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The United States and Iran continue to maneuver in Iraq

Since the Qassem Soleimani assassination, Washington and Tehran have intensified their efforts to try to outmaneuver each other for influence in Iraq.

Analysis | Middle East

Since the US assassination in early January of Iran’s Quds Force commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, Washington and Tehran have intensified their efforts to try to outmaneuver each other for influence in Iraq. The United States keenly wants to remain militarily engaged in the country to prevent the resurgence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and to serve as a check on Iranian influence. But the Soleimani killing spurred many Iraqi politicians, particularly from the Shia community, to call for the ouster of US troops from the country. President Donald Trump’s threats against Iraq in the aftermath of these calls further inflamed Iraqi sensibilities and did not help the US side.

Ironically, in some respects Soleimani’s killing worked to Iran’s advantage. Prior to his death, many Iraqis—especially in the Shia-populated southern provinces—had been demonstrating against Iran’s pervasive influence in the country in addition to other demands. Tehran’s strategy at this point is to cultivate relations with Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, to keep bilateral political and economic relations with Baghdad on an even keel, and to maintain the spotlight on the US military presence instead of Iran’s strong influence with prominent elements of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

In recent weeks, US military and diplomatic officials have tried to mend fences with the Iraqi leadership and to press NATO countries to play an enhanced role in Iraq, especially in terms of the training of the Iraqi military. Pursuing the NATO angle would make the US military role less conspicuous and have the added benefit of so-called “burden sharing.” For this to work, Trump Administration officials need to state clearly that they respect Iraqi sovereignty and have no designs to “keep bases” in the country, thus communicating that they are not interested in using Iraq as a battlefield in Washington’s conflict with Tehran. In addition, Trump officials need to desist from lecturing to their European allies if they want their support in Iraq.

US-Iraqi Relations Rebounding from a Low Point

In the wake of the early January attacks, many Iraqi politicians renewed calls from the previous year for the ouster of US forces (about 5,200 in total) from Iraq. Anger was palpable among many Shia groups in Iraq as they protested in the streets and made their voices heard through their representatives in parliament. They not only denounced the killing of Soleimani but also that of his ally, Iraqi militia leader and deputy commander of the PMU, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who had become a respected figure in many Shia circles for his role in helping to defeat IS. Iraq’s parliament passed a nonbinding resolution on January 5, with the support of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, calling on all foreign forces to leave—though the message was clearly aimed at the Americans. Abdul-Mahdi also directed the Iraqi military to suspend cooperation with US forces.

Trump reacted angrily to these actions, saying at one point that if the Iraqis ask the Americans to leave and do not do so in a friendly way, Washington would impose sanctions on them “like they’ve never seen before” and would make the Iran sanctions “look somewhat tame” by comparison. Trump also said the United States has “a very extraordinarily expensive airbase that’s there. It costs billions of dollars to build … [and] we’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”

This was not the first time that Trump had run roughshod over Iraqi nationalist sensibilities; but coming on the heels of the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, his remarks were especially insulting to many Iraqis. Meanwhile, the State Department said it was refusing to discuss the troop withdrawal demand.

In more recent weeks, however, Trump has stopped making public comments about Iraq, probably heeding advice from some of his advisors that his statements were counterproductive to the goal of maintaining US troops in the country. This allowed cooler heads to prevail and for US professional diplomats and military leaders to take the lead on the Iraq portfolio. Iraqi military leaders also seemed to have weighed in with Iraqi politicians about the need to restart military cooperation with the United States and other coalition partners, which reportedly resumed in late January. One unnamed Iraqi brigadier general characterized the US military role in Iraq as the electricity network in a house: “If the light is turned off the whole place goes dark.”

On February 5, the US CENTCOM commander, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, traveled to Iraq where he held a series of meetings with Iraqi civilian and military leaders, in addition to visiting American troops at al-Asad air base, which sustained Iranian rocket attacks following Soleimani’s killing. McKenzie said he was “heartened” by his interactions with Iraqi officials, adding: “I think we’re going to be able to find a way forward” on the troop issue.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Allawi has been silent on the issue of the US troop presence, which probably means he is trying to defuse bilateral tensions while balancing competing interests. (Interestingly, most Iraqi Sunnis, in contrast to their position in 2003-2006, are now in favor of the US troop presence because they see it as a hedge against an IS resurgence and a balancer to Iran.) To curry favor with the Iraqi leadership, on February 10 the Trump Administration decided to extend sanctions waivers to Iraq for another 90 days. a move that will allow Iraq to continue to import Iranian natural gas, which supports the production of about a third of Iraq’s electricity needs. This is especially crucial for the country’s stability, as electricity shortages in recent years have sparked widespread anger and protests. In return, the Iraqi cabinet approved six contracts awarded by the oil ministry that would increase domestic gas supplies—long a US goal to make the country less dependent on Iran—though the actual contracts with the companies have yet to be signed.

Iran also Seeks to Overcome Its Liabilities

What was lost in the spotlight of the US-Iran conflict in early January was the growing Iraqi Shia resentment of Iran’s role in Iraq, perceiving it as keeping a corrupt political system in place. In late November and early December 2019, Iraqi Shia protesters attacked Iranian consulates in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, even torching the diplomatic facility in the latter. One Shia protester told reporters that the Iran-backed Shia parties are “thieves,” while a Shia merchant said that the militia groups not only run extortion rackets in southern Iraq but are now controlling much of the economy there. Moreover, the protesters have charged that these militia groups have aided the government’s security forces in cracking down violently on them.

Hence, it is not surprising that many of the protesters who want to evict American forces from Iraq are also calling for Iran to leave as well (though the latter call was muted in early January in the immediate aftermath of the Soleimani killing). One follower of Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shia cleric who has called on all foreign forces to leave Iraq, took part in a demonstration in Baghdad later on January 24 and stated emphatically: “We don’t want any of them … America built the system we are living in, and it’s left us with no future. Iran has treated this country like its backyard. We want all of them out.”

These sentiments are undoubtedly disturbing to Iran’s leadership, which has made many inroads in Iraq since the 2003 war that ousted the Baath regime. Although Iran still has many cards to play through the militias it backs and the politicians it has cultivated, for the ordinary people in Iraq’s Shia community who are struggling to make ends meet or to obtain a job, any calls for Shia solidarity with Iran now appear to fall on deaf ears. Moreover, Muqtada al-Sadr has fashioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist and seeks to expand his political base. Therefore, he and his supporters will likely continue to harp on the theme that “all foreign forces” should leave Iraq.

To limit these liabilities and keep attention focused on the US troop presence, which Iran wants ended, Tehran is pursuing two policies. First, it is seeking to maintain political and economic links with Iraq. When Allawi was appointed as prime minister in early February, Iran sent him a welcoming message while also underscoring its “continuing support for the independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity [of Iraq] … along with the legitimate request by the government and people of Iraq for the exit of American forces from the soil of that country.”

Given the US maximum pressure campaign on Iran, Tehran wants to protect its economic connections to Iraq for as long as it can. These not only include the gas exports mentioned earlier, which are also important for Iran’s foreign exchange revenues, but also a wide range of consumer goods that Iran produces and has difficulty exporting. For Allawi, or whomever holds the premiership in Iraq, alienating Iran is not a realistic option not only because many pro-Iran Iraqi Shia parties and militias remain powerful in the country but because trade with Iran (including money spent by tens of thousands of Iranian religious pilgrims who visit Karbala and Najaf every year) is an important source of revenue.

Second, Iran seems to be encouraging its Iraqi militia surrogates to engage in low-level violence against US troops and interests—not to the point of escalating it to direct military conflict, like what happened in early January, but to keep pressure on the United States to leave Iraq. Over the past few weeks, there have been several rocket attacks directed at Iraqi bases housing American service members. The latest attack occurred on February 15 on an Iraqi base housing US military personnel near the US embassy compound in Baghdad. Iran’s media on February 11 (the anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution) even praised an explosion allegedly targeting a “US military vehicle” in Iraq by a militia group. None of these attacks have resulted in any American casualties but they are indicative of Iran’s ongoing pressure campaign. This is a dangerous game, however, because Trump has shown clearly that the death of an American citizen at the hands of a pro-Iran militia, like what occurred in late December, can provoke a US attack.

Pursuing the NATO Option

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on February 12 was able to reach an agreement with NATO to play a more enhanced role in Iraq (some NATO countries have been part of the multinational forces in Iraq that have helped in the fight against IS but had to suspend their role in the wake of the Soleimani killing). NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO would take over some training activities that had previously been carried out by the US-led coalition in Iraq, though the details have yet to be worked out. This slight shift in strategy may be a way for the United States to play a less conspicuous role in Iraq, dampening the political issue of the American presence while remaining engaged militarily in the country even with a reduction in the US troop level. It would also conform to Trump’s desire for NATO countries to do more in the Middle East.

Interestingly, despite Trump’s stated eagerness at times to withdraw US troops from Syria, the president has never favored a similar withdrawal from Iraq. This probably has to do with his desire to be the “anti-Obama”—indeed, he claimed his predecessor withdrew US forces from Iraq prematurely, paving the way for IS––and not wanting an IS resurgence on his watch after a similar withdrawal. Trump also has an interest in keeping Iran in check. Retired Army General Jack Keane, an informal advisor to Trump on national security affairs, stated that if Trump pulled out of Iraq and “this thing caught fire again, he would own it in a way that Obama owned it after he withdrew.”

Recommendations for US Policy

Allowing professional diplomats and military officials to take the lead on Iraq policy, as opposed to relying on Trump’s tweets and threats, was a smart thing to do, as the US president is prone to rattle Iraqi political sensibilities. With hundreds of IS militants still active and forming cells in Iraq, precluding a US troop withdrawal is in both Baghdad’s and Washington’s interests. Moreover, Iran would likely take advantage of any US retreat from Iraq, which would only embolden its surrogates and keep them as dominant players in the country.

However, if the new NATO mission in Iraq is to succeed, US officials will need to be more diplomatic with their European partners and refrain from making statements boasting of the US security approach to the world. Many European officials at the recent Munich Security Conference greeted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech with silence, as they disagreed with what they see as  Trump’s coercive approach to foreign policy. After all, when asking friends for help, acting with some humility goes a long way.

This piece has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, joined by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (left), and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (White House photo via Flickr)
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