Rhetoric has been used in Iraq to gain broader influence in local politics and to focus attention on special interests. The practice has been instrumental in avoiding commitment to a national agenda and in fuelling discussion on communal aspects of the evolving situation.
Not so this time: making decisions and taking options on the presence of the foreign, mostly US, troops in Iraq is a massive challenge on which the country’s leaders have failed to make progress for far too long.
The question now is how to take action on this daunting problem while Iran continues to use its proxies to wield influence in Iraq and to try to push the US out.
One of the major issues at stake is the position of incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who seems to be torn between the two rivals: Iran and the US, and how heightening tension between them is dragging Iraq towards the brink.
Things came to a head after a US air raid against the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) along Iraq’s border with Syria on 27 June that killed at least seven fighters and sparked calls for revenge from Iraq’s Iran-aligned militias.
Al-Kadhimi has voiced his anger over the US attack, which followed a series of violent incidents in Iraq pitting Iranian-backed Shia militias against US forces and installations.
Iraq’s Ministerial Council for National Security, headed by Al-Kadhimi, “strongly” condemned the US bombardment, which it described as “a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” A statement by Al-Kadhimi’s office said the government would look into legal options to prevent such actions in the future.
Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also blasted the US airstrikes as “an aggression and violation of national sovereignty” and stressed Iraq’s objection to being “a party to any conflict to settle scores on its territory.”
What was significant about the unprecedented Iraqi government rebuff of the US airstrikes is that they underscored that Al-Kadhimi is going in the troubling direction of appeasing Iran, which continues to use the militias to wield influence in Iraq.
It was a rare criticism of the US by Al-Kadhimi, who has promised to build a strategic relationship with Washington and pledged to rein in Iraq’s unruly Iran-backed militias that have been threatening US interests in Iraq.
The Pentagon said US bombers had targeted weapons-storage facilities used by the militia groups Kataib Hizbullah and Kataib Sayed Al-Shuhada, which like many of Iraq’s paramilitaries operate under the umbrella of the PMF.
The Biden administration has defended targeting these Iraqi groups with airstrikes to deter militants and Tehran from conducting or supporting further attacks on US personnel or facilities.
In recent weeks, militias have carried out five drone attacks on US targets, including a CIA hangar in the northern city of Erbil in the spring. Since 2019, they have launched rockets to hit bases where US forces are stationed, killing at least four Americans and a number of Iraqis.
The Biden administration has been demanding that Al-Kadhimi stop the militia rocket and drone attacks on US interests in the country. US commanders have also warned that their forces will act in self-defence if they are attacked.
The escalation and Al-Kadhimi’s failure to hold the militias accountable for their long list of transgressions have raised concerns about whether the Iraqi leader is betting on rhetoric to deal with a serious geostrategic problem.
The US sent thousands of troops to join a US-led International Coalition in Iraq after the Islamic State (IS) terror group seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
The 83-nation coalition against IS helped the Iraqis to defeat the militants and retake the territories, but it fractured because of ambiguity in the Iraqi government’s policy towards the future of the troops.
Acting under pressure from pro-Iran blocs, the Iraqi parliament told the government that all foreign troops should be ordered out of the country after the US killing of Al-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January 2020.
Since then, the US has agreed in talks with Iraq to remove all combat forces and to redeploy others whose mission in Iraq has been shifted to training and advisory roles and to a few camps in the desert on the border with Syria and the Kurdistan Autonomous Region.
The moves came amid repeated statements by Biden that he has been looking for ways to wind down what have come to be dubbed “endless wars” in the US. This has encouraged pro-Iran Shia paramilitary groups in Iraq to carry out near daily rocket fire on US troops to accelerate their departure.
However, Biden’s decision to launch retaliatory airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq has demonstrated a major shift in the administration’s plans to handle attacks on US troops and facilities in the region.
US officials told the Washington Post last week that the US would respond forcefully even if no American personnel were killed or injured, a lower bar for retaliation then was employed by the former Trump administration.
Acting US Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat IS and acting US Counterterrorism Coordinator John T Godfrey have even underscored “the United States’ continued commitment to ensuring the enduring defeat of IS.”
In a related move, Washington has moved troops and supplies from its military base of Al-Sayliyah in Qatar to Jordan, which will position the US to deal with threats from Iraqi militias and reflects the military’s changing priorities in the region.
Supplies from the bases, as well as a support mission based in them, are now part of the Area Support Group-Jordan, a US Central Command statement said. In March, Jordan and the US reached a defence agreement that allows the free entry of US forces, aircraft and vehicles onto the kingdom’s territory.
Back in Iraq, it remains unclear to what extent Al-Kadhimi is ready to appease Iran and its proxies in Iraq, while failing to meet the country’s need for security by working together with Iraq’s partners in the fight against IS.
Pro-Iran groups are using the standoff to push Al-Kadhimi to speed up a full US withdrawal from Iraq. Following the US airstrikes, the head of the Al-Fatah Coalition, which brings together Iran-backed militias in the country, called on the government to “expel the American occupiers” from Iraq immediately.
Yet, experts say that security in Iraq is still fragile, and a limited presence of foreign troops is still needed to maintain pressure against what remains of IS in Iraq, since this has been regrouping.
IS militants have increased their operations recently after reorganising in mobile groups of fighters to conduct smaller-scale attacks. In January, a bombing of a crowded Baghdad market claimed by IS killed more than 30 people.
Last week, the group claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Iraq’s national power grid using Katyusha rockets and explosives and causing severe damage to parts of the network and a widespread power outage across Iraq.
For a country hit hard by the Covid-19 epidemic, a worsening economic crisis that has come as the result of a precipitous decline in the price of oil, rampant corruption and government inefficiency, fears are growing that Iraq can hardly survive further destabilising events.
Looming over everything is the potential for increasingly likely conflict with the approach of Iraq’s forthcoming parliamentary elections on 10 October and as pro-Iran groups gear up to compete against other parties for a majority of the seats and a monopoly over the government.
Amidst this turmoil, Al-Kadhimi has not been able to provide a roadmap for how to handle a resurgent IS without International Coalition support or how to deal with militias that are expected to go their own way after the US troop withdrawal.
Last week, Al-Kadhimi flew to Brussels to ask NATO to bolster its non-combat training and advisory mission in Iraq. Yet, it is highly unlikely that the Western organisation will work separately from the United States.
As Iraq continues its lurch into chaos, the country’s leadership should stop flattering Iran and its proxy militias and think carefully about the consequences of expelling the US and allied troops.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly