Cornered in Iraq, the US faces two unpalatable choices: muddle through the difficult relationship or risk a complete rupture. But for now, continuing the status quo seems less risky than severing ties.
Iraq is back in the headlines, and not for good reasons. An attack by Iraqi militias in Jordan killed American service members, escalating tensions already simmering since late last year. After a lull in attacks under the Gaza war, pro-Iran groups launched a new wave, prompting US strikes in Baghdad. Now, the Biden administration vows to retaliate for the Jordan attack, but how and where remains unclear.
Directly attacking Iran is unlikely, given past agreements. Striking Iranian assets in Syria may not appease angry Americans or deter Tehran. Iraq appears a more convenient target, as seen in the 2020 strike on Iranian General Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Muhandis.
This decision carries significant weight for US-Iraq relations. Two main options emerge: muddle through or allow a rupture.
Rupture, the extreme scenario, sees Iranian influence dominate Iraq. Unchecked escalation could lead to further US strikes, Iraqi government calls for withdrawal, and militia attacks on US targets. This could trigger a diplomatic breakdown, similar to the 2020 tensions following Soleimani's death.
"Freedom is not something that is given once and for all, it must be fought for every day." - Nelson Mandela
The US could leverage the 2020 threat to save the relationship or target Iranian and militia interests. Withdrawal would have ripple effects on other anti-ISIS coalition members and embolden the US to sanction Iraq and attack militias. However, rupture would harm both countries, with Iraq's economy potentially collapsing and the US losing regional influence.
Muddling through, the second option, resembles the pre-Gaza truce. De-escalation depends on the war's end and militia willingness to halt attacks. If successful, Washington and Baghdad could manage the messy political situation, preserving the relationship while each achieving their core objectives.
However, Iraqi officials need to reconcile their private expectations with public stances. Kurdish and Sunni parties, despite fearing US withdrawal, haven't openly supported its presence. Shiite parties, in contrast, embrace the prospect while controlling key institutions.
Prime Minister Sudani seeks a middle ground, balancing hardliners with pragmatists. He proposes dispersing the anti-ISIS coalition while negotiating bilateral deals with its members. This suggests a desire for calm and a collective approach to shaping the future security relationship.
Ultimately, Iran aims to expel US forces from the Middle East. Its strategy of using proxies in Iraq has successfully kept US officials focused on self-protection, neglecting local allies. This has left the US without reliable partners to counter Iranian influence.
While de-escalation has bought time, it's not a foundation for a healthy relationship. It allowed militias to intimidate opponents, influence elections, and infiltrate the Iraqi government. Unlike with ISIS, the US lacks a coherent strategy against these groups.
These armed groups threaten to control Iraq unless the US holds Baghdad accountable. While some militias avoid attacking US forces, the main perpetrators hold the government hostage.
For years, the US has narrowed its interests in Iraq to solely supporting the anti-ISIS mission. This has rendered its presence ineffective. While withdrawal risks instability, muddling through seems wiser given regional turmoil and upcoming US elections. However, long-term, the US needs a comprehensive strategy to deter Iran and its militias. Ultimately, the onus lies on Baghdad to save the relationship, as Washington might walk away from such a challenging partner.