Six months ago, US President Donald Trump ordered the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. It was a decision that provoked mixed responses throughout the world and almost sparked a conflict between Iran and the US. That is because he was a significant figure in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who directed the nation’s overseas proxy forces and military operations.
Voa News reports that General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), said on Wednesday during a webinar with a Washington-based think tank called the Middle East Institute, that Soleimani’s death has had ‘a significant effect in establishing and reestablishing a rough form of deterrence in the theater.’
Iraq remains vulnerable to Iran’s influence
Seventeen years after the Iraq War, the country remains vulnerable to Iran’s influence. The Islamic State (IS) is also continuing its relentless terror campaign in Iraq. However, many Iraqis remain divided over whether American troops should remain in their nation. Trump’s desire is for US soldiers to return home and to end America’s ‘endless wars’, but that is easier said than done when the Iraqi Government still needs American assistance to defeat IS and Iranian proxy forces.
When Soleimani was killed, Eric Edelman, a practitioner senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and a career U.S. Foreign Service Minister, told the University of Virginia that the reason why the former Iranian general flew to Iraq in the first place was to try and ensure Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias in the country could suppress Iraqis protesting against Iran’s influence at the time. He added that Soleimani’s death may embolden Iraqis who resent Iran’s influence in their nation.
Soleimani’s death triggered Iraqi militias
However, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he would be reactivating his Mahdi Army militia in the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s killing. This is the same militia that behaved like a major death squad that murdered and abused many Iraqi Sunnis during the Iraqi civil war.
Aside from Sadr, Qais al-Khazali declared that his Asaib Ahl ul-Haq [AAH] militia will attempt to expel American forces from Iraq. In the short-term, Soleimani’s death only radicalized many militias in the country.
Despite this, the Associated Press says that Iran is struggling to maintain its influence among Iraqi Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) militias. This is because Esmail Ghaani, who succeeded Soleimani, is less of an established name for leaders of the many militia groups operating under the PMF umbrella.
Ghaani also has the disadvantage of being unable to speak good Arabic and he depends upon an interpreter to resolve any disputes.
The PMF is struggling to receive Iranian funds
Because of Trump’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ against Tehran through targeted sanctions, many PMF leaders received no funds from the Iranian Government recently.
In a further blow to Iran, Iraq’s Shi’ite establishment, led by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, has supposedly stated its unwillingness to tolerate Tehran’s grip over Iraq. It is clear that Soleimani’s death has made it harder for the Iranian Government to expand its influence over Baghdad, and that will only become more difficult over time if Tehran cannot fund militias who intend to destabilize Iraq’s current government.
The biggest obstacle to Iraqi-Iranian relations is the presence of US troops in Iraq, but Soleimani’s death has provided a further wedge between both nations. Without an influential figure in the IRGC, Iran will struggle to increase its support among the Iraqi population, and that task will be made harder if it cannot fund the PMF either. Iraq is stuck in the middle between the US and Iran and as tensions between Washington and Tehran worsen, Baghdad will be affected regardless. But how much further can Iran’s regime go before the Trump administration decides the time is right to go to war with them?