As chaos and violence consume Iraq, US keeps focus on deterring Iran

The Trump administration’s realism is well suited to the crisis in Iraq, with a clear red line on keeping out Iranian missiles.

al-monitor A protester holds an Iraqi flag amid a cloud of smoke from burning tires during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq, Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani.

Topics covered

ballistic missiles, protests, najaf, adel abdul mahdi, iran-iraq relations, us-iraqi relations

Dec 6, 2019

In Iraqi councils about the next prime minister, Iran is in the room and the United States is not even in the building.

“We have a policy of not meddling in government formation,” a senior State Department official said this week.

The Donald Trump administration’s realism is actually well suited to the crisis. Recent waves of protests against both Iraq’s ruling class and heavy-handed Iranian influence have led to more than 400 killed, with thousands more injured and arrested. Today there were reports of excessive violence and executions by armed groups in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation Nov. 30 is hardly the final chapter. Things seem to be getting worse, not better; the Iraqi state itself is buckling. The US can't do much to affect political change, but it can keep the focus on deterring Iran from expanding its military presence in Iraq so that it does not threaten US allies and interests in the region, and accelerate a further breakdown of fragile Iraqi institutions.

 

The race for reform

The Iraqi government’s stock is in free fall with ordinary Iraqis and Abdul Mahdi’s resignation is not going to save it. President Barham Salih and others are working overtime, in consultation with the United Nations, to enact a new electoral law and reform package, to allow elections that will end the game of musical chairs among the old political guard.  

But this requires some consent from the protesters, who have as yet no organization or leaders who could work with Salih and others to find common ground. This needs to happen soon. Otherwise, the Iraqi default will likely be more violence and possible state collapse, with Iran taking advantage.

The political economy of conflict

Salih — in both a speech at the UN General Assembly and an interview with Al-Monitor in September, just a week before the protests broke out — labeled corruption as the "political economy of conflict."

Anti-corruption, and anti-Iran (see below), are central planks of the Iraqi protests. The Trump administration has jumped on board, saying it will hold accountable those Iraqi officials implicated in both the killing of civilians and corruption. Today, the US Treasury Department announced that it was sanctioning three Iraqi leaders from Iranian-backed militias for killing protesters. Joey Hood, US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified this week before a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee that the United States is ready to employ “designations under the Global Magnitsky Act, to sanction corrupt individuals who are stealing the public wealth of the Iraqi people and those killing and wounding peaceful protesters.”

Meanwhile, US counts on Sistani to counter Iran

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said Dec. 2 that the "foremost consideration" of Iraqi leaders "should be meeting the needs of the Iraqi people and rejecting … the distorting influence Iran has exerted on the political process."

In order to counter Iran’s machinations, the United States is counting in part on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite clerical authority, with whom it has no direct contact.

Sistani said Dec. 6 that while he will not be involved in the selection of the next prime minister of Iraq, there should be no foreign meddling in these deliberations. "Foreign meddling" is mostly code for Iran, as well as the United States and regional actors. Sistani remains the key arbiter of Iraqi politics. He knows that his ability to maintain unmatched influence is in part due to keeping clean hands on the politicking in Baghdad. Sistani has backed the protesters and criticized the use of force against demonstrators.

Sistani has gotten ahead of his political rivals, including populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who still commands a large following, but has lost credibility due to his earlier support for the Iraqi government and his frequent travels to Iran. Sadr was noticeably in Iran this week. He may be positioning himself as the nationalist dealmaker, but events are out ahead of him.

AFP reports that Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Quds Force, and Mohammad Kawtharani, a key leader in Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, are involved in talks with Iraqi politicians about the next prime minister. So much for no foreign meddling. 

As Sistani defends his turf in Najaf

The Iraqi battleground is not just in Baghdad, but in Najaf, where chaos is taking over the streets, as Ali Mamouri explains. Najaf is the Vatican of Shiite Islam, and Sistani is like the pope. Najaf’s streets are teeming with demonstrators and armed militias, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), some loyal to Sistani, and some to his rivals. Protesters torched Iranian consulates in Najaf and Karbala again this week, as Shelly Kittleson reports, as well as the shrine of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, one of the top four religious authorities in the country; Ammar al-Hakim is leader of the Hikma bloc, one of the top political parties. 

During the attack on the shrine, Mamouri reports, Hakim’s office contacted both Abdul Mahdi and Soleimani to ask for help. “The request was declined,” Mamouri writes. “They were told that the situation is out of control and the government did not want to get involved."

“A source in the Najaf local police told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that interrogations with the arrestees indicate that the attackers belong to Shiite religious sects like Yamani, Sarkhi and Mowlayia, who oppose the religious authorities and see them as a part of the religious-political corruption in the country." Mamouri continues. "Some of them even call for assassinating Sistani."

"Al-Monitor learned from a source with ties to Muhammad Said's office that during the attack against Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the office contacted the Iraqi caretaker prime minister and the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who has been in Baghdad since Abdul Mahdi's resignation, for help to disperse the attackers.

"The request was declined and they were told that the situation is out of control and the government did not want to get involved."

Students take risks amid chaos 

Despite the proliferation of masked armed gangs of unclear affiliation, Mustafa Saadoun reports that university and seminary students throughout Iraq are taking risks to keep the protests up.

Participation has not been limited to university students in the protesting provinces, as students from universities in Kirkuk, Ninevah, Salahuddin and Anbar joined the protests in mid-November. Civil society activists and students from Anbar told Al-Monitor that the University of Anbar took risks with its solidarity protest, after having received vague threats from security authorities not to take to the streets in support of the protest wave.

Despite the tight measures of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to forbid students from partaking in the protests, they stood their ground to maintain the momentum, and they risked their educational future. The ministry had announced that it would “take attendance records of students in lectures and departments to free the ministry and educational institutions of responsibility toward what could happen to students during the protests.”

Deterrence as top priority

For Iran, desperate times may mean desperate actions. The New York Times reported this week that Iran has been moving ballistic missiles into Iraq that could hit Israel or other targets in the regon. Iran may be upping the ante to test American resolve.

Informed speculation over the summer was that Israel bombed PMU bases in Iraq linked to the IRGC. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time, “I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere.” Ben Caspit explained that from Israel’s perspective, “Israel is determined to prevent Iran from 'shortening the range' of these missiles while leaving a minimal footprint. Another objective is to prevent the paving of a land-based smuggling corridor along which tiebreaking missiles and weapons can be transported from Iran to Hezbollah’s armories in Beirut.”

The Trump administration is expanding its military presence in the region in response to increased perceptions of this Iranian threat, as Jack Detsch reports.

And rightly so. As Hood said in his testimony, the United States remains a "steadfast partner" in battling the Islamic State (IS), in providing humanitarian and other support, and in taking a stand against corruption and those implicated in killing protesters. 

But most important is sending a signal to Iran that expansion of its ballistic missile capabilities is a red line it should not cross. Iraq can’t "reform" if it is a battlefield involving Iran, Israel and a possible resurgent IS. Iraq’s institutions are fragile, if not on life support, and a failed state would be a disaster.

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