By David Clark
On 27 November 2008, the Iraqi Parliament ratified the final Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States. Under SOFA, U.S. combat forces would withdraw from Iraqi cities by 30 June 2009, and all U.S. forces will be completely out of Iraq by 31 December 2011, but allowing for further negotiation if Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, believes the country is not stable enough. Although sectarian violence remains and Al Qaeda sponsored mass casualty-seeking attacks still blight certain areas of the country, particularly the north-central region, the Iraqi government remains adamant that the withdrawal will go ahead as agreed and that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are now capable of being able to cope with the challenge of providing the internal security of the country single handed. Maliki has regularly assured the media that ISF are ready to protect Iraq’s security and its sovereignty, a claim that was refuted by his Chief of Staff of the Army, Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari, at the end of 2010. Zebari, stated after the U.S. withdrawal, it would take until 2020 before the ISF would be able to protect the country’s borders. During a recent cabinet meeting to discuss “the current political, economic, and security situation in Iraq,” U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden indicated that “the levels of violence remain at historic lows in Iraq and that Iraqi Security Forces are capably providing security for the country.” Perhaps a clear indication that the Obama administration feels they will no longer win any popularity contests when they still have troops on the ground. Nevertheless a clear indication that the U.S. will abide by the agreement, provided that there is no intervention by Mailki or any open acts of interference from Iran remain at a minimum.
Should Maliki wish to extend the U.S. forces remit in Iraq, he would require the 325-seat parliament to ratify his move by a two-thirds majority. Achieving that vote margin would be all but impossible in the face of the Iranian-linked Sadrist opposition. As a result the U.S., although publically voicing that it will consider all options, realistically wants to turn a page on its war on Iraq, a war which has brought deep concerns to the White House, perhaps deeper than any other conflict. It is therefore looking very likely that the withdrawal will take place in accordance with SOFA, which the Iraqi people have had no opinion about and no option but to accept.
As far as the U.S. is concerned it is a case of “once bitten, twice shy.” The Iraq campaign has been more like a ‘long slow chew’ for the U.S., draining its treasury, its military manpower and a cause of post-traumatic stress for politicians, soldiers and families alike for the past eight years. At a time when the U.S. is trying to claw its way out of the global recession, the U.S. may well be glad to be clear of this theatre of operations, regardless of its interests in the Middle East.
Pros of U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq
The reluctance of the U.S. to become militarily involved in the Libyan crisis heavily reflects the harsh lessons learnt in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the onset, the war in Iraq was at the worst case dubbed as illegal, based upon what some commentators believe was fabricated or at least spurious intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. The invasion was launched without an UN sanctioned resolution and overall the whole journey has been both a financial and military drain on the United States. This ‘white elephant’ inherited by the Obama administration, has taken its toll with the American people. More than likely as a result, the U.S. would appear to be committed to the withdrawal at the end of 2011. Thus, wishing to put this segment of history behind them and leaving Iraq to become the master of its own fate.
During the eight months that it took for Iraq to finally form its government, the many twists and turns of possible coalitions and the constant ‘horse-trading,’ resulted in a unity government. Although, not the strongest government of all possible outcomes, at least it has some semblance of representation of most interested parties within the country. In political terms the U.S. withdrawal may force the nascent Iraqi government to realize that it must stand on its own two feet and move Iraq forward under its own ideology. In some respects forcing the Iraqi lawmakers to conclude mutual agreements and start appropriately running their new democracy.
Currently, the majority of hostile actions by the ‘main-stream’ insurgency is targeted against United States Forces in Iraq (USF-I), particularly in the South-East. The full withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of this year will no doubt be seen as a victory by the militia elements that have fought hard to maintain pressure on the occupied forces and the Iraqi government. This sense of ‘victory’ could in turn lead to yet another reduction of hostility within the region, further transforming the atmospherics into an environment permissive enough to attract more foreign investment and a significant improvement to the basic infrastructure, which has for so long been sadly lacking.
Cons of U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq
With the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq the U.S. will lose any real political control over the country. Yes, Iraq has an elected government, an elected cabinet, albeit incomplete, and a semblance of a constitution. However, without a tighter control over the political and democratic process, the U.S. will have to join the queue of other nations offering their support and underlying influence in the rest of the Arab world. No doubt the U.S. will be reeling at the thought of a neighboring Iran, who can now monopolize on an effective Shi’a controlled political system. Iran’s overt presence can be clearly seen with the political rise of the Sadrists, a factor exacerbated by Nouri al-Maliki effectively selling out to the newly crowned ‘king maker’ Muqtada al-Sadr. Without Sadr’s support, the formation of the government may still yet be in ‘stalemate’or even facing a re-run of the national elections.
However, the U.S. withdrawal may not be without grave consequences for the security conditions in Iraq. This does not mean that the presence of the American occupation would be any better. The perception is that the U.S. only has its own interests in mind and pays no attention to the desires of the Iraqi people. For the average Iraqi, the withdrawal of U.S. troops is nothing to celebrate. It has no resemblance to the withdrawal of British troops from the old Iraq and Egypt or the French troops from Algeria in the last century. The withdrawals then were an occasion of national pride, of liberation and independence. Despite its military might, the U.S. has achieved very little in Iraq. Many believe that it will leave behind an ‘injured and bleeding country’ whose wounds may be impossible to heal. By October 2011, the U.S. State Department will assume responsibility for training the Iraqi Police, a task which will largely be carried out by private contractors. The U.S. State Department is reportedly planning to more than double the number of its private security guards, up to as many as 7,000, defending five fortified compounds across the country. The security contractors would operate anti-missile radars to warn of insurgent rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress. Iraq does not have a good history with Department of State security contractors and this move by the U.S. could be construed as a ‘one for one’ replacement for USF-I in the country. If this becomes a popular perception, the U.S. may well have inadvertently provided the insurgency with a new legitimate target; thus the campaign continues.
Iran’s Past Activity in Iraq
Even before the 2003 invasion, Iran long sought to expand its influence in Iraq. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran’s new regime looked to subvert Iraq’s Sunni majority former regime, by radicalizing Iraq’s Shi’a majority, which currently remains more than 60 percent of the population. A popular theory is that it was Iran’s subversion was one factor which provoked Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in 1980, resulting in eight years of bloody war that greatly weakened both countries. During the conflict, Iran sheltered and aided those opposed to Saddam, including those from political parties which are now an integral part of the current Iraqi government. Iran’s political and military investment during this time has resulted in a substantial and growing influence in Post-Saddam Iraq. Iran equally enjoys strong relations with the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as it also gave sanctuary and support in their resistance against the former regime. It is believed that Iran has recruited members from within these parties, who now hold key positions of power in Iraq today.
The Revolutionary Guards have long maintained a presence inside Iraq, dating back to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, when they operated behind Iraqi lines, often in Iraq’s Kurdish areas in cooperation with the Kurdish peshmerga militia. They flowed into Iraq in greater numbers in the run-up to the 2003 war and were well established before the conventional fighting had stopped. Much of Iran’s subversive activity inside Iraq has been conducted by the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Force, an elite special operations unit within the Revolutionary Guards. According to an officer who defected from the Revolutionary Guards, “The scale and breadth of Quds Force operations in Iraq are far beyond what we did even during the war with Saddam.”
Iran’s Current Activity in Iraq
There is strong feeling amongst the ISF that Iran is behind much of the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ) activity in Iraq. Other Iraqi security sources said that the AQIZ’s wing in Diyala province, backed by Iranian intelligence services, is targeting the ISF in order to prevent the security forces revealing that the Iranian backed insurgents implemented assassinations and IED explosions in Diyala and other provinces. Iranian influence continues to stretch into the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR). AQIZ operatives trained in Iran have recently been allowed to enter Iraq to mount attacks in Sulaymaniyah. Tehran is pursuing a dual strategy of maintaining good relations with Iraq’s government, while cultivating allies among radical Shi’a militias and groups that are violently opposed to the presence of U.S. forces. Iran’s ultimate goal is to oust U.S. and Western influence from Iraq and to assert its hegemony over Iraq and a broader crescent extending through Syria and into Lebanon.
U.S. officials have revealed concrete evidence that Iran has provided Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFP), rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), 60 mm and 81 mm mortar shells to Iraqi groups hostile to the United States. The RPG-29, an advanced anti-tank weapon, also turned up in the hands of Iraqi Shi’a militias in 2006. Previously, Hizbullah used RPG-29s in Lebanon, which is circumstantial evidence of Iranian support for Iraqi forces hostile to the American military presence. This possible transfer of training and tactical procedures is highly significant because it illustrates the capabilities of non-state actors to mimic each other in a hybrid warfare environment.
The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force plays a role in Iraq today that is similar to the destabilizing role it has played in Lebanon for many years. In Iraq, it provides Iranian arms, training, intelligence and logistical support to anti-American Iraqi forces. Most of this support goes to Shi’a groups such as the Mahdi Army and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) Badr militia, but the Quds Force also cooperates with the Kurdish political parties. Recently, Iranian arms were discovered at a safe house controlled by Sunni insurgents. In addition to forging a working relationship with Iraqi militias, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards may also be seeking to establish more direct control over militia splinter groups. Mid-level commanders within the Mahdi Army claim that the Revolutionary Guards have recruited and financed up to 3,000 defectors from their militia, many of whom have travelled to Iran for training by the Quds Force.
In addition to driving out Western troops and Western influence, the Tehran regime would prefer a weak and divided Iraq to an Iraq with a united and broad-based government. Even if such a government were not allied with the United States, it would pose an ideological threat to Iran’s theocratic regime because it would demonstrate the viability of a secular democratic system in a Shi’a-majority nation, thereby encouraging Iranian reformers and opposition movements to increase their efforts to reduce the political power of Iran’s unelected clerics.
Internal Protests, External Actors and Middle East Turmoil
2011 looks like it will be a year that will test Iraq in the area of sectarian relations and violence. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Peninsula Shield operation into Bahrain in March 2011 opened a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of possibilities. This move has put Iran on the back foot, as Tehran had hoped to use the uprising in Bahrain to promote instability within the Arabian Gulf region. Iran could refrain from action and lose an opportunity to destabilize the region, or it could choose from several other options, none of which seem particularly effective. As with all revolutions, if that term is warranted, the Bahrain uprising consists of two parts. Firstly, local divisions, issues and genuine grievances within the majority Shi’a population and; secondly the interests of foreign actors in Bahrain. It is neither one nor the other, it is both and this factor illustrates that there are many intertwined issues. The Iranians could benefit from the uprising in Bahrain. The uprising placed the U.S. 5th Fleet’s basing in jeopardy, puts the U.S. in a difficult position and threatens the stability of other Arabian Gulf states. For the Iranians, the uprisings in North Africa and their spread to the Arabian Peninsula represent a golden opportunity to pursue their long-standing interest of dominating the Gulf as a regional hegemon. The Iranians are accustomed to being able to use their covert capabilities to shape the political realities in certain countries. They did this effectively in Iraq and are doing it in Afghanistan. They regarded this as low risk and high reward. The Saudis, recognizing that this posed a fundamental risk to their regime, led the coalition force into Bahrain to halt the uprising and save the regime. Pressed by Iranian covert forces, the Saudis were forced into an overt action which they were clearly reluctant to take. The question now is how the Iranians respond, and there is every reason to think that they themselves do not even know. They more than likely did not expect a direct military move by the GCC, given that they usually prefer to act more quietly themselves. The Iranians wanted to destabilize Bahrain without attracting a strong response, but perhaps they were too successful in using local issues that the GCC felt they had no choice but to move. It is now back to Iran to make another move that already features a heightened rhetoric.
If Iran simply does nothing, then the momentum that has been moving in its favor might be stopped or even reversed. They could lose a historic opportunity. At the same time, the door remains open in Iraq, and there remains a prize. They might simply accept the reversal and pursue their main goal. But even by choosing this route, things are far from certain. There are rumors in Washington that U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to slow down, halt or even reverse the withdrawal from Iraq. Rumors are merely rumors, but these make sense. Completing the withdrawal now would tilt the balance in Iraq to Iran, which could end up being a strategic disaster.
Therefore, the Iranians are facing a counter-offensive that threatens the project they have been pursuing for years, just when it appeared to be coming to fruition. Historically, it is often that prior to a project succeeding; the opposition mobilizes, so they should not be surprised that resistance has grown so strong. But surprised or not, they now have a strategic decision to make and not very long in which to do so.
Estimate on Iran’s Activity in Iraq if U.S. Withdrawals and Implications for Iraq
An Iraq without effective ‘top cover’ from the U.S. is likely to be susceptible to further Iranian influence in the long run. A government that owes its existence to the Sadrists and lacks the strong support of Iyad Allawi would necessarily be one that leans in Tehran’s direction. Muqtada al-Sadr may not be a fully controlled puppet of Iran; however, since his self-imposed exile following Operation Knights Charge in 2008, he had, until recently remained in Iran. It is therefore accepted that his connections with Tehran are far from healthy in terms of the future political independence of Iraq. Aside from Al-Sadr’s control over the Jaish Al-Mahdi, his religious standing within the Shi’a movement is far from influential, there are strong opinions that al-Sadr should be studying in Najaf tutored by Arab religious teachers, where his movement’s main spiritual adviser lives and not in the Iranian holy city of Qom. This route would go a long way to appease the more secular Shi’a in the political arena, however, Al-Sadr chose Qom with the goal of becoming an Ayatollah like his revered father. But given the fact that he’s now the Shi’a equivalent of a parish priest trying to become a cardinal, it will take years of study. Perhaps the saving grace is that Iran’s radical clerics are also uncomfortable with the knowledge that the Sh’ia religious leaders in the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala wield an independent religious influence that could undermine their own base of legitimacy. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’a religious leader in Iraq, is an influential cleric who outranks most if not all of the clerics in the Iranian regime. Although he was born in Iran, he rejects Iran’s harsh brand of Islamic ideology and opposes Iran’s system of clerical rule.
Even with the effective suppression of the Shi’a uprising in Bahrain, Iran can use this to unify the Shi’a and in theory further extend its influence in Iraq. Recent demonstrations have been reportedly spurred by Al-Sadr; therefore it is assumed that Iran has some semblance of influence over this. It remains to be seen how long this display of support for their ‘Shi’a brethren’ in Bahrain continues, before the crowds decide to return to issues closer to home. Issues, such as employment, wage levels and basic lack of infrastructure.
Recent announcements have stated that Iraq has vastly more oil than previously reported, a total of 143 billion barrels of reserves, thus surpassing Iran as the world’s second-largest reservoir of oil after Saudi Arabia. The fact that Iraq, too, will have access to Western, Russian and Chinese investment and technology, while Iran is ever more isolated and its oil and gas industry falls into stagnation, puts Iraq in a far stronger economic position. But for now, through sheer geopolitical influence, Iran may still become an even bigger force in Iraq.
Regardless of this fact, one cannot help wondering if Iraq has not been given a ‘head-start’ advantage on the other Middle Eastern nations seeking an end to dictatorship and the formation of a fair democracy. However painful the journey has been, if Iraq had not been liberated from Saddam Hussein in 2003, would Iraq just be the next ‘domino’ to fall in this modern age Arab revolution? In this scenario, the possibilities are endless. The real question is: Is Iraq today inoculated against the popular uprisings sweeping the region?
David Clark, Non-Resident Scholar, INEGMA