The leader of Iraq's second largest party, Hadi al-Amiri, called on foreign forces to leave Iraq over the weekend. Slamming US President Donald Trump's visit, in which Trump did not meet Iraqi officials, he intimated that the US should also draw down its forces. This comes at the same time as Maj.-Gen. Tamir Hayman, head of Israel's military intelligence, warned at a conference in Tel Aviv that Iraq is under growing influence of Iran.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018.
Iran's role in Iraq is multi-layered. It suffered a slight setback in the elections in 2018 as Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi'ite cleric and Iraqi nationalist, came in first. Amiri, leading a party supported by former and current Shi'ite militias, some of them closely connected to Iran, came in second.
Iran's influence may have peaked under former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was the most powerful man in Iraq from 2006 to 2014. Maliki not only presided over the period when US troops left but, according to former officials, the US under the Obama administration saw him as a strongman who would help lead Iraq as the US presence diminished. Oddly, even as the US saw him as helping preserve Iraq, he railed against the Americans. In Washington's calculations at the time this was acceptable because a certain amount of populist anti-Americanism nevertheless meant Iraq would be unified under one leader, rather than sink into instability and allow a place for extremism to grow.
Instead, the opposite happened. Maliki's authoritarianism alienated the Sunni minority and the Kurdish region. ISIS and its genocidal extremism entered the vacuum created in Sunni areas by Maliki's thuggish bureaucracy. After ISIS took over a third of Iraq and he was forced out in Baghdad, Maliki claimed that the Obama administration was "behind the creation of ISIS in order to bring down the government." Nothing could be further from the truth, but blaming America was the easiest way to excuse Baghdad's problems.
These were the kind of conspiracy theories and anti-American rhetoric that were common among segments of the pro-Iranian leadership angling to run Iraq. Under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who replaced Maliki in 2014, Iraq had to have a kind of Janus face when it came to the US and Iran. The US would help train Iraq's army and carry out airstrikes, but the rank and file of anti-ISIS fighters would often be more sympathetic to Iran, some even carried photos of Ayatollah Khamenei with them into battle. Khamenei even warned against Iraq allowing the US to return and aid its fight.
To fight ISIS, the Iraqi government also partnered with tens of thousands of Shi'ite militias that cropped up after a 2014 fatwa against ISIS. This was the natural response to the ISIS threat. ISIS was massacring people across Iraq and Iraq's army was disintegrating. Militias, imbued with religious zeal and often looking to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for inspiration, helped defeat ISIS. Some of these were extremely hostile to the US.
Groups like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq were even led by men like Qais Khazali, who had been detained by the US. Hezbollah Brigades leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis had been sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2009. He was close to IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
Men like Muhandis, Khazali and Amiri were also influential in 2009 and 2015. Amiri's Badr Organization runs the interior ministry of Iraq and funnels its resources to former Shi'ite militia members. The Shi'ite militias were even rebranded as the "Popular Mobilization Units" and made an official paramilitary force, like the IRGC or Basij in Iran.
This is the Iranification of Iraq and it has gone on slowly for more than a decade. The pro-Iranian factions have always been close to power in Iraq since 2003. One of the necessary blind spots of US policy, and by extension other Western governments, is to pretend that these pro-Iranian individuals, some of them former militants or violent extremists, do not make up the rank and file of individuals close to power in Baghdad. It's also unsurprising they have such influence. They resisted Saddam Hussein, with many of those like Amiri going to Iran in the 1980s to fight against Saddam alongside the Iranians.
To create an illusion of an Iraqi government that is not entirely an ally of Iran, the US has sought to encourage Baghdad to reach out to Saudi Arabia and sought to push for more Gulf investment in Iraq. In 2017, Iraq and Saudi Arabia began to improve relations after decades in which they had been broken after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The US has sought to balance relations with Baghdad with its outreach to Sunni areas of Iraq and also the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KRG has been staunchly pro-Western over the years, an island of stability in an Iraq that has suffered terribly.
Yet, the US relationship with the Kurdish region was strained in 2017 when the KRG had an independence referendum. The US worked with Baghdad and supported Baghdad sending tanks into Kirkuk, along with Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, to punish the Kurdish region. Kurdish peshmerga had defended Kirkuk from ISIS from 2014 to 2017.
With the war over, Washington thought the KRG could be pushed aside in favor of a Baghdad strategy. This strategy hasn't reduced Iran's role or presence. This is not because Iran is necessarily playing a greater role.
In fact, there is evidence that many Iraqis are tired of Iran. In protests in Basra, people have attacked the headquarters of various Iranian-linked militias. They think Iran is partly responsible for economic problems, as Iraq's resources are plundered by Iranians. As sanctions kick in, Iran has even more reason to plunder Iraq for its economic interests. Iraqis also complain that there is a drug trade from Iran. Some of these claims are exaggerated, but there are serious questions about the degree to which Iran sees part of Iraq as a "near abroad," a kind of colony that it can dump its products on. Is the relationship equal or does Iraq do the work for Iran?
Now the US once again faces questions about whether it will remain in Iraq. From the point of view of those who are concerned about Iran's role in the region and its attempt to create a "land corridor" to the sea via Iraq and Syria, the US role is unclear. Do US forces help block Iranian influence? So far they haven't. Trump said that US forces in Iraq will continue to fight ISIS and keep an eye on Iran. But Iran is also keeping an eye on US forces.
There are many concerns in Iraq about the role of Iran. This is not a simple discussion. Some Shi'ite parties and politicians oppose Iran's assertive role. Kurds and Sunnis are concerned. Those sponsoring reconstruction are concerned. The US Defense Department has also listed numerous concerns about threats from Iranian backed forces in Iraq. The US Congress has even sought to sanction individual militias so that US aid in Iraq, or training, does not benefit them.
But Washington has a problem. It has thought that investing in a strong central government in Baghdad would reduce Iran's role. That has not happened yet - instead US investment may have inadvertently benefited Iran. The US is also concerned about showing too much support for the Kurdish region, thinking that it has to balance Baghdad and Erbil in the Kurdish region, as opposed to simply embracing its allies in northern Iraq.
With Trump signaling a reduced influence in the Middle East, it appears the only country that seeks to step into that vacuum so far is Iran. Unless the Gulf states step up or others, the only beneficiary will be Iran. Whether that represents growing influence or whether Iran has already reached a peak of influence remains to be seen.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.