In Iraq, the United States Must Be Careful What It Wishes For

If Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi cracks down too hard on pro-Iran militias, as Washington has demanded, he risks losing his position and jeopardizing the country’s security.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s credibility was at stake when he visited Washington last week. In the eyes of many Iraqi politicians, the purpose of elevating Kadhimi from intelligence chief to premier in May was to strengthen the country’s bilateral relationship with the United States.

At home, the prime minister faces a perfect storm of challenges: rampant corruption, lack of basic services, and massive unemployment—all of which have generated mass protests since 2019. The domestic turmoil forced his predecessor to resign, and it is now compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis caused by the oil price slump.

The idea of traveling to Washington was to secure some U.S. help in dealing with these severe difficulties. Although Kadhimi received an audience with U.S. President Donald Trump and promises of economic assistance, the question is whether he is returning home with enough to tackle these problems, stabilize the country, and ensure his own longer-term political survival.

Kadhimi faces the same dilemma as all Iraqi premiers since the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime: He must find a way to relieve pressure from the country’s two crucial foreign backers—the United States and Iran—which are also mutual adversaries. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. government has mounted an increasingly aggressive maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which is forcing Kadhimi to walk an even tighter diplomatic tightrope than his predecessors had to.

The U.S. government has imposed secondary sanctions on Iraqi political figures and organizations with close ties to Iran, pressed the Iraqi government to take steps toward energy independence of its eastern neighbor, and carried out drone strikes against Iranian-backed paramilitary groups in Iraq.

In January, the most notorious of these drone strikes killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of one such group, Kataib Hezbollah, along with the Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani, at the Baghdad airport. Kataib Hezbollah and its fellow paramilitaries have continued to harass the U.S. military by firing rockets at Iraqi bases hosting American personnel, with the ultimate objective of compelling a full U.S. troop withdrawal.

In Washington, senior U.S. policymakers have long insisted that Baghdad adopt tougher measures to rein in the paramilitary groups—a demand on which Kadhimi’s predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was denied a meeting with Trump, failed to deliver.

Kadhimi has likewise vowed to curb the activities of paramilitaries operating outside the law, but he has pursued the effort through less visible but possibly more effective means, notably by trying to cut off their informal revenue streams from such sources as border checkpoints. Earlier this summer, Kadhimi went further, suggesting he was prepared to take more aggressive action to push back against Iranian influence.

The outcome was mixed, showing the limits of Kadhimi’s power: On June 25, he ordered a bold raid on Kataib Hezbollah to detain one of its senior officers. While the raid netted several other members, they were promptly set free after Kataib Hezbollah mobilized its forces inside the International Zone—the area of Baghdad where parliament and several executive government institutions, in addition to some diplomatic missions, are located.

Meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, Fuad Hussein, on Aug. 20, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear that Washington’s priority is still to ensure that Baghdad checks the influence of Kataib Hezbollah and its ilk. “The United States is committed to supporting Iraq’s security forces, including through the NATO Mission and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, to curb the power of militias that have for far too long terrorized the Iraqi people and undermined Iraq’s national sovereignty,” Pompeo said. The paramilitaries, he suggested, “need to be replaced by local police as soon as possible”—and said the U.S. government “would help” with that initiative.

Given the constraints he faces, however, Kadhimi risks prompting another cycle of civil strife if he steps up his attempts to go after the paramilitaries. The warning signs are already there: On July 6, gunmen assassinated Husham al-Hashimi, a close advisor to Kadhimi on security sector reform, in front of his Baghdad home. It was one in a series of killings of activists, likely aimed both at deterring the prime minister from more vigorous action against paramilitaries and at discrediting him, if only by exposing his inability to hold anyone accountable.

While U.S. policymakers make ambitious demands of Kadhimi, they often fail to appreciate his circumstances. The prime minister lacks strong and stable domestic political support. He has no constituency of his own; he is neither the leader of a political party nor a member of one. Unlike previous premiers, he came to power not through the bargaining processes that typically follow Iraqi general elections but instead through a series of compromises among parties after the sitting prime minister resigned in the wake of popular protests demanding reform. He was the third choice.

His would-be constituents among the protesters are divided and have struggled to organize politically, while becoming targets of assassinations and kidnappings by armed groups. They are unlikely to be able to compete in the early elections that Kadhimi has proposed for June 6, 2021, nearly a year ahead of schedule.

While early elections were one of the protesters’ core demands, voices inside the movement say such a move would be premature without the conditions necessary to ensure a fair process. For instance, parliament has yet to complete key aspects of the electoral law adopted in 2019, which many argue favors established parties, as it stands. Moreover, demands to reform the politicized electoral commission or amend the law governing political parties are still unaddressed. In this context, elections will remain a mechanism that perpetuates a broken system.

Kadhimi has no safety net that would allow him to take risks. Taking on paramilitary groups and their political backers is always dangerous, but the consequences would likely be far worse without an insurance policy.

Following the June 25 raid, the Shiite Hikma party exposed the weakness of Kadhimi’s support when it tried to form a parliamentary bloc buttressing his government’s position.

Hikma fell short of gaining wider cross-sectarian traction. It was no surprise: Kadhimi has not allocated a portfolio to Sunni Arabs in security institutions, and while he recently reached an agreement with the Kurdish parties to transfer monthly payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government, it is a temporary measure, not a settlement of the perennial budget struggle between Baghdad and Erbil. Tellingly, when U.S. policymakers lobbied Iraqi politicians to signal public support for the raid against Kataib Hezbollah, they declined.

Not only has the failure to strike bargains restricted Kadhimi’s ability to find reliable allies among the Sunni Arab and Kurdish elites, but his attempts to corral the paramilitaries also may have prematurely revealed his intentions to undercut powerful members of the Shiite political establishment, putting them on guard and prompting them to close ranks. In practical terms, his actions have further limited the number of alliances he could forge, making him overly dependent on a small group of partners and constraining his room for maneuver.

In addition, Kadhimi has no safety net that would allow him to take risks. Taking on paramilitary groups and their political backers is always dangerous, but the consequences would likely be far worse without an insurance policy. Losing such a contest would not only jeopardize Kadhimi’s tenure in office; it could also cause long-lasting damage to the U.S.-Iraqi bilateral relationship, as any successor premier in such a scenario would be much less inclined to heed Washington’s calls to reduce Iranian influence.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ushered in consolidation that lasted for years after he initiated a military campaign against Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. That decision was facilitated by conditions that allowed him to accept a high degree of risk: a massive U.S. troop presence, which salvaged his campaign after its early stumbles, and a previous political shift away from Sadr.

These two conditions gave Maliki a stable coalition in parliament to assure his political survival when he clipped Sadr’s wings. Today, neither exists. The U.S. military presence is too modest in size and limited in mission to back up Kadhimi, whose hold on power remains dependent on the very forces he needs to weaken.

Moreover, the prime minister does not have the option of singling out a particular Iranian-backed group for elimination. Rather, an escalation with any one of them is likely to prompt the others to circle the wagons. The June raid against Kataib Hezbollah made other paramilitary groups wary that they might, sooner or later, be targeted as well. Should future altercations trigger armed conflict, these other groups are unlikely to remain on the sidelines, waiting for their turn to come.

A conflict that pits forces aligned with the premier, such as the Counter-Terrorism Service, against Iranian-backed groups has the potential to be far more complex than the battle with the Islamic State. Such a confrontation would carry the risk of undermining the state security apparatus from within, with the possibility of defections and fractures. Paramilitaries in Iraq are not free-standing rogue agents, but units intertwined with numerous state institutions, and a campaign to purge them may well end up unraveling these institutions along the way.

Since 2003, individuals with ties to paramilitary groups have become ministers, lawmakers, military and police commanders, and senior members of the prime minister’s office. Thousands of paramilitaries are now positioned inside the International Zone. Indicative of the degree of entrenchment is Kataib Hezbollah’s influence over security inside the zone, as is the makeup of the Ministry of Interior, which long has been shaped by the Badr Organization, a paramilitary group and party backed by Iran. Both groups are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization brought into the formal security apparatus during the war against the Islamic State.

While Iraq’s paramilitaries pose a major problem for the government’s institutional development, the preferred U.S. approach is counterproductive. Washington should recognize that Kadhimi needs flexibility to maneuver and balance international and domestic relationships. The Trump administration’s pressure on the Iraqi government (and its offer of assistance) to curtail the influence of paramilitary groups is risking escalation at a time when Kadhimi lacks the capacity to stand his ground, let alone win, should armed confrontation ensue.

The Trump administration’s pressure on the Iraqi government to curtail the influence of paramilitary groups is risking escalation at a time when Kadhimi lacks the capacity to stand his ground.

Decision-makers in both Washington and Baghdad should come to terms with the fact that the United States does not have the commitment to Iraq that it did during the years of occupation, nor the influence it once wielded over Iraqi politics. Thus, it cannot guarantee a prime minister’s political survival, as it did when it bailed out Maliki in 2008.

Instead, U.S. policymakers should focus their efforts on empowering the prime minster so he can better manage domestic pressures stemming from rival politicians and the public.

Washington should help Kadhimi widen and strengthen his political coalition. Thus far, he has employed a media strategy to gain public support. But public relations cannot make up for poor political organization inside and outside parliament, both of which constrain his ability to govern.

Kadhimi needs to win over a set of political actors beyond the moderate Shiite parties that back him now, including among Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Aggressive government policies against the armed groups have not addressed other core interests. On the contrary, Kurdish parties have gained more by striking direct bargains with Iran-backed parties in the past, and Sunni Arabs still preside over fewer state portfolios than under the previous government.

A permanent settlement between Baghdad and Erbil, especially on budget allocation, is crucial to assure Kurdish leaders that Kadhimi can be a reliable partner. Without stable Kurdish support, the prime minister will be dependent on Iranian-backed groups for political survival. Additionally, Kadhimi must assure Sunni Arabs (in ways that transcend rhetoric) that the government does not only cater to Shiite interests.

Iranian resources that long benefited the paramilitaries are waning given Tehran’s dire fiscal straits. This development opens a window to use the strategic talks and previous bilateral arrangements to concentrate U.S. support to partnered Iraqi security institutions, notably the Counter-Terrorism Service and Iraqi National Intelligence Service, which were essential in the fight against the Islamic State.

While it downsizes its own military presence in the country, the United States should commit to a sustained and selective engagement with institutions in which the prime minister has more control over personnel and resources. Ultimately, this approach would help those parts of the security sector that follow a formal chain of command to develop and, gradually, outgrow those that do not—paving the way, over time, for a stronger Iraqi state.

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