Since 2014, the campaign against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) has kept Iraq’s various political factions, both in Baghdad and within Iraqi Kurdistan, uneasily aligned against a common enemy. But with the defeat of IS in Iraq now approaching, sectarian tensions have resurfaced rapidly. So what happens next?
The stakes are high for Washington. Unlike the case of Syria — which was clearly not a U.S. ally before the campaign against Islamic State began, and where the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power is reluctantly acknowledged by the West — in Iraq, the future of the U.S. position in the Middle East is at stake.
The key period will be the next six months. In April 2018, Iraq will hold elections, which will see a contest between a broadly nationalist camp and a broadly pro-Iranian camp — in Baghdad, and in the country at large.
While the two camps are rough constellations of political affiliations more than exact categories, we can take Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi (a nationalist) and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (a pro-Iranian) as representative figureheads. These camps break across party lines, as is clear from the fact that both Abadi and Maliki come from Dawa, which, along with the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, is the country’s most important Shiite political alliance.
As a reminder of the risk it would pose to U.S. interests if the pro-Iranian camp gained power in Baghdad, recall how, after the 2010 Iraqi elections, Iran successfully pressured Maliki not to extend the agreement that allowed U.S. forces to operate in Iraq after it expired in 2011. Ultimately, this led to U.S. withdrawal and the sectarian chaos that followed Maliki’s vicious move against the Sunnis; that, in turn, set up conditions for the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had mutated into IS.
The worst-case scenario for Washington today is a straightforward repetition of this chain of events, whereby Maliki (who is still a vice president of Iraq) becomes prime minister again in 2018 and refuses to extend the agreement for U.S. forces to stay in Iraq. At this point, the Trump administration would have to decide whether to respect the wishes of a sovereign government or engage in some form of regime change.
Beyond questions of legality, the possibility of Washington’s toppling a democratically elected government, even if it is pro-Iranian, is remote, given how unpopular such a move would be with both the U.S. and the Iraqi public. The alternative in this scenario, however, would be for U.S. forces to leave Iraq and effectively hand the country over to Iran. So it is fair to say that a victory of the pro-Iranian camp in the April 2018 Iraqi elections would be a catastrophe for the U.S. position not only in Iraq but in the Middle East as a whole.
It is remarkable, therefore, how little attention Washington seems to have given to the question of what happens after the defeat of the Islamic State. Instead, U.S. officials have narrowly focused on the military objective. If Washington has a political strategy for Iraq after IS, we have yet to see it.
That the Trump administration does not seem to have a coherent political strategy in Iraq was made painfully clear in the recapture of Kirkuk by the Baghdad government on October 16.
The optics of having two local forces equipped by the United States — the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga — engaged in a hostile stand-off were bad enough. But look beneath the surface and things are worse.
What has not properly come to light in the English-language media is the internal power struggle in Baghdad between the nationalist and the pro-Iranian camps over how to respond to the Kurdish independence referendum of September 25. Maliki and a majority of Shiite parliamentarians in Baghdad wanted an aggressive military response, including the seizure of Kirkuk by force — an action that in all likelihood would have plunged Iraq into civil war.
Under massive pressure, Prime Minister Abadi nonetheless pushed for a peaceful solution, but one backed up by tough measures, namely: the closure of Kurdish airspace, coordination with Turkey to threaten the closure of the Kirkuk–Ceyhan pipeline (vital to Erbil’s revenue stream), a ban on sales of U.S. dollars from the Iraqi Central Bank to four key Kurdish banks, and a threat, supported by Ankara, that the federal government would take control of Iraq’s external border crossings located in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Maliki, meanwhile, consistently tried to undermine Abadi’s negotiations with the Kurdish regional government, for example by having his people demand the exclusion of Kurdish members of Iraq’s national parliament in Baghdad and the removal of Iraq’s president, Fuad Masum, who is a Kurd.
Crucially, Abadi secured public support from Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most important Shiite religious authority in Iraq, who called for the formation of Shiite militias to fight IS back in 2014 and is highly respected by them. Sistani also calmed tensions by calling for Kurdish constitutional rights to be respected while criticizing the Kurdish regional government’s move to break up the country.
Abadi’s approach got traction with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which, along with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is one of the two main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. This was partly due to leadership disputes in the PUK following the death on October 3 of its leader, Jalal Talabani (the president of Iraq from 2005 to 2014). The Talabani family saw the opportunity to work with Baghdad to move against both the KDP, led by Kurdish president Massoud Barzani, and the new leader of the PUK, Kosrat Rasul, who is close to Barzani and who had backed the referendum. Indeed, Jalal Talabani’s widow, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, and his son, Bafel, in what seems to have been part of a deal with Abadi, had criticized the KDP’s decision to hold the referendum.
There are also unverified claims that this deal was brokered by Qasem Soliemani, a key commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and by his ally in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who oversees the Shiite militias. However, we know from an interview with Jalal Talabani’s niece, Ala Talabani, that there was a meeting between Solemani and the Talabanis on October 15 in the Sulaymaniyah province of Kurdistan (a PUK stronghold), which at a minimum supports the inference that Tehran did have a hand in brokering the deal.
Bafel Talabani denies that there was any such PUK–Baghdad deal and claims that the PUK Peshmerga fought the Iraqi army in Kirkuk before having to withdraw. This is implausible: It is not credible that the Iraqi army could have so easily taken Kirkuk if the withdrawal of PUK Peshmerga had not been negotiated in advance. It seems that the little fighting that did take place was the result of resistance from the KDP Peshmerga and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) units, who withdrew after light skirmishes.
It appears, therefore, that there was indeed a PUK–Baghdad deal, the essence of which was that, having avoided civil war, the PUK would run Kirkuk as part of a joint administration with the federal government.
But there remains a serious risk of clashes across the rest of the territories disputed between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, especially if the Shiite militias are allowed to enter the area and abuse Kurdish civilians, provoking the Peshmerga to intervene. So far, Abadi has done all he can to stop the Shiite militias from operating in the disputed territories. Since the takeover of Kirkuk, however, there appear to have been a number of clashes between both Peshmerga and Kurdish civilians and Shiite militias across the disputed territories, for example in Khanaqin, in Diyalah province, and in Tuz Khormatu, near Kirkuk.
We see here how, if Maliki had had his way, there could be all-out civil war in northern Iraq already. Even now, Abadi is struggling to keep the Shiite militias in check and find a peaceful resolution to the stand-off between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds.
The politics within Kurdistan are now more fraught than they have been since the KDP and the PUK fought a civil war in the 1990s. If the Talabani family keeps control of the PUK, they are likely to move against President Barzani, especially since he has just postponed the Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections that were scheduled for November 2017 (Barzani’s term in office, which was supposed to end in 2013, has already twice been extended).
The political tensions in the rest of Iraq mirror the instability we see in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. The Shiite militias themselves are far from being homogeneous, consisting rather of a wide spectrum of different groups, which range from broadly “nationalist” entities linked to the Shiite shrines around Najaf to pro-Iranian groups such as the Badr Corps.
Further, there is not a simple alignment between the nationalist camp and pro-American sympathies. Take, for example, Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric who is no friend of the West but who has nonetheless turned away from Iran to promote a nationalist brand of religious politics that emphasizes Arab over Persian identity. Al-Sadr has been courted by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as a potential ally and has even called for some of the Shiite militias to be disbanded.
In sum, Iraq has Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to thank for the fact that cooler heads prevailed in the Kirkuk standoff and civil war was avoided. Abadi has proven himself to be a competent and sensible leader and should take credit for guiding Iraq from the chaos in 2014, when IS fighters were at the gates of Baghdad, to the virtual elimination of the group as a territory-holding force in Iraq today.
The events in Kirkuk, however, also show how fragile Abadi’s authority is, given that he only just managed to guide the country to a peaceful resolution in the face of massive pressure from Maliki’s camp for a more violent and sectarian response. Moreover, there are no guarantees that the situation will not unravel, given both the potential for the Shiite militias to clash with Peshmerga and the possibility that relations between the Kurdish parties seriously break down.
Washington got lucky in Kirkuk. But it can no longer dress up an operational battle plan — the defeat of IS — as a political strategy, because Islamic State is no longer a serious enough threat to align Iraq’s disparate political factions against a common enemy.
One hopes that Kirkuk jolts the Trump administration into producing a political strategy that explains how Washington will counter Iranian influence in Iraq and makes clear the U.S. position on the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. On October 22, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that it was time for Iranian militias in Iraq to go home. Leaving aside the fact that most of the pro-Iranian Shiite militias are Iraqis, who are already at home, Tillerson’s words mean nothing without a coherent political strategy. But we heard nothing about that.
If after the April 2018 elections we find that all the American blood and treasure spent in Iraq turns out to have created an Iranian satellite state, the victory over IS in Iraq will hardly have been that of the United States.
– Mr. Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a former infantry officer in the British army. He would like to thank Habib M. Sayah, a risk analyst and think-tank director in Tunisia, for assistance with this article.