Baghdad’s parliament has agreed a draft bill calling on foreign forces to leave Iraq. Few are in doubt that the law is aimed at US forces following the high-profile assassination of Iran’s most powerful and influential military general Qassem Suleimani and Iraq’s unofficial kingmaker. Suleimani was renowned for arbitrating between the Iraqi Shiite parties whenever they clashed with one another and ensuring that they remained a united bloc to frustrate US power.
During the Obama administration, the US reeled back its military presence, creating more space for Suleimani to operate in and organise the sporadic militias into a fighting force. This fighting force which became the Popular Mobilisation Force or ‘Hashd al-Shaabi’ became integral in the fight against ISIS. The US had dismantled the Iraqi army to remove Saddam-era leanings, and Iran’s allies in Baghdad beefed the interior ministry to create a domestic environment of impunity for the militias while neglecting the Defence Ministry and the army in order to prevent any possibility of a future coup. This meant that by the time ISIS appeared, the army were ill-equipped and dissipated in the face of the advancing enemy forces which reached the outskirts of Baghdad.
Iran, and Qassem Suleimani, seized the opportunity. They presented the organised militias as the alternative. Obama initially resisted. The Hashd had been implicated in sectarian killings and attempting to alter the demographics of liberated areas. However, reluctant to send troops and frustrated at the Iraqi government’s sluggish advance which boosted ISIS’ image, he conceded provided that cameras showed the Iraqi army entering the liberated areas first.
Following the defeat of ISIS, the US insisted that the militias had to disband. Instead, Iran in conjunction with its allies in Baghdad who dominated the Parliament, passed a law incorporating the Hashd under the umbrella of the armed forces. Having secured a legal framework, Hashd’s leaders ran for office. Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr Brigade came second place behind his rival (but also pro-Iran) Moqtada-Sadr, and just ahead of another pro-Iran ally Haidar al-Abadi. Iran therefore came to exert overwhelming influence over the security forces, and now the Parliament.
The US permitted these antics on the basis that Iran did not actually hurt any US interests. US companies continued to operate relatively unopposed. When making demands, Baghdad usually complied. Its large number of military bases could respond swiftly to any military threat. Furthermore, given the US was unsure whether the Arab Spring and popular uprisings that brought down their allies were a good thing, it was prepared to sit back and watch Suleimani operate in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and react as and when necessary.
Iran and Suleimani’s plans however went awry as a result of the outbreak of popular protests in Iraq and Lebanon; two very important proxies for Tehran. Protests broke out even in predominantly Shia areas in which Iran had enjoyed much sympathy since 1979. Chants of “Iran Barra Barra (Iran Out, Out)”, as well as the ransacking of offices associated with the Hashd al-Shaabi rattled Iran’s allies in Baghdad. Protestors demanded the fall of the system, the dissolution of Parliament, the disbanding of militias, the breaking up of traditional power circles, and the formation of a new transitional government that would lay the groundwork for free and fair elections.
The initial response of Iran’s allies was to open fire on protestors. This continued for a prolonged period of time. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi offered his resignation. This did nothing to stem the growing number of protestors on the streets. Iran ally Moqtada al-Sadr sough to ‘join’ the protestors while negotiating with other parties how to escape the immense pressure being exerted on the government.
For the US, the protests were a welcome response to Iran. Given that Iran’s allies dominated the Iraqi institutions, their ousting would allow the US to ‘restart’ their Iraq project without the use of force, and under the umbrella of a popular ‘revolution’.
Then, a rapid escalation of events suddenly took place. An American contractor was killed by one of the Pro-Iran militias. The US responded with air strikes on Pro-Iranian positions. Supporters of the Pro-Iran militias responded by storming the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
The significance of this was two-fold. Firstly, the storming was very public and broadcast all over the world in what became a very public humiliation of US authority in Iraq. Secondly, the embassy was stormed within the Green Zone which is a heavily fortified area inaccessible to citizens without the government’s permission. In other words, the government implicitly allowed the embassy to be stormed.
The storming of the embassy delivered two messages to Washington from Iran: ‘We can retaliate, and the government is in our hands’.
With Trump very close to elections, mired in an impeachment fiasco, and under heavy pressure from the Democrats, the public humiliation of his US administration broadcast to the world could not go without response.
However even Iran did not anticipate that Trump would take out their most prized general. Qassem Suleimani arrived in Baghdad in usual style; as a seemingly untouchable figure. He had been tracked from Lebanon and had travelled via Syria. He was due to return to Iran after his stop in Baghdad. Rumours suggest he was on a routine tour of his militias and troops. In the past, the US have steered clear of targeting Suleimani fearing that his death could spark a regional war. However, it appears that for Trump, a high-profile humiliation had to be met with a high-profile humiliation.
The assassination has put Iran in a very difficult situation. It did not anticipate that Trump would up the ante in their tit-for-tat. Qassem Suleimani’s death will not win Iran any more allies than it already has. The response in Iraq has been ambivalent at best. Although condemning that the act violated Iraq’s sovereignty, most will admit that Suleimani has been just as destructive for Iraq as the US. Moreover, Iran’s allies were already united, so his death will not inspire any new unity that might enhance Iran’s power. Those publicly grieving are those who already supported Iran. Moreover, victims of Suleimani’s demographic altering military operations in Iraq and Syria will have celebrated the general’s demise and taken heart that the harbringer of much disaster in their lands is finally in the grave.
Iran’s options for retaliation are limited. Their proxies bogged down by domestic uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon. Moreover, militias will be worrying about their own necks given Suleimani himself (the most powerful Iranian military official) was assassinated. In Iran itself, the country remains prone to protests due to economic conditions. Tehran is baffled as to why Trump went to such extreme lengths. They do not believe their US embassy stunt warranted such a response. They are now in an awkward position where they ‘need to retaliate’ to save face but cannot predict what Trump will do in response.
The actual vote
Given the context, the vote comes as part of a number of initiatives by Iran to save face. Two days ago, rockets were fired in the vicinity of a US base, but there were no casualties. It was an attempt to display strength without igniting war. Iran conducted a major cyber-attack on the government’s low-key Federal Depository Library Program. Militias then began posturing threatening reprisals. But none such reprisals have taken place. These were attempts to display strength without igniting war.
In light of the context behind the vote, it is clear that the impact of the law will be limited, if not ineffectual. Iraq’s Parliament is facing a mass protest calling for its dissolution and for its members to be brought to justice. The Prime Minister Adel AbdelMahdi is seen as a mouthpiece for Iran’s main man in Iraq Hadi al-Amiri who controls the Badr Brigade militia. Iran is not keen on an all-out war and will unlikely order their allies to unleash enough of a retaliation that will warrant the return of US troops to Iraq. The US has asserted itself once more in the region restoring confidence among its allies by taking out the most powerful military operative in the region.
Baghdad does not have the means to enforce such a law. Its army remains impotent. Militias are posturing but will worry about their current position particularly if Iran displays any hesitancy. Russian troops have avoided any confrontation with US troops in Syria despite their dominance. It is hardly likely they will assist Iran in a war with the US.
From Washington’ perspective, the Iraqi parliament means very little. For the US, they installed these officials after ousting Saddam and are happy to remove them if they get out of hand and replace them. Iran’s dominance is as a result of Obama’s policy of gradual retreat, not as a result of any weakening in US power.
Washington and Tehran want to negotiate. Trump will argue his hand was forced by Iran’s US embassy stunt in Baghdad. Iran, feeling desperately belittled and embarrassed at the ease with which its top military commander was taken out, will not attend the table of negotiation in the current dynamics. It does not want to be seen as a weak and humbled party. –Washington is likely to be aware of this. For this reason, it is more likely that Washington will tolerate these ineffectual manoeuvres taking place as long as they do not humiliate Trump again. In other words, Washington will allow Tehran to restore some pride if it means that the Iranians come to the table.
For Iran, they will privately hold out until the elections hoping Trump will lose and the more sympathetic Democrats come to power. However, they are well aware that if Trump wins a landslide, their position will be exceptionally difficult in the region. Former US generals such as Petraeus have hailed the return of the US ‘deterrent’ that was undermined by Obama.