US warns Iraq on Iranian-backed militias

This US warning has raised serious concerns in Iraq, particularly among Shia political and militia leaders, most of whom condemned such attacks.

Iranian-backed militias stand on a tank close to the Syria-Iraq border (photo credit: ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS)
Iranian-backed militias stand on a tank close to the Syria-Iraq border
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraqi President Barham Salih on September 21 that continued attacks on US interests in the Green Zone by Shia militias would lead Washington to close its embassy and fully withdraw US military forces from Iraq. Pompeo emphasized that the US would not tolerate being targeted by Shia militias, particularly Iranian-backed ones. The same message was again delivered to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on September 26.
This US warning has raised serious concerns in Iraq, particularly among Shia political and militia leaders, most of whom condemned such attacks. The Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi Al-Amiri, who has a strong link to Iran, issued a statement condemning attacks on the US Embassy and on foreign diplomats in Iraq, and asked the government to provide protection. The Fatah Alliance stressed that such attacks undermine Iraqi sovereignty and would pose serious consequences for Iraq.
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who despite his strong anti-US sentiments, condemned such a attacks by arguing that targeting diplomatic missions are detrimental to Iraq’s reputation. He also demanded the Iraqi authorities announce who was behind any such attacks. However, the Iranian-backed groups Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq rejected the US threat by saying, “Your threats will return to you, and we will rub you and your soldiers in the dirt.”
The Iraqi authorities are concerned that US closure of its embassy and withdrawal of its troops from Iraq would cause serious repercussions for Iraq’s future. Ahmed Mullah Talal, a spokesman for Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, argued that closure of the US Embassy would undermine the Iraqi government’s position, and asked the US to reconsider its decision. To reverse the course and control the situation, Iraqi authorities have attempted to convince the US and other states to stay in Baghdad and support the government. In order to this, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein visited Tehran, where he met with Iranian senior officials. Hussein pressured Iranian authorities to rein in the militias carrying out the attacks.
Moreover, in an urgent meeting, Iraqi leaders stressed that “the acts of outlaw groups acting against the country’s security are a serious threat to Iraq’s security and stability” and emphasized the need for the monopolization of arms by the state and the prevention of the targeting of diplomatic missions. They demanded that the US and the international community support Iraqi efforts to reinforce the authority of the state. On September 30, Al-Kadhimi, in a meeting with 25 foreign ambassadors, pledged to protect foreign diplomats and confront outlaw militia groups.
The US warning to the Iraqi authorities could be interpreted differently. First, a possible calculation is that President Donald Trump does not want to show any weakness in front of his rivals due to the upcoming election in November. Therefore, the US warning to close the US Embassy is to prevent a Benghazi-style scenario, in which the US ambassador was killed and which negatively affected Hilary Clinton’s position in the election. 
More importantly, the Trump administration may have concerns that Iran is planning to siege the US Embassy in Baghdad to damage its election campaign, as Iran did in 1979 to undermine Jimmy Carter’s position in the 1980 elections. Furthermore, the Trump administration has genuine concerns that as US presidential elections are approaching, the Iranian-backed militias will intensify their attacks against US bases and facilities in Iraq. In particular, on September 30, Shia militias launched as many as six rockets at the Kurdistan region near Erbil International Airport and the coalition forces’ base.
The other possibility for such a warning is to pressure Baghdad into confronting Iranian-backed militias. Since the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in January, the militias have continuously targeted US positions, facilities and interests in Iraq, which has led the US to evacuate eight military bases and reposition its troops in Erbil and at the Ayn al-Asad Air Base, which is protected by air defense systems.
Beyond the US-election calculations, Iran and its proxies are working hard to undermine the government of Al-Kadhimi, whom they supported in early May. Iranian allies supported Al-Kadhimi for four key reasons. 
First, they wanted to confront and end demonstrations in Iraq. In particular, Iranian and Shia militias saw the demonstrations as a key threat to their positions and interests in Iraq. 
Second, they believe that Al-Kadhimi’s only objective is to hold early elections in Iraq. 
Third, they expected that the new government would have taken a step forward in expelling US forces from Iraq, according to an Iraqi Parliament resolution. 
And fourth, Iran and its allies think that Al-Kadhimi is in a weak political position that prevents him from pursuing anything that might threaten their interests, or taking any step against Shia militias.
However, Al-Kadhimi’s efforts to undermine the position of Iranian proxies, his attempt to re-balance Iraqi foreign relations with regional states, and his efforts to enhance its relations with the US, have significantly changed Iran’s and its allies’ policy toward the new government. The Iranian proxies in Iraq now consider Al-Kadhimi a key threat to their interests. In particular, the new government is attempting to build strong political and economic relations with the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, among others. It is also planning to import gas and electricity from these states at the expense of Iranian interests, which has angered Iranian and Shia factions.
Moreover, the strategic dialogues that were held in June and August between the US and Iraq, and that resulted in the signing of many political, economic and cultural agreements without demanding that the US withdraw its troops from Iraq, has further raised alarm among both Iran’s and its allies’ leaders. Most importantly, the new government’s policies – which include stressing the protection of the sovereignty of Iraq, its efforts in bringing Shia militias under the control of the Iraqi state, and the deployment of national forces to the Iraqi borders that were controlled by Iranian proxies – have all pushed them to strongly confront Al-Kadhimi’s government.
The key risk here is that despite the US stressing its support for the Al-Kadhimi government, a US withdrawal from Iraq under the pressure of Iran and its allies or any other circumstance would create huge negative consequences for Iraq’s future, and even for US interests. Economically, the US could impose the toughest sanctions yet on Iraq and prevent it from accessing its revenue from oil sales. The US could also end the waiver that granted Iraq the right to import gas and electricity from Iran. In addition, under US pressure, the World Bank might decline to provide financial support to Iraq. That would very likely lead to the collapse of the Iraqi government.
A withdrawal of US troops would also almost certainly lead to the collapse of the Iraqi security forces, allowing Iranian-backed Shia militias to dominate the country. ISIS would re-emerge, and instability and ethnic-sectarian conflicts would spread across Iraq. More importantly, a US withdrawal would create political vacuums in Iraq that would almost certainly be filled by Iran and its allies. All these developments would undermine the US and its allies’ position and interests, and would significantly change the regional balance of power in favor of Iran.
The writer holds a PhD in politics and international relations from Leicester University. He currently works as a lecturer at the Salahaddin University-Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has published a variety of academic articles on US foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics and Kurdish issues.