Analysis

Iraq Knows It's Turning Into a Battlefield for the U.S. and Iran, but Its Hands Are Tied

In the wake of Soleimani's killing and the downing of the Ukrainian jetliner, Iran is on the defensive. Now the main question is how much control it has over Iraqi proxies

A street vendor displays clothes next to graffiti with Arabic that reads, "Baghdad is free and Iran out," in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, January 8, 2020.
Nasser Nasser,AP

“I wish I had died and I wouldn’t have seen such an incident,” said Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Aerospace Corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, when he explained on Saturday the circumstances surrounding the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner and the deaths of all 176 of its passengers. “The Iranian scapegoat,” the soldier who fired the missile that blew up next to the plane on Wednesday, the same day Iran fired a volley of ballistic missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq, made the wrong decision, explained the general.

Hajizadeh blamed the mistake on a “communications failure” which left the soldier “unable to verify the identity of the plane.” The explanation sounds rather logical. The United States intercepted an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, causing the deaths of all 290 people aboard, after the crew of the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes misidentified the plane, thinking it was an Iranian F-14 fighter.

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But this is the relatively simple side of the incident. Iran intended on ending the affair of the targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani with its massive firing of missiles, which sees not to have caused any casualties, and in doing so put an end to its critical and dangerous part in the confrontation with the United States. Now the Ukrainian plane affair has taken the place of the killing of Soleimani. Iran is now in a defensive stance, forced to supply explanations, put those responsible on trial, absorb criticism and pay compensation – and most importantly, lose the legitimacy it had, in its own eyes and those of some of the Iranian public, for the need to exact revenge from the United States.

The plane affair will continue to resound for a while, but for now Iran is required to address the expected implications of Soleimani’s killing on the Iraqi front. The declarations of senior Iranian officials – including those of the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami – that Iran is not interested in a war but does not fear a conflict either, and will respond to every attack against it, could very well be heard as an attempt to calm the tensions. But the main question is to what extent the Iranian military leadership is in control of all its branches, the militias and military groups that operate in its name in Iraq and other countries.

According to reports from Iraq, it seems that at least half the militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq, announced after Soleimani’s death that they were unwilling to obey the orders of the Iraqi military command. The militias said that each one would act “according to its own interests,” adding that their only connection to the government was “on the 26th of the month,” the day the Iraqi government pays their soldiers their salaries. If the Revolutionary Guards do allow their militias to act independently, even partially, Iraq can be expected to deteriorate into street battles over internal security.

This comes as members of parliament and the transition government are trying – for now without success – to put together a new government and appoint a new prime minister in order to put down the civil insurrection that returned to the streets at the end of the week after a pause of a few days because of the mourning for Soleimani. The fact that Soleimani was killed on Iraqi soil strengthened the protest movement’s demand to remove the Iranian presence from the country to prevent Iraq from becoming a battlefield between Iran and the United States. “If the Iraqi government wants to remove all the foreign forces from its territory, it must begin with the removal of the Iranian forces and presence,” wrote a member of parliament on his Facebook page. The law to remove all foreign troops from Iraq, which the Iraqi Parliament passed last week, and which was intended to apply to American troops, requires the government to act to implement it within a short time.

But if Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi thought he could begin conducting short and business-like negotiations with the Americans over the withdrawal of their troops, U.S. President Donald Trump made it clear – in a direct and callous way – that he does not intend on conducting any such negotiations. “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership – not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East,” said the U.S. State Department in a statement released on Friday. On Tuesday, Trump told a press conference: “We want to be able to let Iraq run its own affairs, and that’s very important, so at some point we want to get out. But this isn’t the right point.”

The American position, which ignores the decision of the Iraqi Parliament, serves Abdul-Mahdi’s views, too. He has stated that while he supports such a withdrawal, he also recognizes the danger that will hang over Iraq if the law is put into effect. Abdul-Mahdi may have to battle his political rivals, the heads of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties that want to rack up a diplomatic victory for themselves and Iran after the killing of Soleimani, on the issue, but it is also clear to them that the withdrawal of the American forces without an agreement and against the wishes of the United States is impossible.

A protester demonstrating against the Iraqi government in Baghdad, January 10, 2020.
Nasser Nasser / AP

Iraq’s regular military forces will not go to war against 5,000 American soldiers to force their withdrawal. But the Shi’ite militias could very well try to create a chaotic situation, sporadically attack American targets, halt the operations of American oil companies – and at the same time take advantage of this opportunity to start violent confrontations against the protest movements in an attempt to repress the demonstrations. A different scenario could have Abdul-Mahdi reach understandings with the United States regarding a timetable for the withdrawal, one that would not be too short. The withdrawal would be spread out over a long period of time to prevent any linkage between it and Soleimani’s killing and the new Iraqi legislation – and in doing so, preserve the “honor” of the united States and not award a prize to Iran.

Beyond the public debate between Iraq and the United States over the troop withdrawal question, it’s not clear what strategy guides Trump’s policies in the Gulf region. Last week he hinted at the need of more massive involvement of NATO countries in the region without providing details of the goal of expanding their operations and how it would be carried out. We don’t know of any strategic discussions that the United States and its NATO partners held about the future of their involvement in the Gulf, and based on the responses of the heads of NATO nations, it seems that this is just another one of Trump’s frequent offhand comments. Has Trump given up on the Arab coalition and his idea of establishing an “Arab NATO” to address the tensions with Iran in the Gulf? It’s possible that Trump has already reached the conclusion that a military alliance with Arab nations against Iran looks good only on paper.