In his election campaign trail, US President Donald Trump was a vocal anti-war candidate. At a Republican Party debate, Trump called the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq a “big, fat mistake.”
Trump repeatedly criticised his predecessors George W Bush and Barak Obama for spending “two trillion dollars and thousands of lives” on the US involvement in Iraq.
Trump did not stop there. He twice asked former Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi for oil to pay for the invasion of his country. In December 2018, Trump ordered a US withdrawal from Syria after declaring victory over Islamic State (IS) jihadists.
But all that has apparently now changed, and America under Trump seems to be back to the business of war. Trump has decided to keep thousands of US forces in Iraq and Syria, which were sent to fight IS militants and are now supposed to be dealing with remnants of the largely vanquished group.
Trump even announced that he wanted the US troops in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran and to maintain pressure on the Islamic Republic to change policies that are seen by Washington and its regional allies as aggressive and hegemonic.
All this is worrying, and Trump’s change of mind may indicate that he or some of the hardline officials in his administration are setting the stage for new wars in the Middle East.
Last year, the US withdrew from the landmark Iran Nuclear Agreement, saying that the deal had failed to address Tehran’s ballistic-missile programme and its influence across the rest of the Middle East.
In April, Trump announced that the US would no longer exempt any country from the US trade sanctions imposed on Iran after he withdrew from the nuclear deal.
To squeeze Iran further, the US has also designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, the first time it has ever taken such a step regarding the army of a foreign government.
Last week, the Pentagon said it was deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Arabian Gulf, claiming unspecified threats from the Islamic Republic. It also approved a new deployment of Patriot missiles.
US officials claimed that the reinforcements came after Washington had linked Tehran’s plans to stage attacks against US forces or interests in the Middle East “with actual activity that we observed”.
However, the deployment signals preparations for a possible war with Iran, which the Trump administration has accused of spreading its influence in the Middle East and escalating regional conflicts.
As tensions rise, the stakes seem high that Iraq could emerge as the primary flashpoint for America’s new war in the Middle East. In many ways, Iraq is already stuck in the middle of the conflict, and the dispute is presenting it with the dilemma of whether it will affect the already beleaguered nation.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad on 8 May in connection with the latest escalation against Iran. Pompeo’s visit highlighted the special relationship with Iraq as being top on the list of Washington’s demands from Tehran.
While in Baghdad, Pompeo reportedly asked the Iraqi leaders he met, including President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to ensure the protection of US troops and citizens in the country.
Speaking to reporters after his meetings, Pompeo said that the Iraqi leaders had “provided assurances that they understood that was their responsibility.”
Pompeo said he wanted to “speak with the leadership there [in Iraq] to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq is a sovereign, independent nation.”
Beyond beefing up the security of Americans in Iraq, Pompeo said his visit was also critical to stress US preparedness to help Iraq become less dependent on energy deals with Iran.
“They understood, too, that it’s important for their country. We don’t want anybody interfering in their country, certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq, and there was complete agreement,” he said.
For his part, Abdul-Mahdi said in remarks to the press that Iraq would undertake to ensure the safety of the US troops in Iraq, which he described as “an obligation that Iraq honours.”
However, he insisted that Iraq would not participate in the economic boycott of any country, which is to say that he declined to cooperate with the Trump administration’s attempts to punish Iran.
There are many scenarios for possible war between Iran and the United States. But as the United States continues to talk tough with Iraq and its pressure on Baghdad grows, Iraq is looming large in the US-Iranian conflict probably because of the close relationship of Iran to Iraq’s Shia-led government and the Iranian influence in Iraq.
On Sunday The US Embassy in Baghdad issued a security alert, warning American citizens of “heightened tensions” in Iraq and advising against travel there.
While there is not much willingness within Iraq to enter into a conflict with the United States over Iran, the pressing question remains of how the Iran-backed para-military groups, or militias in Iraq would react if the tension escalates.
Many Iraqi militia leaders have blasted the American belligerency towards Iran and said that if the US attacks Iran their followers would defend it. Some have even threatened to target US interests in Iraq in retaliation for any such attack.
The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, widely believed to be funded by Iran and expressing Iranian views, reported on Saturday that the Iraqi militias had drawn up plans to target US interests if Iran was attacked.
According to the paper, the plans include attacks on US targets in Iraq, such as the US Embassy in Baghdad and bases where US troops are deployed.
The plans also include ambushes of US troop patrols in areas where American forces are operating and the kidnapping of American citizens, in particular Americans working in oil companies in southern Iraq.
Iraq has a number of Shia militias, backed and trained by Iran and functioning as Iranian proxies. Some of these behave like local mafias that control neighbourhoods, and several have been accused of behaving like a “state within a state.”
Many of the larger militias work under the umbrella of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), which is officially recognised as a state-run force nominally under the command of Abdul-Mahdi.
However, the borderline between the two kinds of Iran-backed Iraqi armed groups that have footprints across Iraq remains murky, and therein lies the dilemma should one militia group respond to action by the US by attacking US targets inside Iraq.
With at least 125,000 active-duty fighters in the PMF and tens of thousands more in the militias, the stakes are high that some of the Iraqi militias could side with Iran and turn on United States troops and other US assets in Iraq.
A major concern is that some of these Iraqi militias could be the flashpoint for an Iranian-US showdown, posing a quandary for Iraq as a result of an uninvited confrontation.
On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates said “sabotage operations” targeted four commercial vessels including two Saudi-owned off the coast of Fujairah in the Arabian Sea. These attacks highlighted the precarious situation in the Gulf following the US-Iranian standoff.
Despite the risk of war, however, the Iraqi government and parliamentary agenda is remarkably light, and Iraqi leaders keep repeating naïve proposals of “mediation” between Tehran and Washington.
Such an offer fails to grasp the conventional wisdom that one “can’t carry two watermelons with one hand” or try to “satisfy two wives at the same time.”
Unfortunately, there is also a lack of national debate in Iraq about this looming war or any real attempts to find an exit and avert catastrophe. This is a national crisis, and a pan-Iraq conference is urgently needed to work out a national strategy to serve the country’s interests.
While distancing Iraq from any Iranian-US confrontation remains a priority, concrete action should be taken to end all kinds of foreign meddling in Iraq and ensure the country’s full sovereignty and independence.
The biggest risk for Iraq now is that its hollow leadership will maintain its ostrich strategy and behave as if the Iranian-US crisis will eventually resolve itself and it will weather the gathering storm.
This conflict will have dire consequences for Iraq even if a military confrontation can be averted. Therefore, the Iraqi ruling cliques need to extract their heads from the sand and look at what is really going on in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: To save Iraq, act now