Iraq’s Illusory Sovereignty: Domestic and Foreign Culprits

The abridgement of Iraqi state sovereignty began at least with the Gulf War of 1991, when Iraq’s Kurds received international protection, the United States and its allies set up and enforced no-fly zones in the north and south, and Turkey led periodic ground incursions into the Kurdistan region in pursuit of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish-Kurdish insurgent group. Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has become an open territory for regional aggression, proxy wars, and violence by outlaw militia groups supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and beholden to Iran. Without effectively addressing this sovereignty deficit, Iraq will continue to suffer the deleterious effects of outside interference in its domestic affairs, including advancing others’ interests over Iraq’s and keeping the country from achieving much-needed political, economic, and social development.

Regional Assaults on Sovereignty

Turkey has taken full advantage of a weak and divided Iraqi state to intensify its violation of Iraqi airspace and territory with full impunity, and boasts of its ability to maneuver its military at will in northern Iraq. Iraqi military sources estimate that Turkey has at least five military bases and 4,000 troops permanently stationed in Kurdistan. The Iraqi government has been acquiescent in the face of such infringements on its sovereignty and carries on business as usual with Turkey. When, as often happens, Turkish strikes kill Iraqi civilians and destroy homes and infrastructure, the Iraqi government limits itself to condemnation and diplomatic demarches. The civilian population in the Kurdish region lives in constant fear of Turkish airstrikes, while the government is unable to provide protection for its citizens.

Iran also has found it easy to violate Iraq’s sovereignty. On January 15, 2024, responding to Israeli attacks on IRGC personnel in Syria and Islamic State bombings in Kerman, Iran, the Islamic Republic launched missile strikes on Irbil that killed four civilians and injured others. Iran had launched a similar attack on a civilian target in Irbil in March 2022, and in both cases it claimed to be targeting Israeli spy centers, a claim refuted by the federal and Kurdish regional governments. Uncharacteristically, the Iraqi government issued a strong condemnation of the January 15 attack, calling it “aggression,” and reserved the right to take legal and diplomatic measures. The popular outcry against Iran, both in the Kurdish region and throughout the country, was unprecedented.

Iran launched missile strikes on Irbil that killed four civilians and injured others.

Yet despite the angry reaction of the government and the general Iraqi public, some pro-Iran Shia militias openly condoned the attack. In a communique, Kataib Hezbollah—arguably the largest faction in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—said“[W]e do not oppose [the bombing of sites in Irbil] because it helps limit the cancer that they [the Kurds] pose to Iraq.” For good measure, the communique added that “had we asked the brothers in the Revolutionary Guard about the best target to respond to the Kerman crime, we would have been hitting targets in Saudi Arabia…as well as targets in the Emirates.”

The Domestic Challenge to Sovereignty

But the greatest damage to Iraqi sovereignty is inflicted by domestic actors who exploit fault lines within the state arising from geopolitical pressures and fragmented domestic and external policies. A form of political freelancing has denied the country stability and continuity. Policy- and decision-making often lie outside formal institutions and are determined by factions that do not recognize the authority of state institutions and whose agendas do not coincide with national interests.

Until the breakout of the war in Gaza on October 7, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani had had a quiet year serving as the chief executive of a government formed and supported by the Coordination Framework (CF), a political coalition dominated by factions and armed militia groups close to Iran, and more broadly by the State Administration Coalition, which includes Sunni and Kurdish partners. Al-Sudani avoided political maneuvering, focusing instead on improving services for Iraqis, alleviating poverty, and spurring Iraq’s economic development. To be sure, militias belonging to the PMF and allied with Iran targeted Iraqi airbases housing US personnel and attacked targets in the Kurdish region, but the violence was contained. Al-Sudani was also forced to endure political headaches, such as the unremitting hostility of some CF members toward their partners in government, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Taqaddum, the major Sunni party headed by former Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi. Nevertheless, for a year Iraq enjoyed relative stability.

Iraqi militia groups ratcheted up their attacks against US interests in Iraq and Syria after Israel’s bombing of al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.

The war in Gaza exploded this relative peace. After the enclave’s al-Ahli Hospital was bombed on October 17, popular outrage at the presumed culprit Israel mounted in Iraq. The prime minister, supported by all political groups, issued statements and took diplomatic measures in support of Palestinians. Nevertheless, sidelining the government, militia groups including al-Nujaba Movement, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Kataib Hezbollah ratcheted up their rhetoric and threats against US interests in Iraq and Syria. The militias, acting under the umbrella name the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, lost no time in acting. On October 18, al-Nujaba and Kataib Hezbollah launched rockets on Ayn al-Asad Air Base in Anbar and Harir Air Base in Irbil. Thereafter, attacks on the bases occurred almost daily, with increasingly sophisticated weapons, spreading to US bases in Syria and later allegedly to Israel. Without consulting their Kurdish and Sunni partners, parties within the Coordination Framework called for the expulsion of the US ambassador from Iraq and on October 19, a member of parliament from Kataib Hezbollah tweeted that Prime Minister al-Sudani was obligated to expel US and other international forces from Iraq.

The government issued numerous statements condemning attacks outside the authority of the state and pledging pursuit of culprits. Al-Sudani repeatedly affirmed that Iraqi was under international obligation to protect diplomatic missions, including the US embassy, and that US military personnel were in the country at the invitation of the government of Iraq. Some fasail (factions) from the PMF objected to al-Sudani’s efforts at pacification, claiming that restraining the Islamic resistance was against the law and against religious duty and principles. They indirectly accused al-Sudani of being servile and groveling to the “occupier” in his description of the US embassy as a diplomatic mission and justification of the presence of US military personnel.

Decisions of war and peace, use of arms domestically or cross-border, and diplomatic and security relations with other nations are the exclusive prerogative of a sovereign state. All these have been infringed in Iraq. Under the constitution, the Council of Representatives, acting jointly with the Prime Minister and President, decides on issues of war and peace. Article 61 lists among parliament’s competencies the ability and right “to consent to the declaration of war and the state of emergency by a two-thirds majority based on a joint request from the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister.” Yet the PMF factions refuse to recognize the state’s sole authority. A battle of wills over the sovereignty vested in Iraq’s institutions has erupted. Al-Sudani, the prime minister and the commander in chief of the armed forces, rightly asserted that no group can pre-empt the institutions of the state, take national decisions, or use unauthorized force. Indifferent to such constitutional niceties, the factions have usurped national decision-making and assumed the right to identify enemies of the state, as well as how, where, and when to fight those enemies.

In vain has al-Sudani tried to curb the militant factions. PMF figures such as Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Movement, and Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, have not openly endorsed the armed attacks on US forces, but also have called for the prompt removal of US and NATO troops from the country. While these figures may not engage in the same tactics as the extremist PMF factions do, they share the same ideology and goal. Al-Sudani even appealed to Iran to restrain its allies. Implausibly, the Iranians claimed that they had little authority over the decisions of Iraqi militias.

US Breaches of Iraqi Sovereignty

US officials repeatedly asked the Iraqi government to stop hostile acts against US troops. In meetings and telephone calls with al-Sudani, US officials reiterated warnings that such attacks would not be tolerated and that the United States would respond “decisively” if they continued. Al-Sudani in turn relayed these messages to partners in the Coordination Framework. Undeterred, on December 8 PMF factions launched a rocket attack on the US embassy compound in Baghdad, causing loss of legitimacy and acute embarrassment to the prime minister and his government. An angry al-Sudani declared that “attacking any foreign mission or diplomatic base is a terrorist crime that exposes the perpetrator to the maximum penalties.” Nevertheless, on Christmas day, a drone attack on a base near Irbil wounded three US service members, leaving at least one in critical condition. According to the Pentagon, by January 11, 2024, 130 attacks had been inflicted on the United States in Iraq and Syria, primarily by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.

The failure of al-Sudani to stop such attacks and hold perpetrators accountable prompted US action. The United States retaliated against the fasail on November 21, targeting Kataib Hezbollah facilities in Jurf al-Sakhr in Anbar province and killing eight members and injuring four others. The national condemnation of such flagrant disregard of Iraq’s territorial sovereignty was widespread, even among those normally sympathetic to the United States. Another US attack ensued on December 3, when American drones killed five operatives in Kirkuk province. On January 4, the United States targeted an al-Nujaba military base in the center of Baghdad, killing Mushtaq al-Jawari, aka Abu Taqwa, one of al-Nujaba’s prominent leaders.

The State Under Siege

The confrontation reached a new peak on January 28, when an attack on a US base in northeast Jordan killed three soldiers and wounded more than 40 others. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq claimed responsibility, and the United States hinted at the probable involvement of Kataib Hezbollah. Retaliation came on February 2, when the United States conducted widespread attacks on militia positions on a number of sites in Iraq (and Syria). The Iraqi government condemned the attacks that the PMF said have killed 16 of their members and injured 36 others.

Iran, however, has shown that it is entirely able to control its allies. Following the attack in Jordan, Esmail Qaani, head of the Iranian Quds Force (IRI), reportedly arrived in Baghdad to tell the PMF factions to tone it down, and to warn that they were putting Iranian interests at risk of attack by the United States. Clearly panicked, Kataib Hezbollah published a statement announcing the “the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces (US troops)—in order to prevent embarrassment to the Iraqi government.” No other member of IRI has declared a suspension of hostilities.

The Gaza war provides a convenient cover to accelerate the implementation of a wider strategy under Iranian tutelage.

Although the IRI claims that the attacks against US troops are in retaliation for the war in Gaza, in reality the Gaza war only provides a convenient cover to accelerate the implementation of a wider strategy under Iranian tutelage: to confront the United States on multiple fronts. PMF factions and like-minded parties within the Coordination Framework share an ideology and a goal—which, not incidentally, are also those of Iran—of ending the US presence in Iraq and the Middle East region. Militant groups have thus ignited a war on Iraqi territory outside the writ of Iraq’s legitimate institutions and in defiance of the prime minister’s authority. The escalation has threatened the talks of the US-Iraq High Military Commission, recently convened to discuss the future of US presence and role in Iraq. For all intents and purposes, these talks may now be dead, with little hope of imminent resuscitation.

Since Iraq’s 2021 elections and the formation of the new government in 2022, parliament, government, and, crucially, the security and intelligence agencies have become riddled with members or supporters of the militias. Prime Minister al-Sudani is proving even less able to preserve Iraq’s sovereignty and maintain control over rogue armed groups than was his predecessor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Al-Sudani is politically dependent on the Coordination Framework, including some of the very groups that are subverting state sovereignty. Against the wish of the nation and the government, Iraq is being dragged into a war that will undermine the country’s security, ruin its finances, and destroy its hopes for economic development and social stability.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoD