Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and visiting fellow at the National Defense University, spoke to participants in a November 2 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about how Washington can counteract the growing power of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and the threat they pose to U.S. forces in Iraq.
During the "17 years of failure" following the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. essentially "gave this country to Iran" by providing economic and military assistance to a succession of governments that accommodated the entrenchment of Iranian power in the country, explained Pregent. Even under the current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has publicly pledged to rein in militias, the real decision-makers in Iraq are "militia members wearing suits" answering to Tehran and drawing salaries from the Iraqi government. Kadhimi, he noted, was "approved" by Iranian Gen. Esmail Qaani, the successor of Gen. Qasem Soleimani as head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force.
If Iraqi militias continue endangering the U.S. mission in Iraq with rocket attacks, the U.S. should be willing to relocate its diplomatic staff and troops from Baghdad to the Kurdish north, said Pregent. He characterized the Trump administration's threat in September to close the U.S. embassy in Iraq as a "brilliant leverage play."
A closure would also "be an embarrassment" for Kadhimi, Pregent explained, because pro-American sentiment in Iraq is at a peak. Not only are Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis very pro-American, but in his estimation so are about 60% of Shia youth, who spearheaded mass anti-government demonstrations that erupted last year. Overall, he estimates that 80% of the Iraqi people are against the current government.
Pregent pointed out that the Shia didn't protest when Israel conducted four airstrikes in Iraq to hit Kata'ib Hezbollah, a militia tied to Tehran. "They didn't look at it as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. They looked at it as Israel punishing an invading force, these Iraqi militias, ... and that told me that this is a time where Iraq is finally ready for a change."
U.S. aid should be redirected to "secure economic zones" in Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia areas.
If change isn't forthcoming, the U.S. should start to "punish Baghdad economically" by cutting aid and, if need be, imposing sanctions. Such measures would disable Tehran's ability to use the Iraqi economy to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran. U.S. aid should instead be directed to "secure economic zones" in Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia areas, where the money "goes to U.S. banks and we give it directly to parties that are pro-U.S. [and] anti-Iran."
Pregent cautioned that ISIS in Iraq "hasn't been defeated" and remains a threat to the U.S., the Iraqi people, and the wider region. He laid the blame for the persistence of ISIS squarely on former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who "dismantled and targeted" the U.S.-backed Sunni awakening militias that fought against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, while allowing Shia militias "to operate with impunity," a combination that created conditions ripe for ISIS to flourish.
America's Sunni regional allies support continuous pressure on Iran and on the Iraqi militias-cum-parties controlled by Tehran, not least because the latter have played a role in destabilizing Syria, training Houthi fighters in Yemen, and making inroads in Lebanon and Jordan.
Pregent summed up his advice to the next U.S. administration:
You have to stay in Iraq regardless and let Baghdad know that, [and] that if Baghdad doesn't protect our embassy, we'll simply move to Erbil and we'll continue the ISIS campaign there. We'll start to support the Sunni awakening again in Al Anbar, Diyala, Saladin, and Nineveh provinces, and we'll punish Baghdad economically ... [while] maintain[ing] sanctions on Iran.
The U.S. political and military establishment "continues to believe that we need to engage the status quo in Baghdad," said Pregent, "and Iraqis are screaming very loudly, 'No, do not engage.'" In closing, he expressed confidence that "smart" use of American power can eventually "get Iraq where it needs to be – a pro-U.S. country, a pro-Sunni regional ally ... that will [at] some point make peace with Israel."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.