The appointment of the new Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, could have significant implications for the country’s relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has heavily meddled in Iraq’s affairs post-2003. Kadhimi was serving as the director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service when President Barham Salih appointed him to the post of prime minister on April 9. During his directorship, Kadhimi oversaw much of the battle against the Islamic State (IS), and his agency played a key role in the hunt for the extremist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a US Special Operations Forces raid in the northwest Syrian village of Barisha, in Idlib province, on October 26, 2019.
Kadhimi was a prominent opposition figure during Saddam Hussein’s rule and has worked as a writer and journalist at a time when any dissent was suppressed. His career has strengthened his position as a committed Iraqi nationalist. While Kadhimi has not been directly affiliated with any party, he has been linked with various Shia Islamist groups connected to Iran. As The New Arab points out, “He has also demonstrated a Shia Islamist slant himself through his publications, including books on Shia imams and an Islamic outlook on how to address Iraq’s political issues.”
Kadhimi’s program is certainly ambitious and emphasizes his willingness to substantially limit Iranian influence in Iraq. For instance, concerning the development and reform of security institutions, a key aspect is that the prime minister, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, will be in control of the National Intelligence Service, the National Security Agency, the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). This objective is particularly significant considering Iran’s extensive influence on the PMF. Bringing all armed groups and militias under the control of the prime minister is something the marjaiyah, the Shia religious leadership, has repeatedly called for. Furthermore, the program focuses on preventing Iraq from being a battleground between regional and international forces.
Also, the three core aspects that will guide the government’s stance on foreign relations are sovereignty, balance and cooperation. In a country racked by years of brutal dictatorship, war, civil war and in dire need of external support, the achievement of these objectives will be challenging.
Kadhimi is also focusing on the demands of the recent countrywide protests, promising to fulfill them and protect the freedom of expression and the right to protest. For instance, concerning the right to protest and empowering the youth, the program refers to peaceful protest as a “fundamental democratic practice” and proposes the creation of a council that will “advise the government on the development of mechanisms and regulations to protect the right to peaceful protest.” Solving the disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government was also among the issues Kadhimi mentioned in his program.
Considering the increasingly complex security environment, the new prime minister must also recognize the vital importance of US military support in countering Iran’s assertive influence in Iraq. In addition, the US-Iraq relationship is long overdue a reset, and the strategic dialogue between Washington and Baghdad that took place in early June signaled a good starting point. There are plans to discuss further collaboration in more detail at a Strategic Dialogue Higher Coordination Committee meeting in Washington, DC, most likely later this month.
A Turning Tide
A popular uprising has racked Iraq since October 2019. Iran’s meddling was on full display during the campaign of terror against peaceful protests, during which around 420 were killed and some 17,000 injured in Baghdad and the Shia-dominated south of Iraq. But not even a brutal crackdown managed to quell the uprising, which persisted until COVID-19 quieted the streets. The protesters were predominantly Shia who vehemently objected to Iran’s meddling in their country’s politics. To show the bitter resentment that they felt toward Iran, in November 2019, some slapped their shoes against banners of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force who was killed in a US drone strike in January this year, also received his fair share of insults from the demonstrators.
The demonstrations led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and, for the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, put a Shia nationalist at the center of Iraq’s political landscape. Although a Shia traditionally occupies the post of prime minister, Kadhimi, at least for now, seems truly committed to the interests of Iraq and its people. This is a departure from Abdul Mahdi’s stance, which has been influenced by Tehran in suppressing the anti-government protests that demanded a sovereign state free from Iranian interference. Significantly, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia authority in the country, expressed his support for the protests. Kadhimi takes the reins following directly from these events, and, as a result, the new prime minister may see a clear way to limit Iran’s influence in the country.
Iranian-backed Iraqi militias such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, among others, operate outside the Iraqi state’s jurisdiction. They are part of the PMF, a parallel military organization with a budget of $2.16 billion and 135,000 armed fighters that has been a key element in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) plans to exert influence in Iraq and throughout the wider region. Previous Iraqi administrations tried, but ultimately failed, to limit the influence of these armed militias. Haider al-Abadi, who served as Iraq’s prime minister from 2014 to 2018, sought to bring the militias under state control and to limit their political ambitions. He demanded that the militias make their spending transparent and separate their military and political wings.
But in the end, Iranian-backed politicians outmaneuvered Abadi and backed his much friendlier replacement, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who became prime minister in October 2018. Abdul Mahdi increased the PMF’s budget by 20% in 2019 and enabled Iranian-backed militias to expand their presence in strategic regions, including along the Iraqi-Syrian border, across which they have moved almost freely. Kadhimi has indicated that he has plans to end this state of affairs and has taken bold actions to curtail powerful Iranian-backed groups.
A turning point has been the recent raid carried out by the CTS against Kataib Hezbollah in the suburbs of Baghdad. The attack certainly aimed at increasing Iraqi’s government credibility and legitimacy at a time when the country is facing terrific challenges. Kadhimi strongly needs public support to counter the pro-Iranian factions among the militias as well as in the council of representatives and other critical government institutions. Thus, he must continue with such strong actions in order to keep momentum and gain public trust. Recent developments in Iraq and in the wider region suggest that the new prime minister has a better opportunity than his predecessors to curb the militias’ power and, by extension, Iran’s influence.
Al-Sistani’s role is particularly important when it comes to this new direction of the Iraqi government. Back in 2014, IS wrested vast swaths of Iraqi territory from the Baghdad government, and the ayatollah issued a fatwa calling on all able men to take up arms and join the fight under the state’s security institutions. Instead, militias aligned with Iran took the opportunity to create the PMF.
Al-Sistani is now actively seeking to strip these militias of their religious legitimacy. Under the supervision of one of the cleric’s close confidants, four Shia paramilitary factions affiliated with al-Sistani — the Abbas Combat Division, the Imam Ali Combat Division, the Ali Akbar Brigade and the Ansar al-Marja’iya Brigade — defected from the PMF in April and expressed their intention to help others do the same. By giving his affiliated factions the nod to secede from the PMF, al-Sistani is effectively withdrawing his endorsement from the factions that remain loyal to the IRGC — a snub that could seriously damage the religious legitimacy of the Iranian-backed factions.
Those factions were already reeling from the US airstrike that killed Soleimani alongside the PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The two charismatic commanders were instrumental in consolidating Iran’s influence in Iraq and in unifying the country’s Shia factions. Their loss has left a void that Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s successor, has not been able to fill. As a result, Iraq’s pro-Iranian factions occupy their weakest position in years — just in time for the new prime minister to begin bringing the militias under state control.
US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue
US support is vital to improving Iraq’s national security. This may sound absurd considering that the US invasion of 2003 created the preconditions for the current crisis and increased Iran’s assertive influence in Iraq. Indeed, Iranian forces and proxies filled the void left by the United States following the withdrawal of the majority of American combat troops in 2011. The Trump administration has proposed to launch a strategic dialogue with Baghdad in June, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aiming to reset the relationship under the rubric of the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA).
The US-Iraq relationship requires a strategic revision. If the 2003-11 occupation was the first phase of relations between the two countries and the post-2014 effort to defeat IS was the second, then the third phase is starting now. Although the Islamic State is not yet defeated, an accumulation of complicating factors has been pushing the relationship toward this new phase, as shown most clearly when more than 100 Iraqi parliamentarians called for the eviction of the US-led military coalition in January.
Drivers for this shift include, first of all, US-Iran brinkmanship. The war against IS has always had a subtext of competition between the coalition and the Iran-backed militias that contribute most of the combat power to Iraq’s PMF. The militias have sought to use the war and its aftermath to cement their hold over the political, business and security sectors. Some of them have also acted on their desire to drive US forces out of Iraq by attacking and killing foreign personnel, resulting in retaliatory US strikes such as the brazen assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis. These developments have created a volatile dynamic in which Iraq’s government is failing to protect its diplomatic and military guests, and the United States is being drawn into an open-ended series of strikes that are unlikely to deter or destroy Iran-backed militias.
Second, the evolution of the counter-IS mission plays an important role. After IS lost its last bit of territory in Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019, the coalition began looking ahead to a late 2020 review that would have coincided with the mission’s sixth anniversary. Today, the combination of escalating militia attacks in Iraq and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this planned restructuring. Almost all non-American trainers left Iraq in May 2020, while the United States has moved most of its forces away from frontline bases and consolidated them into four hubs: Baghdad International Airport, al-Asad Air Base on the Syrian border, the Kurdistan Region and the training center at Taji. Many of the programmed budgetary assumptions for security cooperation in the fiscal year 2021 will no longer apply under these conditions. Yet the fight against IS must endure in some form lest the movement leads another resurgence.
Finally, there are potential aid complications. Due to the ongoing global pandemic and other factors, Iraq will likely suffer severe public health and economic crises in the coming year, including tens of thousands of deaths and a collapse of household incomes. This would typically be a cue for Washington to ramp up aid delivery and coordinate global economic support packages. Today, however, the whole world is going through the same crisis, much of the Middle East is feeling the pinch of the Saudi-Russian oil price war, and the United States happens to be months away from a presidential election. Thus, although Baghdad has never needed American support more than it currently does, Washington has never faced a more challenging environment in which to rally additional US and international aid.
Making the Strategic Dialogue Work
When US and Iraqi leaders gather under the rubric of the SFA later this year, their first priority should be an honest airing of grievances. This should then give way to the recognition of mutual interests as well as areas where the two countries can agree to disagree. For almost the entirety of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s tenure, Washington and other international supporters have lacked an active, clear-eyed partner in Iraq’s top office. In contrast, with Kadhimi as prime minister, US officials could rest assured that any concerns he expressed to them would be coming from a well-respected Iraqi nationalist framing them with an eye squarely on his own country’s sovereign interests, not Iran’s.
The United States has signaled in the past that any SFA with Iraq would be a package deal, meaning Baghdad cannot cherry-pick aid benefits while taking (or tolerating) actions that undermine US strategic interests. Although not explicitly transactional, the relationship has to be one of mutual give and take, not simply a one-way flow of aid to Iraq for no observable benefit. To reinforce this message with Iraqi officials, Washington should lay out its most fundamental, reasonable expectations.
First of all, protecting American personnel should be a priority. Under Abdul Mahdi, the Iraqi government has demonstrated an unpardonable failure to safeguard not only forward-deployed US military advisers but also the American Embassy in Baghdad. The latter failure is particularly galling when government forces have been perfectly willing to kill scores (if not hundreds) of young Iraqis just to keep the Iranian Embassy safe during months of protests against Tehran’s interference. This situation has to change: Baghdad must order its forces to take action against any armed factions that attack its international guests. Second comes protecting the US currency. Despite a widening slate of sanctions, US dollars are still being diverted to Iran or to US-designated terrorist groups, including Iraqi actors. Baghdad must continue doing its utmost to prevent such diversions.
Finally, US security assistance must be kept away from bad actors. US weapons, training and logistical sustainment are provided to Iraq under strict conditions regulated by US law, including provisions that exclude those guilty of human rights abuses or association with the Iranian government. If Washington is to move forward with the programmed FY 2021 Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund, then Iraq’s new government must take many corrective actions to put security cooperation on a firm footing. These include intensified “Leahy vetting” of commanders, exclusion of US-sanctioned figures from security roles, the renewal of US advisory efforts with the Tribal Mobilization Forces, and explicit Iraqi protection of coalition-trained commanders.
Baghdad will no doubt have ground rules and reasonable expectations of its own, which the United States should observe. For one, unless US forces are attacked inside Iraq, they should not target Iranian operatives and Iran-backed militias there. And absent evidence of Iraqi sanctions violations, Washington should commit to reextending its waivers in continual 120-day tranches. Likewise, it should keep shielding Iraqi sovereign reserves from international lawsuits and avoid further threats to freeze these funds. Finally, US officials should do everything they can to ensure Iraq gets its fair share of international relief or even more, considering the remarkable vulnerability of its public health and economic systems, whose stability holds major implications for wider regional security.
A commonsense strategic dialogue under a respectable “Iraq First” prime minister can restore a degree of normality and decorum to the bilateral relationship. Baghdad will sorely need this kind of reset in the coming months when the full local impact of the COVID-19 pandemic becomes clear, the oil crash forces it to enact its deepest economic austerity measures since 2003, and the Islamic State steps up its efforts to exploit the chaos.
The Saudi leadership says it is ready to work with Baghdad’s new government and strengthen the two countries’ “historic ties” to ensure the region’s security and prevent external interference. This is even more true considering that Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a four-decades-long rivalry that unraveled culture, religion and collective memory in the Middle East. “We express our support and willingness to work with the new Iraqi government on the basis of cooperation, mutual respect, historical ties and common interests on the basis of strengthening our relations,” read a statement by the kingdom’s Foreign Ministry. The statement went on to wish Kadhimi success in leading the government and “achieving the aspirations of the Iraqi people regarding their sovereignty, security, and stability.”
Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq were restored in 2015 after Riyadh reopened its embassy in Baghdad following a 25-year break. The countries have been at loggerheads since the Iraqi invasion and subsequent occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91. However, during the last few years, Riyadh has been wooing Baghdad as part of an effort to stem Iran’s growing regional influence, while Iraq is seeking economic benefits from closer ties with the kingdom.
The UAE congratulated Kadhimi and expressed its “keenness to widen cooperation and widen relations with Iraq across all fronts,” according to a statement by UAE state news agency. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, said he “hopes the new cabinet would lead Iraq to more stability and prosperity as well as ensure the country’s national sovereignty, while meeting the expectations of the Iraqi people.” In recent years, the UAE set its sight on strengthening relations with Iraq to offset Iran’s ability to dictate Baghdad’s internal policies.
To expect Iran’s influence to vanish from Iraq overnight would be naive. Iran will always be Iraq’s neighbor, and the two countries have deep links that neither Washington nor any Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state can cut. That said, the circumstances under which Mustafa al-Kadhimi begins his tenure could lead to some restraint on the part of Iran while possibly affording Saudi Arabia and others in the GCC with opportunities to gain some greater leverage in Iraqi affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.