Stuck in the middle: Iraq and the enduring conflict between United States and Iran

Iraqi people gather during a funeral procession for militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed by U.S. air strike at Baghdad airport, in Basra, Iraq, January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

When the United States killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3, it also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a powerful Iraqi militia leader. The move critically destabilized U.S.-Iraq relations.

Last weekend’s rocket attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which injured one person, and the 200,000-strong demonstration demanding the departure of U.S. military forces from Iraq, led by the anti-U.S. cleric-politician Muqtada al-Sadr, are merely some of the manifestations of this severe destabilization. Although the United States and Iran managed to avoid an escalation to full-blown war — which would be very costly for both sides — a wide set of U.S. interests in Iraq has been seriously undermined, likely in a long-term way.

The context

At a moment of intense crisis earlier this month, both the United States and Iran pulled back. Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile strikes against two U.S. bases in Iraq on January 8 did not result in any U.S. or Iraqi casualties. That was not incidental, likely owing much to U.S. advance intelligence and preparedness, and to Iran’s choices. The retaliation allowed the Iranian leadership to demonstrate resolve domestically following Soleimani’s death. It also allowed Tehran a level of control over the results of the strike that could not have been assured if it relegated the reprisal attack to pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.

In turn, President Trump avowed to double down on economic sanctions on Iran, but indicated a desire to deescalate and did not take any further military action. In repeating his hope for a new deal with Iran, Trump essentially embraced a desire to return to the pre-Christmas status quo ante. With its economic pressure on Iran, that status quo ante is deeply threatening to Iran, but lacks the dangers of open warfare. Two weeks later, though, he rejected Iran’s overture for new negotiations.

However, shadow warfare between Washington and Tehran is likely to persist for multiple reasons: The economic pressure on Iran, while unlikely to topple the Iranian regime, is sufficiently destabilizing for Iran to resort to provocation as a bargaining strategy. And inevitably, Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, will need to prove his mettle to multiple audiences, including rivals in the Quds Force and other parts of Iranian power structure, as well as Iran’s proxy militias abroad. For a considerable period to come, Qaani will likely feel compelled to outperform Soleimani — including perhaps in terms of American bloodshed.

Nor does the United States have any credible record that its killing of high-value targets produces less bloodshed and moderation on the part of the terrorist or criminal organization it is trying to coerce. The U.S. killing of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour only enabled the rise of the much more bloodthirsty Sirajuddin Haqqani to the top of the Taliban’s leadership and failed to cause any meaningful fragmentation or weakening of the Taliban. The Taliban’s military activity in Afghanistan has been stronger ever since, and the group’s cohesion has held. In Mexico, the U.S.-supported killing and arrests of top cartel leaders only brought forth more vicious and aggressive narco-juniors, and “shoot-then-think” (or “just-shoot”) lieutenants, badly worsening the high insecurity in the country.

Thus, the back-and-forth escalation with Iran has accomplished little to no significant improvements for the United States.

The high costs to U.S.-Iraq relations

Not only is the shadow war between Iran and the United States going to go on, much of it will play out in Iraq. The decision to kill Soleimani in Iraq and the collateral death of Muhandis significantly weakened U.S. relations with Iraq. Killing Soleimani anywhere would have been a highly provocative step by the United States, but killing him in Iraq, along with Muhandis — as opposed to in Syria, alone, for example — upped the ante.

Like Soleimani, Muhandis was a thug, the leader of one of Iraq’s most vicious, abusive militias: Kataib Hezbollah, a group deeply implicated in sectarian rampages, war crimes against other Iraqis, drug smuggling, extortion of Iraqis and other mafia rackets, weapons smuggling, and the killing of many Americans. Muhandis was a highly pro-Iranian Iraqi, and did much of Soleimani’s bidding in Iraq.

Although ostensibly merely the deputy of the umbrella group of the Iraqi militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), he was in fact the most powerful leader of the group and simultaneously the most powerful leader of the pro-Iranian segment of the PMF. The PMF are not just street militias. Although some of them engaged in all manner of illicit economic activities, political repression, and extortion, the PMF are also formally part of the Iraqi security services, where they have obtained legal protection and collect state resources — infiltrating, permeating, hollowing out, undermining, and constituting the Iraqi state all at once.

Muhandis was not just a street thug, he was indeed a top-level Iraqi security official.

Consequently, Muhandis was not just a street thug, he was indeed a top-level Iraqi security official. In other words, in killing him, the United States killed a high-level Iraqi official, albeit one whom the United States had designated as an international terrorist. And it did so on Iraqi soil, despite repeated promises not to use the U.S. post-2014 presence in Iraq for such actions.

In addition to the pro-Iranian militias, the PMF is comprised of other groups as well. This includes the so-called shrine Shia militia groups pledging allegiance to Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as well Sunni and ethnic militia groups. The non-Shia groups have resented the yoke of the pro-Iranian PMF on top, and the very popular and severed shrine militias have kept their distance from Iran. They have not allowed themselves to be used in Iran’s proxy warfare and are much less politically and economically ambitious than the pro-Iran segment of the PMF. But although the marjayia, the powerful Shia clergy that guides the shrine militias, has not called for the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq, it indicated its displeasure at the killings by welcoming the bodies of Muhandis and Soleimani in Najaf, conveying to Shia followers its rejection of U.S. action. The marjayia has a been crucial counterbalance to Iran and a force of restraint and moderation in Iraq. Though it is not a pro-U.S. force, the Shia leadership’s hostility in Iraq toward the United States would critically weaken the sustainability of a U.S. presence in the country.

Inevitably, the Iraqi government had to act against the U.S. military presence in Iraq: After encouragement from Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abul Mahdi, Iraq’s parliament — with strong pro-Iran political factions underpinned by street militias — voted that U.S. military forces must leave Iraqi territory. The United States has dismissed the resolution as non-binding and has refused to honor it. The parliament did not have a proper quorum, as Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians abstained from voting. They want to keep the United States in Iraq and fear the rise of sectarian violence and their marginalization by powerful pro-Iran Shia groups in America’s absence.

In response, Washington threatened Iraq’s poor economy with crippling sanctions, which would cause even more unemployment, poverty, misery, lack of services, and political and social instability. The U.S. military in Iraq has also restarted its joint operations with Iraqi security forces which, after the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani, it had suspended to maximize U.S. force protection. But despite the U.S. attitude and Mahdi’s softening of his stance since, the image of U.S. forces in Iraq as an occupying force — rather than as an ally helping to combat the weakened, but not eliminated, Islamic State — has been fanned.

U.S. interests and operations at stake

Without a U.S. military presence in Iraq, U.S. counterterrorism interests there and throughout the Middle East will be jeopardized. Although not eliminated, the U.S. ability to gather intelligence and project influence would be weakened. Yes, the United States operates an array of intelligence networks in Iraq, some of which would persist. However, the 2011 departure of the U.S. military from Iraq led to large defections of those assets, as well as Iraqi intelligence service members to Iran. If the U.S. position in Iraq deteriorated to the point where the United States military, including special operation forces, would also have to abandon its military bases in the autonomous Kurdistan — a situation that is hardly imminent — the United States would not be able to support its military presence in Syria. Iran would have achieved its long-term objective: getting the United States out of the region.

Significantly, at least for some pro-Iranian PMF militias, it is now an open season on the U.S. military and contractors in Iraq, though others have called for calm. Even worse, if essential trust between U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts proves damaged, a rise of insider attacks à la Afghanistan would cripple U.S. effectiveness, even if it hangs on militarily.

No doubt, the recent anti-U.S. march was not simply about getting U.S. forces out of Iraq. Local politics are complicated: Although Sadr called for the march, he has highly antagonistic relations with some of the pro-Iranian PMF groups that provided the march with logistical and financial support, and is competing with them over Muhandis’ succession. By demonstrating his street power and earning political capital out of portraying the U.S. as an occupying force, Sadr has sought to strengthen his bargaining position with other Iraqi politicians over the appointment of the next prime minister, as well as with the PMF over the replacement of Muhandis. Beyond domestic politics, he has sought to improve his complex and fraught relationship with Tehran.

In addition to playing into Sadr’s hands, the United States has weakened the position of many Iraqi technocrats, many of whom embrace democracy and institution-building and reject Iranian domination of the country. But they fully understand that Iraq is not in a position to pick the United States over Iran — economically, politically, or otherwise. Maintaining a careful balancing of the two and avoiding having Iraq turned into a proxy killing field is the best they can hope for. With the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, the United States made it much harder.