Bottom Line Up Front
- A key Iranian response to the U.S. strike that killed Qods Force Commander Qasem Soleimani will be to try to permanently oust the 6,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq.
- Iran has already put to use a combination of its military and political levers in Iraq to achieve its goal of expelling American troops.
- A U.S. departure from Iraq would consolidate Iran’s grip on Iraq, while also potentially facilitating the resurgence of the so-called Islamic State.
- Key Iraqi leaders are trying to minimize the damage to U.S.-Iraq relations and preserve at least some U.S. training programs for Iraqi anti-ISIS forces.
Iran has threatened a significant response to the January 2 U.S. drone strike that killed the top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official responsible for Iran’s projection of power in the region – IRGC-Qods Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani. When and how Iran will respond remains unclear. Still, it is inevitable that a central axis of Iran’s counterattack will consist of an attempt to drive American forces out of Iraq entirely. The Trump administration justified its action, which took place as Soleimani’s convoy was exiting Baghdad International Airport because IRGC-QF leader was in the process of orchestrating Iranian proxies to conduct further attacks on American military personnel and diplomats in Iraq. About 6,000 troops are in Iraq under a bilateral agreement restored in 2014 to help beleaguered Iraqi forces beat back a large-scale offensive by the Sunni jihadist Islamic State organization. Iran-backed attacks in Iraq in December 2019 consisted of rocket attacks on bases where U.S. troops are co-located with Iraqi forces and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to protest a U.S. strike on the Iran-supported Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, whose commander was also killed in the strike on Soleimani’s convoy.
Since the U.S.-led military overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraq has sought to maintain a balance between Iran and the United States. The two countries have been at odds since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran but found some common ground in 2014 to defeat their mutual enemy, the Islamic State. In reversing ISIS territorial gains in Iraq, the United States even tacitly backed some Shia militia forces that have ties to Iran. With ISIS weakened in Iraq by 2017, the Trump administration shifted toward a policy of maximum pressure on Iran in 2018 made Iraq a U.S.-Iran battleground for influence, with Tehran using its militia proxies and its political allies in Baghdad to push back against Washington’s anti-Iran campaign.
In the days since the killing of Soleimani, the pro-Iran political forces inside Iraq appear to be prevailing, backed by – or intimidated by – the commanders of Iran-supported militias. On January 5, Iraq’s Council of Representatives passed a resolution directing the Iraqi government to request that U.S. forces leave Iraq. Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who had been close to both U.S. and Iranian officials but resigned over unrest in November, condemned the U.S. strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and has said he will support the CoR move to expel American forces. Just before the CoR vote, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition conducting ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ announced it would suspend anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and concentrate on protecting coalition forces from continued rocket attacks by Iran-backed Shia militia groups. Moreover, Kata’ib Hezbollah warned Iraqi Security Forces to remove themselves from the immediate perimeter of Iraqi bases where U.S.-led forces are co-located – a harbinger of potentially further severe attacks on U.S. forces. Although acting Prime Minster Abdul Mahdi has sided with the pro-Iranian elements since the Soleimani killing, he has also proposed a plan to limit U.S. operations in Iraq rather than expel U.S. forces outright. He and other Iraqi leaders seek, at the very least, to preserve the U.S. training program for Iraq’s elite and effective Counter-Terrorism Service. Even if he succeeds in maintaining at least some modicum of a military relationship with the United States, it is clear that U.S. operations against ISIS will be significantly hampered, potentially facilitating the resurgence of the group as a serious threat to Iraq’s government and people.
Whereas a renewed ISIS threat inside Iraq would not benefit Tehran, a U.S. departure from Iraq would consolidate Iran’s control over a secure corridor of territory from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, a strategic land bridge. A pro-Iranian Iraq would give Tehran unfettered access to numerous facilities and locations from which its Shia militia proxies in Iraq could help Iran project power into eastern Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. Iran has already provided its Iraqi allies with short-range ballistic missiles for this purpose, and at least one attack on a Saudi oil pipeline in mid-2019 was launched from Iraq. Iran’s leaders are willing to risk an ISIS resurgence in service of the broader objectives of avenging Soleimani’s death and demonstrating that the Trump administration’s decision to strike him was a major strategic miscalculation.