Time to Reboot American-Iraqi Relations


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Iraqi Defense Minister Arfan al-Hayali in Baghdad.

Electoral seasons in Iraq are never easy, and the May 2018 edition was no exception.

Pre-election forecasts suggested caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance held a substantial lead. Instead, the bloc of outspoken populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Moving Forward, came in first—good enough for a plurality of 54 seats in the 329-seat Council of Representatives (COR), the national parliament. Marred by accusations of vote-rigging, the results were challenged in court. Not until August 19 did Iraq’s Supreme Court ratify the election results after a national recount, ruling that the recount’s final tally had not substantially changed the results, except for a one-seat gain by a coalition opposed to Abadi.

This decision cleared the way for government formation talks to begin, a process that by law should be finished within 90 days but which, in practice, takes much longer. (Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s first government was seated in May 2006, five months after parliamentary elections; his second was approved in December 2010, nine months after the polls.) Previous government formation periods were filled with a merry-go-round of shifting alliances, bitter accusations, and skullduggery; it will be no different today as Iraq’s politicians, kingmakers, and interested outside parties, including Iran, the United States, and the Arab Gulf states, make their preferences clear.

The future of Iraq is and will remain a central factor in Washington’s effort to influence the crisis in Syria and possibly bring some measure of stability to the region.

Iraq today is at another important turning point. The country is beginning to emerge from the devastation wrought by the so-called Islamic State’s reign of terror and to face up to enormous reconstruction needs, particularly in the devastated city of Mosul. Although its territorial sway has been broken, the Islamic State (IS) remains highly viable as an underground force. Internal political, ethnic, and religious divisions, the competing interests of international players, daunting economic problems, and raging anti-government protests have all combined to present Iraq’s next government—whenever it is finally organized and approved by the COR—with a host of challenges. Their outcome could decide whether Iraq continues its progress toward a stable democratic system or stumbles once again into violent conflict that threatens to rip the country apart.

The United States has a major interest in the outcome. The future of Iraq is and will remain a central factor in Washington’s effort to influence the crisis in Syria and possibly bring some measure of stability to the region. In this context, the United States has three main goals, and many attendant challenges:

  1. Comprehensive defeat of IS. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations defined the comprehensive defeat of IS as the major goal of US policy in the region and, despite apparently sharp political and rhetorical differences between the two presidents, adopted strongly similar approaches. The two administrations committed limited US forces (numbering several thousand) to Iraq and Syria in the fight against IS and provided air power, weapons, and intelligence support to local allies in Syria and to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The Obama Administration organized the 78-member Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS in 2014, which continues its work to defeat and degrade the Islamic State under President Trump.

    Nonetheless, despite the loss of its “caliphate,” IS maintains significant strength in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon estimates its fighters in both countries to number anywhere from 28,000 to 32,000 (a figure backed up by UN reporting), with as many as 17,000 in Iraq alone. According to a Pentagon spokesman, IS “is well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge… ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaida in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007, when the group had declared an Islamic State and operated under the name Islamic State of Iraq.”

    While these numbers may be inflated, as some analysts have suggested, they indicate that the terror group remains a significant threat. Having lost control of territory, IS has simply moved to a new phase of hit-and-run attacks and targeted assassinations of local leaders, thus breeding a sense of insecurity and loss of faith in the government and security forces. Although nominally less potent, IS today constitutes almost as great a danger to Iraq’s stability as it did before the collapse of its pseudo-state.

  2. Although nominally less potent, IS today constitutes almost as great a danger to Iraq’s stability as it did before the collapse of its pseudo-state.

  3. Blunting Iran’s political-military ambitions. With the withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and subsequent belligerent rhetoric aimed at Tehran, the Trump Administration has made good on its long-standing promises to increase pressure on Iran’s leadership and confront Tehran’s dangerous behavior in the region. Nevertheless, Iran continues to be firmly entrenched in both Syria and Iraq, which remain central to its plans to gain control over a “land bridge” linking Tehran with its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus enabling it to place military assets in close proximity to Israel.

    Russian-Iranian military successes in Syria are helping entrench Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in that country. In Iraq, the success of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the battle against IS, underwritten by infusions of Iranian cash, advisors, and military equipment, has strengthened the PMF’s military capacity and their clout in Iraqi politics. Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Iran-supported Badr Corps and a de facto leader of the PMF, led his Fatah electoral alliance to a second-place showing in the May election, gaining 48 seats in the COR.

    Iran also views its presence in Iraq as vital to establishing deterrence against foreign attack. According to recent reports (which were denied by Tehran), Iran has transferred ballistic missiles and technology to allied militia forces in Iraq to enable them to retaliate against Israel, the Gulf states, or even US forces in the neighborhood if Iran is attacked.

  4. Building and enhancing Iraqi stability. For the last 15 years Iraq has been subject to repeated cycles of sectarian violence, challenges to central authority by militias and terrorist groups, and political crises stemming from its failure to reach a national compact with broadly agreed parameters on governance, power sharing, and distribution of resources. These conditions have repeatedly threatened to destabilize the country or even break it apart and have required the United States to become involved politically and militarily to a degree that both the Obama and Trump Administrations have found unsustainable. The United States has often professed a strong commitment to helping Iraq create the conditions in which long-term stability and democracy could be achieved, reducing the need for expensive and difficult US interventions and helping Iraq become a long-term partner for the United States. In practice, however, US commitments along these lines have wavered. Achieving this goal is instrumental to success in the fight against IS and in blunting Iran’s regional ambitions.

Shaping a New US Strategy

Given all this, the United States cannot afford to drift away from Iraq, despite the urgency of the situation in Syria. Washington needs to reboot its strategy for success in Iraq, just as it recently announced a new strategy to deal with the rapidly worsening crisis across the country’s border in Syria.

Iran continues to be firmly entrenched in both Syria and Iraq, which remain central to its plans to gain control over a “land bridge” linking Tehran with its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Any new approach must be centered on the three core goals outlined above: destroying IS, slowing Iran’s efforts to consolidate its military and political position in the region, and helping Iraq build a more prosperous, inclusive, and stable society. Progress toward achieving any of these outcomes will reinforce progress on achieving the others. The administration would do well to focus on three lines of effort:

  1. Establish a clear mission, adequate force level, and new ground rules for the US presence. Currently, Washington admits to 5,200 troops in Iraq (down from 7,400 in September 2017, the last figures available before the Defense Manpower Data Center stripped the numbers from its website). The Pentagon has said these might fluctuate depending on need and contributions from other NATO members.

    Iraqi resistance to any stay-on presence of American forces remains high, particularly in the COR. Opposition is likely to intensify given the political ascendance of Sadr and al-Ameri. Nevertheless, given the continuing threat that IS presents to Iraq, US and like-minded Iraqi leaders have a strong interest in maintaining a force presence that is primarily linked to training and logistical support for rebuilding Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

    There are ways a willing Iraqi government could structure a US force presence without the need for recourse to parliament, a major stumbling block in the past. The United States must make this a high priority, involving senior officials stressing the ongoing threat from IS and the need for continued professionalization of the ISF, given their near total collapse in the face of the IS onslaught in 2014. In any negotiations for a new Status of Forces Agreement, Washington should be prepared to compromise on its previous insistence on complete immunity to US forces operating in the country.

  2. Washington needs to plan a new strategy for success in Iraq, just as it recently announced a new strategy to deal with the rapidly worsening crisis across the country’s border in Syria.

  3. Encourage formation of a broad ruling coalition with an inclusive political program. Since Iraq’s first national elections in 2005, the United States has had a seat at the table (albeit sometimes off to the side) in government formation talks. Considering the outcome of the recent election, it would be easy for Washington to do more harm than good if it overplays its hand by backing specific political figures (such as Haider al-Abadi) for prime minister and lashing out at others (for example, Hadi al-Ameri). Nevertheless, the United States has an important stake in the outcome of government formation talks as well as a role to play.

    The secretary of state should personally and intensively engage the various Iraqi parties to back candidates for prime minister and other senior government positions who place Iraqi interests first, fully support power- and resource-sharing among the various sects and ethnic groups, stand for accountable and transparent government, and pursue a relentless campaign to eradicate government corruption. Any candidates for high office who espouse a “nationalist” program such as this would be well placed to win support from the many ordinary Iraqis whose recent anti-government protests have rocked Baghdad. They would also claim the support necessary to face down Iranian efforts to increase Tehran’s political influence and dictate to Iraq’s leaders.

    Even if successful, such a push by the United States would not end Iran’s influence in Iraq. But it would help afford Iraq’s new leaders the breathing room necessary to make many independent decisions, helping to level the playing field in a way that offers room for the US-Iraqi relationship to expand.

  4. Intensify the push for Iraqi reconstruction. Last February, Kuwait hosted a major donor conference on Iraq under the auspices of the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, where it was estimated that post-IS reconstruction needs topped $88 billion (of which $17 billion was required just to rebuild homes destroyed in the battle). Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the “capital” of IS’s “caliphate,” was hit particularly hard; the United Nations estimates that 40,000 homes must be rebuilt there alone. In addition to the destruction wrought by IS and the battle to defeat it, Iraq suffers chronically from high unemployment and massive underinvestment in infrastructure. Corruption and weak governance have stultified the delivery of basic services and jobs (a major factor in the mass protests sweeping the country since last July). Moreover, large numbers of returning internally displaced persons require major investments in housing, employment, security, and other pressing needs.

    The Kuwait conference raised just $30 billion in new pledges, mainly in loan facilities and promised investments but not in monetary assistance—much to the disappointment of the Iraqi government.

    Notwithstanding the growing urgency in Syria, on which international donor efforts are increasingly focused, the United States should insist that the coalition, and in particular Arab Gulf states, also concentrate on continuing humanitarian and reconstruction needs in Iraq, given the fact that the war against IS is very much ongoing in both Syria and Iraq and that stability in both countries is crucial to IS’s comprehensive defeat. Washington must lead by example; cutting aid to Syria, for instance, while demanding that others do more will inspire neither confidence nor generosity. Finally, the United States should offer Iraq relief from the recently reimposed sanctions on Iran, which stand to harm the Iraqi economy and create tensions between Baghdad and Washington.

Moving Forward at a Difficult Moment

The United States has not ignored Iraq. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has maintained contact with his counterparts, and special presidential envoy Brett McGurk, who has long experience working with senior levels of successive Iraqi governments, is heavily involved as well. But diplomatic engagement requires more urgency and frequency now, in the government formation process and its immediate aftermath, than the occasional tour d’horizon between Pompeo and Abadi and the supportive tweet from the secretary of state.

Both Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis must be actively engaged with Iraqi leaders, including prominent Sunnis and Kurds who are wary of the Iranian role, in support of a governing coalition espousing an inclusive national vision that safeguards Iraqi independence. To do so, the United States must convince Iraqis of its robust long-term commitment to Iraq’s security and stability and be willing to bring to bear the political and financial resources that will help make that a reality. Intensifying the efforts of the joint committees designed to implement the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) between Iraq and the United States, which covers a broad range of civilian and military cooperation, would be a good start.

There is little time to waste. The situation in Iraq remains dangerous and the political maneuvering surrounding government formation fluid. Meanwhile, the leadership in Tehran is already fully engaged to thwart American efforts.