Checking Iranian Power in Iraq
Iraq faces a threat of Iranian subversion that is, to a large extent, a function of a deepening geopolitical rift in which Iran stands on one side and the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are on the other. To protect its own interests and avoid falling prey to Iran’s apparent desire to become the regional hegemon and assimilate Middle Eastern capitals into its sphere of influence, Iraqi leaders would be wise to chart these waters carefully. They need to defend and strengthen institutions at home, check the rogue factions that are trying to supplant the state in its political and military apparatus, and abstain from getting sucked into costly, losing battles with regional antagonists.
Iraq is in trouble. Baghdad cannot challenge Tehran’s use of allied Iraqi militias to beef up its forward defenses at Iraq’s expense. These militias might not take marching orders from Tehran, but there is a strong “convergence of interests” between Iran and powerful Iraqi militias whose influence in Iraq’s government is powerful enough to deter coercive measures by Baghdad. Nor can Iraq allay the concerns of the United States and other neighbors who see themselves as threatened by Iran. Meanwhile, Iraq’s government appears overwhelmed by the difficult test of establishing good governance, combating corruption, and creating an inclusive meritocracy with real equal opportunity for hitherto marginalized groups. Its impending failure is inseparable from the country’s deepening entanglement in the rising tension with Iran.
The outlook for Iraq was positive a year ago, when post-election negotiations delivered a new government under independent Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, young and promising Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, and articulate, Western-friendly President Barham Salih. Since then, trends have highlighted the Achilles’ heel of this government: Though impressive at the top, the fact that the prime minister does not have his own political party means that the government lacks an organic political base in parliament that’s necessary to sustain it through crises. Thus, it is increasingly kept in a box and manipulated by influential leaders of pro-Iran militias and their disproportionate presence in parliament.
At the root of the government’s steady decline is a fundamental flaw: It was formed as a last-ditch compromise between two rival groups with competing agendas — a nationalist-leaning pro-reform Islah, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, and an Iran-backed, militia-centric Binaa, led by Hadi al-Amiri — rather than by one unified coalition, as Iraq’s constitution intends. Islah showed resistance for several months and blocked Binaa from appointing its own candidate, Popular Mobilization Committee Chairman Falih al-Fayyadh, as interior minister. Fayyadh didn’t withdraw his nomination without exacting other concessions, and he won back his positions as national security adviser and Popular Mobilization Committee chairman, from which he was fired four months earlier. Eventually, Islah leaders began to lose heart, complaining that the prime minister was losing his independence in favor of Binaa, eroding the shaky balance of political power and government authority.
The new wave of militias in the pro-Iran camp have grown in power and influence to unprecedented levels, and Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s vocal but toothless attempts to rein them in have failed to impress.
These militias are making their own war and peace plans with complete disregard for the official state policy. This greatly undermines Baghdad’s efforts to mediate regional disputes as well as its ability to appear neutral. After the major war effort with the Islamic State ended, the various militias that fought on the government side (collectively known as Popular Mobilization Forces) did not demobilize. In some rare cases, that was not problematic. Units close to the clergy of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, such as the Abbas Combat Division earned a good reputation for refraining from human rights violations and close coordination with the Iraqi government. Many turned their attention to building economic machines to expand their power. Those close to Iran also began to play a different military role, threatening American interests in Iraq, harassing Iraq’s own oil industry, and moving Iranian missiles to extend the power projection capability of their supporters in Iran. The U.S. government reportedly believes that the May 14 drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline was launched from Iraq. Specifically, some analysts trace the attack to Jurf al-Sakhr, a region south of Baghdad where Kata’ib Hizballah, a group the United States designates as a terrorist organization, maintains a base.
Alerted to the gravity of the situation by an unscheduled visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abdul-Mahdi reluctantly moved to action. It took the premier a month to issue instructions that prohibited unauthorized storage of weapons or military actions against neighbors. The militias evidently ignored the order, thereby attracting preemptive airstrikes by Israel to stem the proliferation of precision-strike capabilities by forces answering to Iran. Using Iraqi soil to store Iranian weapons or launch them at neighbors diminishes the likelihood of Iraq becoming a bridge-builder.
The militias have moved to overt defiance of the government. On June 30 Abdul-Mahdi issued another ultimatum setting a 30-day deadline for militias to choose between integrating into state security forces or disarming if they wanted to practice politics. The ultimatum was met by lip service and demand for more time. As the requested two-month period elapsed, the militias went more decidedly rogue, not only ignoring, but actively threatening the government.
Around Aug. 5, a little-noticed showdown took place in the Ninewa plains. The prime minister sought to dislodge a rogue militia (Brigade 30) whose leader was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department over human rights abuses and funneling money for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from checkpoints the militia has been using for illegal taxation. While al-Fayyadh worked out a humiliating compromise that kept Brigade 30 in place, his hardline deputy —Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, whom the United States considers a terrorist — reportedly rewarded the militia with a gift of three tanks to bolster its defenses.
The militias are also reshaping Iraq’s military leadership to their liking. During the same period, pro-Iran militias worked to neutralize opponents in the formal military establishment. In early July, Kata’ib Hizballah targeted Gen. Mahmoud al-Falahi, in charge of security forces in Iraq’s largest province, Anbar, which shares borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The militias accused Falahi of helping Israel attack Popular Mobilization Force targets by feeding the Israelis intelligence via the CIA. Although the prime minister said an investigation did not prove the allegations, by Aug. 19, Falahi was out. Whether Kata’ib Hizballah did this to facilitate Iran’s expansion into Iraq’s west, or simply to defend against future attacks, the result is the same — militias are manipulating and weakening formal state security forces to serve their interests. A month later, following rumors of political pressure by the militias, the prime minister moved to sideline Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service and Iraq’s most respected hero in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Although it remains difficult to ascertain the reasons behind the dismissal, the loss of a capable and unbiased commander like Saadi certainly weakens the Counter-Terrorism Service and removes a threat to law-breaking militias.
The prime minister’s inability to stand up to pressure from the militias is causing the political foundation of his government to crumble. As these militias ignored the rules set in the 2016 Popular Mobilization Law and other government decrees, their power continued to rise and political leaders who initially supported Abdul-Mahdi’s appointment are now complaining that his government is listing toward the militias’ side of the political equation. The pro-Iran militias’ rivals in the Islah coalition — initially comprising nationalist, reformist, and semi-secular forces including Sadr, Hikma, Abadi and Iraqiya — have crumbled. Hikma broke off, declaring opposition to the government. Abadi continues to take jabs at his successor without showing serious activity. Meanwhile, Sadr has gone fatalistic, declaring the end of the Iraqi government.
There isn’t much that Baghdad can do to protect itself from the future fallout of the simmering conflict between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. Aside from calls for de-escalation, Baghdad has no means to control the course of events. Israel seems determined to strike perceived Iranian threats regardless of location, meaning there could be more attacks on militia sites, further fueling the security dilemma.
Unrestrained Israeli airstrikes can slow down Iran’s efforts, but they also have a side effect of further weakening Baghdad’s position and creating favorable conditions for greater Iranian influence inside Iraq. Israeli attacks provide pretext for the militias to silence opposition and push Iraq away from a much-needed long-term relationship with the United States, whom the militias accuse of aiding Israeli aggression.
Because proxy attacks are harder to trace back to and blame on Tehran than actions by its own forces from its own soil, Iran likely has less inhibitions about using Iraqi — or Yemeni — territory or agents to launch new attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran has demonstrated that it can hurt the energy market (and global economy) with relative ease and impunity. The series of operations includes the Iraq-based drone attacks on Saudi pipelines, the boat-based attacks on tankers, and the Houthi-claimed attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facility in Abqaiq.
In return, the Saudis, who only opened up to Iraq beginning in 2017, may soon revert to the traditionally hostile attitude they had adopted toward a Shia-dominated Iraq since 2003. Against this backdrop, Washington has no readily available solutions for punishing Iran beyond more sanctions — of questionable effect at best, since existing sanctions appear to have increased, not decreased Iran’s belligerency — short of an attack on Iran itself that carries the risk of a costly all-out war that would be disastrous for the region and for international security.
What can be done to prevent Iraq from joining Syria and Yemen as another failed state in the region? While we cannot predict how this crisis will unfold for all stakeholders, there are measures that can mitigate the impact on Iraq and build on many years of U.S. investment in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam.
First, all stakeholders should respect Iraq’s sovereignty and desire to not take sides. Iran is not the only actor to blame for dragging Iraq into its fight with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The United States also unnecessarily exposed Iraq to the risk of becoming a battleground by suggesting that it could use its military presence in Iraq to spy on Iran. It is difficult to undo the damage, but it is perfectly possible to try.
Second, the United States and allies should step up diplomatic engagement with Iraqi leaders to build consensus behind Baghdad’s pursuit of neutrality, provide greater counterbalance to Iran’s rising influence and stiffen the resolve of the prime minister and moderate forces. For example, re-opening the Basra consulate could send a powerful signal that Washington is not ceding ground to Tehran.
Third, the international community should encourage electoral reforms in Iraq to restore confidence in the democratic process (by restoring the independence of the Election Commission, tarnished by partisan appointments in 2017), improve governance, and prevent boycotts by disenchanted moderates. Turnout was so poor in the 2018 election (the official figure was 44.5 percent, but Iraqi politicians told me the real figure was closer to 30 percent) that organized, often radical parties and militias were able to outperform skeptical, unmotivated moderates. The upcoming provincial elections next April are an opportunity to reverse that trend.
Fourth, the United States and NATO allies should maintain robust support for Iraq’s formal security establishment. Besides training and advice, this should include political support against plots targeting its leadership in order to stop more politicized replacements that could weaken Iraq’s military the way former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki did between 2010 and 2014.
Lastly, the United States should work with Baghdad to explore ways to empower law-abiding elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces and isolate rogue factions, including legal measures to make it harder for rogue factions to receive salaries from Baghdad. The forces are not a monolith, and there is an apparent rift between the political and the militant leadership over attempts by the latter to drag Iraq deeper into Iran’s side of the conflict. This presents an opportunity to support Baghdad’s recent initiatives to reshape the institution into a disciplined and accountable force.
This crisis demands an adjustment in the way the United States deals with Iraq. Helping Baghdad assert its authority and put its shaky democracy back on track has its rewards. It can create a strong, U.S.-friendly Iraq, strong and independent enough to resist Iranian manipulation from within and without. Failure to act now, though, gives Iran the chance to turn Iraq into another Syria. It’s critical that the United States and its partners on the ground in Iraq not let this happen.
Omar Al-Nidawi is a program manager at Enabling Peace in Iraq Center, a charity dedicated to the advancement of human security in Iraq. He leads the organization’s research and field work in Iraq. He is also a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.