Opinion | International

The killing of Soleimani will shape the transition of Iraq's government

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

What does Iraq's caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, want?

After the killing of Iran's Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, and the deputy commander of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Abul Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraq and its prime minister are where they don't want to be - caught between America and Iran.

After the U.S. action, the Shiite parliamentary bloc in Iraq passed a resolution demanding the exodus of U.S. and other foreign troops. Abdul-Mahdi then asked the U.S. to send a delegation to Iraq to discuss the departure of its 5,000  troops, sent to Iraq in 2014 after the Iraqi military was routed by the Islamic State. Washington refused and proposed both sides meet to discuss how they can "recommit" to their partnership.

U.S. President Donald Trump  said he would levy sanctions against Iraq "like they've never seen before" and require it to reimburse Washington for upgrades to Iraqi bases. U.S. officials then advised Abdul-Mahdi they would block access to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York account where Baghdad keeps its gold reserves and the oil revenues that pay 90 percent of the country's national budget.

Now the bargaining can begin.

Abdul-Mahdi wants a U.S. troop presence - because he knows if U.S. forces leave, coalition forces will leave, then investors will leave, the Islamic State may return, and only Iran, Russia, and China will want to put money in the country. Once it is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, Baghdad would learn Beijing has no tolerance for "dissenting friends." And buying weapons from Russia, like the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, would definitely trigger U.S. sanctions.

Abdul-Mahdi previously served as Iraq's First Vice President, Minister of Finance, and Minister of Oil. When he wasn't in government, like Cincinnatus, he returned to his farm. He has no political clique, so he isn't motivated to hang on to keep his guys in work. He's almost 80 years old - and he knows it.

Abdul-Mahdi is conscious of his legacy and wants to be a worthy successor to his father, who was Minister of Education in the monarchist era. His father sent the first Iraqi students abroad, who then returned and oversaw the country's period of modernization before the Baath Party takeover. So, handing the country over to Iran or China just won't do, and he must protect Iraq's sovereignty - especially from its "friends."

What should the U.S. do to ensure a continuing military presence in the interests of Baghdad and Washington?

First, remember the Baghdad timeline is longer than it likes (and longer than many Iraqis like). Due to "Iraq fatigue," Americans forget the place until they need something, then it must happen yesterday. Chill, Yankees.

Next, more NATO. President Trump wants more NATO involvement in Iraq, and he may find takers as NATO favors an independent Iraq and wants to ensure the Islamic State stays defeated. One stumbling block will be Iraqi wariness about Turkish involvement.

If negotiations between Iraq and the U.S./NATO make adjustments in how foreign forces operate in Iraq, the U.S. and NATO should be clear the Iranian-controlled "Faction PMU" and other refractory groups are considered to be unfriendly forces.

Then, and most importantly, support Iraqi sovereignty, a tattered concept after the U.S. killing of Soleimani and the alleged Israeli attacks on Iranian-sponsored militias along the Iraq-Syria border in September 2019. Israel hasn't confirmed its role, but as the U.S. has its way in Iraq's airspace, many Iraqis believe it facilitated the attacks, so the U.S. can't shrug off Israel's alleged actions. The U.S. must be clear to Israel that attacking targets in Iraq is different than action in Lebanon and Syria.

Strengthening Iraqi sovereignty is more realistic than yearning to eliminate any trace of Iranian influence, which is a job for Iraqis. A sovereign and stable Iraq will also reduce the propensity of the Saudis to intervene if they see their large northern (and Shia) neighbor falling under Iranian domination.

Helping Iraq build its defense institutions is key to Iraq's sovereignty, and the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq and NATO Mission Iraq are doing this now. Also, the resumption of U.S.-Iraqi operations against the Islamic State will be the practical end of the efforts of the NATO and U.S. advisory missions.

In the meantime, the Iraqi political class will focus on provincial elections in April 2020 and finding a replacement for Abdul-Mahdi, who has asked the speaker of parliament and the political factions to find his successor who can form a government to "resolve the status of U.S. troops."

Two near-term issues will affect the U.S.-Iraq negotiations:

- In February, the sanctions waivers to allow Iraq to import natural gas and electricity from Iran will expire. The U.S. should consider a (relatively) uneventful transition worth the momentary benefit to Iran, especially as another six-month extension will expire in the punitive month of August.

- PMU law implementation. Abdul-Mahdi didn't force implementation of the law placing the PMU under government control as he needed the militia votes, but the U.S. should be clear to the candidates they will be expected to fully implement the law, which has been languishing since it was passed in 2016.

The killing of Soleimani removed a significant Iranian political and military figure. The benefit won't be cost-free, but clear-eyed diplomacy by Iraq and the U.S. will ensure the terrorist's death will help propel Iraq further along the road to liberty.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).

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