing the brutal tactics of Bashar Assad.

The Prime Minister of Iraq is backing Syrian leader Bashar Assad over the protesters against his regime, most of whom he has been violently and indiscriminately mowing down:

BAGHDAD — As leaders in the Arab world and other countries condemn President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on demonstrators in Syria, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq has struck a far friendlier tone, urging the protesters not to “sabotage” the state and hosting an official Syrian delegation.

Mr. Maliki’s support for Mr. Assad has illustrated how much Iraq’s position in the Middle East has shifted toward an axis led by Iran. And it has also aggravated the fault line between Iraq’s Shiite majority, whose leaders have accepted Mr. Assad’s account that Al Qaeda is behind the uprising, and the Sunni minority, whose leaders have condemned the Syrian crackdown.

“The unrest in Syria has exacerbated the old sectarian divides in Iraq because the Shiite leaders have grown close to Assad and the Sunnis identify with the people,” said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for the Middle East.

He added: “Maliki is very reliant on Iran for his power and Iran is backing Syria all the way. The Iranians and the Syrians were all critical to bringing him to power a year ago and keeping him in power so he finds himself in a difficult position.”

Iraq and Syria have not had close relations for years, long before the American invasion. During the sectarian violence here that broke out after the invasion, Iraqi leaders blamed Syria for allowing suicide bombers and other militants to enter the country.

But Syria and Iran have had close ties, a factor in the recalibration of relations between Syria and Iraq. Last year, Iran pressured Mr. Assad into supporting Mr. Maliki for prime minister, which eventually helped him gain a second term. Since then, Mr. Maliki and Mr. Assad have strengthened relations, signing trade deals and increasing Syrian investment in Iraq.

This isn’t entirely surprising. Much of Saddam Hussein’s bluster during the years after the Iran-Iraq War and, especially after the Persian Gulf War, was aimed at projecting a strength that didn’t actually exist in order fend off the Iranians. After his capture, Saddam Hussein told his FBI interrogators that all of his deception about a chemical weapons program after the Persian Guif War was intended to deceive the Iranians:

Saddam Hussein allowed the world to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction because he feared revealing his weakness to Iran, it has emerged.

The former dictator made the revelations in a series of interviews with the FBI during his incarceration before he was hanged in 2006.

The new details were among over 100 pages of notes written by special agent George Piro, who interviewed Hussein after he was found hiding underground on a farm 80 miles from Baghdad.


Iraq had fought a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 80s that involved the use of chemical weapons and Hussein felt vulnerable to the threat from “fanatic” leaders in Tehran.

In fact, he would have been prepared to seek a “security agreement with the US to protect [Iraq] from threats in the region,” according to the notes.

The United States was not Iraq’s enemy, he simply opposed its policies, Hussein said, making it clear he considered Iran a greater threat.


“The threat from Iran was the major factor as to why he did not allow the return of UN inspectors,” the FBI agent wrote.

“Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq.”

Now, one would be wise to be wary of the word of a man like Saddam Hussein given his history. Nonetheless, his explanation for his actions in response to UN and US pressure regarding the chemical weapons issue does make a certain amount of sense. Had he agreed to the more rigorous inspections being demanded and confirmed to the world that he had no chemical weapons, Iraq’s vulnerability would have been revealed not only to world, but also to an historic enemy he had just fought a brutal, decade-long war with. How Iran would have reacted to that news is unknown, but given the manner in which they’ve worked to gain influence inside Iraq since Saddam’s downfall it’s highly doubtful that they would’ve done nothing at all.

Maliki’s response is understandable as well. Whatever the state of its democracy, Iraq is a far weaker country than it was ten years ago, and far more vulnerable to Iranian (and Syrian?) influence than it had been in the past. Moreover, Maliki is likely making the calculation that the United States will be otherwise engaged over the next decade and not entirely eager to commit to the defense of Iraq and risk yet another desert war. Additionally, given the political strength of the Shi’ite’s in the south led by Moqtada al-Sadr, who has close ties to Iran, Malki obviously knows that he needs to cozy up to Iran to stay in power.

So, by removing Saddam Hussein from power, we’ve created a weak Iraq that is likely to become a client state of Iran. Tell me again why the Iraq War was a good idea?



FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, National Security, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Juan Cole predicted from the outset the the winner of the Iraq war would be Iran and he was right. We were convinced to take out Saddam by an Iranian agent, Chalabi and Saddam was Iran’s primary enemy.

  2. anjin-san says:

    Why did we go to war? Um, because they had WMD that were poised to strike us at a moments notice? Oh, wait, that was BS.

    Ron is correct. The war was a coup of historic proportions by Iran. 5k American dead, a trillion dollars gone and Iran’s great enemy removed. And conservatives cheered at the top of their lungs the whole time and called people who opposed this insanity traitors.

  3. john personna says:

    Don’t forget all the indictments of the French, for being right on that one.

    (Send Syria some Freedom Fries.)

  4. WR says:

    Why did we go to war in Iraq? Because people like Doug are so fanatical about not paying a penny in taxes they voted for a presidential candidate who was obviously an imbecile. Because people like Doug convinced themselves that “both sides are the same” and decided that it would be a good idea to vote for Bush.

    Why did we go to war, Doug? Because it’s what you asked for.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @WR: And don’t forget Bush had made it clear before he was elected that he intended to be a “WAR PRESIDENT”.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    This is yet another example of how foolish the necons are, how stupid it was to heed talk of smoking guns turning into mushroom clouds, and how strong the fear from 9/11 caused so many to people to go against their best interests…to echo Ron, there were plenty of people who were against the Iraq debacle from the very start, and they were dismissed as naive and perhaps even un-American…now, the only people who have been deceived are those who pushed for and agreed with Bush’s blunder in Mesopotamia…

  7. mike says:

    to remove a dictator who supported and carried out torture, oh wait… shit

  8. @WR:

    I opposed the Iraq War and you have no idea how I voted in 2000.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    to remove a dictator who supported and carried out torture, oh wait…

    If that is the standard for going to war, when do we invade North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Pakistan, among other places…

  10. mike says:

    @An Interested Party: that is why it shouldn’t be the standard – that was what Bush started using later to say why it was still a good reason for having done it

  11. Eric Florack says:

    Let’s consider this question, for just a moment;

    Absent the Democrats taking the white house, and therefore control of foreign policy, would Iraq have felt the need for the support of an outside party such as Syria? Somehow I doubt it.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    @mike: Exactly right…

    Absent the Democrats taking the white house, and therefore control of foreign policy, would Iraq have felt the need for the support of an outside party such as Syria? Somehow I doubt it.

    Oh please…surely you must get tired from twisting yourself into these ridiculous logic pretzels to justify your delusions…if you are so sure of your position, perhaps you can provide some real evidence to back up your silly claim…

  13. @Ron Beasley:

    And don’t forget Bush had made it clear before he was elected that he intended to be a “WAR PRESIDENT”.

    Could you source that? While he certainly became a hard core neo-con after he was elected, my recollection was that he campaign on a decidely non-interventionsit tone:

  14. mike says:

    um, @An Interested Party: um, reread, i didn’t write that.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    @Mike: That was a two part comment…the first part was agreeing with what you wrote previously (hence, the link to your previous writing), the second part was criticizing Eric’s silly writing…

  16. WR says:

    @Doug Mataconis: You’ve said you’ve never voted for a Democrat, Doug. Maybe you voted for Nader, but I’m going to guess no. So yeah, I have an idea how you voted in 2000.

  17. mike says:

    @An Interested Party: aha, sorry, I stand corrected. my kids have been more energetic than usual and have been wearing me out – i should have read a bit closer. I need to get on their 15 hour a day sleep schedule – 12 hours a night and 3 hour nap.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    @Mike: No problem…hell, a lot of people would like to get on that sleep schedule…

  19. @ Dan —
    Please take a look at who sheltered and gave pensions to significant numbers of SCIRI/BADR members, as well as DAWA party members and then take a look at how much of the government these factions make-up.

    Basically any organized Shi’ite group in Iraq, including but definately not limited to the Sadrists, has significant ties to some faction in Iran that gave them refuge, weapons and cash at some point in the past thirty years.

  20. milprof says:

    Why did we go to war again?

    Simple, because Iranian agent Ahmed Chalabi used his natural sales talents and English fluency, his University of Chicago connections, his willingness to mouth platitudes about Milton Friedman and American founding fathers, and sly hints about how Israel-friendly a new Iraqi government would be under him (‘first act of a new Iraqi regime would be to recognize Israel’ and such claptrap), all together in a breathtakingly effective job of bamboozling a bunch of neoconservative elder statesmen as if he were a carney rolling turnip farmers at the Ossumapossum County Fair.

    The war didn’t turn out quite as planned, in that Chalabi himself only ended up as a very important politician rather than head of state, but in general the effort to turn Iraq into a Shia-dominated, Iranian-influenced country that provided wealth and power to Ahmed Chalabi went reasonably as intended.

  21. CB says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    i recall that as well, and it is what i found most galling about the man. he campaigned as a compassionate conservative, a noninterventionist who eschewd nation building…and promptly turned into the most far reaching interventionist weve had in generations. circumstances dictate policy, i know, but the ‘war on terror’ can only be justified to a certain (smallish) extent.

  22. Eric Florack says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Oh please…surely you must get tired from twisting yourself into these ridiculous logic pretzels to justify your delusions…if you are so sure of your position, perhaps you can provide some real evidence to back up your silly claim…

    Perhaps you can explain how there wouldn’t have been any difference without the changnge of vision at the foreign policy helm? No?