Foreign Policy

Defeating ISIS isn’t enough — US must protect Iraq from looming Iran


The fight to eject the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from Mosul — the terror group’s last stronghold in Iraq — has demonstrated that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government can be a proven counterterrorism partner in rolling back ISIS gains. Beyond this immediate goal, the Trump administration must turn its attention to three key governance issues that will determine Baghdad’s future beginning the day after it reclaimed Iraq’s second largest city:

  1. Stanching Iranian influence at the highest levels of government;
  2. Restraining powerful Shiite militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs); and
  3. Empowering Sunni elements within the Iraqi security architecture.  

Failing to curb Iranian meddling risks replanting the seeds that gave rise to the ISIS onslaught.

Iran considers Iraq its own “near-abroad:” a pliant and vulnerable country upon which Tehran can project its power and protect its interests.  To dominate the political scene inside Iraq, the mullahs employ a combination of money, matériel, and manpower, namely through Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operatives and Shiite militias.  Underscoring how embedded Iran is in the Iraqi government’s architecture, Iraq’s own interior minister, Qasim Mohammad Jalal al-Araji, is an IRGC-trained member of the Badr Organization — Iran’s oldest Iraqi proxy.  Additionally, Iraq’s Iran-backed vice president, Nouri al-Maliki — rumored to be attempting a political comeback—recently proclaimed that Tehran alone assisted Iraq in its hour of need fighting ISIS.

To halt Iranian expansionism, the Trump administration must help Iraq ensure its officials are loyal to Baghdad rather than Tehran.  One structural fix would be to push the Abadi government to follow through on its vow to abolish its system of dual vice presidents and deputy prime ministers.  Last October, the Iraqi Supreme Court overturned on procedural grounds Prime Minister Abadi’s landmark reform package, which included the dissolution of these honorary — yet powerful — offices.  The reform is important because it would decrease the political space — and platform — for sectarian saboteurs and political spoilers like Maliki who has routinely undermined Abadi, most recently being the driving force in the axing of two cabinet ministers.

{mosads}Secondly, doubling down on Shiite militias is paramount.  U.S. officials estimate that Iraq has as many as 80,000 Iran-backed Shiite fighters on the ground.  These militias — known collectively as the PMUs — have bolstered frequently beleaguered Iraqi army contingents in efforts to clear ISIS strongholds, particularly in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baiji.  Unfortunately, the militiamen also have a bloody sectarian track record.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iran’s Shiite brothers-in-arms in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. soldiers since 2006.  In January, Amnesty International found that the militias are using U.S. arms provided by the Iraqi government to commit war crimes, including tanks, combat vehicles, grenade launchers, and small arms.  Prime Minister Abadi has attempted to rein in the PMUs, with his government passing legislation last November (over widespread Sunni objections), which would officially classify the PMUs as an “independent” arm of the Iraqi army reporting to the prime minister.  He also endeavors to merge the existing Shiite militias with Sunni forces.

The PMU law legitimizes Shiite militias, some of which are designated terrorist organizations — for example, Katai’b Hezbollah by the United States and the Badr Organization by the United Arab Emirates.  In order to prevent the conditions which gave rise to ISIS — Shiite death squads, disappearances, and torture to name a few — the Trump administration should persuade the prime minister to better integrate the PMUs into the existing military and police structures, rather than give them parallel status within the Iraqi army.  Such independent standing risks undermining the integrity of the Iraqi state — consider that Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMUs who is a close ally of the Iranians, recently dubbed the dissolution of the PMUs a “big crime” that would not be “possible even if (the decision) was signed by the head of government.”

At the same time, the White House should persuade the Iraqis to adopt long-stalled legislation creating a national guard.  In February 2015, the Iraqi cabinet approved a draft law creating such a force to provide Iraqi Sunnis especially a sense of protection.  The guard would be a force that’s locally based, answerable to the respective provincial governments, and only then the prime minister.

Not offering more autonomy to Sunni provinces risks more instability.  We’ve seen this play out before in 2008, when then-Prime Minister al-Maliki essentially disbanded the Sunni Awakening Movement and its 50,000 strong fighters after they successfully crushed al-Qaeda at the local level.  After promising to assimilate a quarter of the members into the army and to provide other employment opportunities to the rest, Sunni tribes saw no tangible results, fueling their alienation.  Security for the Sunni minority is essential, and the creation of a national guard would be a step in the right direction.

The Trump administration must push for real reforms, otherwise a repeat of Iraq’s sad history will result.  American firepower is vital, but dissolving excess offices, restraining PMUs, and empowering Sunnis will be just as important to rebuilding Iraq as a trusted ally.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran. From 2013-2016, he served in a variety of capacities at the Wilson Center, including as a research associate in its Middle East Program. Prior to joining the Wilson Center, Mr. Brodsky served as a policy fellow at the White House. His research interests include Arab-Israeli relations, Iran, and U.S. Middle East policy. Follow him on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Battle of Mosul Government Iranian intervention in Iraq Iraq Iraqi Army Iraqi Civil War Iraqi Shia Muslims Nouri al-Maliki Nouri al-Maliki Popular Mobilization Forces

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