The US should not roll out the red carpet for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s Aug. 20 visit. Al-Kadhimi should not receive praise for saying the right things — he should be judged on his actions and inactions to date.
Iraq’s militias have primacy, protesters are being killed, US funds are being funneled to Iran, and Daesh is reconstituting: All under the watch of Iraq’s former intelligence director and current interim prime minister.
The “give him time and support” argument on Iraqi officials has been popular with academia and the media since 2005. This argument has not proven effective, beginning with former PM Nouri Al-Maliki and now repeated ahead of Al-Kadhimi’s visit to the US. It has led to the “forever wars” both Republicans and Democrats want to end. It is the cheerleaders, not the decision-makers in the US government, who repeat this tired old plea.
Who are the cheerleaders? They are the experts in think tanks urging the US not to hit back at the militias attacking Iraqis and Americans. They are the lobbyists frantically urging more patience and more financial support, often because they profit from the continued US presence in Iraq.
Saying “we need more time and more funds” is the go-to position in the Iraqi playbook, and it has been successful for 17 years. This playbook continues to outmaneuver the US State Department, Department of Defense and even the White House. It is the easiest thing for an Iraqi official to say to an American who is new to the Baghdad portfolio: “I understand, what you are asking for is difficult, I need time and more support.” Remember, the Iraqis using this playbook are the same people who have been in positions of influence ever since the 2003 invasion. The Americans they are outmaneuvering are replaced every six months to two years — they have seen 17 iterations of Americans and the playbook serves the patient Iraqi chess player very well.
This approach led to Al-Maliki’s dismantling of the gains of the 2007 surge and allowed spaces in disenfranchised Sunni areas that were void of a security force willing to protect the Iraqi people to grow an existential threat in Daesh.
It led to Haider Abadi’s failed 2018 election campaign and a victory for Qassem Soleimani’s militias in Iraq. It led to the killing campaign against Iraqi protesters and the condemnation of a US retaliatory strike against Kata’ib Hezbollah after a missile and rocket attack killed Nawres Hamad, an American-Iraqi translator.
This argument also led to militias walking into the Green Zone and attacking the US Embassy, Soleimani’s death, and ended the reign of Iraq’s de facto prime minister Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, passing it onto the new leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Fadak. The latter has more power than the prime minister and this is why the US must insist that Al-Kadhimi takes on Iran’s militias.
Iraq watchers that say Al-Kadhimi cannot do anything without US support are missing the fact that the prime minister does not want to take on the militias. Sure, he has ordered a couple of raids and then released those captured within 24 to 72 hours, but Al-Kadhimi wants the US to ignore the militias and continue its funding stream to a corrupt Baghdad. Al-Kadhimi is supported by the status quo because he supports the status quo — the US must force change.
The goal of Al-Kadhimi’s visit is to ask the US for more patience and financial aid. He needs to keep Iraq in the US’ economic favor for Iran’s sake. If Iraq’s economy is made toxic, Tehran can no longer benefit from the most profitable lifeline it currently has.
Al-Kadhimi, the Council of Representatives and lobbyists and experts who wear think tank hats to urge US decision-makers to stay in Iraq are waiting for the outcome of November’s election — they want Joe Biden to win. Iran and its government in Iraq believe a Biden victory would benefit the Islamic Republic and the violent supporters of Velayat-e Faqih that make up the regime’s political parties and militias across the region.
If Donald Trump wins, Iran and Iraq will have to make concessions. If Biden wins, they will let out a sigh of relief, but they will still have to wait out Trump until Jan. 20. Trump will continue to sanction Iran and look at doing the same to Iraqi individuals and entities until the day he leaves office in an attempt to make it harder for an incoming President Biden to unravel his sanctions regime. And, if the Biden camp is smart, Trump’s sanctions will actually strengthen its negotiating position with Iran and the Iraqi government.
Success for Baghdad and success for Iraq are two very different things. Iraqis want the US to use economic and military tools to deal with Iran’s hold over Baghdad. In order to save Iraq, the US must disfavor Baghdad. It is for this reason that the White House should threaten to impose sanctions and designate Iraqi militia leaders, political leaders and members of Iraq’s security forces unless benchmarks are met ahead of the Nov. 3 US election. This is exactly what Iraqis are asking the US to do: Stop facilitating Iran’s takeover of Iraq, go after the militias, and support Iraqis over Baghdad.
The demands should include: The detention or stripping of citizenship of Abu Fadak, Qais Khazali, Akram Al-Kaabi, and Shibl Al-Zaydi; all government officials involved in the killing of protesters should be named and indicted; Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi should be defunded, demobilized and disarmed; and a recruitment campaign to attract 30,000 Sunnis into positions in the Iraqi Army and national police must be started.
Lebanon’s government this week resigned due to pressure from the Lebanese people and the international community. This shows how the international media spotlight can force change. The US is in a position to move that spotlight onto Baghdad’s corruption. We will have to watch Lebanon closely as there are many parallels in Iraq.
The US needs to assure Al-Kadhimi that it will put Baghdad in economic disfavor if it simply delays doing anything until January. Washington can set up Baghdad/Tehran bypass mechanisms to invest in Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite areas. These economic security zones can be used to deliver humanitarian aid, funds and investments to Iraqis without lining the pockets of corrupt politicians. This strategy is already being implemented in Lebanon, with systems being set up to get funds and humanitarian aid into areas where it is most needed while bypassing a corrupt government and a powerful militia tied to Tehran — Hezbollah.
American generals and government officials know that they were wrong about Al-Maliki in 2010, about Hadi Al-Amiri going back to 2003, about Abadi and Adel Abdul Madhi, about Faleh Al-Fayadh, and that they were wrong to ignore the Iran-backed militias in Iraq during the Daesh campaign. And now they are hesitant to admit that they were wrong to think a former intelligence director willing to take on Daesh would also take on the militias as prime minister.