Tag Archives: Kurds

How the Iraqi Election Affects U.S. National Security Interests

source: Kurdistan 24

Published by Kurdistan 24.

This week’s Iraqi parliamentary election has profound implications for American national security interests. Yet the American people and the Biden administration are either uninterested, weary of regional commitments, or are focused on U.S. domestic concerns on new spending for infrastructure and entitlements. Yet, the Middle East has a peculiar ability to defy America’s quest for withdrawal and isolation, drawing back the U.S. under less than advantageous circumstances. Just ask ISIS.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, this week’s election in Iraq “could shape the future for U.S. forces still based there and indicate how Baghdad will navigate a broader geopolitical power struggle between Washington and Tehran… the ballot was also colored by the struggle between Iran-backed militias and the U.S., which has about 2,500 troops in the country.” The early elections are the result of the anti-government protests, poor economic conditions, and government corruption. According to the New York Times, “the country’s fifth general election highlights a political system dominated by guns and money, and still largely divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.”

President Biden has already called for an end to American combat forces in Iraq but is temporarily committed to leaving support and training staff to help Iraq fight a resurgent ISIS. The Iraqi army is weak and dominated by Iranian-controlled Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that are integrated into the Iraqi military. We should not be working with Iranian militias as we did during the initial fight against ISIS.

America’s interest in Iraq should not only be about limiting ISIS but not letting Iran dominate another country while abandoning another ally in Kurdistan. Iran is at least if not more of a threat to long-term U.S. interests than the Islamic State. Sunni ISIS jihadists and nuclear-armed Iranian Islamists are both a concern. If the administration genuinely believes that ISIS is the only reason to keep troops there, it is very much mistaken.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told The Wall Street Journal in July that the Iraqi government needs “cooperation in the field of intelligence. We need help with training. We need troops to help us in the air.” That is everything the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan to our detriment.  In Afghanistan, we got the Taliban; in Iraq, we will get Iran. How can this be good for the US, Israel, Kurdistan, the minority populations of Iraq, American allies in the Gulf, Egypt, or Jordan?

Iraq is a domino in the Iranian vision to dominate the region. The expected result of the Iraqi election is a victory for the anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iranian-controlled political groups associated with its militias. They will increase pressure on the next Iraqi prime minister for a complete withdrawal of any U.S. presence from the country. Iranian control of Iraq will be viewed as another American humiliation, leaving another regional country with its tail between its legs.

American allies like the Kurds in the north of Iraq will be left vulnerable to Iranian-controlled militias. They may be forced to deal with the devil in the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Having a reliable ally like the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) in the middle of such an important geopolitical area for American security interests is taken for granted.

The Biden administration’s latest foreign policy faux pas, not widely reported in the mainstream media, was its failure to come to the defense of Iraqis who were threatened by Iranian-controlled militias for calling for normalized relations with Israel at a conference in Erbil, Iraq. According to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “It is beyond unexplainable that the Biden administration is distancing America from this noble effort of the Iraqi people to normalize relations with Israel.”

The Biden administration’s foreign policy is simple; whatever Trump did, we will do the opposite. This partly explains why it has suffocated advancing the Abraham Accords, one of the most essential American-led diplomatic efforts of the 21st century. For a President who prides himself on diplomacy instead of war, it is nothing short of self-defeating not to prioritize the Abraham Accords.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken claims he is trying to advance the Accords. Yet even a former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith al-Omari, now Senior fellow at the Washington Institute, said, “It is a fact that the Biden administration has not been, very robustly, involved in building on these accords.”

American interests require some involvement in Iraq. We gain disproportionate influence and leverage in the region with our small footprint. The Iraqi election can upend U.S. interests. It is up to the Biden administration to remember that an Iranian-controlled Iraq is not in our interest, and a cowered Kurdish Regional Government in the north of Iraq is a diminished asset for our security and intelligence interests.

Amid Iraqi Protests, Kurdish Region Balances Iran’s IRGC

{article previously published in The Defense Post written by Seth J. Frantzman and Dr. Eric R. Mandel}

At the Black Tiger Base in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq the concerns of Kurdish Peshmerga who have spent five years fighting Islamic State have now turned to the rise of Iran-backed militias.

“ISIS is infiltrating these Sunni Arab areas where locals have a bad relationship with the Hashd al-Shaabi,” a local commander told us last month, referring to the largely Shiite militias who operate checkpoints and control parts of rural Iraq.

In the Kurdish autonomous region, a stable and prosperous part of Iraq that has been a key partner of the United States for decades, the increasing strength of Iran threatens to undermine years of work to support Iraq.

This is now clear amid the crescendo of protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq where protesters have targeted party offices of politicians linked to Iran and a heavy-handed crackdown has left more than 100 dead. Baghdad has followed the Tehran model of cutting of internet and targeting local media, while the autonomous Kurdistan region still has internet access.

This has larger ramifications. Iran increasingly wants to use Iraq as a springboard for regional ambitions. The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said in early October that destroying Israel was an achievable goal, and Iraq has become a key conduit for Iran’s influence to carry out its plans. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq has threatened the U.S., saying Iran would not hesitate to target American forces in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Iraqi President Barham Salih on September 23 where he emphasized the sovereignty of Iraq and efforts to increase regional stability. However, that stability is undermined by outside forces.

Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook also spoke at the Asia Society on the same day and warned of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps role in the Middle East. The IRGC’s role in Iraq is creating a carbon copy of itself through a group of paramilitary forces called the Popular Mobilization Units or Hashd al-Shaabi.

The PMU, raised to fight ISIS, has become an official paramilitary force with checkpoints and influence stretching across the country. Its deputy commander, sanctioned by the U.S. as a terrorist, wants the PMU to have his own air force.

In the Nineveh plains its units harass Christians, preventing them from thriving after ISIS. In Sinjar, Yazidis persecuted by ISIS cannot return because of the patchwork of militias. The PMU is likely behind a series of mortar and rocket attacks near U.S. forces that began in May as U.S.-Iran tensions increased. Members of these Iran-backed groups also attacked a Saudi oil field in May.

Two years after the liberation of Mosul and swaths of Iraq from ISIS, the Shiite militias are at a crossroads. They increasingly look like a carbon-copy of the IRGC, more powerful than Lebanon’s Hezbollah. As part of Iran’s network of IRGC-supported groups they are a key funnel for weapons across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

Washington has tended to naively confront Iranian influence in Baghdad by sinking funds into various mythological Iraqi nationalist leaders, from Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to Haider Abadi and Muqtada al-Sadr, all of whom ended up being closer to Iran than the U.S.

Maliki’s heavy-handed tactics against minorities fueled ISIS, Abadi called the Iran-backed militias the “hope” of Iraq and Sadr recently was summoned to Tehran to sit with IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

We went to northern Iraq to speak with Kurdish Regional Government politicians, government ministers, Peshmerga generals and others about their region’s role today. It left a sobering impression.

The 2005 Iraqi Constitution guarantees the Kurdistan region a budget for its Peshmerga and civil servants but Baghdad has systematically cut those funds. The Kurdish fighters who helped defeat ISIS lack basic gear such as body armor, proper barracks, night-vision equipment, anti-armor and anti-drone systems.

We drove out to their front line where ISIS members could be seen with binoculars hiding in caves. The Peshmerga hold the top of Mount Qarachogh, around an hour’s drive southwest from the KRG capital of Erbil. The Iraqi army and PMU hold a line several kilometers away in the plains below, while ISIS still operates in small groups between them.

U.S. interests in Iraq are to keep the country from being a springboard for instability in the region. But those interests are also to keep Iran from swallowing the country as its “near abroad,” perfecting a Hezbollah model for carving out a state-within-a-state.

How do you balance Iraq’s version of the IRGC? The White House has used “maximum pressure” on Iran but wants to avoid war. Iraq is a perfect place to broaden that policy by extending sanctions, imposed in July, to more PMU units. At the same time, Washington should work directly with the KRG, ensuring greater support for the Peshmerga and for other institutions.

There is reticence in the U.S. for open-ended involvement in Iraq. Suppo

rting Kurdistan regional institutions is a force multiplier: They are openly seeking greater partnership with the U.S. and they are a key conduit to security in eastern Syria where the U.S. plays a key role.

Too often U.S. policymakers seem to take allies for granted while imagining that adversaries can be bought off or co-opted by carrots and appeasement. There’s no evidence this has worked.

Baghdad’s response to the protests shows its fragility. It’s time to try a different approach, because Iraq is a linchpin of security in the region. Partnering with the Kurdistan region has the added benefit of showing Baghdad the U.S. is serious about going around it so long as it empowers militias and squeezes Erbil.


Seth J. Frantzman is the author of ‘After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East‘ (Gefen Publishing 2019).

Dr. Eric Mandel is the founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network.