Divided and distracted, the US risks ceding precious ground in Iraq to Tehran

American air strikes are pummelling Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, but the group's supporters are waiting in the wings for the momentum to slow down

A picture taken on March 13, 2020 shows a crater and destruction in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala, in one of the areas targeted by US military air strikes against a pro-Iranian group in Iraq following the deaths of two Americans and a Briton in a rocket attack the previous night on a US base in Taji.
 The US operation targeted five weapons facilities of the Kataeb Hezbollah armed faction across Iraq, the Pentagon said in a statement, one of them in Karbala, south of Baghdad. Wednesday's attack on the Taji air base was the 22nd on US installations in Iraq, including the American embassy, since late October. While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, Washington has blamed Iran-backed factions from the Hashed al-Shaabi network, a state-sponsored umbrella group that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, for recent similar violence.
 / AFP / Mohammed SAWAF
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The United States policy on Iraq is now largely framed by a recognition that appeasing Iranian-backed militias in the country will not translate into a policy of stabilising Iraq.

While the American military presence in Iraq is formally to combat ISIS, strikes conducted against Iranian-backed militias over the past few months highlight American seriousness in meeting the threat posed by these militias.

The killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and the effective leader of the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, on January 3 was a watershed moment. It was the most significant action by Washington to limit Tehran’s control over Baghdad.

TOPSHOT - Mourners surround a car carrying the coffin of Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (image) during a funeral procession, for him and nine others, in Baghdad's district of al-Jadriya, near the high-security Green Zone, on January 4, 2020.  Thousands of Iraqis chanting "Death to America" joined the funeral procession for Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Muhandis, both killed in a US air strike. The cortege set off around Kadhimiya, a Shiite pilgrimage district of Baghdad, before heading to the Green Zone government and diplomatic district where a state funeral was to be held attended by top dignitaries. In all, 10 people -- five Iraqis and five Iranians -- were killed in Friday morning's US strike on their motorcade just outside Baghdad airport.  / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Mourners surround a car carrying the coffin of Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis during his funeral procession. AFP

While Suleimani’s militant role in the region was well known, Al Muhandis played a significant role in Iraq for over a decade. In 2007, he created Kataib Hezbollah and thereafter led the paramilitary group, which aims to recreate the Hezbollah model of Lebanon and to steer both political and security policies in Iraq. It was Al Muhandis's men who stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad last December, and they are largely responsible for the frequent rocket fire on bases housing American soldiers in Iraq.

There is now an active war between the United States and Kataib Hezbollah, with regular exchange of rockets on Iraqi territory.

America's main challenges in Iraq stem from the reality that it often relies on political actors close to Iran

On December 29, 2019, the US carried out strikes on five of the group's bases in Iraq, and has continued to strike it since. Last week, reports came out that the administration of Donald Trump is set on eliminating the group. While it is by no means the only Iran-backed militia in Iraq, it is undoubtedly the most lethal. It has not only attacked US soldiers, but been responsible for kidnapping and killing countless Iraqis.

The New York Times published a story this week highlighting divisions in Washington relating to policies targeting Kataib Hezbollah. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and members of the National Security Council advocate a campaign against the group, the Pentagon and military are resistant, primarily due to the resources and commitment it would take. The news report was one of those stories based on leaks from insiders who appear to disagree with the administration's direction and want to force a change through public pressure.

America’s strikes against Kataib Hezbollah are sending messages heard loud and clear in Baghdad. As former Najaf governor Adnan Al Zurfi tries to form a government – and his time is running out – it is Iran’s most ardent supporters who are against him. The Prime Minister designate will assess how much support he can muster from Washington, western and Arab allies at a time when Iranian-backed political parties are digging in their heels and trying to scupper his ability to form a government.

America’s main challenges in Iraq stem from the reality that the US often relies on political actors who are, in essence, close to Iran and not willing to upset it. But in the current climate, both independent and nationalist Iraqis are in need of clearer American support.

Iranian-backed militias are monitoring US actions closely. Any hesitation or lack of commitment in supporting the Prime Minister designate or a lack of clarity on their next steps will embolden Kataib Hezbollah and its supporters. Hadi Al Ameri of the Badr Brigades, one of Tehran’s closest allies in Baghdad, has already announced his coalition’s rejection of Al Zurfi. Meanwhile, he is also monitoring the possibility of Kataib Hezbollah being struck for good, thus allowing Badr to play a more prominent role.

epa08332141 US soldiers attend the handover ceremony of the US-led coalition forces base inside the complex of the former presidential palace in Mosul, northern Iraq on 30 March 2020. According to local source, the US-led coalition forces withdrew from the fourth military bases in northern Iraq, amid heightened tensions with Iran-backed Iraqi shiite armed groups in Iraq.  EPA/AMMAR SALIH  EPA-EFE/AMMAR SALIH
US soldiers attend a ceremony to hand over a coalition forces base to Iraqi security forces, in Mosul, Iraq, on March 30, 2020. EPA

All of this is happening at a time when the US military is actively handing over bases to the Iraqi security forces. K1 base in Kirkuk was the most recent of three major handovers in the month of March. While American officials insist this is part of a consolidation of their presence and in line with the international coalition's plans, Iran and its proxies are billing the handovers as an "American withdrawal". As Iran and the US vie for influence in Iraq, images of American troops withdrawing dishearten Iraqi groups wanting to stand up to Iran.

Seventeen years after the war that deposed Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein, the United States handing military bases over to Iraqi forces should be a cause for celebration. But the realities of Iraq today mean that without clear American political engagement, military movements are seen as signals of intent.

Another matter being watched in Baghdad is the US presidential race. Should Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee for November’s elections, win, Iraq would face the challenge of having an American president who actively advocated for the break-up of the country. The infamous "Biden plan" that he promoted while he was a senator is fresh in the minds of many Iraqis. Any revival of such a plan would play directly into Iran’s hands. While Donald Trump has some contentious policies, his open commitment to limiting Iran’s role in the region has put Tehran on alert in Iraq.

In the coming months, and as the United States is caught up in fighting both Covid-19 and a presidential race, the fear is that a further vacuum will be created that Iran will be desperate to fill. Kataib Hezbollah is at the forefront of Iran’s tools in filling that void. If it is not confronted, it will escalate and try to expand its position to mirror that of its Lebanese counterpart. That would be an even greater risk to Iraq and the region.

Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National