When serving as Assistant Secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs in early 2020, I was asked by a group of analysts what were my “black swans” for the region — events that seemed unlikely but that could be highly consequential. The one that sprung immediately to mind was the prospect, then a dim one, that Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a Western-oriented dual national of the United Kingdom, could fight his way past the opposition of Iranian-backed Shiite militias to become the prime minister of Iraq. I felt then that it could be a game-changer for Iraq and the region.
During my tenure at the State Department, I visited Iraq more than any other of the 18 states in the region. In nearly a dozen trips, I met with the country’s leaders in an effort to encourage Baghdad to step up and do its part to assert sovereignty or, at a minimum, meet its international obligations under the Vienna Convention to protect diplomats. By 2020, Iranian-backed Shiite militias bent on driving U.S. military forces and diplomats out of the country were engaged in a campaign of rocket and missile attacks targeting American personnel, threatening the sustainability of our presence.
My conversations with then-Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who served from 2018 to 2020, were sterile. When pressed to take steps to safeguard American lives, Abdel Mahdi typically punted. More than once, he trotted out his favorite obsequious aphorism: “Iran is our neighbor; you [the United States]are our friend.”
As attacks against U.S. personnel and interests intensified — culminating with the January 2020 orchestrated storming of our embassy in Baghdad, the subsequent killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, and the non-binding vote in parliament to expel U.S. troops from Iraqi soil — relations with Abdel Mahdi deteriorated.
The election of intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi as premier in May 2020 seemed to signal a better day. Kadhimi was a known quantity to the U.S., an Iraqi patriot who appreciated the benefits of a close working relationship with Washington and articulated a genuine desire for sovereignty. But Kadhimi faced similar challenges to Abdel Mahdi.
Just a month into his term, Kadhimi took the unprecedented positive step of arresting members of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia responsible for a rocket attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Predictably, in the hours that followed, armed militiamen mobilized and surrounded Kadhimi’s Green Zone palace and the Counter Terrorism Services’ offices, demanding the prisoners’ release.
To my mind, Kadhimi is perhaps the best Iraqi prime minister since the 1958 coup that eventually brought the Baathists to power. Courageous and nationalist, Kadhimi has demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions in the interest of Iraq. Unlike his predecessor, he recognizes that the 100,000 Iranian-backed militia members, along with Iranian-encouraged corruption and political meddling, are destroying his country.
Faced with a very real threat from Iran, Kadhimi has limited options. The “neighbor,” after all, has a penchant for killing its political opponents. Despite threats, Kadhimi has persisted in arresting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members suspected of targeting Americans. But there is a limit to how far he can go. At the end of the day, even under Kadhimi, Baghdad cannot meet its obligation to protect Americans and will unlikely ever be in a position to do so, as long as Iranian terrorist proxies dominate the state.
Despite these challenges, our presence in Iraq remains a vital U.S. national security interest. The U.S. military, along with members of a large coalition of states, deployed to Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq to defeat and prevent the resurgence of ISIS. Absent American capabilities — in particular armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, drones — the mission would fail. At the same time, a U.S. withdrawal would diminish Iraqi military capabilities, undermine confidence in the state, and exacerbate an already severe economic crisis. Perhaps most importantly, a U.S. departure would deliver Baghdad completely to Tehran, ending all hopes for a sovereign Iraq, further emboldening Iranian regional hegemonic ambitions.
Since President Biden’s inauguration, attacks targeting the U.S. presence have spiked, and have become more lethal. The Feb. 25 retaliatory airstrikes in Syria against Kataib Hezbollah for the killing of two U.S. military contractors was an unambiguous statement that Washington will not let this aggression go unanswered. Make no mistake, however, it will not deter further attacks. Indeed, on March 3 — less than a week after Washington bombed Syria — 10 rockets were fired at U.S. troops at Ayn al Assad base.
Targeting these militias alone won’t deter future attacks because they are trained, equipped, funded and directed to a greater or lesser extent by Tehran. And Iran is willing to fight the United States to the last Iraqi Shiite.
In the final months of the Trump administration, Washington purchased a respite from lethal attacks in Iraq by threatening to hold Iran directly responsible for the actions of its proxies by militarily targeting Iran directly. The lethal attack against the U.S. base in Erbil in February was the first of its kind since March 11, 2020, foreshadowing a return to a dangerous period. To break the cycle and prevent further deaths of American troops and diplomats, it is incumbent on the Biden administration to re-establish credible deterrence. To protect U.S. personnel and preserve our presence in Iraq, Washington will have to move beyond the proxies and start holding Tehran accountable.
David Schenker is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From June 2019 to January 2021, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @davidschenker1.