Iraq blows up in America’s face

Regional affairs: Iran is using Baghdad to threaten the region, and it may be too late to do anything about it

A PROTESTER holds a burning placard with an illustration of US President Donald Trump outside the US Embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday.  (photo credit: KHALID AL MOUSILY / REUTERS)
A PROTESTER holds a burning placard with an illustration of US President Donald Trump outside the US Embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday.
The US policy in Iraq for more than 10 years has been to ignore the reality on the ground in the hopes that a reliable Iraq will emerge that will fit into the image Washington has for the future of Baghdad.
This blew up in Washington’s face in the last days of December, as the United States finally responded to rocket fire by pro-Iranian militias and the militias attacked the US Embassy. Now both the US and Israel see the problem for what it is in Iraq: Iran is using Iraq to threaten the region. But it may be too late to do much.
The US entered Iraq in 2003 under the impression that the country could be easily transformed. Remove the dictator and the society will embrace democracy. It would become a new American ally in a region that was filled with toxic anti-Americanism.
But the US didn’t understand the dynamics of Iraq. A country that is majority Shi’ite with many thousands of experienced fighters closely linked to Iran, and besides that divided between Kurds and Sunni Arabs. The Sunni Arabs were the former rulers of Iraq, if they were linked to Saddam. They had one of the most successful countries in the region in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They had waged a brutal war against Iran and thought they came out successful – so successful that Saddam not only gassed the Kurds and Iranians but then invaded Kuwait and threatened Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saddam positioned himself as running the Middle East, albeit briefly.
Throughout the 1990s Iraq declined precipitously, with many suffering under sanctions, and frequently clashing with US no-fly zones. But even in a weakened state, the brutal apparatus of Saddam’s rule crushed the Shi’ites in the south. In the north a nascent Kurdish autonomous region came into being.
It was this Iraq that the US found itself in control of in 2003. For a generation of Americans, Iraq was both the hope of a new American century and America’s failure to transform the world in its image. Iraq was a harbinger of worse to come: rising authoritarianism, religious extremism and ethnic and tribal politics.
The US thought Iraq would be like Japan in 1946. But instead it swallowed up the Americans the way Russia in the 1990s showed that Western democratic imperialism, the extension of Western values by finance and force, has shot its bolt. In short, Iraqis quickly turned on the US, and two insurgencies grew.
One was a Shi’ite Iranian-backed campaign to evict the Americans. The men who led this, like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Kataib Hezbollah, had earned their spurs in the 1980s, attacking US diplomatic posts in Kuwait and admiring the role of Hezbollah and Iran’s agents who blew up the US Embassy in Beirut and kidnapped the CIA station chief. These were tough, hard men who were willing to wait decades to remove the US from the Middle East. They also understood that America doesn’t play by their rules.
America did confront the Iranian-backed groups but only in spurts and drabs. It detained Qais Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq. But it didn’t take down Muhandis or Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization. Instead, Amiri got an invitation to Washington when he was transport minister. American naivete guided a policy that believed that these men – who were either agents, proxies or allies of Iran – could be made into responsible rulers of Iraq.
The US paid lip service to the theory that Iraq should become a “strong, prosperous, independent, unified, sovereign” country. This was the State Department mumbo jumbo that is used to paper over the reality of places like Iraq and Lebanon.
The more Iran moved into Iraq, the more the US talked about Iraq as a unified country. The US wanted to sideline the Kurdistan region, the one successful and pro-American part of Iraq, to work with the Iranians in Baghdad. Under the myth that the pro-Iran camp in Iraq would moderate if the US played nice, Tehran knew all it had to do was wait and the US would leave.
The US did leave. It left behind an Iraq that was riven by disputes and clashes. With the Sunni jihadist insurgency mostly defeated in the surge, the US wrapped things up. By this time Iran saw Iraq as its “near abroad,” an area that had to be weakened and controlled. Eventually, the heavy-handed policies of the pro-Iran prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Obama administration had supported, blew up Iraq. ISIS took over most of the Sunni Arab cities in 2014, and Iraq’s hollowed-out army collapsed.
The result was the return of US troops on a very narrow mission of fighting ISIS. For a short period the US found itself fighting alongside the same Shi’ite militias that had once fought the US. Khazali, Muhandis and others were in charge of the war effort, along with Amiri and a new paramilitary force called the Popular Mobilization Units.
When the war on ISIS turned and Iraq began to win again, the Iranians saw that they could finally achieve in Iraq what they failed to do in Lebanon. They would create an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iraq, using the PMU, and then traffic weapons to Syria and Hezbollah via Iraq to fight Israel. The PMU established its own armories and bases.
Iran had one slight problem. The Kurdistan region was a pro-American area linked economically to Turkey. It wanted more independence. Baghdad and Iran, using the excuse of a Kurdish referendum to punish the region, attacked Kirkuk in 2017 and pushed the Kurds out of one of their important cities. This harmed the Kurdistan region and empowered the PMU. The US looked on, once again hoping that a “strong” Iraq would emerge, not an Iranian colony.
By 2018 things had changed for the worse. The PMU’s leader Amiri ran the second-largest party in the country. The prime minister was weak. Ballistic missiles were being trafficked from Iran to Syria via Iraq. The PMU controlled the border crossing with Syria.
In the summer of 2019, airstrikes, which Iraq blamed on Israel, were carried out in Iraq against PMU-linked munitions facilities. The pro-Iran groups like Muhandis and his Kataib Hezbollah carried out 12 rocket attacks on US bases from May to December and even fired rockets near the US Embassy and into Saudi Arabia, according to reports.
The US threatened to respond, and on December 29 the US killed almost two dozen Kataib Hezbollah members in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Unlike Israel, which conducts precision strikes designed to kill very few, the US sent a message.
Iran then sent a message in return. Baghdad opened the security gates around the Green Zone, and pro-Iran protesters marched in and put up flags around the US Embassy compound. This was designed not to kill Americans but to humiliate and show that if the militias want, they could take over the embassy. The US responded with a show of force. But that force is temporary. Iran has sent a message: Iraq is ours. They’ve also sent that message by using the same militias that targeted America to kill 500 Iraqis and wound 19,000.
FOR THE US, Israel and other countries concerned by Iraq being handed over to the IRGC and Iran, there may not be a way forward. Iraq has enshrined the militias as part of the armed forces.
Iraq still has Sunni minorities and a Kurdish region. Those areas will never be completely dominated by the militias. But the Kurdish region is not a historic enemy of Iran. On the contrary, Iran is one of the only countries in the region that has not committed genocide against Kurds or tried to pretend they don’t exist. Iran respected Kurds in a way that Arab nationalists and Turkish nationalism has not. Therefore the Kurdish region, the one area in Iraq that is welcoming to the US, also has amicable relations with Tehran. The Kurdish region does not want the militias coming north, but it can deal with Turkey and Iran and the US. That’s okay news for Washington, which tends to spurn Kurdish voices anyway.
But on the larger issues, of Iranian weapons trafficking and influence peddling, the Iraqi ship has largely sailed. Some protests won’t reverse the entrenchment. Men with guns, such as the PMU, will determine Iraq’s future, and the country will remain divided and economically tied to Iran and Turkey, rather than to the Gulf or Jordan.