Over the weekend, Iraq’s parliament began the process of electing a new leader following the resignation of the country’s former Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi. There is severe unrest spreading throughout the nation as security forces killed 45 civilians who were protesting around Nasiriyah on Thursday.
Many demonstrators are angry that Iran continues to influence Iraqi politics. Last Wednesday, government forces showed brute force following the firebombing of the Iranian consulate in Najaf.
When the US liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein in 2003, they intended to introduce democracy to the nation. With the country divided into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish sects, Iraq’s governance had been determined along sectarian lines. Its institutions were used as fiefdoms by ministers whose political allegiances has often transcended loyalty to the state.
This has resulted in corruption and nepotism throughout the nation’s public sector. Many Iraqis have been robbed of opportunities since the nation’s oil wealth was plundered. Youths are angry that state revenues have been looted, leaving them disenfranchised. 200,000 people have been demonstrating in Baghdad and other cities ever since.
Disenchantment towards Iran has been widespread among many different sectors of Iraq’s population. Tribal leaders have concentrated on murdering security forces in the wake of the killings, which they say were orchestrated by Iranian officials who have played a crucial role in the crackdown. Qassem Suleimani is an example of an Iranian general who initiated a brutal response that began a month ago.
Furthermore, Tehran has been playing an influential role in Iraq’s affairs since the US withdrawal of 2011. The Guardian reports that the Islamic Republic is concerned about Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMF), which were formed to defeat the Islamic State, becoming a potential successor to Mahdi.
As the Brookings Institute suggests, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who founded the PMF, cannot dissolve the organisation because doing so would spark a public backlash that could undermine Iraq’s Shia establishment. Although they are loyal to the Iraqi state, there are groups within the PMF who are beholden to Tehran.
US President Donald Trump should be very concerned about Iran’s influence over Iraq. The 2015 Iran Deal Barack Obama concluded failed to tackle Tehran’s interference in neighbouring countries’ elections. Since Trump has scrapped the agreement, all the nations involved in implementing the 2015 deal have failed to negotiate a new one. But the situation in Iraq is an opportunity for Western leaders to curb Iran’s electoral influence.
Iraq’s army is not strong enough to fight Iran-sponsored terrorist groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which has attacked US and Iraqi personnel and civilians since they were founded in 2003. Sistani is Iraq’s best hope of resisting Iran’s influence. He successfully combated US interference in Iraq’s new constitution and ensured his country was governed by an elected assembly instead of Washington-backed elites.
If Trump is serious about thwarting Iran’s dominance, he has a responsibility to protect Iraq from its neighbour. US troops must be temporarily deployed to Baghdad to contain Iran’s proxies, which now control places like Kirkuk.
But there are other actions the US can take to contain Tehran that do not require military intervention. They could help the Iraqi government allocate $1 billion to the PMF from its national budget, but restrict their access to the billions of dollars the international community contributes towards the reconstruction of Iraq. They could also help the PMF shape Iraq’s political system according to their ideologies.
Maybe the US could also work alongside Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia Iraqi cleric who visited Iran last month and has been a longstanding opponent of Iranian interference. Whilst he is opposed to US dominance in Iraq as well, US veteran Michael D. Sullivan wrote in Foreign Policy that he is the only politician who understands America can help strengthen his country’s security forces. Following Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, he could play an influential role in Iraqi politics.
Trump should take Iranian influence in Iraq seriously, and he has plenty of options as to how he can tackle this crisis.