By Elliot Stewart
The United States is again considering escalating the conflict in Iraq, threatening to repeat a familiar mistake rooted in overconfidence. Instead of focusing support behind the anti-corruption and economic reforms millions of Iraqis demand, the United States is intent on continuing its use of threats and military force to achieve short-term victories against unwanted Iraqi Shia Islamists – despite the long-term diminishing effect these have on US influence.
Signs of impending escalation began with the leak of classified communication in late March regarding Pentagon plans to eliminate Kata’ib Hezbollah, a hardline, anti-US Islamist organization in Iraq. The United States views Kata’ib Hezbollah and several other Iraqi Islamist groups operating within Iraq’s security services as Iranian proxies engaged in “terrorist” opposition to the US military presence. Also in late March, a senior Iraqi official described being informed by the US that it would “strike 122 targets in Iraq simultaneously” in the event of any American death.
If implemented, such plans would represent a continuation of recent disproportionate and counterproductive acts of US escalation in Iraq. In early January, A US drone strike killed the high-ranking Iraqi security official and founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Iranian Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. This dramatic escalation prompted broad condemnation from Iraqi officials, diminished US influence over key political actors, and incited more attacks on US installations in the country.
Despite pushback against further attacks from Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, the top US commander in Iraq, the risk of escalation remains high. The US has now consolidated its forces in the country into more defensible positions and installed Patriot missile systems. US officials describe these actions as “precautions.”
The US administration’s next move remains unclear. It may turn out that pushback from US military brass, together with the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic and domestic Iraqi political developments, has, for now, overridden the clear desire within the administration to escalate. Regardless, the fact that this type of action is being seriously considered shows that, after 17 years of military involvement in the country, the US has yet to admit the hard reality of its involvement there: US attempts to sideline or eliminate unwanted Shia Islamists from Iraqi politics and society have consistently failed. Moreover, such attempts serve to empower these actors and push large segments of Iraqi society in a more anti-US direction.
To understand how the logic of escalation fails against these actors, US policymakers need only recall how similar attempts to forcefully sideline Iraq’s Shia Islamists have backfired since the 2003 invasion.
The Original Islamist Enemy
Before al-Muhandis and Kata’ib Hezbollah, the United States had another Iraqi Islamist actor in its crosshairs: cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Following the 2003 invasion, the United States saw Moqtada as an illegitimate actor that needed to be sidelined, or better yet eliminated. When prominent Iraqi official Ali A. Allawi attempted to explain Moqtada’s popular appeal for millions of largely poor Iraqi Shia, the head of the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Paul Bremer, responded that he: “didn’t care a damn about the underclass and what [Moqtada’s movement] represented.”
Failing to appreciate the deep well of nationalist resistance that Moqtada had tapped in Iraqi society, the CPA adopted a policy Allawi described as “isolation and confrontation” that made the subsequent period of US-Sadrist violence all but inevitable. Helped in large part by the popularity he accrued for his willingness to stand up to the US military following the invasion, Moqtada surged in popularity. Today, he is arguably the most influential man in Iraq, with his Alliance Toward Reforms bloc controlling more seats in parliament than any other.
Designating a Government
Following the failed confrontation with Moqtada, the United States continued its attempts to sideline popular Shia Islamists in Iraq using terrorist designations. The tactic began in July 2009 with the designation of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Muhandis, and has accelerated under the Trump administration.
Currently, more than a dozen seated deputies within the Shia Islamist-dominated Fatah Coalition, Iraq’s second largest parliamentary bloc, belong to a party whose leadership hold US terror designations. The justification for these designations, which cite many years-old attacks on non-civilian targets alongside allegations of overly close relationships with Iran, could equally apply to the leadership of the bulk of the remaining parties in the bloc. In fact, similar designations could implicate the bulk of the leading Alliance Toward Reforms bloc, led by former anti-US. militant par excellence Moqtada al-Sadr.
The inconsistent way in which these designations have been handed out is intentional – a way for the United States to implicitly threaten other Iraqi Islamists and pressure them to distance themselves from Iran.
It has not worked.
Not only has the increased use of terrorist designations had the effect of muddling their purpose by implicating huge swathes of Iraq’s government, it has produced the familiar counterproductive effect of driving these groups closer together and of hardening their anti-US biases. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this is provided by Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq, one of Iraq’s most powerful militias and popular political parties – a group that some analysts suggested was capable of integrating into the more moderate political mainstream. However, since receiving its own US terror designation within hours of the Muhandis-Soleimani strike, moderation seems unlikely. Leader Qais al-Khazali, whose pragmatism previously allowed for flirtations with disarming his militia and a possible acceptance of an ongoing US military presence within Iraq, is now one of the loudest voices calling for a complete withdrawal of US forces.
Rather than dissuading Islamist groups from attacking US forces, terrorist designations and the threat of targeted-killing they convey have pushed these actors underground, where they are more dangerous.
The logic behind the use of designations is further undermined by its clear lack of success in persuading Iraqis to reject these groups. Al-Muhandis’ status as a US-designated terrorist for a decade prior to his death did little to prevent his rise to become one of the most important figures within the Iraqi government, nor did it prevent hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from taking to the streets to protest his killing and demand a US withdrawal. It also did not prevent then Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi from declaring a national day of mourning and marching in his funeral procession. Most concerning for the ongoing fight against ISIS, it did not stop one of America’s most important counterterror partners, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, from describing his killing as “treacherous and cowardly.”
These are not the signs of an effective effort to marginalize one’s adversaries.
The Hard Reality
The argument presented here is not in any way intended to trivialize the often-despicable behavior and questionable ideology of many Iraqi Islamist factions – which warrant condemnation. Nor is it an effort to excuse the violence some have committed against US forces or deny the right of those forces to defend themselves. Rather, it is intended to clarify the hard reality that marginalizing Iraq’s hardline Islamists is not a task that can be achieved through conventional force or threat of force.
Countering these groups must rely on the many millions of Iraqis of more moderate political persuasions to provide balance. To support these other Iraqis, the United States should take steps to restore its dramatically reduced civil and diplomatic presence in the country and increase support for the economic and anti-corruption reforms that so many Iraqis crave. Rather than play into the anti-US narratives used by hardline Islamists to justify their hold on power, the United States can help expose the corruption and decay within many popular Islamist parties and allow their tendency toward infighting to run its course.
Achieving these goals will serve as a lasting defense against acts of violence on US citizens while helping Iraqis to secure the peaceful, prosperous future they deserve.
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