With Iraq’s Mounting Chaos Spreading, Time for a US Policy Reboot

Iraq’s burgeoning political crisis, which began in early October as scattered protests throughout the predominantly Shia south, has now grown into a popular movement that threatens the foundations of the country’s political system. It has also set off alarm bells in Tehran. Indeed, Iran may be contemplating a broader intervention to defend its hegemonic interests in Iraq. As chaos intensifies both in Iraq and across the border in Syria, the possibility of an opportunistic resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) is becoming a serious concern.

But this would not be evident, judging from Washington’s reaction. Consumed by the impeachment crisis, neither the White House nor the State Department has been able to articulate a clear and consistent policy or to take concrete actions to help resolve the crisis. Aside from a handful of statements from the US embassy in Baghdad and the administration in Washington, there has been virtual radio silence on the Iraq issue. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given that for the last few years the administration has been gradually scaling back bilateral assistance and US diplomatic representation as part of a plan to disengage from Iraq.

This approach is dangerous and untenable. The simple fact is that Iraq has been at the center of US policy in the Middle East for nearly 17 years, despite the fact that the country seems to fall off America’s front pages for months at a time. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 smashed the existing balance of power in the Gulf region along with the government of a powerful Arab state, opening the door to an expansion of Iranian regional ambitions and, eventually, the instability and chaos that led to the rise of IS. It sparked something else, too: the possibility of a functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East, a prospect at least as alarming and potentially disruptive to Iraq’s neighbors as the war that spawned it. In one way or another, everything the United States has done, dealt with, or tried to accomplish in the region since 2003 has revolved around Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 smashed the existing balance of power in the Gulf region along with the government of a powerful Arab state, opening the door to an expansion of Iranian regional ambitions.

In short, the United States has a great deal invested in Iraq’s future, whether it cares to acknowledge that fact or not. It should be doing everything it can to help Iraq survive this crisis and lay the groundwork for future stability. But Washington’s largely passive approach is not working. It is time for a reboot of US policy.

Diminishing US Aid and Personnel Commitments

Current US policy remains grounded in the Strategic Framework Agreement negotiated by the George W. Bush Administration and is focused on maintaining a free, stable, prosperous, and democratic Iraq “while protecting US interests in the Middle East.” A robust aid program has formed the core of the relationship for many years. According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress has appropriated more than $5.8 billion for security programs and more than $2.5 billion in humanitarian funding for Iraq since 2014.

However, the current administration has expressed a clear preference for downsizing aid to Iraq. According to the Project on Middle East Democracy, the administration’s FY 2020 budget request asks for $165.9 million in total assistance, a 17 percent decrease from its FY 2019 request and far less than the $406.6 million Congress appropriated for Iraq that year. The Department of Defense requested $745 million for FY 2020 from the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund to support the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish peshmerga, which is 12.4 percent lower than the administration’s request for the previous fiscal year.

Bureaucratic snafus and personnel issues have also complicated Iraq’s aid. Disagreements within the State Department have delayed disbursement of assistance to Iraq from the Relief and Recovery Fund, a multilateral instrument intended to provide aid to countries hard hit by the Islamic State. Moreover, the administration has sharply reduced the USAID presence in-country to go along with aid cuts, shedding almost 80 percent of its American staff since last year, reducing oversight, and hampering the implementation process. The Trump Administration’s actions have prompted Congress to step into the breach, appropriating more funds than the administration has generally requested and directing it as needed to reconstruction efforts. Whether the White House will go along with congressional initiatives on Iraq, or continue to slow-roll aid projects, is another question.

Disagreements within the State Department have delayed disbursement of assistance to Iraq from the Relief and Recovery Fund, a multilateral instrument intended to provide aid to countries hard hit by the Islamic State.

The downsizing of resource commitments has paralleled the downsizing of the US diplomatic commitment. The State Department closed its consulate in Basra in September 2018, blaming the threat of Iranian violence, and in May of this year ordered the departure of “non-essential” personnel from both the American embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil, once again citing the threat from Iran and Iranian proxies. While the move was described as temporary, it came against the backdrop of a discussion within the State Department about much larger cuts to the American diplomatic presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan—as a way to demonstrate the United States was ratcheting down its commitments to both countries. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly seeks to make the “temporary” drawdown in Iraq permanent.

Shaky Bilateral Diplomacy

The bilateral US-Iraq relationship has waxed and waned but has proved especially wobbly during the years of the Trump Administration. The president’s penchant for personalized and impulsive decision-making has infused Iraq policy with a sense of inconsistency, even incoherence. Trump has characterized the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as “the worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country”; but he has also said the United States should have seized Iraq’s oil, since “to the victor belong the spoils.” (Trump reportedly raised the idea of Iraq paying US war costs with oil resources at least twice with former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, against the advice of his advisors.) In December 2018, Trump paid his first presidential visit to troops in a war zone, dropping in at Al Asad Air Base northwest of Baghdad to speak to US forces stationed there. He noted to reporters that Washington planned to continue to station troops in Iraq to “prevent an ISIS resurgence.” This came as something of a surprise to Iraqis, especially since President Trump failed to meet with the Iraqi leadership during his visit to discuss the plan. In February of this year Trump offered another rationale for keeping US troops in Iraq: because “I want to be able to watch Iran,” a remark greeted with consternation by Iraqi political leaders. In fact, US-Iran tensions have often threatened to pull Iraq in, disrupting Washington’s relations with Baghdad and threatening Iraq’s precarious internal political balance.

Difficulties such as these have alarmed and angered Iraqis in equal measure and led to real confusion about US policy. They have also increased suspicion about American motives, intentions, and reliability.

Washington’s handling of the current crisis has not helped matters. Given the stakes, the administration has proved unusually slow and desultory, with infrequent official reaction left largely up to the US embassy in Baghdad. On October 2, a day after the demonstrations erupted in the south of Iraq, the embassy issued an anodyne statement calling for restraint by both the security forces and the protesters, without addressing the causes of the protests. Secretary Pompeo took nearly a week to make a phone call to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, this time more pointedly calling for “those who violated human rights” to be held accountable and urging the government to “address the protestors’ grievances by enacting reforms and tackling corruption.” The US embassy took a little over a month to weigh in once more, announcing on November 6 that it supported “citizens who are demanding reform” and warning against “the killing and kidnapping of unarmed protesters.”

Washington’s handling of the current crisis has not helped matters. Given the stakes, the administration has proved unusually slow and desultory, with infrequent official reaction left largely up to the US embassy in Baghdad.

The White House itself finally commented publicly on November 10, more than a month after the demonstrations began, issuing a statement in the name of the press secretary that largely blamed the violence on Iran and its proxies and ignoring the most pressing grievances. There has been no statement from President Trump personally.

Nor is there evidence of a sustained, high-level diplomatic effort to hold human rights abusers accountable or to help Iraq end the violence and identify and implement effective strategies to address protesters’ sweeping demands. Like President Trump last December, Vice President Mike Pence could not find the time to meet with the Iraqi leadership during a quick visit to Al Asad Air Base on November 23, although he did manage a brief phone call with the prime minister. This was not a particularly robust response to the gravest political crisis Iraq has faced since the rise of IS, one that is “turning into nothing short of a bloodbath,” according to Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, Iran Swings into Action

There is no such policy inertia on Iran’s side. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was quick to point the finger at the United States for fomenting the protests, and his government was just as quick to jump into the fray to defend its own interests. It is easy to see why. Iran correctly perceives a double threat: first, to its dominance over the Iraqi political system as the protests have taken on an increasingly strident anti-Iran tone; and second, to its own internal politics, as anti-regime demonstrations erupted throughout Iran in November, with demonstrators echoing Iraqi protesters’ rage at corruption, economic mismanagement, and political misrule, in addition to their calls for the fall of the regime.

In October, Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force of the Islamic Republican Guards Corps, demanded that Iraqi leaders crack down on the protests. Iran-allied militiamen in the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), nominally part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), have been credibly implicated in the killing of protesters and are increasingly assuming a more prominent role in suppressing the protests. There are also reports that Iranian security elements have been directly involved themselves. As a result, the death toll in Iraq has steadily mounted: by mid-November at least 319 protesters had been killed, many by live fire and tear gas canisters aimed at heads or chests, and approximately 15,000 wounded, according to Iraq’s parliamentary committee on human rights and the Iraqi High Commission For Human Rights. The Trump Administration has done little to confront Iranian actions and appears intent on not taking advantage of Iraqi opposition to Iran to weaken Tehran’s grip.

Rebooting Iraq Policy: The Basics

The Trump Administration has an opportunity to help Iraq address the crisis and set it up for future success, while positioning the United States as a more reliable and less self-interested partner than Iran. But this will require an overhauled approach and sustained effort at senior levels of the US government. Here is where to start:

  • Sharply increase stabilization resources. Washington would do well to arrest the downward trajectory of its aid commitments, especially the declining resources it devotes to Iraqi recovery, and instead sharply increase them, focusing delivery on the areas hardest hit by IS as well as the restive southern provinces. This should be done in full coordination with the central government but also with local authorities, empowering them in the eyes of Iraqi citizens. The United States should ensure that assistance flows and project implementation is fast-tracked as well as dispensed to the neediest areas and communities, not just minorities favored by the United States, such as Iraqi Christians. Washington must make energetic efforts to encourage other donor nations, especially in Europe and the Gulf, to step up as well.

The Trump Administration has an opportunity to help Iraq address the crisis and set it up for future success, while positioning the United States as a more reliable and less self-interested partner than Iran.

  • Enhance anti-corruption initiatives. The United States makes anti-corruption assistance available to governments through the Departments of State and Treasury, with a particular focus on technical assistance. In cooperation with the Iraqi government, Washington should broadly expand such assistance, with a particular focus on improving public administration, strengthening financial transparency in the banking sector, and enhancing legal regimes designed to fight corruption. The United States can also assist in identifying corrupt individuals, unilaterally if necessary, and limiting their access to international financial systems.
    • Fortify diplomatic efforts. Washington should step up its diplomacy in support of human rights, stressing the right of protesters to express themselves, the importance of restraint by the security forces, and the necessity of addressing the just demands of the Iraqi people. The United States also needs to back reasonable political solutions to Iraq’s political mess. These include a new electoral law and elections for a new government, but also new political arrangements that reduce the ethnic and sectarian spoils system, which is the major contributor to Iraq’s dysfunctional governance.

There is no substitute for engaged high-level diplomacy, both in public and in private. An occasional statement by the US embassy simply won’t cut it; this needs to be front and center on Washington’s agenda, and the White House, despite its current troubles and preoccupations, needs to take the lead. Iraqi leaders must hear a unified message from all US interlocutors, including the State Department, the Pentagon, and Congress. And the Iraqi public must have no doubts about where the United States stands, either. Restoring a robust American diplomatic presence by reopening consulates and beefing up embassy staff would be a strong sign of US commitment. It would also greatly improve the ability of the United States to speak to the Iraqi people while providing better real-time information and insight to Washington.

  • Provide more security cooperation and insist on accountability. Washington should offer stepped-up security cooperation and training, both to cope with the possible resurgence of IS and to improve and professionalize ISF responses to civilian protests. Accountability must come with this assistance. The United States should enforce provisions of the Leahy Law prohibiting aid to security units that have abused human rights. In addition, known rights abusers within the ISF should be singled out for exposure. Washington should pay particular attention to documenting and exposing abuses by units of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are often acting in coordination with Iran as they carry out their attacks on protesters.
  • Pay attention to Syria. The president’s abrupt decision to withdraw all remaining US troops from Syria in October set the stage for Turkey’s violent incursion into the north, ethnic killings by its ally the Syrian National Army, and most worrisome of all, a potential resurgence by IS. This has Iraqi officials deeply worried about a destabilizing spillover into their own country, where IS retains armed clandestine networks. Washington must do more than maintain a few hundred troops in northern Syria to keep the oil fields safe from IS—it needs a well-conceived and fully resourced mission conducted in coordination with Turkey, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the ISF to prevent an Islamic State revival on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. This may require additional US troop commitments.

The outcome of current events in Iraq will be decided by Iraqis, not the United States; Washington should assist where it can but cannot expect—nor should it desire—the transformation of Iraq into a pro-American client state. Rather, the United States should want to achieve what the Strategic Framework Agreement envisioned: a sovereign, stable, and prosperous Iraq that is a strategic partner in a bilateral relationship based on mutual goals. If the United States can use this crisis to help achieve that long-standing aim, both American and Iraqi interests will be well served.