It is not possible to give a clear-cut answer to the question of what role of Iraq would play in a US-Iran war scenario. The answer depends on the level of threat Iran will face, and how belligerent the US will be. There are two key factors to take into consideration: the Marjaiya (religious leadership) in Najaf that reflects the will of much of the population, and the Iraqi government.
A source in Najaf says the Marjaiya wishes that “the relationship with regional players (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria) and the international community (the US, Europe and the rest of the world) be based on balanced rapport without giving privilege or preference to one against another within the parameters of the interests and benefit of Iraq”.
The Marjaiya believes “the interests of Iraq should come first and above any other interests and that Iraq should not be part of the Iran-US struggle because that struggle is not based on ideology; the US does not aim to defeat the Shia in the Middle East nor to attack their holy shrines. The Iran-US struggle is believed to be based on a battle of influence and a question of oil markets. Thus, Iraq should not take sides in this kind of struggle, but neither should it abide by any US diktat.”
During the last visit of President Hassan Rouhani to Najaf, the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Sistani was clear that he did not want to see Iraq involved in more wars on its territory and that the country should not be a tool to encircle Iran and its people. A strong Iraq is all to the benefit of Iran: these were the messages.
The Iraqi government is walking along the same path as the Marjaiya, aware that Iraq is only now emerging from a bloody insurgency and wars that, since 2003, have crippled the Iraqi economy. This is what the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi is trying to re-construct.
The Iraqi prime minister doesn’t belong to one of the main parties dominating the street, the parliament, the security forces and the government. Abdel Mahdi was selected as a “compromise candidate” to remove the al-Da’wa party, which had ruled the country since 2005. Having such a candidate at the top of the government has its disadvantages as well, because it makes it more vulnerable to “shark parties”. The Prime Minister is trying to reconstruct Iraq but at the same time is incapable of facing down various armed groups spread over the Iraqi territory due to ISIS continuous threat.
These groups are not part of Hashd al-Shaabi, a common mistake repeated by media and analysts, even by “experts” on Iraq. Although the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units – PMU) are led by Iran’s man (second in command) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, they obey orders from the prime minister. Iran’s partners in Iraq like “AsaebAhal al-Haq”, “Kataebsayyed al-Shuhada”, “Harakat al-Nujaba”, “kataeb Imam Ali”, “Hezbollah Iraq”, fought under the flag of Hashd al-Shaabi but broke their ties with the Hashd formation as soon as the war against ISIS ended and parliamentary elections started. According to the Iraqi constitution, the armed forces are not allowed to take part in the parliamentary elections. Thus, many fighters were attached to the Interior or Defence Ministries. Hashd al-Shaabi became an Iraqi brigade, part of the security forces under the command of the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, the armed groups operating outside Hashd al-Shaabi consider themselves loyal to both Iran and Iraq. But they are not looked upon favourably by the Marjaiya, the Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi and most of the population, particularly in Najaf and Baghdad where they have their main base. They are seen, for the moment, as a necessity and a burden.
Iraq looks with great suspicion at the US presence at al-Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian borders and accuses the US of closing its eyes to the presence and possible spread of ISIS. There are good reasons for this perception:
In the first months of the ISIS occupation of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, the US administration did not intervene to support the Iraqi government to stop ISIS from taking a third of Iraq and threatening Baghdad and Erbil. US general Michael Flynn, the former head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, confirmed that the US allowedISIS to grow and migrate forces to Syria under its watchful eyes. President Donald Trump allowed ISIS to grow along the Euphrates for a year and prevented the Syrian Army from crossing the river to recover its territory. Moreover, in June 2018, US forces allowed Israel to bomb and kill 22 Hashd al-Shaabi men deployed against ISIS on the Iraqi borders. Until today, US forces are not willing to leave the Iraqi-Syria borders and they maintain a safety perimeter that both Iraq and Syria accuse of offering safe passage to ISIS in the area.
This lack of trust towards the US cripples Abdel Mahdi and prevents him from disarming the militia groups who are not part of Hashd al-Shaabi, considered still useful as long as the Iraqi army and security forces are not allowed by the US to take back the full control of their territory.
The US administration released a warning and a partial evacuation order to its diplomatic staff in Baghdad and its consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to well-informed sources in Baghdad, Iran’s partners in Iraq are sending messages that they preparing to attack US forces and diplomatic bases in Iraq. Iran IRGC officers and their Iraqi partners are fully aware of the US capabilities to intercept their communications and are using this knowledge to send messages to the US and frighten them. These phone communications in addition to human intelligence sources cannot be disregarded by US intelligence and an administration that has to act for the safety of its own nationals. On the other hand, the US measures are serving Iranian purposes by raising US awareness of what they could expect and what fronts they need to take into consideration in case of war.
It is true that Iran prefers to fight through its partners rather than using its own army and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) when possible. However, an unstable Iraq doesn’t serve Iran’s goal of countering US sanctions. If Iranian partners in Iraq were to attack US forces just to “send a message”, the Marjaiya, the Iraqi people and the government in Baghdad will oppose them, unless Iran is under direct military attack and the (possible) war is developing to the disadvantage of Iran. In this case, all Iranian partners in the Middle East – not only in Iraq – would be involved.
The Iraqi prime minister and the Marjaiya in Najaf will not agree that US forces in Iraqi territory be used to attack Iranian Khuzestan or any other part of Iran. At the same time, they will not allow Iran to use Iraq as a platform to run its own war against the US as long as no war has been declared.
Abdel Mahdi is already playing a silent-mediation role between the US and Iran, trying to smooth tensions. Iraq will keep its borders open to the flow of Iranian goods and will pay Iran in Euros rather than dollars, which suits Iran very well.
US intentions are not clear to anyone in the Middle East, including the Iraqi leadership. The current administration has shown that it feels free to revoke any agreement previously signed. Also, President Trump has changed his mind repeatedly about the presence of US forces in Syria. Moreover, Trump’s lack of consideration for his European and Middle Eastern allies does not inspire confidence. And finally, the presence of US forces on the Syrian-Iraqi borders is one of the main causes of Baghdad’s concern and mistrust toward US intentions.
As long as Iran is not involved in direct war with the US, its partners are targeting US allies in the Middle East. Iran is carefully avoiding any direct military provocation, trying to avoid giving the US administration any pretext for war. In Iraq, the US should start by establishing some trust with the Iraqi government. This would entail the US leaving its position at al-Tanf on Iraq’s border with Syria and continuing to support the Iraqi government with training, intelligence and supply of weapons.
By Elijah J. Magnier
Source: Elijah J. Magnier