US-Iran Conflict and its Implications on Iraq
US-Iran tension has recently become the main topic of international politics. US President Donald Trump pointed out to this phenomenon during the election campaign before he became president. He did not express much of his views on foreign policy during the campaign but gave clear messages on three issues. These three issues can be enumerated as increasing pressure on Iran, further support for Israel and withdrawal of troops from Syria, and continuing and improving cooperation with Kurds, especially in Syria.
Iraqi politics is almost completely divided into two in the current situation. On the one hand, a number of axes emerged either closer to Iran or to the United States. This polarization is seen among all political groups, regardless of their ethnic or sectarian identities.
As a matter of fact, withdrawing from the nuclear agreement signed with Iran in May 2018 a year after taking office, Trump introduced economic sanctions against Iran, which have been in effect since August and October of the same year. However, the United States offered Iran a 12-point negotiating conditions to begin negotiations with Iran on nuclear issues. Although the conditions included items directly related to nuclear issues, they were mostly aimed at limiting Iran's regional influence. These included respect for Iraq's sovereignty and disarmament of Shiite militia groups. For the first regional effects of the US sanctions on Iran were expected to be seen in Iraq. A few days after he decided to withdraw from Syria in December 2018, Trump paid a surprise visit to the Ayn al-Assad Military Base in Iraq's Anbar province, where US troops were stationed. Even the news that the Iraqi authorities did not have information about the visit was frequently reported in the media. Trump then made a statement saying that US troops in Iraq would be on duty to monitor Iran. This statement increased the pressure on Iraq and was perceived as a sign that the US-Iran rivalry would take the stage again in Iraq. As a matter of fact, the cost of direct military intervention in Iran is very high for both the US and Iran.
The US is expected to put the main pressure on Iran in the second regions, such as Iraq, although 4 bombers and two warships of the US navy equipped with Tomahawk missiles were sent to the Persian Gulf on the allegation that Iran would target US military forces intelligence was received. Iran seems likely to respond to the US threat far from its borders, rather than directly facing it on its soil. Therefore, it is not surprising that Iraq, a country where both countries are effective and powerful, comes to the forefront. For there is already a conflict between the US and Iran over Iraq. In fact, in the face of the possibility that Iran would target the US elements in Iraq as a result of the military tension between the US and Iran, the US has upgraded the level of menace and withdrawn all of its officers except the emergency staff at the Baghdad Embassy and the Consulate General of Erbil. Thereupon, Germany announced that the military training operations in Iraq were temporarily stopped due to rising tension in the region. In the same way, the Netherlands announced the suspension of the support and aid mission to Iraqi forces due to the security threat. The British forces in Iraq also raised the alarm level and asked all British citizens who had dual UK-Iranian citizenship not to travel to Iran.
US military presence in Iraq
While the US deployed some of its troops from Syria to Iraq, US military activity was also observed within Iraq. This situation led to the discussion of the presence of foreign soldiers in Iraq. Some groups such as Nujaba Movement and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq within Hashd al-Shaabi increased the pressure on the removal of foreign soldiers, especially the US soldiers. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Spokesman Jawad Talabavi said that the presence of US troops in the country violated the sovereignty of Iraq, that is why legal arrangements should be made to remove US troops from Iraq. Sairun Coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr, Fatah Coalition led by Hadi al-Amiri, known for his close proximity to Iran, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Law State Coalition, drafted a draft law envisaging the removal of the US and other foreign powers. Although the draft law will remain in the parliament in the current situation, it is likely to be brought up again in the event of any military activity.
However, this situation can cause big problems for Iraq. The training of the security forces in Iraq is still continuing. The threat of security and terror has not diminished either. In particular, ISIS is trying to gain efficiency again. The rehabilitation of Iraqi security forces, both worn out and weakened in the war against ISIS, is extremely important. As a result of the agreement between the US and Iraq in 2008, US troops withdrew from Iraq as of the end of 2011, and with the emergence of ISIS in 2014, they were deployed in Iraq again within the scope of the Global Coalition Against ISIS. This coalition has five official bases in Iraq. In 4 of them (Ayn al-Assad, Besmaya, Taji, Baghdad) the US has military responsibility. The responsibility of the base in Erbil is in England. In addition to coordination and logistical support in the fight against ISIS, these bases provide training to Iraqi security forces. In addition, there are bases where US soldiers are actually stationed. Iran has no official military presence beyond its actual presence in Iraq. If a law envisaging the removal of foreign powers from Iraq is approved, the presence of the global coalition member states and NATO in the country is likely to be a matter of debate.
This situation could be a blow to the security of Iraq. The fact that Iraq's security forces have a low operational capability, low number of soldiers and a fragmental structure may increase the security risks in Iraq. As a matter of fact, it would be appropriate to say that without the airstrikes and intelligence support of the US-led Global Coalition Against ISIS, there could not be a great success in the militarily wipe-out of ISIS. Considering the divisions between Hashd al-Shaabi and the Iraqi army and the increase in the activities of terrorist organizations in Iraq in the process of fighting against ISIS, Iraq still does not have the potential to stand on its own feet. As a matter of fact, the US is taking steps to show its military support to Iraq. For example, it delivered 5 aircraft, the last batch of 36 F-16 aircraft, which it had promised to give to Iraq in accordance with the 2011 agreement. In addition, for the first time in the fight against ISIS, the new generation F-35 fighter aircraft carried out operations. The United States thus seeks to increase its military presence and political influence in Iraq, signaling that it is important for Iraq. Iraq is a central country in terms of the Middle East policy of the US. It can have an influence on Iraq and through the Middle East thanks to its military, political and economic means. Therefore, it is possible for the United States to limit the influence of Iran.
Polarization in Iraqi Politics
This also applies to political actors in Iraq. Iraqi politics is currently almost completely divided. On the one hand, axes which are either closer to Iran or to the United States have emerged. This polarization is seen among all political groups, regardless of ethnic or sectarian identity. In fact, it is possible to assert that this polarization goes deep into local politics. Both camps are trying to steal men from each other. However, there are also leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Haqim who have been trying to get out of this polarization. They are trying to get support over Iraqi nationalism. There is already a clear stance on an impartial attitude towards US-Iran conflict at the state level. However, the divergences between the main actors of Iraqi politics prevent the state from acting as a whole. Indeed, the situation of the Iraqi government is obvious. No consensus has been reached on the three critical seats; the interior, defense, and justice ministry. Moreover, Shayma Khiali, elected minister of education, was forced to leave her post on the grounds that her brother was a member of ISIS. Thus, while four ministries remained idle in the Iraqi cabinet, Minister of Electricity Luay al-Khatib, accused of sectarianism and dismissal of Sunni workers, and Minister of Communications Naim al-Rubaye, accused of being a member of the Ba'ath Party in the past, took their seats in the middle of the debate. In addition, disagreements, administrative problems and political strife in the local governments of Iraq's strategic cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra will bring about challenges to the central politics. This situation makes the work of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi who has been unable to complete the cabinet even more difficult.
Nevertheless, Iraq seems to be seeking a balance through foreign policy. Iraq's intense diplomatic contacts with neighboring countries over the past three months are proof of this. In the event of a possible US-Iran conflict, Iraq will be affected not only politically, militarily and in terms of security, but also economically and socially. Taking these possibilities into consideration, the Baghdad administration is looking for ways to overcome the social and economic problems it may encounter. The provision of basic public services, such as electricity, water, and health, which may already be disrupted, can become even more difficult in the event of a conflict.
The protests in Basra occured in the summer of 2018 are still fresh. Major events took place when Iran cut off the power it provided to Basra. The tension escalating on the US-Iranian discordance forces Iraq to produce new alternatives. In this context, in the event of a possible hot conflict, it is said that Iraq's natural gas flow from Iran to operate power plants may be affected and disrupt the oil production in Iraq. As a matter of fact, ExxonMobil, one of the most important oil companies in the US operating in the West Qurna-1 field in the south of Iraq, suspended its activities and withdrew its employees from the field due to security risks. Although the Iraqi Oil Ministry says that oil production in Iraq will not be affected by the suspension of ExxonMobil's activities, the security risk is an obstacle for Iraq to attract new investors who want to increase production capacity. At this point, the relationships to be developed with and concrete steps to be taken towards Turkey, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia stand out as an indicator in this direction. In this respect, it is possible to say that the US-Iranian tension creates an opportunity for Iraqi foreign policy and forces it to act proactively. However, this proactive policy that Iraq is trying to develop with neighboring countries is difficult to yield results in the short term. For this reason, Iraq's focus on reducing tensions between the US and Iran seems to be the best choice for the time being. As a matter of fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi announced that he will send a delegation to the US and Iran in order to reduce the tension. Even though Iraq is weak in terms of its state structure, political situation, security devices and economic situation, the strong interaction with both the US and Iran can make Iraq a dialogue-providing country and let her out of the crisis only through this way. Otherwise, while the war against ISIS has only just come to an end, Iraq may enter into a new spiral of crisis. For this reason, that the Iraqi political sides produce policy far away from all the conflicts, prioritizing the institutionalization of the state and acting in a strategic manner is the only way out for Iraq.