While the COVID-19 crisis sweeping the globe has dominated headlines, conflicts in the Middle East have largely receded from view. This is especially true of the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq after the organization was defeated in Syria. One would be forgiven for assuming that the United States has bowed out of the conflict. The White House has paid scant attention since President Donald Trump himself appeared to hand the fight over to others and hinted that the United States was well on its way to the exit, insisting at a New Delhi press conference in February that “nobody’s done more than I’ve done … but at the same time, Russia should do it, Iran should do it, Iraq should do it, Syria should do it.” He added that the United States would leave a “small force” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but America was “moving out and moving around.”
Apparently, the president forgot to tell IS. After the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by US forces last October, the group spent the ensuing months engaged in a rebuilding effort under the leadership of its shadowy new “caliph,” Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi—possibly an alias for Baghdadi’s deputy, Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla. The Iraq theater has proved particularly active in recent weeks as the group shows signs of mounting a major comeback. Between last April 15 and 21 alone, IS undertook 34 attacks in the country. It still commands 15-20,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and there have been signs in recent months that the organization is on the upswing since the loss of its territorial “caliphate” in 2019.
The advent of COVID-19, combined with rampant political turmoil in Iraq and rising tensions between the United States and Iran, have complicated the fight against IS. The United States cannot afford to let its attention wander; it has to address these mounting crises soon, before they severely set back the US counterterrorism mission.
Militia Attacks Force US Stand-Down; COVID Complicates the Problem
The US-Iraq relationship has been under strain for years, but a series of mounting crises has proved particularly challenging, especially in terms of the principal US mission in the country: the destruction of the Islamic State. Problems began to mount quickly at the start of this year, beginning with the US killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani on January 3.
The US-Iraq relationship has been under strain for years, but a series of mounting crises has proved particularly challenging, especially in terms of the principal US mission in the country: the destruction of the Islamic State.
The assassination touched off a wave of retaliatory missile and indirect fire attacks against Iraqi bases used by US troops; the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the coalition’s military campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria, responded on January 5 by suspending training activities that supported anti-IS operations. NATO forces in Iraq soon announced that they would do the same. OIR officials acknowledged in a statement that the decision to focus on force protection at the expense of operations “limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh.” Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US government’s coordinator for the anti-IS effort, went further later that month, noting that “Coalition operations have been primarily on pause in Iraq as we focus on force protection … Over time, obviously, there is a possibility of a degradation of the effort against Daesh if we’re not able to do the things that we were doing so effectively up until a few weeks ago.”
With pressure from Iran and Iranian-allied Iraqi militias on the upswing, OIR also instituted a significant retrenchment in deployments around the country in March. Coalition and NATO forces moved out of bases in a number of locations, including Mosul, and consolidated operations in a few larger and better protected facilities such as Ayn al-Asad Air Base and Irbil Airport. OIR staunchly insisted that these movements were pre-planned in coordination with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and denied that they were related to either the increase in attacks on US forces or the proliferation of the novel coronavirus.
But the virus had clearly begun to have an impact; an OIR spokesman tweeted March 26 that “100s of training troops are departing temporarily for COVID-19 safety.”
As the number of COVID-19 cases grew alarmingly, the Iraqi government announced a country-wide lockdown to combat its spread in mid-March. This added to the stress on the ISF and further shifted its operational focus from IS as the security forces struggled to maintain the lockdown.
Political System under Immense Strain
Political turmoil over the last six months has also contributed significantly to disruptions in the counterterrorism campaign. Mass protests against government corruption, lack of services, and joblessness that began in October caused chaos and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in December 2019 leaving Iraq without a prime minister and functioning cabinet for nearly five and half months. Two candidates chosen by President Barham Salih to form a government––Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi––fell by the wayside because of infighting and opposition among various political factions and pro-Iran militias. The lack of effective central leadership during this period, as well as the diversion of increasingly frayed ISF resources and attention to the task of containing the protests, further weakened counterterrorism efforts. The Iraqi parliament’s approval of a new cabinet headed by Mustafa Kadhimi on May 6 will help address the leadership vacuum, but the fledgling government has a lot of work to do before the country and its security forces can ramp up the campaign against the Islamic State.
The Iraqi parliament’s approval of a new cabinet headed by Mustafa Kadhimi on May 6 will help address the leadership vacuum, but the fledgling government has a lot of work to do before the country and its security forces can ramp up the campaign against the Islamic State.
The Soleimani assassination only added fuel to the fire. It prompted an outpouring of anger against the United States, turning what had been mass political demonstrations with a decidedly anti-Iran tone into popular demands for the ouster of US forces, orchestrated in large part by populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives, took a nonbinding vote in early January to expel US forces in a move backed, however tepidly, by Abdul-Mahdi, still in office as caretaker. The issue of a potential US withdrawal, forced or otherwise, remains a volatile issue in US-Iraqi relations.
Economic Crisis Threatens to Overwhelm the Country…
On top of the deteriorating political and security situation, Iraq’s growing economic troubles are also becoming a major concern as Baghdad and the security forces attempt to regroup from these various setbacks. The collapse of oil prices in April has thrown the economy into turmoil as Iraq—one of the hardest hit producers in the Middle East—saw its oil revenues cut in half, a fiscal disaster for a rebuilding country that depends on petroleum exports for 95 percent of its revenue. If oil prices remain below $30 per barrel, Iraq could be insolvent in 12 months. In addition to the broader ramifications for the Iraqi economy, the crisis has jeopardized funding for the Iraqi Security Forces, with serious implications for their operational readiness.
This dangerous development helped prompt a burgeoning crisis between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), after Baghdad unilaterally withheld a $400 million payment that was owed to the KRG under the terms of a 2017 revenue-sharing agreement. (Baghdad has accused the KRG of reneging on its end of the bargain by stopping the monthly transfer of 250,000 barrels of oil to the national government.) The KRG-Baghdad agreement was the underpinning of a broader political arrangement intended to place relations between the two sides back on an even keel after the disastrous 2018 Kurdish pro-independence referendum; its failure would put nearly intolerable strain on Iraqi stability. Kurdish authorities have demanded international mediation, but for now the transfer of funds remains in abeyance while Kurdish relations with the central government grow increasingly bitter. The dispute has not only jeopardized productive cooperation against IS among the KRG, the central government, and US forces, but also threatens the current low levels of funding for the Kurdish peshmerga, which has borne much of this battle in the north.
…and the Islamic State Is on the Move
The Islamic State has taken full advantage of the disparate crises. Over the last several months the pace of IS operations in Iraq began to pick up considerably; the sheer volume of attacks has increased while targets have expanded from isolated villages to direct attacks on the ISF, demonstrating the Islamic State’s expanding capabilities. Coalition operations against IS resumed in late January but serious operational constraints remain.
An Inflection Point in Campaign against the Islamic State
All the mutually reinforcing problems afflicting Iraq and its relations with the United States—the country’s economic crisis, ongoing political instability, COVID-19, anti-US anger and mistrust—have brought the fight to contain and defeat IS in Iraq to an important inflection point.
Several of these factors are presently beyond the control of either Washington or Baghdad. However, some of the most serious political/military issues could be addressed through determined US diplomacy. The question is whether the Trump Administration has the political bandwidth and diplomatic skill to bring about a meaningful change of course.
Looking Ahead to the Strategic Dialogue
To begin with, the United States should make every effort to resolve the present dispute between the KRG and Iraq’s central government over budgetary transfers. The longer this dispute continues, the more likely it is that political relations between the KRG and Baghdad will suffer long-lasting damage, compromising prospects for sustained success in the war against IS. This must be a high-priority issue for the United States; if the State Department is unwilling or unable to focus the necessary diplomatic attention with the backing of the White House, it should encourage and strongly support a determined international mediation effort, as the Kurds have demanded.
The United States should make every effort to resolve the present dispute between the KRG and Iraq’s central government over budgetary transfers. The longer this dispute continues, the more likely it is that political relations between the KRG and Baghdad will suffer long-lasting damage.
Beyond pressing for a resolution to this immediate problem, the United States and Iraq have announced a Strategic Dialogue to take place in June under the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, which set the terms for bilateral relations across a number of fields, including security and defense. High-level talks have been held in the past, most recently during the government of the former prime minister, Haider al-Abadi (2014-18), but the 2020 edition may shape up to be the most consequential yet. Both sides will have the opportunity to address the disputes and areas of tension complicating the relationship at present, and both have a great deal riding on the outcome. For Iraq, its internal security and political stability may be at stake; for the United States, America’s diplomatic and military profile in the heart of the Arab region are on the line.
These tough issues will require extremely frank discussion. The major issue on the table, of course, is the continued presence of American troops in Iraq, and the Iraqi side is likely to press this point determinedly.
The Iraqis are unlikely to insist on the full withdrawal of American troops, whom Sunnis and Kurds see as a guarantor of their political fortunes. In addition, many in government, including the new prime minister, appreciate the American presence and see US troops as invaluable allies against IS.
Nevertheless, the Iraqis may use the strategic dialogue to explore further downsizing of the roughly 5,000-strong force currently on the ground, with perhaps tighter conditions for a continued force presence and strictures on how it can operate. For its part, Washington will press its Iraqi interlocutors on reining in pro-Iran elements of the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), considered to be responsible for most of the attacks on US military positions leading up to, and following in the wake of, the Soleimani assassination. This may prove easier now that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has moved to separate Hashd elements loyal to him and the clerical establishment in Najaf from the Popular Mobilization Authority, which oversees the militias and is dominated by pro-Iran elements. The US administration would also be wise to insist that the Iraqis provide guarantees that the presence of US and coalition troops will not be allowed to become a political football, constantly subject to the whims of firebrand politicians and self-aggrandizing Council of Representatives members—especially those sympathetic to Iranian interests.
Another key point is that the Iraqi side will probably look for clarification of the US mission in the country: is it solely to combat IS, or is it also aimed at keeping an eye on Iran, as President Trump asserted last year? The Iraqis will want assurances that the United States will not use their territory as a base of operations against Iran, particularly actions such as the Soleimani strike. Moreover, Baghdad may seek practical steps by Washington; these might include a request for public affirmations by Washington respecting Iraqi sovereignty as well as commitments to broad relief from anti-Iran sanctions. Washington should listen: it needs to make clear to all Iraqis that their country will not be treated as a battleground, let alone an ally, in the conflict between the United States and Iran.
Baghdad may seek practical steps by Washington; these might include a request for public affirmations by Washington respecting Iraqi sovereignty as well as commitments to broad relief from anti-Iran sanctions.
When and if these areas of disagreement are sorted out, the two sides will be well positioned to decide on a joint course of action to re-energize the battle to defeat IS, even if the coronavirus remains an operational concern. Beyond the military aspects, additional US security and economic assistance may be required to support the Iraqi Security Forces and Iraq’s economy. Ramped-up medical aid efforts could help to combat the spread of COVID-19 among Iraqi troops as well as the general population.
Iraq Remains the Key
It is important to remember that the battle against IS remains a global struggle and that Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State’s top leadership is based, are at its heart. And US basing, troops and intelligence—not to mention the vital cooperation between American and coalition forces and the ISF—are central to winning that fight. (It is noteworthy that the raid that killed al-Baghdadi in Syria was launched from Ayn al-Asad Air Base in Iraq’s Anbar province.) In short, the battle against IS cannot be won without Iraq. Indeed, addressing the setbacks and complications with which the counterterrorism campaign has been afflicted over the last months has become exceedingly urgent.