The missile attack launched on Tuesday, March 3, on Iraq’s Ain al-Asad airbase and the bombing that hit a military convoy in Baghdad on the same day are the latest attacks targeting the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Iran is believed to be responsible for these attacks, as well as their precursors that targeted the US-led coalition, in a clear attempt to further escalate tensions. Iran’s motives behind its interference in Iraq include competing with the United States, strengthening its security standing with regard to Turkey, and tightening its control over Iraq. Iran is further complicating the already dire Iraqi situation and placing the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi in an even more difficult position as it prepares for the upcoming elections in October.
During a visit to Baghdad last month, I became more aware of the enormity of the challenges facing Iraq. However, I was also delighted to see the level of determination and devotion Iraqis had to rebuild and reverse the effects of war and destruction. Iraqis have high hopes for the upcoming elections, believing that it will help guide the country’s political process as well as direct its path towards an economic renaissance, which will pull the country out of the cycle of violence that is fueled by Iranian interference. All sides have set their hopes on international and Arab support, especially from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, to help Iraq in its journey towards recovery and healing.
These elections have been widely and vehemently demanded by Iraqis as demonstrated by the fierce protests that swept Iraq over the past two years. Since he came to power in May, al-Kadhimi has made it his top priority to hold free and fair elections.
Between militias and demonstrators, it is only natural that the Iraqis have considerably varying expectations regarding the outcomes of these elections. There is a fear that some militias will try to divert the course of the elections through violence, threats, and repression in order to maintain their control; thus, taking away the will of Iraqi voters, and with it their hopes for improving living conditions and achieving political independence.
The ongoing militia attacks on coalition forces, which support Iraq in its war on terror, show the severity of the security threat that Iraq is facing on multiple fronts; ISIS’s threat on the one hand, and Iran’s militias on the other hand, not to mention the ongoing armed conflict between Turkey and the Kurds.
Despite Iran’s ongoing provocations towards the United States, Biden’s administration seems to be in no rush to announce a clear policy towards the situation in Iraq, perhaps because this policy will depend on the negotiations process with Iran. The United States has been attempting to prevent further escalation in order to avoid putting the Iraqi government in a difficult position in light of the latest demands made by Iran’s allies for the coalition forces to withdraw from Iraq.
Iraq is currently facing an unprecedented set of complicated security challenges; in addition to the direct Iranian threat to Iraq’s independence, and the serious danger posed by Iranian-backed militias, there is also the threat of Turkish interventions in the north, and ISIS in the west as despite its military defeat in 2018 followed by the loss of the territories under its control, the terrorist organization was able to maintain a significant presence in western Iraq, posing a constant threat to Iraq’s security and its ability to secure those areas.
At the same time, the presence of Iranian-backed militias across Iraq raises the fears and concerns among the Iraqi population, and it impedes efforts to eradicate what is left of ISIS in order to establish security, recover from the effects of war, and prepare for free and fair elections.
Achieving success in the fight against ISIS in its remaining strongholds requires gaining the confidence of the defenseless citizens inhabiting those areas, and this, in turn, requires reliance on professional security forces, not undisciplined militias. These professional security forces should also be responsible for combating the threat posed by the Iranian-backed militias, some of which are behind the recent attacks on the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS as well as the attacks on peaceful protesters. There is no doubt that cooperating with the coalition is critical to ensuring ISIS’s lasting defeat and restoring security and stability in the areas where it operates.
Recently, a number of important security victories have been announced; on February 14, the Prime Minister announced the arrest of multiple members of a “death squad” that assassinated several Iraqi journalists, politicians, and activists in Basra Governorate. Al-Kadhimi said that those arrests would reveal more information about the assassinations that terrified the people of Basra, and he promised public trials for the accused. Al-Kadhimi had been monitoring the situation since last year. In August, he dismissed Basra’s chief of police and a number of security officials because of the continuation of these assassinations and said at the time that “colluding with the killers or submitting to their threats is unacceptable.” Recent reports have revealed the arrest of a number of terrorists responsible for the missile attacks on the city of Erbil, on February 15, confirming their ties to Iranian-backed militias.
We cannot dismiss the fact that Iraq’s security is highly dependent on the country’s economic recovery and improvement of living conditions for all citizens. Unfortunately, the current Iraqi government came to power in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying recession and economic crises that paralyzed most countries of the world, not to mention the financial burdens on the state’s treasury as a result of the decline in oil revenues and taxes.
In the medium and long term, there is a lot of room for optimism as Iraq is rich in natural resources and its youth is educated and strongly determined, all of which qualify it to become an economic leader in the region. However, Iraq’s ability to achieve this has been hindered by decades of conflict and weak governments, which led Iraqi, Gulf, and foreign investors to become hesitant about investing in Iraq. While it is true that Iraq’s improved political situation with the defeat of ISIS contributed to boosting confidence in the business sector, addressing weak governance is equally as important to restoring economic activity and investor confidence. In the economic field, we can see some positive signs despite the worsening situation due to the pandemic. The restoration of diplomatic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the reopening of the Iraqi-Saudi border crossing, the frequent visits between officials on both sides of the borders, and the clear interest shown by the Gulf business sector in promoting trade and investment are important developments that must be further emphasized and established as a reality. Similarly, it is important to accelerate the completion of the electrical interconnection project between Iraq and the GCC network.
In February of 2018, an international conference for the reconstruction of Iraq was held in Kuwait, which was, at that time, an important indicator of the international community’s keenness to assist in this reconstruction. During the conference, commitments and support funds exceeded thirty billion dollars, five of which were from the Gulf Cooperation Council, and another five from the World Bank, along with three billion from the United States and the rest from the European Union and other countries. However, three years after the conference, we find that very few of these commitments have been translated into real projects. This delay is largely due to political unrest and poor governance mechanisms, as well as the coronavirus pandemic and the international economic crisis, all coupled with the absence of a stable government in Iraq in the past period.
In order to rebuild this trust that was present during the 2018 conference, it is necessary to hold intensive meetings and conferences to coordinate the efforts among the participating members, especially the United States, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the World Bank, the European Union, and the United Nations. It is also important to develop appropriate mechanisms to encourage the flow of investments that were promised to Iraq over three years ago. Iraq’s success in restoring security and political stability, recovering economically, and improving living conditions for Iraqi citizens will be the most important aspects that will effectively contribute to loosening Iran’s grip over Iraq and restoring Iraq to the Arab order.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.