The United States has missed a valuable opportunity to use its influence in Iraq to encourage the government to implement the reforms Iraqi protesters have been demanding over the past six months and push back on Iran. This is because of both a decline in diplomatic engagement since the beginning of the Trump administration, as well as a series of escalatory actions against Iran, including a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general and the leader of an Iraqi militia in Baghdad in early January. To ensure the safety of U.S. personnel who remain on the ground and to fulfill its policy ambitions, the U.S. must shift its strategy in Iraq.
While American influence in Iraq has undoubtedly declined, it is still seen as the most capable security partner, and maintains the ability to wield influence through economic pressure, like sanctions. The U.S. should employ whatever diplomatic and military influence it has left in the country to push the current government to enact widespread reforms in line with the demands of the protesters, in direct contrast to Iranian efforts to clamp down on government reforms.
Iraqi citizens have been protesting against their government since October 2019, demanding an end to corruption, the creation of jobs, investment in infrastructure and public services, and hope for a better life. Since the start of the protests, nearly 600 protesters have reportedly been killed, largely by Iranian-backed militias, which have also purportedly carried out kidnappings, beatings, and worse on anyone they can catch involved in organizing the protests. The protests prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in November, although he has remained on as caretaker until a new prime minister can be named. The most recent prime minister-designate, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, withdrew his candidacy after he failed to form a government within the constitutionally mandated 30 days earlier this month.
The focus of the protesters’ ire has been Iranian-backed groups and heavily Iranian-influenced political leaders. However, after the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Kata’eb Hezbollah on Jan. 3, the U.S. faced a major backlash, including mass protests and a Parliament that voted to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq, amid widespread pressure from nationalist Iraqis fed up with their country being used once again as a battleground.
The White House and senior administration officials have alleged that this assassination was conducted to prevent an “imminent” attack on U.S. interests and was designed to deter the planning of future Iranian attacks. Instead, the assassination reignited and accelerated a de facto proxy war between Iran and the U.S. on Iraqi soil, and further inflamed Iraqi anger at continued foreign meddling and intervention. Iran responded with a series of ballistic missile strikes at two Iraqi bases that host U.S. troops, resulting in a number of American casualties. The cycle of escalation drew to a halt when Iran admitted to accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet taking off from Tehran, killing 176, the same night it fired on the Iraqi military bases. Shortly thereafter, the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Iran and elsewhere appeared to have overtaken the perpetual news cycle. However, on March 11 a rocket attack killed two Americans, one soldier and one contractor, and one British soldier at a joint Coalition-Iraqi base in Taji, just north of Baghdad.
The Trump administration’s weakening of the U.S. military presence and diplomatic influence in Iraq has had dire consequences on its foreign and defense policies in Iraq and increased the risk of harm to U.S. personnel. The U.S. escalation with Iran has also overtaken key U.S. policy priorities in Iraq, including an enduring defeat of ISIS and its remnants; supporting a united, stable, and democratic Iraq; and assisting in institutional and capacity building for Iraq to manage its own affairs. The tumultuous political situation, coupled with the decline in U.S. diplomatic presence, including the closure of the Basra Consulate and the drawdown of staff at U.S. Embassy Baghdad, threatens to upend years of investment in reconstruction and stabilization. U.S. strategy has also created a more dangerous environment for the remaining U.S. personnel on the ground; in the last three months alone, five Americans and one Brit have been killed in Iraq.
After threatening to impose sanctions on Iraq and demanding repayment for military bases, President Donald Trump appears to both understand the decline in American influence in Iraq and desire it. In Davos earlier this year, he discussed drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq with Iraqi President Barham Salih, reportedly telling President Salih that he was willing to leave the country but only in a way that wasn’t embarrassing for the U.S.
U.S. strategy in Iraq — which has seemingly become explicitly focused on countering Iran — must change if the U.S. is to fulfill any of its policy aspirations or guarantee the safety of its remaining personnel. The best way for the U.S. to counter Iran, while maintaining a minimal presence to train forces, build partner capacity, and defeat ISIS and its remnants is to focus on ensuring there is a strong, centralized, and reformed government in Baghdad. This is simply impossible when the legitimacy of the central government has been called into question, rogue militias are carrying out coordinated attacks on civilian protesters, and rockets and protests are regularly targeting U.S. personnel.
The U.S. should refocus its counter-Iran strategy on wielding its soft power by bulking up whatever remaining diplomatic and military leverage and influence it still has, together with other Western powers, to implore the Iraqi government to enact changes demanded by the protesters, in the same way that the U.S. and other international organizations have worked to curb torture and promote oversight reforms within the Iraqi judicial system. U.S. officials could tie a troop drawdown plan — now a Trump administration stated objective — to a series of government reforms that may address elements of corruption, infrastructure investment, and other critical areas.
This kind of plan might include granting longer-term exemptions on sanctions for Iranian energy exports to Iraq and the removal of U.S. troops from certain high-risk joint bases (such as the one struck by suspected Iranian-backed militias on March 11), provided the Iraqi government agrees to a roadmap to meet protesters’ demands, both ensuring reform and the safety of U.S. troops already vulnerable in an increasingly tenuous environment. The roadmap should encompass an end to violence and forced disappearances against the protesters, the passage of laws to curtail corruption and nepotism, and investments in electricity, access to clean water, health care, infrastructure, and other basic social services.
The best check against Iranian influence in Iraq is the desire of the Iraqi people to move closer toward a free democracy absent foreign influence, corruption, and sectarianism. Leveraging a combined approach among Western powers can influence Iraqi reforms in a way that is both transparent to the protesters and highlights the West’s desire to help move Iraq toward more liberal reforms, in contrast to Iran’s strategy.
It remains to be seen how the U.S. and Coalition will respond to the attack on its forces on March 11, but any response that is disproportional or infringes upon Iraqi sovereignty will only continue to weaken the U.S.’s ability to counter Iran in Iraq or succeed in any of its declared policy ambitions.
Elizabeth Dent is a non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Countering Terrorism and Extremism program. The views expressed in this article are her own.
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