As an Iraqi American who lived through the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 U.S.-led invasion to bring about regime change, I have witnessed firsthand how U.S. wars in the region can break out when Baghdad and Washington fail to understand each other’s intentions and motives.
This is, unfortunately, another one of those moments. By choosing to assassinate Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, the United States made a major mistake. Based on a poor understanding of internal conditions in Iraq and an overestimation of the utility of a high-value- target assassination, the U.S. believed Iran would have no choice but to capitulate. However, that’s not what’s happening.
Despite earlier glimmers of de-escalation, the continuation of sporadic rocket attacks means that the possibility of more major violence is still very high. Although President Donald Trump announced that he would not purse a military response to Iran’s ballistic missile attacks against Ain al-Assad base on Jan. 8, there is no sign that he is taking any meaningful steps to achieve real peace, as he claims he wants. In fact, he is continuing full steam ahead in a “maximum pressure” campaign that has done nothing but incentivize Iran to behave badly and puts Americans and Iraqis in harm’s way. Now that the Trump administration has announced additional sanctions, we can only expect Iran to continue to respond asymmetrically and further destabilize the region. And this, unfortunately, will likely play out within the borders of Iraq. Despite Iran losing its top general, the United States continues to face the possible loss of its foothold in Iraq, where the U.S. and Iran have competed for domination — to the detriment of the Iraqis — for 17 years. As for the Iraqis who have been heroically trying to carve out a semblance of an independent identity amid this tug of war, well, they stand to lose everything.
First, it’s incredibly important to realize that recent conditions have changed in Iraq and the U.S.’s decision to assassinate Gen. Soleimani reflects a gross misunderstanding on the part of the White House. Last year, anti-American sentiment united Iranian-backed Muqtada al-Sadr and his political rivals in Parliament to pursue a vote on ending or downgrading the U.S. presence. At the time, it was reasonable to expect it to fail. The prime minister had some level of independence left and favored continued cooperation with the U.S. Other political groups in favor of good relations with the U.S. were numerous and could speak out. In addition, public sentiment saw the U.S. presence as a legacy-nuisance-turned-beneficial-partner.
Since then, the Iranian proxies have tightened their grip over the state. Therefore on Jan. 5, there was nothing to stop al-Sadr and the militias from succeeding in pushing the vote to demand the expulsion of U.S. forces, despite the absence of nearly half the Parliament. Contrary to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assumption, caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, whose December resignation was encouraged by Washington, could not be relied upon to put the brakes on a motion to ask the U.S. to leave Iraq. Indeed, this time Abdul-Mahdi led the charge himself, and he is keeping up the pressure. As for the public, the reckless American disregard for Iraq’s interests in killing Soleimani in Baghdad put enormous pressure on the protest movement to place Washington just below Tehran on the villain list.
Choosing the path of escalation over the past several weeks, peaking with the killing of Soleimani, is proving to be a major mistake for the U.S. The White House’s expectation was that, challenged by a surprising and aggressive U.S. posture, Iran would have no choice but capitulate in order to avoid all-out war with the mighty United States military.
The miscalculation has created the conditions that Iran, through its militia and political proxies in Iraq, can use to sever U.S.-Iraq relations, opening the door for unhindered outright Iranian domination. Hadi al-Ameri, one of Soleimani’s closest Iraqi associates and the leader of the powerful Badr militia and arguably the largest coalition in Parliament, vowed on Soleimani’s coffin that he would not rest until the U.S. was out of Iraq. Even before the latest escalation, Iran’s power in Iraq had reached outrageous levels. The recently exposed “Iran Cables” scratch the surface on how Iran has infiltrated so deeply into Iraq’s political and security circles. In recent months, Iran, through its proxies, launched attacks on Iraq’s neighbors, forced honest ministers to resign to perpetuate corrupt deals, sacked professional Iraqi generals who might challenge Iran, and masterminded the systemic killing and forced disappearances of Iraqi protesters who resent Iran’s domination. And it could get worse.
The U.S is starting to face a dilemma: either withdraw and abandon the place to Iran, or continue to resist the call to leave, potentially rendering its presence illegal, at the cost of more moral ground. The natural consequence of the weakening of security cooperation and stricter Iranian control would be the resurgence of ISIS and perhaps the emergence of new extremist groups sponsored by regional actors seeking to challenge Iran’s control over Iraq.
Much damage has already been done in Iraq, even if President Trump’s acceptance of the Iranian exit ramp offered by the bloodless Jan. 8 strikes prevents further major violence. Tehran’s belligerence and Washington’s incompetence have emboldened more violence against protesters and demonization of activists, threatening to crush Iraq's most exciting chance at reconstituting a functioning just state after decades of dictatorship, invasion, terror, and mismanagement.
What can be done to limit the damage?
Priority should be given to amicably resuming anti-ISIS cooperation, which despite American assertions, continues to be at a halt as far as Baghdad is concerned. The UN Iraq mission should support fresh talks between Iraqi authorities and Coalition members, led by the U.S., toward maintaining sufficient personnel levels capable of resuming support for Iraqi security forces. The talks should also seek an Iraqi declaration that an attack on Coalition forces on Iraqi soil would be treated as an attack on Iraq. In approaching these talks, the U.S. should keep in mind that if Iraqis get the breathing room to resume the push for political reforms, then a different government could be in charge in the foreseeable future — one that will be, knock on wood, more reasonable and reflective of the will of the people.
For Iraq to overcome the political stagnation enabled by the distraction of killing Soleimani, it is vital to speed up the formation of an interim administration that can take the reins and prepare the country for early elections. Here Iraq faces deadlock. The Fatah coalition is determined to maintain its hold on power. Initially they sought to achieve this goal by nominating a series of allied politicians, but those were vehemently rejected by the protesters backed by President Barham Salih’s threat of resignation. Now Fatah’s tactics have shifted to include extending the life of Abdul-Mahdi’s caretaker government, with apparent support, or at least acquiescence from al-Sadr, as reinvigorated mutual anti-Americanism has revived a sense of common cause.
This recalcitrance has provoked protesters to ramp up pressure for government reform, and as we speak, more young Iraqis are getting killed and maimed for demanding to be ruled by a government that represents them. Neither side appears able to make the other yield, and so breaking this deadlock seems to necessitate the utmost pressure from the international community, and perhaps some extraordinary alternatives. Instead of looking for one man who would replace Abdul-Mahdi and wield more power than many may be comfortable with, Iraq might be better off borrowing the “crisis cell” model that Abdul-Mahdi himself had adopted to restore calm in Mosul after an unpopular governor brought disasters upon his people until a new governor could be elected. This cell may include a respected academic, perhaps well versed in economics, a judge of good repute, and a professional army commander, nominated by their peers, vetted with the help of the UN, and approved by the president to run government until elections can be held, without being eligible to run for future office.
To be sure, the renewed rocket attacks against the U.S. embassy prove that Iran’s choice to temporarily stand down should not have been taken as a guarantee that it or its proxies will cease menacing the U.S. or its allies. Should hostilities escalate again, all outside forces should show full respect for the desire of the Iraqi people to remain neutral in the fight. If the U.S. finds itself compelled down the road to take military action to defend against renewed Iranian aggression, then that action ought to be directed at the appropriate Iranian military and intelligence targets outside Iraq.
Finally, both Baghdad and Washington should embark on public diplomacy campaigns to reassure the Iraqi people. For the U.S., the focus should be on assuring Iraqis that America won't make their country a battlefield in future conflagrations and on walking back the threat of sanctions against the whole of Iraq — many Iraqis have painful memories of the crippling sanctions of the 1990s — without abandoning the weapon of targeted sanctions again individual malign politicians and militia leaders. As for Baghdad, the priority is to undo the damage of selectively invoking sovereignty when it served Iran while turning a blind eye to Iran’s own violations of Iraq’s sovereignty.
The rush to escalation was ill-advised and showed poor judgment. Although the crisis is temporarily contained, it exposed Iraq to great harm, jeopardized U.S. national security interests, and caused a setback to the global anti-ISIS effort that will require a lot of work to undo. However, it’s imperative for the safety of Iraqis and the world that we try.
Omar al-Nidawi is a Program Manager at the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center, a Truman National Security Fellow, and a guest lecturer on Iraq’s modern history and politics at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images