During his time as a military advisor in Iraq, Pregent observed the dynamic by which Iran achieved effective control over much of Iraq’s government.
Nonetheless, General David Petraeus had some success in reaching a balance between Sunni and Shia when he was head of Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I). When he left in 2005, he left behind Iraqi army divisions in and around Baghdad that had a 55-45 percent ratio of Shia to Sunni.
Before Petraeus took command of MNF-I in 2007, I had the opportunity to brief him on the changing sectarian make-up of the ISF under his predecessor—General Martin Dempsey. The divisions in and around Baghdad were now over 90 percent Shia and mostly militia-affiliated. Petraeus was shocked.
This shift in the sectarian makeup of the security forces was the result of a 2006-2007 purge of Sunni commanders, leaving a sectarian military force that saw few distinctions between any Sunni man of military age and the Sunni insurgency. Extra-judicial killings in Baghdad skyrocketed, with somewhere between 25-50 percent of prisoners being summarily executed, and bound Sunni men dumped around Baghdad in an attempt to terrify Sunnis out of supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its affiliates.
General Dempsey was in charge while this process was taking place. Asked about it by advisors and analysts, Dempsey replied, “I make no distinction between Shia and Sunnis. I only see them as Iraqis.” This was a noble position to take, and would have been correct if the rule of law had been in place and militia membership seen as a disqualification for service. But there was no rule of law, and the Sunnis did not share Dempsey’s views. This misunderstanding came at a high price. The purged and executed Sunni officers were the exact Iraqis we needed—those who were willing to fight both AQI and Shia militias at great personal risk. Now, they were targeted and killed by both of them.
Pregent’s experiences have prompted him to look beyond just Iraq or the nuclear negotiations:
Having witnessed this jarring turn of events, it is important to point out that this is not simply an Iraqi issue. It is a regional issue. The Iranian government believes that the U.S. wants a nuclear deal so badly that it will tacitly approve Iran’s activities throughout the Middle East—including in Syria and Yemen—by downplaying Iranian influence or ignoring it altogether. At the same time, Iraqi politicians cite the slow pace of America’s “strategic patience” as a reason to welcome Iranian support. But support comes with a price, and it is a price that will be paid not only by Iraq, but also the U.S. itself.
In a related article for The Daily Beast, co-written with Michael Weiss, Pregent argued that Iran’s influence in Iraq was making it “impossible” for the United States to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria effectively.