The following is an invited guest editorial. It does not necessarily express official SSG posture, but reflects the opinion of a regional expert.
Iraq just held its first elections since the defeat of the so called Islamic State. The victory over the terror group was led by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi as he affirmed, “our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh.” This was in December 2017, five months before the elections took place. Prime Minister Abadi had the full backing of the United States, and was commonly known as “our guy in Baghdad.” For Abadi, the US did all it could to strengthen his position, the current administration even went as far as supporting Abadi during the Kurdish independence referendum held in September 2017 and ignored Kurdish calls to stop the Iranian funded, legalized Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) incursion into Kirkuk, just a week after President Donald Trump designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. The US was willing to do anything to keep another Maliki type figure from regaining power in Iraq. US strategy was clear, keep Iraq physically united, keep the Kurds tied to Baghdad, and ultimately weaken Iranian influence.
However, the US missed a key component of Iraqi politics, its devious foe, Muqtada al Sadr. Al Sadr is a Shiite but is also heavily nationalistic and has challenged both Iran and the US. Al Sadr has been accused numerous times by the Pentagon for American deaths during the height of the 2003 war. The Mahdi Army, led by Al Sadr, was the first Shiite militia to target US forces in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. At one point, the Pentagon stated, “the Mahdi Army had replaced al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence.” Muqtada al Sadr himself will not hold the prime ministerial position but will have the ability to appoint one which align with his views.
Al Sadr’s Sairoon (The Marchers) bloc, in alliance with Iraq’s Communist Party and a handful of other parties, composed of both Sunnis and Shiites including a Kurdish faction, was victorious. Iranian backed Fatah Alliance came in second while Abadi’s Al Nasr, despite his victory against the Islamic State and retaining control of the Kurds, established a weak third and Maliki came in fourth. Turnout for the election was at an all-time low, 44.52% compared to 60% in 2014. So, what does this mean for the US?
Although Al Sadr continues his anti-American rhetoric, he is still not Iran. He has transformed himself from a former Iranian ally to nothing short of an Arab nationalist. He has met with Sunni heads of states, including the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July 2017. If anyone can push Iranian influence out of Iraq, it is al Sadr. This may be enough for the United States’ long term policy in Iraq. But there is one catch, al Sadr demands for the total withdrawal of all US troops in Iraq, now numbering at a little over 5,000. For American policy, the hope still lies with Abadi, a possible coalition with al Sadr may convince him to allow the presence of a small footprint to continue the training of Iraqi forces and play a strategic role against Iran’s continued expansion into Iraq and beyond.
The Fatah Alliance, a pro-Iranian coalition, is backed by the PMF and Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the IRGC who surprisingly lost to Al Sadr. Iraqi’s seem unsatisfied with a strong Iranian presence within their state, and feel they’ve lost their country to the neighboring Shiite theocracy. Nonetheless, Soleimani is dedicated to pressuring the fractured lists in uniting with Iran, strengthening Tehran while undermining Baghdad. The loss comes shortly after the US withdrew from the infamous Iran nuclear deal and recent successful Israeli attacks against IRGC bases in Syria, further isolating the Islamic regime.
The alternative path for the United States in Iraq is to pivot back towards the Kurds in the north. After a feeling of betrayal among the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government and those who voted for the independence referendum, the Kurds are always willing to accept US support. The Kurdish house has been in disorder dating back to the 2017 referendum, and the recent elections proved no different. Mass accusations of election fraud, system hacking, threats, and gun fights in party headquarters quickly ensued. The main faction, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) align closer with al Sadr. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is deeply influenced by Iran, as are the rest of the Kurdish groups including New Generation, Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), Change Movement, and the two small Islamic parties. The alternative path may not have a solid foothold in Baghdad, with only 58 seats but can be reconstructed that the KRG are playmakers once again as they were prior to the referendum. If the US does not strengthen the KRG, Kurds will likely shift towards either Iran or al Sadr.
Despite the United States having major setbacks due to the conflict, it remains a key player. The US invested heavily in Abadi while crippling the Kurds, only to keep a failed state intact. The unpredictability of Muqtada al Sadr may force Abadi on the sidelines to further isolate the United States. Iran, however, suffered the most and will continue to undermine the Iraqi security forces by bolstering the PMF. We may also find Iran resorting to sectarianism to delegitimatize Al Sadr’s unity coalition in the near future.