Iraq will Remain a US-Iran Point of Contention

The United States’ more belligerent position toward Iran, in the wake of the Trump Administration’s recent withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is likely to be partially played out in Iraq, where Washington hopes to minimize Tehran’s influence. This may involve both diplomatic and military efforts to try to weaken Iran’s support for the largely Shia-based Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which played a significant role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS). A corollary to this strategy is to encourage Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to continue efforts to help Iraq’s reconstruction as well as support Iraqi Shia leaders who are not beholden to Iran.

However, the recent Iraqi parliamentary elections have complicated this policy because Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance did not perform as well as US officials had hoped. It is also unclear what type of governing coalition will emerge in the coming months or if Abadi will retain his current position. Although Abadi supports a residual US military force in Iraq, other Shia politicians are either opposed to such a US presence because of their links to Iran or are taking a nationalist stand against both Iranian and US forces in their country. The anti-Iran hawks now in top foreign policy positions in the Trump Administration may be tempted to call on Iraqi leaders to be “either with us or against us,” thus precipitating a dangerous showdown that Iraqis do not desire or deserve.

Banking on Abadi

Despite Abadi’s background as a leader of the Shia Islamist Daawa Party and his desire to maintain cordial relations with Iran, the Trump Administration has seen him as a valuable ally. Abadi was one of the first foreign leaders in early 2017 to visit the Trump White House, where he was well received. Like the Obama Administration, the Trump team was impressed with Abadi’s willingness to cooperate with US forces in the anti-IS fight and his efforts to reach out to Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, unlike his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. Moreover, Abadi has supported the idea of a residual US military force in the country to continue retraining the Iraqi military and help prevent IS, or a like-minded group, from emerging again. Given the alternative Shia leaders, some of whom are strongly opposed to the United States, Abadi seemed like a good bet.

That Washington places emphasis on the retention of US troops in Iraq was evident in the post-election State Department statement.

This favorable attitude toward Abadi even outlasted some strains in the bilateral relationship. In October 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that PMF militias would do well to “go home” after the IS fight, eliciting criticism from many Iraqis, including Abadi, who said that the PMF are part of the country’s security forces that have made many sacrifices against IS. Abadi’s media office also rejected any interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. The Trump Administration was also concerned about the central government’s fight against the Kurdish supporters of the referendum in October 2017 to separate from Iraq, since both the government and the Kurds were US allies against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the administration later came to support Abadi’s reclamation of territory and oil fields outside of the recognized boundaries of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

US Troops and Sadr’s Strong Electoral Showing

Unlike the situation in Syria––where President Donald Trump vacillated about US troops coming home “very soon”––the US president has not commented publicly on the disposition of American forces in Iraq (currently estimated at about 5,200), leaving the issue to his military leaders. In testimony before Congress in April 2018, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he would support a residual US force in Iraq if the Iraqi government assents. At the same congressional hearing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said that Washington had learned the lesson of withdrawing too hastily from Iraq several years ago, a situation he claimed had allowed IS to expand. While Abadi supports the retention of US troops in the country to continue to retrain the Iraqi army and national police, his attitude is not shared by other Shia politicians.

It was surprising to US officials that Abadi could not capitalize on his leadership of the anti-IS campaign to the extent that they hoped he would. In the May 12 parliamentary elections, Abadi’s Victory Alliance only managed to place third, with 42 seats. He was eclipsed by the Fateh bloc, led by Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Shia Badr Brigade and a leader in the PMF, which gained 47 seats, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saeroun (Moving Forward) coalition, which won 54 seats.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a rather junior cleric who comes from a family of prominent Shia theologians, several of whom were executed by the Saddam Hussein regime, has had a very troubled history with the United States. His militia, formerly called the Mahdi Army, fought against US forces in Iraq in 2004-2005 with assistance from Iran. Some of his followers also participated in death squads against Iraqi Sunnis during the sectarian bloodshed that wracked Iraq from 2006 to 2008.

Since 2011, however, Sadr has refashioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist, loosened ties to Iran, traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 to reach out to Sunni Arab governments, and redirected his followers to focus on governance issues such as protesting against corruption. On May 30, after the elections, he paid a visit to Kuwait as well. In addition, his Mahdi Army was transformed into the “Peace Brigades” and he made alliances with the secular Iraqi parties including liberals and communists. This proved to be a clever electoral strategy: the combination of rallying his base of poor Iraqis in Sadr City near Baghdad (named after his father who was killed during Saddam Hussein’s rule) and reaching out to secularists and Sunnis won his faction a plurality in the elections.

Although US military officials are not happy with this electoral outcome (Mattis and Dunford, for example, lost many of their fellow Marines to Sadr’s Mahdi Army), they have been circumspect in their public remarks. Shortly after the election, Mattis said that the Iraqi people had voted and the United States will await “the results of the election”—meaning the choice of a prime minister and formation of the government. What has concerned US policymakers is not Abadi’s third-place finish but that several of the other Shia politicians are seen as either pro-Iran and anti-US (like Amiri and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition won 25 seats), or are opposed to foreign forces in the country altogether, like Sadr.

The strong competition between the United States and Iran in Iraq will continue even if it is heavy-handed and resented by many Iraqis.

That Washington places emphasis on the retention of US troops in Iraq was evident in the post-election State Department statement. After congratulating the Iraqi people for holding nationwide elections in which all groups had “their voices heard,” the statement went on to underscore the importance of the Iraqi strategic partnership with the United States based on the “Strategic Framework Agreement” that governs the status of US forces in the country.

The United States and Iran in Competition

Ironically, Sadr’s strong showing alarmed Iran, too. Prior to the Iraqi election, Ali Akbar Velayati, a key aide to Ayatollah Khamenei, had objected to allowing “liberals and communists to govern in Iraq.” But what really irked Tehran was Sadr’s anti-Iran stance. Iran dispatched the prominent Quds Force commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Qassem Soleimani, to Baghdad, reportedly to confer with other Shia politicians and factions, warning them not to include Sadr’s faction in any governing coalition. Meanwhile, the US envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, has also been busy meeting with Iraqi politicians. Washington undoubtedly hopes that even though Abadi came in third, he will retain the premiership by seeking coalition partners who would not be averse to a continued US military presence in the country.

Although it is unclear at this point who will lead Iraq and what type of coalition will emerge, one can expect the strong competition between the United States and Iran in Iraq to continue even if it is heavy-handed and resented by many Iraqis as interference in their internal affairs.

Whether Abadi is able to cobble together a governing coalition, however, remains to be seen. But there is a distinct possibility that he might be able to do so in an alliance with Sadr’s coalition and some minor parties, including some Kurdish factions. But this begs the question whether Sadr’s followers would countenance a continued American military presence in the country. With US encouragement, Abadi might make that issue a condition to join his own coalition, but with Sadr’s coalition having more seats than his own, Abadi might not be in a strong enough position to call the shots.

Iran is likely to use its influence with Amiri, Maliki, and some minor Shia parties to work in the opposite direction. The fact that the PMF is still a formidable force largely dependent on Iran’s military assistance gives Tehran considerable clout. However, the United States does have an advantage: it can count on friends in Iraq, the Saudis, and other Gulf Arab states to help boost Iraq’s economy with billions of dollars in reconstruction funds. Because of its current financial predicament, Iran cannot match such an effort. GCC states contributed over $10 billion to Iraq at a reconstruction conference in Kuwait in February. The UAE, for example, has donated $50 million to rebuild the Al Nuri Grand Mosque in Mosul, which was heavily damaged in the last months of the IS campaign. This was a symbolic gesture to show that the Arab world appreciates Iraq’s cultural and religious heritage. The Gulf Arabs can also help persuade some Sunni factions in Iraq to throw their support behind Abadi (and some have done so already), and use their own new ties to Sadr to bolster Abadi’s chances of forming a governing coalition without groups that are dependent on Iran.

American policymakers should avoid the temptation of seeing Iraq as a place to take a military stand against Iran.

American and Iranian forces avoided each other while fighting the Islamic State in Iraq to avert a confrontation. But this caution may now be tossed aside in the wake of the US pullout from the JCPOA and Trump’s more belligerent position on Iran. The 12 demands outlined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his May 21 speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation are seen by Iran as an affront to national sovereignty, and Tehran may suspect that Trump, encouraged by Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, is seeking regime change. The Trump team, now dominated by these hawks, may see Iraq as a place to confront Iran diplomatically and militarily. And the Iranians might feel that checking US plans in Iraq by their own military means would send a signal to Washington that not only will Tehran not bend on the nuclear issue, but that it will not relinquish the quest for regional hegemony by dropping support for its allies in the Arab world. The danger is that such sentiments on both sides could quickly escalate into military clashes in Iraq. Former US intelligence official Bruce Riedel has warned about the possibility of Iranian proxies in the country targeting American soldiers as before, which would lead to “a very shaky situation.”

Recommendations for US Policy

With Iran’s Quds Force operatives trying to influence the formation of a new Iraqi government, US diplomats would do well to continue encouraging the formation of a moderate governing coalition. This might mean that American officials would have to countenance a role for Sadr’s coalition in a new government, however distasteful this might be—especially for US military commanders with combat experience in Iraq. Nevertheless, the upsides are that Sadr is opposed to the Iranian military’s role in Iraq, and his own coalition represents a positive trend there that veers away from sectarian and ethnic identity politics, which have been so destructive in the recent past. Further, perhaps Sadr can be convinced that a precipitous withdrawal of US troops without a concomitant withdrawal of Iranian troops is not wise at this point.

While it may make sense for American policymakers to try to support a moderate government in Iraq, they should avoid the temptation of seeing Iraq as a place to take a military stand against Iran. A military confrontation would not only drag the United States into a quagmire—something that Trump himself warned against while campaigning for president—but will set back Iraq’s limited achievement of democratic progress that the latest election produced.

Moreover, after years of war, including sectarian bloodletting and partial occupation by IS, the last thing the Iraqi people need is another violent conflict that would stoke sectarian tensions once again. Instead, the United States should do what it can to build on Iraq’s recent democratic gains, assist Iraqis in their reconstruction efforts, and support meaningful anti-corruption steps. If progress can be achieved on these fronts, Iraq would then be in a stronger position to wean itself from Iran’s influence, and that would allow US policy-makers to be more comfortable about bringing American troops home.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here