A Forum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has illustrated many of the difficulties Iraq faces in the future, and has also highlighted its successes. Held at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, it was the 6th annual Sulaimani Forum and was held to look at "Iraq and its neighbors." Iraqi President Barham Salih and a variety of other voices from Iraq and the region spoke about the country's challenges.
Iraq is at a crossroads. With ISIS largely defeated, there are fears of a new ISIS insurgency. On Wednesday night, ISIS members ambushed a patrol of the mostly Shi'ite Hashd al-Shaabi Kikruk and killed several of its members. The Hashd, also called the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are officially a government paramilitary but they were raised as Shi'ite militias to fight ISIS. One of the key issues discussed at the forum was the future of paramilitary security units like this.
For instance, the PMU is widely seen as closely connected to political parties, particularly the Badr organization, which is itself part of the Fatah Alliance. This alliance of parties that have their own militias came in second in last year's elections. There is now a question as to whether these armed political parties will end up like Hezbollah in Lebanon, a kind of state-within-a-state, or become mainstream and more official. Already the PMU and its allies in government have successfully done more than Hezbollah was able to accomplish: They have made themselves an official force and dominate the Interior Ministry.
The US has sought to provide a counterweight by investing in training the Iraqi Army, as it has done in Lebanon. At the Suli Forum there were discussions about the challenges the PMU poses for Iraq. The elite counter-terrorism forces which were trained by the US are seen as separate from politics, but this makes some suspicious of them.
Many politicians in Iraq who are connected to Iran tend to oppose the US role in Iraq. They were even angrier after President Donald Trump said that the US would withdraw from Syria but use Iraq to "watch" Iran. Now Trump has reversed course and intends to keep some American forces in Syria. But the US has large bases in Iraq, which are supposed to be temporary. But some politicians want the US to pack up and leave sooner, rather than later.
In the Kurdistan region, the view is the opposite. Politicians there generally are sympathetic to the US, despite lingering anger over its refusal to support an independence referendum in 2017. They know that ISIS is still a threat and want continued US support. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to former Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani this week and discussed US support for the region.
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.