Admit it or not, US President Donald Trump knows he is in the final phase of his period in office and, like most departing presidents, is working hard on his legacy. His final weeks are likely to be marked by a fair number of newsworthy announcements. An early example is his decision to bring home some of the American troops serving overseas. On November 17, acting US Secretary of Defense Christoph Miller announced that the US troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq would be reduced to 2,500 each by January 15, 2021, that is just a few days before Trump leaves the White House.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s prime minister, who took office only in May, must have received the news with some disquiet, but not with much surprise. When he met with the US president on August 19, Trump had warned him that he planned to withdraw all American troops within three years, though later he rowed back from that specific timetable. In Iraq the US military presence has long been a vital bulwark against the efforts of Iran to gain complete control of the nation’s affairs.
Kadhimi inherited a country far too subjugated to Iran, whose power over many aspects of Iraq’s governance is exercised through a clutch of militias, such as Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and Badr, which had virtually taken over the country’s police and paramilitary forces. Within weeks of taking office Kadhimi began the process of wresting control of the nation from the grip of Iran. His arm was undoubtedly strengthened by the presence of US armed forces. The thought of a complete American withdrawal had long worried anti-Iranian politicians, many feeling it would foster not only Iran’s influence, but also a resurgence of the Islamist armed groups, both Shia and Sunni, that roamed the country inflicting misery on the population.
Trump’s proposed troop withdrawal was immediately subject to political and media criticism. To put it in perspective, the current US troop strength in Iraq is around 3000, already down from around 5000 at the start of the year. Trump proposes to pull back another 500 men, leaving 2,500. Is that sufficient to maintain his “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran? Has he achieved a political plus by bringing American boys back, a move bound to be popular at home, or has he merely given Iran a free boost in its efforts to control Iraq?
Kadhimi came into office utterly determined to exert his authority over the self-regulating Iran-backed militia groups. Just about a month after he became prime minister, fourteen members of KH were engaged in setting up rocket attacks on the US embassy and Baghdad airport when, much to their astonishment, troops from the US-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force (ICTS) arrested them. The security forces then proceeded to raid KH headquarters, seize rockets and detain three leaders of the group.
KH, a law unto itself for years, tried to assert itself. Its operational commander, Abu Fadak, pulled together a force of around 150 fighters in nearly thirty armored pickup trucks, drove to the prime minister’s residence and demanded the suspects be released to his custody. Kadhimi declined to do so. However he placed them under the custody of the PMF (the Popular Mobilization Forces).
At first glance this might have appeared a somewhat equivocal move, since that body was led by a KH commander, Abu Zainab al-Lami. But Kadhimi had already taken steps to ensure a new level of control over the PMF, and he retained the whip hand. On June 3 the had instructed the head of the PMF, Faleh al-Fayadh, to announce that all Iraqi paramilitary groups were to be merged into the main organization, which would be subject to new directives as to its future role and function. Kadhimi’s coup was described as “the strongest state action against Iran-backed paramilitaries in years.”
Kadhimi, who will be facing parliamentary elections in June 2021, plans to continue weakening the grip of Iran-allied paramilitaries over Iraqi security forces. He also seeks to reduce the influence of Iran-supporting political groups over the parliamentary process.
His attempt to gain the upper hand has been a struggle. Using economic pressures, he has been pushing out members and supporters of the paramilitaries from state institutions. He has targeted corruption and smuggling at border crossings ‒ a major source of income for paramilitaries ‒ by strengthening government control. Recently he ordered forces to take over the two border crossings at Diyala into Iran, and shortly afterwards to control fourteen overland and sea port border crossings. In August he set up a committee to investigate corruption at the unofficial border crossings set up to dodge government oversight.
Yet, wedged up hard against his Iranian neighbor geographically, Kadhimi has a tightrope to walk. Despite his clear intention to take back control of his country, he needs to maintain, and even strengthen, Iraq’s economic ties with Tehran because of the dependence of Iraqi markets on Iranian non-oil exports. During a visit by the Iranian Energy Minister in June, Iraq released $400 million to Iran ‒ half of the electricity debt accumulated under US sanctions ‒ and whereas electricity export contracts between Iran and Iraq are usually renewed annually, this time they were renewed for two years. Reports also circulated about a possible rail connection between Iraq and Iran through Shalamcheh, to improve trade and mobility. Kadhimi hopes that Tehran regards with favor these efforts to build stronger economic ties, even in spite of his efforts at home to regain political, economic and military control of his country.
Iran has been intent for years on exerting a stranglehold over Iraq, as it has nearly succeeded in doing in Lebanon through its puppet Hezbollah organization. Iraq is a key component of its so-called “Shia crescent”, the string of Shi’ite states it sees as the foundation of its religious and political objective to dominate the Middle East. In prime minister Kadhimi it has met with a determined patriot. Strongly opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, he left his native country back in the 1980s, and spend many years working in the West.
If any Iraqi leader is capable of extracting his country from Iran’s suffocating embrace, Kadhimi is surely that man.
Published in the Jerusalem Post, 25 November 2020: