In March, before the COVID-19 crisis began dominating the news, the American people were given a tragic reminder of the Iraq mission’s futility: two U.S. Marine Special Operators were killed while fighting Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) in northern Iraq and days later, two more Americans were killed by Iranian proxies in a rocket attack outside of Baghdad. These deaths underscore a precarious situation for the United States.
If the United States remains in Iraq, the cycle of supporting the Iraqi government while it enables Iranian proxies to attack Americans will further escalate the ongoing conflict into a full-scale war – something the United States does not want or need.
To avoid a conflict with Iran and weaken its ability to export terror, the United States must deprive Iran of funds and targets. Iran uses its control over the Iraqi government to access Iraq’s economy and circumvent sanctions, all the while killing Americans in Iraq via proxy. The United States, therefore, should halt its diplomatic mission in Baghdad, withdraw U.S. personnel from the vulnerable U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and sanction the Iraqi government in the same way it has sanctioned Iran.
Enough of diminishing returns, end the U.S. diplomatic mission in Baghdad.
Halting the diplomatic mission and sanctioning the Iraqi government will send a clear message to the current Iraqi government that the U.S. will not tolerate support for Iranian terror. Once the Iraqi government has purged Iranian agents and militias from its ranks the U.S. will resume normal diplomatic relations with Iraq.
The U.S. losses in March illustrate the U.S.’s losing cycle in Iraq. Two Marine Special Operators were killed fighting the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) as members of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the multinational mission advising and assisting the Iraqi government in combating ISIS.
A few days later the government of Iraq ‘expressed its gratitude‘ to the United States for sacrificing two Marines by allowing Iranian proxies to kill two more Americans and a British soldier in a rocket attack at a logistical hub north of Baghdad. The logistical hub’s purpose is to support OIR by providing the Iraqi government with U.S. and coalition aid and air support.
This attack is similar to the rocket attack that killed an American contractor supporting OIR in Kirkuk, Iraq in late December 2019. These attacks bear blatant Iranian fingerprints. A barrage of approximately thirty 107mm Katyusha rockets was fired during the attack that killed the American contractor. Four intact rockets were later found at the launch site and assessed to be made in Iran. This same style of rocket, the Katyusha, was used in the attack north of Baghdad that killed the two American soldiers and a British soldier. The Katyusha was the rocket of choice for Iranian proxies during the Iraq war from 2003-2011. ISIS has not used this style of rocket since it last held terrain in Iraq in 2017 as it is a cumbersome system requiring a large delivery platform such as a flatbed truck. To transport this weapon system in range of the U.S. bases it had to move through Iraqi security forces checkpoints, reflecting at least the complicity of the Iraqi government in the attack. These checkpoints and the points of origin for both the attack in Kirkuk and outside Baghdad were under the control of the notorious Iraqi Federal Police, who gained notoriety for being led by Iranian proxies and mostly consisting of Shias loyal to the Iranian controlled Badr Corps.
Following the attack on Kirkuk in December, the U.S. conducted retaliatory strikes against the Iranian backed Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militia that is also a part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a branch of the Iraqi security forces. Directly following the strikes the Iraqi government allowed members of KH to lay siege to the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The U.S .Embassy is located within the secure perimeter of the Iraqi Presidential palace and not accessible to the public. KH members reaching the gates of the embassy unimpeded reflects the government of Iraq’s complicity. The siege was led by Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the late leader of the PMU and a U.S.-designated terrorist. At Muhandis’s side was Hadi Amiri, the Iraqi Minister of Transportation and leader of the Iranian backed Badr militia. The presence of these men shows the loyalties of the Iraqi Government.
As the recent attacks on U.S. personnel and the siege on the American Embassy demonstrate, the Iraqi government has become deeply infiltrated by Iran. Iran’s infiltration and control of the Iraqi government began with the U.S.’s hasty efforts to rebuild the Iraqi government after toppling Saddam. The two most powerful political parties in Iraq’s parliament, Fatah Alliance and State of Law Coalition, are comprised of several Iranian-backed militias responsible for killing U.S. troops in Iraq. These groups operated under the purview of the late Iranian proxy master Qasim Soleimani, who was killed by the U.S. in response to the December 2019 attack. The Fatah Alliance includes the Badr Organization, the Al-Sadiqoun bloc, which is the political wing of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib al-Imam Ali.
The Badr Organization began as an Iraqi unit that fought for Iran during the Iraq-Iran war and was instrumental in smuggling Iranian military aid to Iraqi insurgents from 2003-2011. Badr quickly infiltrated the ranks of the Iraqi security forces, particularly within the Ministries of Interior and Transportation. This gave Badr control of thousands of armed police officers and the ability to control Iraq’s roads and checkpoints, enabling the recent attacks in Taji and Kirkuk and providing Iran freedom of movement throughout Iraq. Badr’s official status has kept them from getting their hands dirty attacking the U.S., leaving blatant terrorism to Iran’s more lethal proxies in AAH, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib al-Imam Ali all of whom killed countless U.S .troops during the Iraq war. These militias were technically placed under the PMU, which became part of the Iraqi security forces in 2016, the Iraqi security forces that receive U.S. funding and equipment.
The State of Law coalition is dominated by the Islamic Dawa party, which is a longtime surrogate of Iran and responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. This operation was overseen by the aforementioned Al-Muhadis, who was later killed alongside Soleimani by the U.S. When the United States invaded Iraq, Dawa rebranded itself as politically moderate and was able to hold the Prime Minister’s office from 2003-2014 and run top cover for Iran’s machinations in Iraq.
With this depth of control in Iraq, Iran still holds the upper hand and uses U.S. support for the Iraqi government and the fight against ISIS against the United States. The rocket attacks on U.S. bases that killed Americans, were likely facilitated or conducted by recipients of U.S. military assistance.
Despite the addition of a new pro-American Prime Minister (PM) Mustafa Al-Khadimi, Iran’s proxies are still in control of the Iraqi government’s parliament and most importantly, Iraq’s security forces. Simply put, Iran is now in control of the largest number of armed men in Iraq. Al-Khadimi is tolerated by Iran’s loyalists because he can ensure that U.S. aid is not completely cut off by telling American diplomats what they want to hear about reform while players like Amiri pull the strings from the shadows.
Removing U.S. diplomats and U.S. aid severs Iraq’s ability to benefit from both U.S. and Iranian partnership and drastically limits Iraq’s utility to Iran. Having U.S. diplomats walk away from their Iraqi counterparts would reset the relationship with Iraq and demonstrate to the Iraqi government that U.S. support is not a sure thing – it must be earned. Iraqi government officials have been conditioned to always having the U.S. in their country asking, if not pleading, to do more for them. Iran knows this and exploits it to fund their militias and access the world economy. Removing U.S. diplomats would also show the American people that the U.S. will not support and defend a country who acts on behalf of a terrorist state like Iran.
Keeping American support ensures Iran’s access to funds from U.S. military aid and sanctions waivers for the Iraqi government to purchase Iranian goods. All while allowing Iran to retain close access to U.S. targets should Iran choose to strike again. By sanctioning and severing ties with the Iraqi government until it purges itself of Iranian agents the U.S. deprives Iran of leverage by depriving Iran of funds and targets.
Never play to the enemy’s strength – Take away Iran’s targets.
Withdrawing U.S. personnel will provide the United States the freedom to tighten sanctions on Iran and counter Iranian aggression in the Gulf, without risking attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other locations in Iraq. The U.S. Embassy is located in the heart of Baghdad on the bank of the Tigris river, surrounded by Shia dominated neighborhoods and secured by Iraq security forces dominated by the Badr corps. As demonstrated by the January siege and hundreds of attacks during the Iraq war, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is extremely vulnerable.
The location is a gift to the Iranians, they have a viable target located next to their most potent weapon, their proxies. Conversely, U.S. personnel in range of Iranian proxies deprive the U.S. of its formidable technological advantage and levels the playing field for Iran as opposed to killing from afar. The U.S. is opting to fight Iran on Iran’s terms.
Leaving U.S .personnel within range of Iranian militias is a recipe for rapid escalation that could draw the U.S. into a war. After Iranian-backed militias killed a U.S. contractor in December of 2019 and laid siege to the U.S. Embassy, President Trump responded boldly by authorizing the killing of Iranian proxy master Qassim Soleimani and his Iraqi deputy, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. In response, Iran unleashed an ineffective ballistic missile attack on U.S. installations in Iraq from Iranian soil. The Iranians likely intended for this attack not to kill any Americans fearing escalation and fortunately, none occurred, but had an American been killed a drastic escalation would likely have taken place. With Americans on the ground in Iraq within the range of Iranian proxies and missiles, this escalation formula is just one rocket away from playing out all over again and next time both sides might not be so lucky.
Despite the significance of Soleimani’s killing, it does not change Iran’s strategic goals. Killing Soleimani was a tactical win but not a victory over Iran’s overall ambitions. Iran’s desire to have control of Iraq to circumvent sanctions and to physically connect Iran to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon remains a top priority. Iran views its proxies as its force projection and strategic depth. Killing a few leaders does not change their strategy.
Killing Soleimani bought the United States time to withdraw personnel as the militias regrouped. The attack that killed two Americans in March indicates that Iran has regained its footing. The U.S. squandered the element of surprise by remaining in Iraq attempting to convince the Iraqi government to let the United States remain in to support the fight against ISIS, Iran’s enemy.
By remaining in Iraq after killing Soleimani, the U.S. lost the momentum and handed it back to Iran. After you strike the enemy, you move – this is a basic military tactic, especially if your position provides you with nothing.
The U.S. does not need Iraq, Iraq needs the U.S. The United States is in Iraq to counter ISIS and that mission is as over as it ever will be. The territorial caliphate was destroyed over a year ago and ISIS is only capable of small-scale attacks inside Iraq and Syria.
If ISIS returns and gains enough momentum that they control ground the U.S. can rapidly return for limited military strikes from friendly neighboring countries that don’t answer to Iran. It is worth noting that ISIS did not start external attacks against the West until it controlled ground in Syria and Iraq, making ISIS insurgent attacks on Iraqi security forces an Iraqi problem unworthy of American lives.
A limited number of U.S. personnel could stay in Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdish region to conduct negotiations with the Iraqi government and to orchestrate counter-terror operations against ISIS and Iranian targets as needed.
The United States remaining in Iraq absorbing blows from Iranian militias will not change the Iraqi government, fix the Shia vs. Sunni regional war, or fix the U.S.’s history of poor decisions in Iraq. The U.S.’s involvement in Iraq will only cost more lives by remaining accessible to Iran’s proxies, thereby risking escalation into a full war with Iran.
Maximize the maxim pressure – sanction the Iraq government
To inflict the maximum pressure on Iraq to purge itself of Iranian influence and to deprive Iran of a major source of income Iraq must be harshly sanctioned. Iraq needs the United States’ significant foreign aid to fund and equip their military and to keep their economy afloat. Iraq’s Central Bank is held at the U.S. Federal Reserve in New York.
Iran needs access to the Iraqi economy via the sanction waivers that allow Iraq to purchase billions of dollars in natural gas from Iran. These waivers grant Iran’s nationalized energy sector with significant relief. Iraq is also the first destination for Iranian goods, thanks to lucrative trade agreements secured for Iran by their loyalists in the Iraqi government. The U.S. has granted sanctions waivers that allowed the Iraqi government to do business with Iran in an effort to provide basic services to the Iraqi people. Iran can withstand the U.S.’s maximum pressure sanctions thanks to their ability to manipulate the Iraqi economy. Closing this loophole would maximize pressure by sanctioning Iraq as it does Iran, thereby denying Iran one of its best workarounds for sanctions.
Applying maximum pressure on Iran’s feeble economy is a low risk and low-cost way for the U.S. to combat Iran’s regional expansion and its support for terrorism without putting U.S. troops in harm’s way. Iran relies heavily on the use of proxies for strategic depth and proxies don’t work for free. Deprive Iran of funds and targets and Iran quickly loses much of its strategic depth.
The government of Iraq is already facing an ever-growing youth-led protest movement that is demanding substantive reforms and demands the purging of foreign influence from Iraq. It is unlikely that Iraq would be able to endure sanctions and the protest movement. This will force the Iraqi government to choose between remaining in the good graces of Iran or providing for their people.
The time has come for the U.S. to objectively look at the situation in Iraq again. U.S. military aid to Iraq goes into the hands of the same Iranian-backed militias who are killing U.S. troops and funding Iran’s expansion throughout the region. Iran’s main militias are an official part of the Iraqi security forces, the PMU, that the U.S. provides aid to under the auspices of combating terror. Ironically, this aid is used by Iranian proxies to conduct terror attacks against the U.S. Cutting off aid to the Iraqi security forces is a logical counter to this embarrassing cycle.
The U.S. should take bold action now and move U.S. troops and diplomats out of the range of Iranian militias and issue a ninety-day sanctions period on Iraq, specifically their oil sector, freeze assets in U.S. held accounts, and end security assistance. This will show the Iraqi government that the U.S. is serious about removing Iranian control from their government.
Moving U.S. troops and diplomats can be done using whatever justification it feels makes sense at the time they might enact such a policy.
Moving U.S. troops and diplomats can be done under the auspices of the COVID-19 crisis in an effort to not tip the U.S.’s hand as its personnel are moved to safety just prior to placing sanctions on Iraq.
The Iraqi government must feel the wrath of the United States for its allegiance to Iran. Halting the diplomatic mission there, withdrawing U.S. troops, and sanctioning the Iraqi government will disproportionately hit corrupt Iraqi politicians and Iranian loyalists where it hurts most while depriving our enemies of targets and valuable funding. Without these resources, Iran will have a hard time affording its numerous proxy groups, thereby degrading its ability to strike beyond its borders.
Walking away from and sanctioning Iraq will initially lead to some chaos. Iraqi leaders accustomed to U.S. aid will have to answer to their protests and the Iranians will be spread ever thin as they attempt to fund their proxies and hold onto their territorial gains. Outside of Iraq the message to nations who receive U.S. aid while supporting America’s enemies will be clear, America’s support is conditional and can end. This will strengthen the U.S.’s diplomatic posture worldwide.
The time has come for the United States to end its losing cycle in Iraq by leveraging its economic power and agility to reset their relationship with Iraq and apply further pressure on Iran.