Operation Inherent Resolve Will not Save Iraq from Its Political Mess

by Karim Elkady

Without U.S. political engagement with Iraq’s domestic politics, the military and security gains that Iraq, the United States, and their international partners in Operation Inherent Resolve have achieved will diminish. During a press briefing in Baghdad on July 24, 2018, Brigadier General Frederic Parisot, the director of Civil-Military Operations for Operation Inherent Resolve responded to a question about post-ISIS stabilization in Iraq and Syria. He said “we – the Coalition – (will) fail to defeat Daesh if stabilization is not successful.” Instead of waging another war against Iran, the United States should finish the job in Iraq. More than fifteen years ago, the United States invaded Iraq, changed its regime and occupied it with the purpose of transforming it into a stable democratic state; yet up to this day Iraq suffers from political instability and turmoil.

Although Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared the defeat of ISIS in Iraq in December of 2017, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Daniel R. Coats, confirmed this February that “ISIS core has started—and probably will maintain—a robust insurgency in Iraq and Syria as part of a long-term strategy to ultimately enable the reemergence of its so-called caliphate.” Additionally, the U.S. military still maintains that Iraq’s military is incapable of fighting and defeating ISIS on its own, as evidenced by the terrorist organization’s ability to continue operating in governorates such as Kirkuk, Salah Eldin, Ninewa, and Diyala. These indications inform a credible assessment that without American support to Iraq, ISIS will reemerge once again.

The Trump Administration prefers not to get involved in Iraq’s politics, but the current wave of protests, taking place in Iraq’s Shi’a heartland and Baghdad, presents a limited window of opportunity for the United States to reengage with Iraq’s domestic politics in order to stabilize the political environment, prevent the reemergence of ISIS, and shift Iraq away from the Iranian orbit.

The Protests and the Opportunity They Present

The current protests in Iraq’s southern cities reflect the failure of Iraqi political elites, predominantly members of the Shi’a religious parties, to reach out to their own population and deliver services to them. Though Basrawis, for instance, live in areas that produce most of Iraq’s oil production, they still experience extreme marginalization and frustration due to the absence of electricity and clean water. According to a World Food Program study, 31% of Iraqis residing in the southern governorates live below the poverty line. Furthermore, the study indicates that more than 50% of Basrawis are vulnerable to food insecurity, highlighting dangerously unsustainable socioeconomic conditions.

During the current unrest, protestors have stormed offices of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Badr Organization, Dawa Party, and others. As they demanded clean water, electricity, jobs, and an end to corruption, they also burnt pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leaders. Because these protests discredit Iraq’s Shi’a religious political parties that also happen to be anti-American, the United States can take advantage of this situation. By leveraging the support of Iraq’s moderates, national forces–including Moqtada Al-Sadr’s coalition–and even Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, as he has declared his support for the protestors, the United States can work to facilitate the formation of a new coalition government. Good governance, political reform, and fighting terrorism would constitute the priorities of this government, but it will also be friendlier to America and distant from Iran. The United States should learn from the lessons of 2011, when it withdrew its military from Iraq. Its strategy of non-interference in Iraq’s politics did not lead to long-term stability; on the contrary, that strategy overlooked the developments that led to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and allowed Iran a free hand in Iraqi politics.

Political Engagement as a Long Term Solution

Four months ago, I argued that for the United States to succeed in rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, it needs to adopt a multi-level strategy that focuses primarily on Iraq, its domestic politics, its regional relations, and international involvement. The same argument applies in the current situation. The regional context has improved since Saudi Arabia has shifted its policy on Iraq toward rapprochement with its political forces, including Moqtada Al-Sadr. Responding to recent protests, Saudi Arabia and Iraq negotiated an agreement to supply Iraqi power plants with Saudi fuel, after Iran cut off its electricity supplies to Iraq. The Kingdom also sent a business delegation to visit Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government to explore opportunities for Saudi investments. Along the same lines, Kuwait came to the rescue of Iraqi protestors by supplying fuel to power plants in the southern governorates. On the international level, NATO expanded its non-combatant training and capacity-building mission to support Iraq’s security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga.

What continues to be missing is a concerted U.S. effort to work together with different Iraqi political forces to stabilize the political environment. Other than a few remarks that the State Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauret, made in her briefings, the United States did not present major diplomatic initiative to diffuse the political tension in Iraq. Yet given Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Moqtada Al-Sadr, the leader of the coalition which won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s recent elections, the United States can still facilitate the rise of an Iraqi political front that includes friendly forces to the United States at the same time representative of the major religious and ethnic groups. This front would include Iyad Allawi’s National Alliance, the Kurdish political parties, and the Sunni Muttahidoon Coalition in addition to Al-Sadr’s popular Sairon Coalition. This inclusive front would constitute the base for a new national government that, without U.S. intercession, would likely take months to form.

If the United States chooses to pursue the political engagement route, it would realize three policy objectives. First, Iraqi politics would be more conducive to creating a safe environment that ISIS cannot penetrate and reemerge in. Second, the United States could build on the wave of anti-Iranian sentiment in some southern Iraqi cities and potentially create space between Baghdad and Tehran, with regional implications for Iran’s strategic posture in Arab conflict zones in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Finally, regional allies and partners of the United States will be more likely to continue to invest political and economic capital in Iraq as long as the United States remains involved in Iraqi politics.

Dr. Karim Elkady is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.


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