Iraq is at an important crossroads in the fight against the Islamic State. With aggressive posturing between the incoming Trump Administration and Iran, pressure will increase on Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi. Is the future of the Iraq-U.S. relationship now at risk?
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been under a state of political siege for the last few years. The country has been held together begrudgingly by a shared determination to confront and defeat extremism but political divisions among Iraq’s ruling Shia Muslims are now especially heightened following the Trump Administrations’ executive order to ban Iraqi citizens (among a list of six other countries) from entering the U.S. for 90 days.
Though this ban has since been overturned by a Federal judge, the move has laid bare the dangers that the embattled PM faces from the followers of the popular Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has consistently urged the Iraqi government to expel U.S. diplomatic and military personnel from the country. Al-Sadr met with the Prime Minister in late December to discuss reforms and the ongoing security situation.
On the other side, Abadi has to be mindful of the pro-Iranian members of his own Islamic Dawa Party. Chief among those is the former Prime Minister and Dawa Party leader, Nouri al-Maliki, who has been touring southern Iraq to shore up support among his fellow Shia Arab constituents. In the southern city of Basra, anti-Maliki protesters stormed a meeting hall where Maliki was due to speak. Widespread speculation indicated that the anti-Maliki protests were organized by al-Sadr. In an appeal to Arab nationalism, Maliki recently called for Kurdish Peshmerga to withdraw from areas liberated from the so-called Islamic State group (IS).
Amidst this inter-Shia struggle comes the arrival of the Trump Administration with stinging comments about Iraq’s oil resources, rising anti-American sentiment within Iraqi society, and the enticement of other regional powers. Iraq’s provincial elections, originally scheduled for April 2017, have been pushed back to 2018, the same time as the federal elections. The U.S. relationship with Iraq, which includes diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence cooperation at all levels, looks to be on the path towards certain doom.
U.S. cooperation with Iraq
President Trump’s own history of commentary on the 2003 Iraq War made waves with the American voters that brought him to the White House. His view that Saddam Hussein should have been left in power, was one sign that rattled the foundations of Iraqi-U.S. relations early on.
According to Iraq’s former ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, the travel ban marked a deep sense of shame and betrayal. The U.S. military has an estimated 6,000 troops in Iraq, at forward-operating bases near the front lines with IS. A close relationship was formed with the U.S. military and the thousands of Iraqi translators and other support staff formed over the long years of the U.S. occupation.
Iraqi Air Force pilots training in Arizona weren’t the only military training programs to be affected. From 2008 to 2012, the Department of Defense has allocated an estimated $1.5 million to train Iraqi security forces at U.S. military institutions. Many cultural and educational programs, such as the U.S. State Department’s Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), are now at risk. IYLEP’s twitter handler sent out a call for 2017 applications on January 28th, the day after the President signed the executive order.
The Iraqi parliament called for a retaliatory ban on U.S. citizens in Iraq. However, this move was rejected by Abadi who cited the need to maintain close ties in the operations against IS. For Iraqis, the security situation takes priority. Since the devastating July 2016 Karrada bombing, IS has still managed to carry out bombings in Baghdad. Iraqi security and coalition forces have taken most of east Mosul and have aggressively cut off many escape routes, including river transit. It remains to be seen how the group will reorganize after they are pushed out of Mosul. However, the offensive has come at a high cost for Iraq’s military.
Iraq’s heavy reliance on Iran will also be a source of conflict with the Trump Administration, which has put Iran “on notice” after the January testing of the Soumar cruise missile (which has a design and range 2,000 to 3,000 Km, comparable to the Soviet/Russian Kh-55). Furthermore, the actions of Iranian-sponsored Shia militias are being watched closely as military operations against IS continue to unfold. Human Rights organizations have pointed out that the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashd al-Sha’abi) has been detaining military-aged men fleeing from Mosul. The PMF is also quickly establishing offices and outposts in predominantly Sunni areas liberated from IS. The portion of the U.S. defense budget allocated for training and equipping Iraqi security forces was restricted from providing any assets to components of the Iraqi military that had alleged ties to Iran.
Despite the emerging security pact between Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Baghdad has taken some positive steps with Saudi Arabia, which opened a consulate in Erbil, much to the chagrin of the Iranian security establishment. Inside Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been on the offensive since the start of economic liberalization and domestic political challenges that followed the nuclear deal and the 2016 parliamentary elections. Reform minded politicians and businessmen have been subjected to public scrutiny and arrest.
Iraq’s economic outlook
The determination of the Iraqis to rebuild was shown through the students who celebrated the recapture of Mosul University, which suffered extensive damage. The Mosul Dam is also being repaired with the aid of $300 million from the World Bank. An Italian engineering firm, Trevi, began the latest efforts to remediate the dam in September 2016. They are guarded by a team of Italian and Kurdish forces which have foiled IS suicide attacks on the worksite.
Iraq has been steadily increasing its oil production, up to 300,000 bpd since this summer. Under the leadership of Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobile’s projects in the West Qurna Field in southern Iraq met key production milestones and also lead to the development of a water injection plant. Exxon later lost ownership of the water inject project due to the company’s gamble to bypass Baghdad in order to pursue a project in Iraqi Kurdistan. Exxon eventually sold some of its stakes in West Qurna to the Chinese firm, PetroChina. The two firms are now working with Baghdad to increase production to 550,000 bpd at the Artawi and Nahran Omar fields (also in Iraq’s south) within the next six months. This comes following the decision by OPEC to cut production. It is unclear whether Iraq intends to abide by OPEC’s decision.
Also at risk from the reimplementation of any travel ban are the pending multi-billion dollar contracts between the Iraqi government and General Electric that would bring the company technical support and provide maintenance for Iraq’s health, transportation, and aviation industries.
Iraq’s alcohol prohibition, which was introduced by leaders of Maliki’s State of Law coalition bloc in parliament last October, is a sign that the country’s Shia religious establishment is shifting the government towards an ideological footing with Iran. Other observers view the potential for various militias and politicians to thrive off of a lucrative black market trade for the Baghdad’s returning night life scene. Kidnappings and criminal activity have also been on the rise due to high unemployment and a general amnesty (for non-terrorism related crimes) granted by the government in August 2016.
The future of Iraq-U.S. relations
The Trump Administration has indicated that Arab Christians in the Middle East should receive precedence. The displacement of these minority communities and apparent disregard for the dangers posed for non-Christian minorities, such as Iraq’s Yazidis, will drastically alter the ethnic makeup in northern Iraq in the coming years. The demographic makeup of Foggy Bottom in Washington, DC will also be dramatically different following the resignation of the State Department’s Senior Staff. Years of experience and personal relationship building will no longer be available for maintaining or repairing bilateral ties.
The bottom line for the relationship will be how hard the US chooses to come down on Iran. The US looks to be embarking on a policy of simultaneously cooperating with Russia while isolating Iran. This will be difficult since Russia and Iran have deemed each other essential in their shared goal of protecting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. President Trump also campaigned on a message of avoiding new foreign entanglements. With this in mind, the new administration is unlikely to take tangible steps of complicating the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. Instead, the Trump Administration will try to make life difficult for the IRGC’s direct financial assets, companies that facilitate missile development, and to disrupt Iranian backing for Houthi movement in Yemen. If these policies are implemented carefully, it could grant the Iraqi government some extra political breathing space.
The U.S. and Iraq have suffered embarrassing moments before and have endured. The collapse of the largely U.S.-trained army in the summer of 2014 offensive was a rude wakeup call for the U.S. military’s training capabilities. Despite this, the two countries continued working together in the face of enormous setbacks and increased Iranian influence in Iraq’s political and military fabric. Bilateral relations are no doubt in for four long years of great difficulty. However, there is hope that the mutual interests of defeating IS will keep some level of cooperation open until the next change in a U.S. administration. President Trump’s central campaign pledge of taking a hard line against terrorism will be moot unless the United States retains and strengthens cooperation with Iraq.