Congress must press for real reforms in Iraq
Congress has appropriated more than $6.5 billion in security assistance for Iraq as part of the post-2014 campaign to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Yet, over that period, Baghdad has ignored or poorly implemented U.S. calls to enact substantive political and security reforms. That dynamic must change for the sake of Iraq’s future and U.S. national security interests. The ongoing U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue is an opportune moment for Congress to work with the Trump administration to set a clear expectation: Benchmarks for reform paired with accountability — not blank checks — will be the new norm.
President Trump will host Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House this week at a critical time. The meeting is part of an ongoing discussion intended to establish the contours of U.S.-Iraq relations on security cooperation and other bilateral issues. Kadhimi’s government, which took office in May 2020, faces significant governance, security, economic and public health challenges. Kadhimi must also manage the lead-up to early parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2021.
A key and imminent threat confronting Kadhimi’s government is the Iranian regime’s attempt to subjugate Iraq. Iran’s armed proxy militias undercut Baghdad’s sovereignty while attacking both Iraqis and Americans. Tehran’s sanctions evasion schemes undermine Iraq’s economy and financial integrity. Iran’s malign influence also has helped spur widespread unrest in Iraq, beginning in October 2019. That was an important moment for dialogue with peaceful protesters. Instead, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, a committee of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force proxies “approved the use of lethal violence against protesters for the purpose of public intimidation.”
Iran’s destabilizing role risks unraveling Iraq entirely. Look no further than Lebanon for what awaits Iraq if Iran’s project continues unobstructed.
The stakes are high for the United States. What happens in Iraq in the coming months will have a significant effect on the U.S. position in the Middle East. Will the U.S. build on the gains it has made against jihadist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda? Can the U.S. maintain pressure to deny Tehran resources it can use to advance its ambitions in the region? Are local partners capable of stepping up to shoulder security burdens as the U.S. prioritizes other global challenges? These questions will partly be answered inside Iraq.
The U.S. has a role to play in helping Iraq defend its sovereignty and build a viable state. But it must insist that the Iraqi government commit to its own sovereignty and future with concrete actions to deal with the threat posed by Iran and related governance issues. Congress should press for action in three key areas as preconditions for Washington’s provision of further bilateral assistance and for U.S. support of Iraq’s case before international financial institutions.
First, Baghdad must protect Iraqi citizens’ rights to free speech and assembly. It should hold accountable the individuals and groups responsible for attacking peaceful protesters. The assault on demonstrators beginning in October 2019 was an organized, Iran-backed campaign of violence. Yet one-off prosecution of individual members of Iraqi militias or security forces in response will not suffice. There must be a credible rule of law process to hold the organizers and perpetrators of this deadly assault accountable for their crimes.
Second, Baghdad must work to ensure that the monopoly on violence across Iraq rests with professional, non-sectarian Iraqi security forces in cooperation with their Iraqi Kurdish counterparts. The Iranian proxy-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and associated militias cannot be allowed to operate independently as an outlaw force. As part of the strategic dialogue, the U.S. should support concrete steps to guard against Iran’s takeover of Iraq’s security institutions and ensure U.S. assistance is not perpetuating the status quo.
Third, Baghdad must combat Iran’s widespread exploitation of Iraq’s financial sector and broader economy for its illicit activities. The IRGC, for example, has used front companies and banks in Iraq to launder money and support its operations. These schemes are not limited to financial activities; in some cases, the same companies moving money also help smuggle weapons to Iran’s proxies. Other vulnerabilities are more overt. Iran continues enabling Iraqi dependency on its energy supplies despite Iraq’s domestic energy potential. Iraq must move rapidly to develop its own capacity, and the U.S. must end its existing energy waiver to encourage that shift.
Fortunately, there is some support in Congress for keeping the spotlight on these issues. Republicans and Democrats have been willing to promote accountability for violence against Iraqi protesters. The recently passed defense appropriations bill included language prohibiting U.S. funding from supporting Iranian proxies, underscoring concerns over Iran’s penetration of Iraq’s security structures. The Republican Study Committee has signaled its support for ending the Trump administration’s sanctions waivers on Iranian energy imports to Iraq. Congressional leaders should build on these efforts and introduce stricter conditions on appropriating any future assistance.
It took the shock of an ISIS land grab and resulting international security crisis in 2014 to generate renewed and widespread interest in Congress on the course of U.S. policy in Iraq. Today, Iraq is once again on a dangerous trajectory. Avoiding another “Iraq surprise” will require Congress to press for an Iraq policy aligned with America’s interests. The Iraqi premier’s visit presents an opportunity to do just that.
Maseh Zarif and Tyler Stapleton are directors of congressional relations at FDD Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington. They previously served as staffers in the House of Representatives. Follow them on Twitter @masehz and @Ty_D_Stapleton.