In Iraq, Restraint Is America’s Best Option
“Maximum pressure” on Iran is working, the Trump administration insists, as the United States applies concerted diplomatic, economic, and military pressure to constrain Iran and its allies across the Middle East. In Iraq, however, America’s confrontational posture is diminishing U.S. influence, and empowering Iran and its Iraqi allies.
After this month’s round of deadly rocket attacks on foreign forces in Iraq and retaliatory U.S. airstrikes, the United States is now locked firmly into a tit-for-tat cycle of violence with Iraqi paramilitaries linked to Iran. If this cycle continues — or escalates, amid reports that the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a military campaign to “destroy” one paramilitary faction — it will end disastrously for both the United States and Iraq.
Iraq is facing an unprecedented crisis, as the spread of coronavirus and the collapse of global oil prices gravely threaten its economy and the state’s ability to provide for ordinary Iraqis. The country does not need, on top of this, the United States bombing Iraqi paramilitaries, which polarizes Iraqi politics between pro- and anti-American camps and helps frustrate efforts to name a new government that could confront the country’s dire circumstances. Further unilateral U.S. action will only amplify voices in Iraqi politics who argue that the Americans have to go, now. Iran’s Iraqi allies will consolidate their influence in the country’s politics, as paramilitaries continue their attacks on U.S. forces — maybe to the point of forcing the United States out of Iraq.
If the United States wants to preserve the U.S.-Iraqi relationship or stay in Iraq to help combat the so-called Islamic State’s (ISIL) persistent insurgency, it will have to break this retaliatory cycle — but not by counter-escalating against Iraqi paramilitaries. There is a better way for the United States, albeit one with its own risks: restraint. If the United States can hold itself back, a pause in this cycle could create the conditions for Iraqis to form a new government capable of partnering with Washington and negotiating a new, legitimating framework for U.S. and coalition troops to remain. That could weaken the anti-American narrative now prevailing in Iraqi politics.
America’s best hope to remain safely in Iraq is to hold its fire; otherwise, it risks shooting its way into an embarrassing strategic defeat.
A Slow-Burning Conflict
The U.S. drone strike that killed the top Iranian Quds Force general, Qassem Soleimani, and senior Iraqi security official and paramilitary veteran “Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis” (Jamal Ja’far) on Jan. 3 was ostensibly meant to “restore deterrence.” It did not. Iraqi paramilitaries resumed attacks on U.S. assets in the country only weeks later, re-igniting a slow-burning conflict between the United States, Iran, and Iran’s Iraqi allies.
The latest flare-up came on March 11, when a hail of rockets struck the Iraqi military base Camp Taji outside Baghdad and killed two U.S. servicemen and one British soldier deployed in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led international coalition to combat ISIL. The United States retaliated the next day with airstrikes against what it alleged were weapon-storage facilities belonging to Iraqi paramilitary faction Kataib Hizbullah. “These terror groups must cease their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces or face consequences at a time and place of our choosing,” warned the Pentagon in a March 12 press release. Iraqi officials, meanwhile, said U.S. strikes had in fact killed Iraqi soldiers and police, as well as one civilian worker. In a statement, the Iraqi security forces’ Joint Operations Command described the U.S. bombing as “a naked aggression” on Iraq. Two days later, unknown assailants — plainly undeterred — again rocketed Camp Taji, wounding three U.S. troops and several Iraqis.
The March 11 rocket barrage was only the most recent and deadliest in a series of attacks on U.S. assets in Iraq that began in summer 2019. Those strikes came amid a wave of disruptive, largely unattributed attacks against U.S. interests and allies across the wider Middle East, including September attacks on Saudi oil installations. Most or all of these operations seem to have been part of a coordinated campaign by Iran and its local allies in response to the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure.”
Iran’s Asymmetric Retaliation
Iran’s defense apparatus is not organized for a head-on military confrontation with the United States. Rather, Iran has developed extensive asymmetric capabilities, including by cultivating capable, motivated nonstate allies regionwide.
In Iraq, what is sometimes termed “Iranian” influence manifests mainly in the form of Iran’s many Iraqi allies. Iranian officials have made a long-term investment in social, political, and economic ties with Iraqi political and paramilitary factions. Now those officials leverage those ties to forge and break deals between Iraqi factions. In 2014, most pre-existing Iran-aligned armed factions were officially incorporated into Iraq’s newly formed “Popular Mobilization” forces (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi) as the country rallied paramilitary auxiliary units to beat back ISIL. But this Iran-linked subset self-identifies not only as part of the Popular Mobilization but also as “Resistance” factions (fasail al-Muqawama) — champions of an anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist cause, and part of a regionwide coalition marshalled by Iran. They are often called, reductively, Iranian “proxies.” But these groups have their own personalities and interests, even if they make common cause and often coordinate their actions with Iranian officials.
The United States and Iran’s regional conflict previously reached a crisis point in December and January, when the United States retaliated for another deadly rocket attack with airstrikes against Kataib Hizbullah in both Iraq and Syria. After Iraqi mourners at a memorial for the group’s fighters, and other supporters of Iran-backed factions, stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the United States reacted in shocking fashion by killing Soleimani and Muhandis in a drone strike as the two men left Baghdad International Airport.
This stunning escalation raised fears of all-out regional war, as the United States and Iran traded threats. Iran responded on Jan. 8 by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. and coalition forces. Thanks to some advance warning and a healthy dose of luck, no U.S. servicemembers were killed in the missile strikes, although more than 100 were later diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries sustained in the attack. The Iranian response was presented by Washington as an effectively de-escalatory, face-saving move. Iranian Foreign Minister Jayad Zarif announced that its defensive response had “concluded,” saying, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” Fears of a wider regional war dissipated.
But those missile strikes only represented Iran’s direct, overt retaliation. It then reoriented strategically toward expelling the United States from the region. Nor did the strikes necessarily provide satisfaction for Iran’s local allies, who have their own agency and scores to settle.
Amid the shock over Soleimani’s death, it went underappreciated that the United States also killed Muhandis, who was both deputy head of the Popular Mobilization and one of these Resistance factions’ most influential leaders. Because of how Iran has assembled its security exoskeleton regionally, it has Iraqi paramilitary allies who are evidently able and motivated to respond to the U.S. killing of both Muhandis and Soleimani — with or without Iranian prodding.
After Muhandis and Soleimani’s deaths, these factions initially promised to exercise restraint as Iraq’s politicians attempted to secure a U.S. exit from the country through political means. But as those political efforts stalled, attacks ticked back up again, pushing the expulsion of foreign forces back to the top of the country’s agenda.
The Anti-American Turn in Iraqi Politics
The U.S. killing of Soleimani and Muhandis reshuffled Iraqi politics, allowing Iran-friendly factions to take up the rhetoric of resistance to foreign “occupation” and make newly energetic efforts to require the United States to leave the country.
On Jan. 5, a narrow majority of Iraq’s parliament voted to mandate the Iraqi government to “end the presence of foreign forces” in the country. The parliamentary resolution — while officially nonbinding — nonetheless lent legislative cover to Prime Minister Adel Abdulmahdi to tell the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad that he intended to implement the resolution, and to ask Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to develop a mechanism for the departure of U.S. forces. Washington rebuffed him, announcing it was not interested in discussing withdrawal.
How much weight Abdulmahdi’s request carries is up for debate, coming as it did from a caretaker prime minister — Abdulmahdi resigned in late 2019 but has remained in the role pending a confirmed successor — based on a nonbinding parliamentary resolution. Nonetheless, the combination of the resolution and the prime minister’s request shifted Iraq’s political discourse, recentering the country’s political debate on the legitimacy of the U.S. presence as part of the counter-ISIL campaign. Previous attempts by parties friendly to Iran to legislate the United States out of Iraq had failed. It was the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis that allowed them to muster the political support and parliamentary votes for such a move and to enlist Shi’ite blocs that had previously endorsed the necessity of a coalition presence — despite disagreement even among the parties that voted for the resolution over which forces should leave and how.
Iran-aligned armed factions have used the parliamentary vote to emphasize not only the illegitimacy of the U.S. presence but also the correspondingly legitimate right to resist U.S. “occupation.” They have praised the most recent attacks, but also avoided claiming responsibility themselves. This has created enough ambiguity for them to portray the attacks as acts of organic popular resistance, while additionally protecting their own stake in Iraqi politics.
The clumsy retaliation for these attacks, moreover, has undermined America’s political standing in Iraq and stirred opposition to the United States among Iraqis who are not “resistance” ideologues, but who do not want their country to be the scene for bloody U.S.-Iranian score-settling.
Iraqi security officials told us in a phone interview in the past several weeks that the United States gave Iraqi security agencies some advance notification before its retaliatory strikes but has otherwise executed them unilaterally, undermining Iraqi officials’ trust in a U.S. administration they see as acting less like a partner and more like an occupying force. That trust was eroded further when, they say, the March 12 U.S. bombings killed Iraqi security personnel and an Iraqi civilian. Those strikes prompted condemnation from even Iraqis friendly to Washington, lending more energy to the push for U.S. forces to leave the country. Iraqi President Barham Salih, who is considered sympathetic to the U.S. presence, condemned the “foreign bombing” and resultant loss of Iraqi life, calling it “a violation of national sovereignty.” In its statement after the March 14 rocket attack on Camp Taji, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said that unilateral U.S. action “does not limit these acts. Rather, it fuels them, weakens the capability of the Iraqi state, and leaves further losses among Iraqis and others, all of which demands the speedy implementation of Parliament’s resolution on withdrawal.”
Unilateral U.S. retaliation thus burns goodwill even among Iraqis inclined to support an American role in the country.
Disastrous Impacts for Iraq and U.S.-Iraqi Ties
Continuing tensions between the United States, Iran, and Iran’s Iraqi allies — and the resulting intermittent spasms of violence — have already had a deeply negative impact on Iraq and on the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. If this goes on, it will further destabilize the country and could rally more Iraqis against the United States.
This conflict has exacerbated the domestic political crisis with which Iraq has been grappling since October 2019, when mass youth protests broke out nationwide. Prime Minister Abdulmahdi yielded to popular pressure and resigned in November. But Iraq’s politicians have since failed to form a new government, a task complicated by domestic division over the U.S. presence. It was already difficult to find a suitable candidate for the premiership who would be acceptable to both the political establishment and the activist street. The U.S. killing of Soleimani and Muhandis led Iran-friendly parties and paramilitaries to harden their rejection of the U.S. troop presence in the country, further polarizing the country’s political blocs between proponents and opponents of a continued U.S. role. The result has been deadlock.
That political polarization has also taken on a sectarian dimension, undoing some of the progress Iraq has made since the campaign to defeat ISIL began in 2014. Among the salutary effects of that otherwise terrible, costly war was a marked reduction in the sectarian political polarization that had originally helped empower ISIL, which insinuated itself as a Sunni mass mobilization against “Shi’ite Baghdad.” More recently, Iraqis had formed cross-sectarian political coalitions and increasingly forged personal links across communal lines. Yet as Iraqi politicians have divided again into U.S.- and Iran-aligned camps, they have also split along ethno-sectarian lines. The Iraqi parliamentary resolution calling for the expulsion of foreign forces passed with most Shi’ite lawmakers’ votes, while most Sunni and Kurdish representatives avoided the session. For their part, Kurdish and Sunni factions have stepped up their engagement with the United States, as they have seen the escalating tensions empower Iran’s allies in Iraq’s intra-Shi’ite politics. Without the United States, they worry those Iran-aligned parties’ rhetoric will prevail in Shi’ite politics, and on the Iraqi national scene. This realignment in Iraq’s parliament along ethnic and sectarian lines has persisted as the country’s parties have jousted over the nomination of a prime minister.
The result has been a political vacuum, in which paramilitaries can continue to attack U.S. and foreign forces with near-impunity as they simultaneously push for a prime ministerial candidate friendly to their interests.
Iraq needs a government, particularly as plummeting oil prices impoverish its oil-dependent state and the spread of coronavirus both threatens Iraqi lives and further paralyzes the country’s economy. But additionally, without an Iraqi government interlocutor, the United States and its coalition partners cannot negotiate a revised agreement that would provide legal cover and mitigate Iraqi political resistance to the coalition presence in the country. Coalition members had hoped to devise some new formula or reconfiguration of foreign forces in Iraq that would de-emphasize the U.S. role symbolically and push to the fore less controversial coalition member countries. If the heightened tension continues, though, this will be far more difficult. Moreover, that tension immobilizes even coalition partners that might otherwise facilitate Iraqi government formation or engage Iran-friendly political parties and paramilitary factions to discuss de-escalation. Recent attacks on coalition forces may instead encourage these countries to withdraw their servicemembers from the country. Coalition members including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain have all announced that they will withdraw troops from Iraq, mainly citing coronavirus risk and a related pause in the training of Iraqi forces, but against the backdrop of continued tensions and rocket attacks.
Tensions Benefit the Islamic State
This escalation between the United States, Iran, and its local friends has already compromised joint efforts to combat what remains of ISIL — the reason U.S. and coalition forces are in Iraq to start with. The jihadist organization continues to wage its insurgency in Iraq as small, autonomous guerrilla units, operating from Iraq’s most rugged and forbidding terrain, including mountains and expanses of open desert. From these areas, ISIL militants can terrorize outlying rural communities. This insurgent-friendly terrain cannot be properly “held” by Iraqi forces. To maintain effective pressure on ISIL militants in these rural safe havens, the Iraqis have thus relied on assistance from the U.S.-led coalition, which has provided Iraqi forces with key technical capabilities such as air support, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. This is in addition to the training and advice the coalition also contributes, which is important over the longer term if Iraq is to achieve self-sufficiency.
Tension since January has hamstrung cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi security forces, leaving Iraqis to pursue ISIL with reduced coalition assistance, to seemingly diminished effect. By at least some accounts, ISIL has taken advantage by more aggressively targeting Iraqi forces and intimidating civilians in rural areas.
If attacks on coalition forces escalate and Iraqi pressure for a U.S. exit grows to the point that the United States has to leave, nearly all coalition members — which depend on American logistics and political heft — are likely to leave with it. The United States contributes the majority of coalition troops in Iraq and the enabling capabilities that are most vital to the counter-ISIL fight; there is no clear substitute. The exit of coalition forces and the loss of coalition support seem like the most direct way to relieve pressure on ISIL remnants, allowing them to qualitatively escalate their insurgency, and to expand numerically and geographically. Steps underway to consolidate U.S. troops in fewer, more easily defensible bases already may compromise U.S. forces’ contribution to Iraqi counter-ISIL efforts.
If the United States is forced out of Iraq in an ugly, contentious fashion, it could poison the bilateral relationship. The Trump administration may decide that Iraq has fallen entirely under Iran’s sway and decline to renew existing waivers that exempt Iraq from sanctions on Iran — on which Iraq relies for electricity generation — or even levy threatened new sanctions on Iraq itself, crippling the country’s already hard-hit economy just as it struggles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
A U.S. exit would also disrupt Iraqi politics, as Iraqi forces friendly to Iran could find themselves in a position to dictate the government’s personnel and policy. Even a worsened ISIL insurgency would likely only enhance these forces’ influence. As Iran-linked paramilitaries return to the fore in the battle against the jihadist group, their centrality to national security would translate into enhanced political leverage. At the local level, these factions will not be able to rely on the same technologically sophisticated, precise tools — such as precision airstrikes and the detailed intelligence that makes them possible — the American-led coalition has used to combat ISIL. If they instead resort to blunter, less discriminate means to fight ISIL in mostly Sunni areas, it could come at a terrible human cost and re-open deep societal rifts.
Recapturing the Strategic Initiative
The United States ought to recognize that the current escalatory dynamic in Iraq is, for America, a losing one.
With its retaliatory airstrikes, the United States has opted for hard military means to protect its troops and deter Iran-linked factions’ provocations. It has not succeeded. The groups perpetrating the attacks have not been deterred. What’s more, each ill-considered attempt to do so risks repeating what happened with the March 12 strikes, killing uninvolved Iraqis and mobilizing more Iraqis against a continued American presence. The United States faces a dilemma: It needs to protect its troops, and it is hard to allow these attacks to pass without some rejoinder. Yet knee-jerk U.S. responses uncoordinated with Iraqi partners — which are ostensibly meant to make American personnel safer — risk making Iraq more hostile and dangerous, and potentially untenable for U.S. forces.
All of this is a distraction from why the United States purportedly is in Iraq. The United States continues to maintain that its forces are there to support Iraqis’ own counter-ISIL efforts, not to wage war on Iran and its “proxies.” The United States needs to safeguard its personnel. But by letting itself be baited into repeated retaliatory strikes, the U.S. military is allowing self-defense and force protection to consume its original mission. U.S. forces participating in back-and-forth violence with Iraqi factions — at times at the expense of Iraqi bystanders, civilian, and military — and that are not effectively enabling counter-ISIL efforts are a net negative for Iraqi security. They are making Iraq less safe, not more.
Even in terms of the Trump administration’s professed aim of countering Iran’s regional influence, this tit-for-tat escalation is not working. Its swift retaliatory strikes are meant to convey American strength and determination. In reality, they mostly demonstrate how Washington has ceded the initiative to its Iran-linked adversaries, who can dictate the timing and circumstances of America’s next reaction. Each U.S. misstep only plays into their hands, further undermining American influence in the country and increasing the likelihood of a total U.S. exit.
This dynamic is two-sided, of course, but the armed factions demanding a U.S. exit have little reason to stop it. The asymmetric campaign paramilitaries are waging is low cost and sustainable. And for them, violence is working — they now seem on their way to dramatically reducing U.S. influence in Iraq, tilting Iraqi politics toward their agenda, and, if they run the United States out of the country entirely, scoring a major strategic victory regionally.
If anyone is going to break this retaliatory cycle, then, it has to be the United States. But it cannot be done by doubling down on threats and reflexive deterrent responses. Nor can the United States realistically expect the Iraqi security forces to confront these paramilitary factions, risking wide-open civil conflict. Instead, America’s best chance is to exercise restraint, consult with its Iraqi partners, and provide an opportunity for the formation of a new Iraqi government.
With a new government in place, the United States and its coalition partners could negotiate a new agreement on the deployment of foreign forces in the country that reasserts Iraqi authority and supervision; reduces the U.S. footprint in Iraq, even if only symbolically; and ensures countries other than the United States are the face of the coalition effort to support Iraq. An agreement of this kind would both solidify the legitimate legal basis for coalition forces’ presence and undercut the argument of those denouncing the U.S. presence as a foreign occupation violating Iraqi sovereignty. If the controversy over the legitimacy of foreign forces’ presence can be dialed down, political and popular forces that advocate more balanced relationships with both the United States and Iran should be in a stronger position to reassert themselves. Washington will also be freer to partner with Baghdad on initiatives that could win lasting Iraqi goodwill for the United States, such as support for the country’s coronavirus response.
This broader political shift could also constrain anti-American paramilitaries, which would be defying the country’s government and laws if they continued armed “resistance” against U.S. and foreign forces. These factions are not wholly immune to Iraqi politics; they have an ideology and an agenda, but they also must take into account Iraqi public opinion.
It may be a long shot. Still, this could be the United States’ best hope to remain in the country under relatively stable conditions, both to continue a counter-ISIL fight that is an important U.S. priority and to balance Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics. De-escalation in Iraq is a U.S. interest — it can help create conditions for the formation of a new government and for putting U.S.-Iraqi relations on more solid footing. That is what would represent a genuine strategic victory, albeit not a victory won on the battlefield.
Maria Fantappie is special adviser for the Middle East and North Africa with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Follow Maria on Twitter: @MariaFantappie.
Sam Heller is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Non-State Armed Groups, as part of the organization’s work on Jihad in Modern Conflict. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.
Image: Mehr News Agency