In Iraq, the recent crisis the government found itself in and the Iran-U.S. showdown have opened new chapters for the country. The killing of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Jan. 3 left Iraq in uncertain waters. In fact, it destabilized the positions of all parties involved in Iraq, both the U.S. and Iran. The forming of a new government in Baghdad, the situation of the mostly Shia militia group of Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi as well as the future of the U.S. military presence all depend on coordination between those different parties.
The Trump administration is bent on turning Iraq into a frontline or bulwark against Iran. For this reason, the Iraqi parliament’s decision to evacuate U.S. military bases from Iraqi territory was met with threats from Washington. No government formed under the current circumstances can be strong enough to face American threats. Iraq is like tempered glass that has been shattered, its pieces are very hard to maintain together.
Meanwhile, Iran is doing what it can to force U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq. Sub-groups from the Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi like the Kata’ib Hezbollah have targeted U.S. bases. Yet aside from Sunni Muslims and Kurds, many Shias also consider the American presence as an effective way to counterbalance Iran. As reflected by the protests that took place in November, resentment against Iranian hegemony has grown over time. Those protests ultimately led to the resignation of the Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Arm-wrestling between the two competing powers hijacked efforts to form a national government.
President Barham Salih nominated Tawfik Allawi to form the government, but to no avail. Adnan al-Zurfi was then nominated, but as al-Zurfi carried a U.S. passport, he was seen as a “US agent” and was vetoed by the Shia parties. Sunnis and Kurds did not endorse him either. Shia groups mostly agreed on the Intelligence Chief Mustafa al-Kazimi, who did not expect it. On Thursday, the Iraqi President ended up nominating Kazimi, though he carries a British passport. While it did not want al-Zurfi in power and has kept its distances from Kazimi, Iran had little say in the process.
During this process, Iran sought to convince Shia parties to coordinate and agree on a joint candidate. Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council met with several Shia representatives in Baghdad on March 7. Shia parties then formed a seven-member committee to determine a joint candidate. Nothing came of it.
Al-Kazimi can balance out the U.S. and Iran. Yet in the chaos of Iraq, the will and intentions of the Prime Minister alone amount to little. The Prime Minister’s ability to enact change lies in his capacity to coordinate groups. If al-Kazimi is able to form a government, he will inevitably fall prey to the Iranian-U.S. proxy war. Pressures for the US to withdraw from the country won’t abate, and neither will objections against Iranian influence.
Washington awaits the formation of the new government to strike a strategic deal. It will come forward in all its might when the time is ripe. Until it finds itself at the negotiation table, the U.S. will continue to seek to deter Iran and even destroy the most active elements of the Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi.
While the U.S. believes that its assassination of Soleimani marked a turning point and disrupted Iran’s activities in the region, it is in fact the Americans’ position that has been destabilized. This is the main reason why the military bases have strategically changed. The U.S. is also planning an operation to wipe out Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi. But it in the meantime, Washington intends to lower its overall number of military bases and bolster its remaining ones with Patriot and C-RAM. Most importantly, it plans to shift the center of its military deployment to Kurdistan.
Since it launched its fight against ISIS in 2014, the U.S. has deployed 14 bases across the country. Only in the past month, they have vacated five of these bases. It is likely that they will withdraw from two additional bases. According to some unconfirmed information, three bases are to be built in the Kurdish cities of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Halabja.
While the U.S. sees its overall position in Iraq weakening, it takes Kurdistan for granted. Besides, its shift to Kurdistan is in line with their policy to pressure Iran. Washington’s sustained presence in Syria depends its capacity to form a base in Kurdistan.
Another aspect of this overhaul is that the shift of the U.S. towards Sulaymaniyah as it is known as Iran’s stronghold in Kurdistan. If the U.S. has long worked with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), it is now opening the way to push the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (KYB) away from Iran. Lahur Talabani, the co-leader of the KYB, has been working closely with the Americans since its aid campaign for Kobani in 2014. Still, both sides in Kurdistan do not seek a strategy to alienate Iran. In its relations with the US, Kurdish political actors seek a balancing out of external powers.
Though it is frequently argued that Iran is currently consumed by its economic woes, its battle against the coronavirus, it is too early to make such judgments.
In short, the U.S.-Iran showdown will either expose Iraq, including Kurdistan, to re-design military operations or usher in a return to the unprecedented cooperation that had allowed the country to tackle several issues in the wake of the 2003 invasion. A third option is the Iraqis fully recovering their sovereignty, though this prospect remains distant for now.