Iraqi political haggling a big headache for American spies

August 31, 2010

What keeps U.S. spies awake at night? Iran. Al Qaeda. The bickering of Iraqi politicians.

With the United States officially ending its combat role in Iraq, one senior American spy said he was more worried about the lack of political reconciliation in Baghdad than whether Iran gets more meddlesome in Iraq or al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate makes a new, violent push there.

“I’m more concerned about the internal (Iraqi) situation than Iranian influence or the long arm of al Qaeda, which really doesn’t exist,” the senior intelligence official told reporters. He asked not to be named (as spies do). IRAQ/

Tehran could be expected to try to influence Iraq, because that has been its attitude historically,  he noted.

As for Al Qaeda in Iraq, it  has been “substantially degraded.”  It has  only about 10 percent of the manpower that it had at its peak in 2006 and 2007. And it is only “loosely” affiliated with al Qaeda elements outside the country, he said.

But the fact that coalition-building talks between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and former premier Iyad Allawi have stalled repeatedly: that is a bigger worry.

“For me personally, the greater concern is the political reconciliation,” the senior intelligence official said. The stalemate “can’t drag on indefinitely,” because people might “take things into their own hands.” Violence already has mounted as insurgents seek to exploit the political vacuum.

The intelligence official thought Vice President Joe Biden’s intercessions had been helpful in Iraq. But a political deadlock remains, six months after an inconclusive election.

Biden, who is President Barack Obama’s point man for Iraq, has been to Baghdad half-a-dozen times since becoming vice president, usually when political squabbling threatens to escalate to crisis levels.

The 50,000 U.S. soldiers remaining in Iraq are to complete their withdrawal by the end of next year. Asked if a year is long enough, the senior intelligence official said: “It’s gotta be. It would be up to the Iraqi government, if they want to ask us to stay.”

Photo credit: Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani (Biden greeted by al-Maliki in Baghdad Aug. 31)

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