Iraq at the Crossroads – Fundamentalism, Militia Rule, and the Future of US Presence

The withdrawal from Afghanistan, announced by Donald Trump and ultimately finalized under President Biden, heralds a seismic shift in US policy towards the Middle East; a reduced focus on state-building and regime maintenance, and a general scaling back of defensive commitments. After Afghanistan, Iraq constitutes the second major testament to Bush-era interventionism; as such, it is prone to be swept up in Washington’s drive to finally resolve the troubled legacy of the War on Terror. In 2020, the Trump administration called the future of American presence in Iraq into question. I

n response to escalating attacks on US personnel enacted by pro-Iranian militias, President Trump floated the possibility of closing the American embassy in Baghdad and terminating support for the Iraqi government. The Biden administration formalized these mounting sentiments, committing to end US combat support to the Iraqi security forces by the end of 2021. The change in Washington’s objectives vis-à-vis the Middle East opens up questions concerning the likelihood of a prospective US withdrawal, and the potential future of America’s presence in Iraq. In this regard, any potential predictions are inherently linked to Iraq’s domestic landscape, characterized by low levels of social trust, economic distress, intensifying militia activity, and conflicting sentiments with respect to the future foreign policy orientation of the country. America’s waning commitment to regime change means that the Biden administration will likely swiftly exit Iraq country as soon as it overstays its welcome. Ultimately, the future of Iraq will be decided on the streets of Baghdad, not in the marble halls of D.C.

Fragmentation, Sectarian Conflict, and the Decay of Iraq’s Post-Saddam Institutions

The fractured Iraqi government faces down a strong popular protest movement, which combines opposition to the corruption and political violence endemic in the current administration with a vocal rejection of Iranian influence. In May of 2020, popular pressures managed to effect a change in leadership within the sitting administration, manifest in the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as head of government.

However, al-Kadhimi’s ascension to the prime-ministerial seat failed to bring about the expected radical change. Despite his commitment to justice and accountability, the new PM failed to track down and punish the government troops and pro-Iranian militia members responsible for the widespread extra-judicial killings of demonstrators. Al-Kadhimi’s attempts at fulfilling the demands of the protest movement were repeatedly shot down by the parliament, producing a political impasse that fuels further popular resentment and weakens faith in the capacities of Iraq’s post-Saddam institutional structures. This dynamic is further exacerbated by Iraq’s lasting economic difficulties. The Coronavirus pandemic, coupled with fluctuating oil prices, plunged the country deep into recession. The limited fiscal space, owed to past budgetary woes, compromises the government’s capacity for relief. As such, the end of the present crisis is nowhere in sight, with the unemployment rate still overshadowing pre-pandemic figures by more than ten percentage points.

The snap elections scheduled for October 10 of 2021 promise to translate some of the anti-government sentiments into lasting reforms, resolving the present electoral deadlock, and potentially lending al-Kadhimi the parliamentary support necessary to enforce his agenda. However, the prospective impact of the elections is undercut by the general lack of popular faith in the democratic process. Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric and warlord, previously publicly denounced the scheduled polls as illegitimate. Although al-Sadr has since backtracked on this statement, likely in reaction to the rising likelihood of his movement’s decisive electoral victory, his condemnation of the democratic process suggests a clear commitment to translating popular resentment into armed opposition. This signals a shift in the way Iraq’s dominant powerbrokers perceive elections; as mere instruments of legitimizing power rooted in military force and captured government offices. Al-Sadr, leaning heavily on his militias, promises a swift and decisive response to the sectarianism and backroom politicking characteristic of Baghdad’s ruling elites. In this regard, his meteoric rise is emblematic of the systemic transformation underpinning the disintegration of Iraq’s political system.

In wake of its 2003 invasion, the US established a new system of governance based on power-sharing quotas in an attempt to counter-balance and harmonize the particularized interests of Iraq’s diverse religious and ethnic groups. Since then, this framework evolved into an instrument of factionalist struggle, promoting corruption and self-serving office-hoarding. The Sadrist movement perfected this approach to accumulating political power, securing the office of secretary general and thus gaining control over administrative appointments. Al-Sadr’s loyalists constitute the strongest faction in Iraq’s parliament, opposed most significantly by Hadi al-Ameri’s pro-Iranian power bloc. Both of these groups are more akin to familial militias with extensive patronage networks, rather than genuine political parties; as such, their conflict mostly rages outside the bounds of parliament. On the surface, Kadhimi’s reign is rooted in broad-based support; indeed, both Al-Sadr, and Haider al-Abadi, former PM and the leader of Iraq’s third most powerful Shiite faction, have expressed support for the current administration.

However, Kadhimi’s rise to power does not mark the victory of inclusive, transparent governance. In many ways, the current prime minister’s role is to put a façade of legitimacy on the brutal factionalist struggle raging behind the scenes. Kadhimi’s ascension marked a considerable setback for the pro-Iranian faction, producing a power vacuum that was swiftly filled by al-Sadr’s appointees. The Sadrists now control a significant portion of sub-ministerial posts especially in vital economic sectors; for instance, the new governor of Iraq’s central bank has close ties to the movement. Although Kadhimi has denied all claims of a Sadrist takeover, economic data speaks a different language. Iraq’s most recent budget allocates a disproportionate number of resources towards Shia-dominated areas, with a clear preference towards the major strongholds of Sadrist support. In light of this, a prospective Sadrist electoral victory is set to consummate an ongoing, slow-moving coup, tacitly recognized by Iraq’s ruling elite.

The Iraqi Security Forces – Corruption and Combat Ineffectiveness

In the event of an armed confrontation with sectarian militias, the extent of US backing for Kadhimi’s government will ultimately hinge on the ability of the Iraqi military to operate with a sufficient degree of strategic and tactical autonomy in the absence of direct combat support. The Afghanistan withdrawal shows that the US is no longer committed to propping up regimes who are either unable or unwilling to fight for their own self-preservation. For all its foreign training and equipment, Iraq’s security forces have a profoundly disappointing combat record. In 2014, the ISF effectively disintegrated in wake of the ISIS assault, losing control of three of the country’s easternmost provinces. In the following years, the burden of halting the insurgent advance was largely shifted to local militias. ISIS successes forced the US to ramp up its presence in the region once again, backtracking on President Obama’s 2011 withdrawal. The total collapse of the Iraqi state was averted, but the ISIS onslaught still exposed the extent to which the survival of governmental security forces hinges on foreign support.

The collapse of the Iraqi military in 2014, mirrored in 2021 by the Afghan government forces in their fight against the Taliban, also bears important implications with regards to the significance of corruption as a direct threat to combat effectiveness. Permanent mobilization and bureaucratic bloat, manifest in the creation of duplicate organizations and administrative roles, has amplified the costs of maintaining the ISF while producing inroads for politically-motivated appointments and the entrenchment of factionalism. As long as the ISF serves only as an instrument of locking down revenues streams and fortifying political power, it remains a paper tiger, toothless in the face of rising militia influence. In this regard, transparency with regards to finance flows, troop numbers, and arms and provision issued emerges as an instrumental component in ensuring that the Iraqi government is able to field an independently-functioning and durable military force. As such, in the case of Iraq, national security and the construction of a stable and efficient institutional framework are tightly interconnected.

Safeguarding the Future of US Presence – The Foundations of a Reformist Coalition

The planned US transition towards an advisory role does not necessarily constitute a preparatory phase ahead of an imminent withdrawal. Indeed, the Biden administration can opt for an alternate trajectory, one that would, however, require a fundamental redefinition of its involvement with Iraq, characterized primarily by a renewed commitment towards state-building efforts. The Biden administration frames its continued presence in Iraq purely as a component of its counter-terrorism effort; as such, US commitment seem to be conditioned by the danger posed by insurgent groups, rather than by the status of the Iraqi government. In implicit terms, President Biden seems determined to terminate presence in the country immediately after dealing with immediate threats to US interests. Ensuring the prevalence of US influence thus demands a shift in priorities towards building a multi-layered network of institutional and parliamentary structures necessary to produce and sustain a base for reform. This does not necessarily mean abandoning anti-terrorism as the primary objective of US policy. The past decade has shown that sectarianism and the decline of centralized authority foster violent radicalism. Therefore, the containment of militia influence through an inclusive, transparent, and militarily efficient Iraqi state emerges as the most viable path towards preventing an ISIS resurgence.

In this regard, the US will necessarily have to lean on those segments of Iraqi society untainted by anti-American sentiments. Within the context of the current administration, this approach entails the adoption of a more aggressively interventionist strategy to financial support, propping up the Iraqi air force or the nation’s counter-terrorist services, which as of yet remain free of militia meddling.

However, US presence can only attain durability through a shift in Iraq’s political direction, an effort in which the US seems woefully short on allies. Washington’s past approach was characterized by a strong top-down focus, promoting specific prime ministerial candidates on the basis of their alignment with US interests and their commitment to upholding Iraq’s post-Saddam democratic institutions. The limitations of this strategy are exposed by Kadhimi’s rule; the current prime minister, though nominally sympathetic to D.C., is left with his hands tied by a hostile parliament and a silent takeover within the lower branches of government. As such, it becomes clear that in order to secure the future of its influence, the US must cast a wider net, building an electoral bloc capable of keeping in check both the Iranian proxies, and the Sadrist movement. In this regard, the fragmentation observable among Shiite sectarians opens up opportunities for the success of an inclusive, pro-democratic, and pro-Western coalition.

The Kurds, perhaps America’s closest allies in the fight against ISIS, also constitute its key partners in any prospective reform effort. In 2017, the collapse of central governance coupled with the successful pro-independence referendum amplified calls for Kurdish independence; since then, the Iraqi administration, backed by other regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, dashed all hopes of autonomy with the threat of violent repression. The ill-fated independence referendum has weakened but not erased Kurdish influence in Iraqi politics. Indeed, Kurdistan’s President Nechirvan Barzani acted as mediator in the negotiations spurred by the 2019 protests, aiding the ascension of PM Kadhimi. Barzani’s intervention highlighted the stabilizing role of Kurdish representatives, who operate somewhat independently of the sectarian fissures splitting the Baghdad political landscape. The Kurds, who stood on the frontlines of the fight against ISIS, have a vested interest in maintaining an Iraqi government that is consolidated enough to prevent further eruptions of fundamentalist insurgence, but not too powerful as to push for Erbil’s tighter integration with Baghdad. This duality, coupled with mounting anti-democratic currents within KRG itself, potentially weaken the value of the Kurds as strategic allies. In this regard, it is necessary to note that relationship to the Kurds offers unique opportunities for the application of financial leverage. Given that the US directly covers the payrolls of around 30,000 KRG troops, it can exploit the threat of withdrawn support as means of forcing Kurdish leadership to renew its waning commitment to democracy and pursue a more pro-active role in Baghdad politics as kingmakers and agents of US interests.

However, it is necessary to note that ethnic Kurds hold mere 58 seats in Iraq’s 329-member parliament; Kurdish MPs constitute a vital strategic asset, but their power to shape policy remains limited. The key towards a more securely pro-US administration lies in galvanizing Iraq’s Sunni minority. For the most part, Sunni extremism has been blunted by the brutal rule of the ISIS, and the ultimate dismantling of the Caliphate as a consolidated territorial entity. Simultaneously, the Sunnis have a lot to lose under the rule of Shiite sectarians, be they embodied by al-Sadr, or his pro-Iranian opponents. A US-backed Sunni-Kurdish alliance propping up Kadhimi’s government might succeed in producing the electoral basis necessary to ensure a pro-democratic, pro-American bend within the Iraqi administration. However, the sparsity of US presence on the ground is set to hamstring any prospective attempt at political intervention. Simultaneously, association with America is increasingly seen as stigmatizing, with opposition to US influence absorbed into the general wave of popular resentment targeted against foreign involvement. Furthermore, if Kadhimi were to secure a victory in the October elections and gain a firmer parliamentary foothold, it is unlikely that his opponents would simply acquiesce to the result. The likely outcome would be an escalation of militia activity, and an increasingly brazen drive for violent takeover. Under these conditions, Kadhimi would be forced to either condone a conflict between the Sadrist movement and the Iranian proxies, and recognize the victor’s claim to power, or risk direct confrontation between the militias and the Iraqi security forces. Given the poor combat record of the ISF, coupled with the extent to which it has been penetrated by insurgent influence, the outcome of such a clash seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Diversification as a Path Towards Diplomatic Autonomy in the Absence of US Presence

The prospective collapse of pro-US forces within Iraq does not necessarily signal the strengthening of Iranian influence. Indeed, the establishment of an autonomous, nationally-oriented diplomatic agenda, free of foreign meddling, emerges as a prime animating force among Iraq’s disgruntled public. Baghdad is increasingly diversifying the scope of its regional commitments. Iraq is taking steps to repair its relationships with Gulf states and the Saudi kingdom, with Kadhimi signalling his openness to prospective Arab investors. In 2020, Kadhimi was planned to embark on a dual visit to Teheran and Riyadh; although the second stage of the journey was ultimately cancelled due to the ill health of the Saudi king, the move heralded Kadhimi’s ambition to position Iraq as a diplomatic bridgehead, counterbalancing Arab and Iranian interests while retaining ultimate independence. This new direction has been affirmed by the August summit in Baghdad, which saw Iraqi representatives acting as mediators and facilitating contact between the delegations from Iran and the Gulf States.  Under a Sadrist hegemony, the undercurrent of Shiite fundamentalism characteristic of the militia movement is bound to produce a tighter convergence between Teheran and Baghdad.

However, al-Sadr’s program still reflects the key priorities of Kadhimi’s policy, with national sovereignty cast as his primary diplomatic objective. Indeed, al-Sadr has visited Saudi Arabia in the past and signalled his commitments to pursuing rapprochement with the peninsular kingdom, suggesting that his vocal denouncement of Iranian involvement goes beyond empty promises.

In the event that Kadhimi and other pro-US factions within the Iraqi administration suffer an electoral or military defeat, an Iraq that is unified and committed to carving out its own diplomatic path independently – if not separately – from Iran is perhaps the best outcome the Biden administration could hope for. The loss of a stable foothold in Iraqi politics does undoubtedly constitute a devastating blow for US presence in the Middle East; however, it will likely not precipitate far-reaching humanitarian fallout or a direct strengthening of US rivals. As such, a retreat from Iraq in the face of an emerging Sadrist hegemony is unlikely to produce a level of domestic blowback comparable to the Afghan withdrawal. Al-Sadr’s prospective takeover of Iraq thus emerges as an eventuality that is simultaneously most likely within the context of Iraq’s internal power dynamics, and most permissible for the US from a foreign policy standpoint given its waning power projection stamina with regards to the Middle East.

Written by Matyáš Knol


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