A New Phase in the USA–Iran Conflict in Iraq

Developments in both domestic and international policies in Iraq, which seeks stability, order and security after four years of conflict with ISIS, keep tensions in the country constantly high. After the elections on 12 May 2018, the result of which were contested for a long time, Iraq entered 2019 with a new government. However, ministries within the government still have not been fully designated. Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was designated as the joint candidate of two different blocs formed by parties and lists which earned the right to enter the parliament after the election, presented his first cabinet to parliament on 25 October 2018 but could only get approval for 14 members out of 22 on the cabinet list. Afterwards, even though Adil Abdul-Mahdi received approval for five more ministries out of eight, no agreement was reached about the critical ministries such as internal affairs, defence and justice and in addition, Shaima al-Hayali, who was appointed as the Minister of Education, was forced to resign her duties on the account of her brother being a member of ISIS. With four ministries in the Iraq cabinet remaining empty, claims of Minister of Electricity Luay al-Khatteeb being a sectarian and firing Sunni employees and Minister of Communication Naim Rebibeinga former member of the Baath Party puts intense pressure on these ministries. This situation makes it even harder for Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who still has not been able to complete the cabinet. This is because, when Adil Abdul-Mahdi declared his government programme, he separated his four-year term of office into three periods and stated that the first 100 days of his short-term period spanning three to six months would be devoted to ministries establishing their grounds and creating working mechanisms. However, with the cabinet not being fully assembled, it has proven harder than initially thought to follow the government programme declared at the start of the new government process. Even though about four months have already passed since the government was founded, the government still cannot keep its feet on the ground and the debate on the budget makes things even more difficult for the government. Even though the 2019 budget was approved by the Iraqi Parliament, the fact that there is a fiscal deficit of USD 27.5 billion from the 2018 budget is a factor that keeps Abdul-Mahdi from moving quickly. The budget deficit may increase given the ups and downs of earnings from oil. On the other hand, there is also serious disagreement on the shares allocated to different provinces. The shares allocated for provinces such as Mosul, Anbar and Saladin which suffered the most damage under ISIS, are very low compared to other provinces.  Thus, this matter has become one of the biggest problems regarding the budget. In addition, the share that will be allocated to Basra, where even bigger incidents happened, and demonstrations continue from the summer due to reasons such as inadequate public services and unemployment has created another topic of discussion. In addition, security problems, such as ISIS increasing its activities in Iraq and the rise in assassination attempts against prominent members of society such as officers, bureaucrats and academics triggers discontent within the country.

While all these developments create a serious crisis environment within the country, the fact that the USA decided to withdraw its troops from Syria seems to have put a lot more pressure on Iraq. US president Donald Trump, who, out of nowhere declared his decision to withdraw from Syria, visited the Ayn El-Assad base in Iraq before the New Year and stated “If the US wanted to do something in Syria, we could use the base in Iraq”. Trump, in a later statement, said that they will keep American soldiers in Iraq in order to “observe Iran”, which piled pressure on Iraq and was perceived as a sign of the US-Iranian conflict to take place in Iraq once more. This also increased the pressure from groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq of al-Hashdi al-Shaabi for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers, including US forces. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq spokesperson Jawad Talabavi made a statement saying that the presence of US soldiers in Iraq is a breach of Iraq’s sovereignty, for this reason, necessary legal arrangements should be made in order to remove US soldiers from Iraq. Afterwards, of Saeroon Coalition, led by Muqtada El-Sadr, al-Fatah coalition led by Hadi Al-Amiri, who is known for being close to Iran and former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, prepared a proposal anticipating the removal of US and other foreign forces from the country. This may be one of the most difficult problems to trouble the Adil Abdul-Mahdi government in days to come. As a matter of fact, in previous days, during the weekly press conference, Adil Abdul-Mahdi felt the need to make a statement regarding the status of foreign soldiers in Iraq and said that the number of foreign soldiers in Iraq had decreased by 25 per cent. Adil Abdul-Mahdi, stating that an estimate of 11,000 foreign soldiers was present in Iraq in January 2018, said this number had decreased to an estimate of 8000 in December 2018 and 6000 of these are US soldiers. However, given the dates stated, it is understood that the numbers given by Adil Abdul-Mahdi are from before Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. It is known that the USA relocated some of the troops in Syria to bases in Iraq. In reality, the USA has no official bases in Iraq. According to an agreement signed in 2008 between the USA and Iraq, US soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq as of the end of 2011, however after the emergence of ISIS in 2014; US soldiers were once again deployed in Iraq as part of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS. There are 5 bases in Iraq operated by the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS.  Four of these bases (Ain al-Assad, Basmaya, Taji, Baghdad) are under USA’s military responsibility while the base in Erbil falls under the responsibility of the UK. However, apart from this, the USA has active military forces in Baghdad and Basra Airports and a Coast Guard Unit in Um Qasr. It is also known that US soldiers are located in bases in Qayara, Spyker, Dohuk and Sinjar. A new military base is being built near the USA Consulate General in Erbil that is under construction. After Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, it also confirmed by Iraqi sources that US soldiers moved into military bases in Keyvan (K1) and Baiji (K2). Moreover, there are reports and even images of US soldiers patrolling in the streets of many cities and establishing checkpoints. Finally, in a news report aired by Iraqi media, a video shows US soldiers going out in streets for patrols passing through al-Hashdi al-Shaabi checkpoint.

These developments have brought Iraq to the verge of another breaking point. Indicators that the USA, which was not able to produce the desired effect in Syria, could instead focus its efforts on Iraq, the central country of the Middle East, have become more and more obvious. The current situation may put more pressure on Iran. During the post-ISIS period, Iran, which, particularly through Shiite militia groups, acquired an important amount of power in both Iraq and the Middle East in general, has a more effective position compared to the USA regarding the government forming process in Iraq. It can be seen that Iraq has become a base of operations for Iran. Accordingly, it seems that the USA faces the risk of losing its influence on Iraq, in which it invested politically and militarily since 2003 and incurred significant costs. For this reason, the USA, looking for ways to increase its military presence in Iraq and in turn generate political influence, is trying to validate its presence in Iraq on the pretext of the war on terror by stating that they may conduct their operations against ISIS in Syria through Iraq. However, the USA already shows signs that it will use this military presence in order to contain Iran. Even though they were denied, some reports stated that the USA gave Adil Abdul-Mahdi a list of 67 Shiite militia organisations to be banned. Indeed, the presence of the said groups not only creates a big problem for the institutionalisation of the government and unconventional armament but also contain the dynamics of domestic and cross-border skirmishes. On the other hand, after Trump’s statement regarding conducting operations against ISIS through Iraq, the al-Hashdi al-Shaabi entered Syria from Iraq and conducted an operation of its own against ISIS, which in itself was a great challenge. In addition to this challenge, it is obvious that the law proposed in order to remove foreign soldiers from the country, which was prepared under the leadership of al-Fatah Coalition and the State-of-Law Coalition that are known for being close to Iran, primarily aims to remove the military presence of the USA. Muqtada El-Sadr also supporting the proposed law by Fatah Coalition and the State of Law Coalition stems both from the necessity of being the spokesperson for nationalist discourse and the desire to be involved in every process in Iraq. Sadr, by doing this, wishes prevent the political process from escaping his control. However, it would not be wrong to say that this proposal is a result of the conflict between the USA and Iran. For now, Iraq appears to be caught in the US-Iranian conflict. Iraqi President Barham Salih recently made a statement, saying that President Trump had asked for no permission regarding the mission of the US soldiers on “observing Iran” and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi stated that they will not accept their territory being used by any country to attack other countries. One of the highest religious authorities, Ayatollah Ali Sistani also made a statement saying that they refuse Iraqi land being used in activities that would harm neighbouring countries. Even though country names were not clearly mentioned in these statements, it is possible to say that messages were sent both to the USA and Iran. It is clear that Iraq does not want to be a party in the USA-Iran conflict and does not want to be the sandbox for this conflict. In addition, as the proposed law was prepared mainly under the leadership of organisations supported by Iran, it can be said that Iran wants to meet the USA before they enter their borders and this is a precaution being taken by Tehran. When the distribution of representatives is considered, it does not seem possible for the said proposal to be carried through the Iraqi Parliament. The Iraqi Parliament has 329 seats. In parliament, Saeroon has 54, Al-Fatah has 47 and State of Law coalition has 25 seats. For Saeroon, Fatah and State of Law coalition to carry the proposal into effect, they need a simple majority (165). When all representatives of the coalition are added together (126), the number of votes they have remains below the quorum for carrying the proposal into effect. For this reason, it is seen that this endeavour will not be successful before the attitude of other parties in the parliament become apparent. In this sense, it is obvious that the said endeavour will need outside support. Particularly, the opinions of Kurdish and Sunni groups remain unclear regarding the proposal and it can be said some of the Kurdish and Sunni groups see US military presence In Iraq as a point of balance against increasing Iranian and Shiite militia powers in the country and as such, will not support the proposal.

On the other hand, that fact if the proposal is approved, the presence of Coalition forces and NATO in the country will be open to discussion may affect the security of Iraq. Since the training of security forces continue in Iraq and the fact that Iraqi security forces have an imbalance in operational power, ability, troop numbers and structure, security risks in Iraq may increase. It may be said that during the military defeat of ISIS, without the air and intelligence support provided the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS under the leadership of the USA, Iraqi forces could not have achieved great success. Considering the separation between the al-Hashdi al-Shaabi and the Iraqi army during the fight against ISIS and the increasing activity of terrorist groups in Iraq, it is clear that Iraq has still not reached the potential to stand on its own feet.

Along with this, the USA continuing to increase its military presence in Iraq brings along the risk of conflict. This risk, when considered together with the instability of domestic politics in Iraq, may cause administrative, political and military power vacuums to emerge in the country. While the ruins of the war against ISIS still smoulder, this situation may pull Iraq into a new spiral of crises and this time the crises may not be limited to struggle against terrorism. When developments in the domestic policies of Iraq and the USA-Iran conflict are considered together, new developments which may lead to new terrorist organisations emerging, skirmishes between armed forces within the country, government crisis or even a regime change seem possible. For this reason, the only way out for Iraqi political parties seems to be to stay clear of any conflicts, adopt a manner which prioritises the institutionalisation of the state, keep its distance from being an instrument and produce its own policies. Otherwise, it is likely Iraq will continue to be a country mired in instability.