Iraqi officials were stunned by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warning to President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi that the US will close its embassy in Baghdad if Iraqi officials don’t rein in pro-Iran Shia militias’ attacks on foreign diplomatic missions.
Iraqi policy makers must take action to prevent the US from closing its embassy doors in Baghdad.
Complete departure by the US from Iraq would further weaken al-Kadhimi’s hand for reform and embolden pro-Iran militias. The US could put pressure on Iraqi officials to rein in pro-Iran militias without closing its embassy – which is the US’s largest diplomatic outpost and was one of the most expensive to build – in Iraq and losing its leverage.
How did we reach this tenuous juncture?
After glamorous images appeared of the reception of Prime Minister al-Kadhimi in Washington DC in August and bilateral relations seemed to warm, US-Iraq relations have hit a snag due to continued attacks by pro-Iran militias on US and foreign diplomatic missions. This demonstrates the fragility of Iraq-US relations in the face of insecurity, despite earlier commitments.
Professor Feisal Amin Rasoul al-Istrabadi, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University Bloomington said: “Of course, from an international legal perspective, the US has a point: The host state is obligated to secure all diplomatic missions within its territory. On the other hand, the inherent weakness of the Baghdad government can hardly be a surprise in Washington.”
In September alone, 19 Katyusha rockets and mortars hit the Green Zone and there were 26 improvised explosive device attacks on convoys working for the international coalition. This year, two US servicemen, a Briton, and a number of Iraq’s security forces were killed by rocket attacks attributed to the pro-Iran militias. The escalation of attacks is the militias’ retaliation for America's decision to kill Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandas; they aim to force the US troops out of Iraq and want to demonstrate their ability to strike various secure targets. While al-Kadhimi has established a committee to investigate diplomatic attacks, this measure should have been taken before the situation worsened.
President Salih, al-Kadhimi, and the Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi issued a joint statement that included the assertion of the government’s support for the efforts to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions. Top Iraqi officials are united in trying to calm the situation and have assured US officials that closing the embassy does not serve Iraq.
Nonetheless, their statements have limitations given the de facto nature of pro-Iran militias.
Professor of Politics Brendan O’Leary at the University of Pennsylvania said: “Al-Kadhimi’s position is delicate. He has always said everything should be coordinated according to the constitution. The constitution plainly bans militias, but he does not have the power to dissolve them.”
Since al-Kadhimi assumed office, he has incrementally begun to reform the security apparatus by appointing a number of figures who are not pro-Iran. For example, former Sunni Defense Minister al-Obeidi was appointed as the deputy director for operations at the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. The federal government ordered the closure of Hashd al-Sha’abi’s offices at Baghdad International Airport. Iraqi officials have been given less than two weeks to show progress against the militias, according to Politico, and the complete closure of the embassy would take 90 days.
Although al-Kadhimi has taken steps in the right direction, tangible outcomes require more time and the prime minister must make bolder decisions to curb the militias.
Thafer al-A’ani, an Iraqi Member of Parliament, said that some elements of the pro-Iran militias have a presence within the Green Zone. He also said the Iraqi government decided to remove all the militias from the Green Zone, but it will be unable to stop attacks.
Although many Iraqi politicians believe the US is not bluffing, there are some Iraqis who think that the US is putting pressure on Iraqi officials to force them to take a tougher line against the militias.
Consequences of leaving Iraq
If the US closes its embassy, it will be a diplomatic disaster for Iraq, as some other diplomatic missions might also be suspended or relocate from Baghdad.
Closing the embassy and complete withdrawal of the US forces will reduce the cooperation between Baghdad and the US-led coalition, hindering the war against ISIS. Iraq's firearms, which rely on parts from the US, would also deteriorate and might not receive maintenance. Such a move would also have detrimental economic consequences in Iraq, among them reduced foreign direct investment. Farhad Alaaldin, Chairman of The Iraq Advisory Council, argued that Iraq will lose the US’s aid amounting to $5 billion and the US’s backing of Iraq in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This would be a catastrophe for Iraq’s stability and economy as it already struggles to handle its budget.
It will also further embolden Iran’s interference in Iraq, al-Istrabadi said.
“I would note, not incidentally, that should the US actually make good on its threat to leave Iraq, it would hand Iran a strategic victory Tehran could not have dreamt of.”
Leaving Iraq to its fate should the US embassy close is not a solution, and more engagement is needed. The US should stand with Baghdad and try to consolidate efforts to work with al-Kadhimi, who is working on reining in pro-Iran militias.
Although al-Kadhimi is vulnerable because the parliament can hinder his policies, the US and al-Kadhimi should lay out a concrete plan to secure the diplomatic missions and disarm the militias.