US left with 'limited options' in Baghdad as deadly violence flares

Experts predict a dwindling American influence in shaping policy and politics in Iraq

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President Joe Biden's administration is finding its hands increasingly tied in Baghdad after violent clashes this week over the Iraqi government stalemate left at least 30 people dead and hundreds more injured.

Various US agencies are monitoring the violence as concerns grow of a return to internal armed conflict in Iraq, but there is no clear strategy from Washington on how to prevent it.

For nine months, the US has called on Iraqi parties to break the political impasse, form a government and protect state institutions. But US officials have refrained from direct engagement in negotiations over a cabinet formation.

Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, this month told Congress that Iraqi leaders had urged Washington to enter the fray "for us to sort things out, to put the thumb on the scale in this standoff over government formation”.

“That's not something we're going to do,” Ms Leaf said.

On Tuesday, followers of Iraq's Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr left Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone after he called for their withdrawal, ending violence at least for the moment.

Iraq’s government has been in deadlock since Mr Al Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in parliamentary elections last October, but not enough to secure a majority government.

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel on Monday said there were no Biden administration calls to Baghdad that he could outline, even as rockets were fired close to the US embassy compound in the Green Zone.

“The reports of unrest throughout Iraq today are disturbing, as Iraqi institutions are not being allowed to function,” he said, while denying reports that the American embassy had been evacuated.

"This in turn increases the risk of violence, and Iraq’s security, stability and sovereignty should not be put at risk.

“Now is the time for dialogue, and we urge all those involved to remain calm and pursue peaceful avenues of redress.”

Al Sadr followers gather outside Supreme Judiciary Council building in Baghdad – in pictures

Sarhang Hamasaeed, a scholar on Iraq and the director of Middle East Programmes at the US Institute of Peace, predicted a waning US influence on shaping politics in Baghdad.

“While the US is interested in a stable and democratic Iraq, it has very low influence and [low] desire to intervene in Iraq’s politics these days,” he told The National.

Washington’s options remain limited, he said, “because none of the actors that are party to the current escalation would heed its advice and it does not have leverage points to pressure them”.

The US does not have a strong rapport with the main stakeholders in the Baghdad troubles, namely the followers of cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and Iran’s allies in Iraq.

Working with the United Nations and Iraqi authorities to help protect state institutions may be the extent of Washington's efforts to calm the situation, Mr Hamasaeed said.

Avoiding becoming a party to the conflict and preventing a resurgence of ISIS by exploiting the potential vacuum define Washington’s priorities, he argued.

David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a former assistant secretary of state, said the US government was late to the game and now faced an increasingly volatile situation.

“The Biden administration has not been seen as playing much of a role during the government formation process in the last year,” Mr Schenker told The National.

“Other than calling for calm, it’s not clear the US can do much right now to mitigate the crisis."

The former US official said the current volatility could strengthen Iran's hand, despite its proxies losing a majority to the Al Sadr camp in the 2021 elections.

“Despite having lost the elections, Iran and its allies are likely to emerge from this crisis in a strengthened position,” Mr Schenker said.

Both experts said Baghdad’s descent into a full-scale cycle of violence would be detrimental to US interests, especially if the political void dragged on and state institutions were weakened.

Updated: August 31, 2022, 4:50 AM