A Moment of Truth for U.S.-Iraq Relations
Today, the United States and Iraq will launch a strategic dialogue to discuss the future of their bilateral relationship. For Washington, the priority should be determining whether Iraq’s government remains a viable partner worthy of continued U.S. support.
Answering that question affirmatively has become decidedly more difficult in recent months. Last October, large-scale protests erupted in Iraq against the country’s post-2003 governing class. The bill of indictment included massive corruption, th e failure to deliver basic services, and the systematic subversion of Iraq’s independence by sectarian militias beholden to Iran.
The government responded with shocking brutality, conducting a months-long crackdown. With Iran-backed militias playing a leading role, over 500 young Iraqis were killed and thousands more injured.
Having Iraq's government engage in widespread repression against its own citizens was problematic enough for the United States. Making matters infinitely worse was Baghdad's abject passivity in the face of a simultaneous campaign of violence by Iranian proxies that targeted U.S. troops supporting Iraq's efforts to combat the Islamic State or ISIS. Between May 2019 and April 2020, Iraqi militias launched more than 40 rocket attacks against American personnel, resulting in the death of one U.S. contractor, two servicemen, and a British soldier.
Repeated pleas for the government to act against the attacks went largely unheeded. No condemnations. No one held to account. No preventative measures taken. By contrast, when U.S. forces finally took matters into their own hands in late December by retaliating against the group responsible for the contractor’s death, the government lost no time lambasting the United States for violating Iraqi sovereignty.
The situation escalated days later when government security forces stood aside and allowed thousands of militiamen to stage a violent protest at the gates of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, penetrating its outer perimeter and burning entry posts. Happily egging the mob on were a handful of Iraq’s most powerful officials, all deeply linked to Tehran.
President Trump responded by ordering a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport that killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Soleimani, and Iraq’s most influential militia commander, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandes. Pro-Iran elements in Iraq’s parliament quickly forced through a non-binding resolution demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops. On January 8, Iran fired a volley of ballistic missiles at two bases hosting American forces, luckily killing no one but leaving more than a hundred suffering from concussive brain injuries. For a moment, Iraq appeared on the cusp of becoming the central battleground in a much larger U.S.-Iran conflagration.
While the worst was narrowly avoided, the situation remains precarious. Through the early spring, the rocket attacks against U.S. positions persisted. A recent lull seems largely attributable to the coronavirus crisis and its devastating economic effects, not just on Iraq but on an Iranian economy already ravaged by U.S. sanctions. Coping with the enormous loss of Soleimani and Muhandes, the masterminds of the anti-American offensive also appears to have set the Iranian axis on its back foot—at least temporarily.
A more positive development was last month’s confirmation of Mustafa Kadhimi as Iraq’s new prime minister, ending five months of political paralysis triggered by the forced resignation of his predecessor at the hands of the protesters. The head of Iraqi intelligence since 2016, Kadhimi spent the bulk of his career as a journalist and human rights activist. He got high marks from his U.S. counterparts in the fight against ISIS. While maintaining cordial relations with Iran, few doubt that Kadhimi’s personal sympathies lie far more with the West than with Iraq’s eastern neighbor.
The U.S. has a deep interest in working with Kadhimi to avoid Iraq’s economic implosion and keep ISIS at bay. But it will be extremely difficult to do unless Kadhimi takes concrete steps to stem the precipitous deterioration in U.S.-Iraq relations of the past year and reassure Washington that it still has a willing partner in Baghdad--one more committed to bolstering Iraqi sovereignty and democracy than genuflecting to the interests of Iran.
That doesn’t mean asking Kadhimi to do the impossible. No one expects him to sever relations with Iran or declare war on its proxies tomorrow. But it does mean demanding that he take action against rogue militias when they brazenly attack U.S. personnel that are in Iraq at the government’s invitation. It does mean ending the large-scale repression of peaceful protesters.
Absent those minimum signs of a reinvigorated partnership, it will be increasingly hard for a war-weary America, consumed with multiple domestic crises of its own, to justify the continued commitment of troops and treasure to Iraq—no matter how well intentioned its prime minister. That’s the bottom line that the Trump administration needs to convey during this week’s strategic dialogue.
John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.