January 31, 2019 |

Midterm Assessment: Iraq

January 31, 2019

Midterm Assessment: Iraq

Current Policy

In Iraq, the Trump administration confronted much the same strategic challenge as its two predecessors: how to support the establishment of a stable, independent Iraq under constant threat from both Sunni jihadism and Iranian imperialism. Entering office with the war against the Islamic State still raging, the administration devoted its first year to eliminating the caliphate’s strongholds in Iraq. But as the war wound down, the focus turned to the more difficult long-term problem of combating Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq’s fledgling democracy.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made crushing the Islamic State his top national security priority.1 While Trump largely continued the Obama administration’s strategy of using U.S. air power and several thousand troops to support local ground forces, he significantly loosened the rules of engagement.2 The number of U.S. air strikes increased dramatically under Trump and likely hastened the Islamic State’s collapse. By December 2017, the caliphate in Iraq (if not the Islamic State itself) had been vanquished.

In addition to military support, the administration also took steps to support Iraq politically and economically. Trump dropped Iraq from the countries originally included in his controversial travel ban.3 Iraq’s then-prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, was one of the first Arab leaders invited to the White House. The administration successfully pushed Saudi Arabia to increase diplomatic and economic engagement with Iraq, an objective its predecessors had failed to achieve.4 After the Islamic State’s defeat, the administration helped mobilize an international conference to support Iraq’s reconstruction, netting $30 billion in pledges.5

While the war against the Islamic State continued, the administration’s response toward Iran’s growing influence in Iraq was muted. The intervention of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), had proved crucial to Iraq’s defense after its army collapsed in the face of the Islamic State’s 2014 invasion.6 Months before U.S. support was forthcoming, the Quds Force rushed weapons and commanders to Iraq. Several Quds Force-directed Iraqi militias sent thousands of Shiite fighters into the breach to prevent Iraq from being overrun. These militias quickly came to dominate the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), a contingent of more than 100,000 volunteers called to arms by Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The Trump administration largely maintained a single-minded focus on defeating the Islamic State – even as Iran’s proxies gained political and military strength. Most controversially, a few weeks after Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held an independence referendum in September 2017, the U.S. stood aside as the Iraqi military and IRGC-backed militias attacked Kurdish forces that for decades had been America’s most reliable security partners in Iraq, seizing nearly half the territory and oil resources previously under KRG control.7

Supporters of Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Despite U.S. efforts to bolster Abadi in the run-up to national elections in May 2018, his list finished behind two others with deep anti-American pedigrees and links to Iran – one headed by the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the other by the IRGC’s PMF proxies. After the vote, Iraqis engaged in nearly five months of backroom haggling to form a governing coalition. American diplomats competed with Iran to shape the outcome, pushing hard to secure Abadi a second term.8 But after violent protests erupted in the oil-rich Shiite province of Basra over deplorable economic conditions, Sistani called for a new face to serve as prime minister. By October, a compromise was reached to name the Kurdish politician, Barham Salih, as Iraq’s new president and the Western-trained economist, Adel Abdul Mahdi, as prime minister.9 Though the U.S. role in their selection appeared marginal, both Salih and Mahdi had long worked closely with Washington while also maintaining cordial relations with Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo with Iraqi President Barham Salih on January 9, 2019 in Baghdad, Iraq. (U.S. State Department Photo/Flickr)


The administration’s success in rapidly destroying the Islamic State caliphate was a clear achievement. With Iraqi forces bearing the brunt of the fighting, U.S. strategy succeeded in significantly reducing a major terrorist threat at a relatively low cost.

Beyond the military realm, the administration’s success in getting Saudi Arabia to make a sustained effort to engage Iraq politically and economically deserves credit. Deepening Iraq’s ties to the Arab world has long been viewed as an essential element of countering its dependence on Iran.

With its singular focus on the Islamic State, the U.S. did little to push back as the IRGC systematically worked to apply a variation of its “Hezbollah model” in Iraq – wherein local proxies beholden to Iran establish themselves as the state’s most powerful military and political actors.

The greatest shortcoming in the administration’s policy was its lackluster response to the rising power of Iranian-backed militias. With its singular focus on the Islamic State, the U.S. did little to push back as the IRGC systematically worked to apply a variation of its “Hezbollah model” in Iraq – wherein local proxies beholden to Iran establish themselves as the state’s most powerful military and political actors. The lack of U.S. protest as Iraqi militias fought in Syria on behalf of the Quds Force was telling. So, too, was U.S. silence as the Iraqi government, under substantial Iranian pressure, moved to legalize the PMFs as a quasi-independent force within Iraq’s security forces.10 Perhaps worst was the absence of serious U.S. efforts to avert Iraq’s post-referendum attack on America’s Kurdish allies, in which the IRGC’s proxies played a leading role.

The U.S. position appeared to stiffen after Trump’s decision in May 2018 to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out 12 demands for Iran to change its behavior, including the specific requirement that “Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Iraqi militias.”11 In September, after Iraqi militias fired rockets at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Baghdad and Basra, Pompeo explicitly blamed the Quds Force and warned that the U.S. would “go to the source” and hold Iran itself accountable for the actions of its proxies.12 But that message was muddied days later when additional rocket salvos in Basra triggered not U.S. retaliation against Iran, but a decision to evacuate U.S. diplomats.13

A Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) fighter looks through binoculars on the Iraq-Syria border on June 20, 2017. (Martyn Aim/Getty Images)


  1. Affirm U.S. military presence. Trump’s sudden announcement on December 19, 2018 that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria cast serious doubt on the future of America’s military presence in Iraq. One week later, the president visited Iraq and suggested that U.S. forces there could be used to fight Islamic State remnants in Syria.14 With a new Iraqi government in place, headed by leaders supportive of strong relations with Washington, Trump should put to rest any remaining questions by officially affirming his intention to maintain a residual deployment of troops in Iraq as part of a long-term commitment to strengthen the Iraqi security forces. The U.S. presence plays a critical stabilizing role, bolstering Iraq’s ability to combat still-lethal pockets of Islamic State terrorists, but even more importantly helping to counterbalance expanding Iranian influence.
  2. Prioritize Iraq more. The administration should visibly elevate Iraq’s overall importance in U.S. policy – especially in light of its priority of constraining Iran’s regional aggression. Mahdi and Salih will need constant U.S. coaxing to improve governance, fight corruption, and resist Iranian meddling, including via the PMFs. Iraqis have regularly complained that no senior official with regular access to Trump appears to “own” the administration’s Iraq policy. Pompeo would be the obvious candidate. The administration should prioritize an early visit to Washington by Mahdi, following up on the invitation Trump extended to the Iraqi prime minister during his December 2018 trip to Iraq.
  3. Help Iraq’s post-war recovery. After the Islamic State war, Iraq’s reconstruction needs are huge. Many Sunni areas have been devastated. Southern Shiite provinces remain mired in poverty. Absent early progress on jobs and basic services, the dangers are great not only of an Islamic State resurgence, but of a broader collapse of faith in Iraq’s democratic experiment. Even in an era of declining foreign assistance, the administration should consider ways to leverage a sustained commitment of U.S. aid to mobilize American businesses and like-minded countries behind a coordinated effort to support Iraq’s recovery.
  4. Constrain Iranian imperialism. The administration needs a comprehensive strategy for blocking Iran’s efforts to use Iraq as a platform for advancing its hegemonic ambitions. First and foremost, that means sustained political, economic, and security support to strengthen Iraq’s own capabilities to stand up to Iranian meddling. But Iraq’s ability to resist Iranian pressure will also depend on America’s own resolve to confront Iranian aggression. The administration should be prepared to follow through on Pompeo’s threat to hold Iran itself accountable for attacks on U.S. interests by its Iraqi proxies. In consultation with Iraq, the administration should also be prepared to designate the full array of Iraqi militias, agents, and front companies acting to facilitate Iran’s malign activities. In light of Iraq’s continued dependence on gas and electricity imports from Iran, the U.S. should work to help Baghdad reduce these vulnerabilities while insisting that Iraq not become a channel for major Iranian sanctions busting.
  5. Rebuild relations with the KRG. The administration should devote high-level attention to repairing the breach that occurred after the Kurdish referendum. The Kurds have far and away been America’s most reliable partners in Iraq, not only on security and intelligence matters, but in trying to influence the politics and policies of Baghdad as well. The administration should invite KRG leaders to Washington, re-energize U.S.-KRG security cooperation, and support KRG internal reform to address corruption, economic mismanagement, and political dysfunction. The U.S. should also work energetically to mitigate conflicts between the KRG and Baghdad over key issues like oil, revenue sharing, and disputed territories, and ensure that the Kurds’ legitimate interests are respected within Iraq’s federal system.


Arab Politics Kurds