London/Washington: When Iraq’s prime minister declared a final victory over Islamic State in December 2017, he paid tribute to the militias that had repelled the jihadists. Many of them had been guided by Qassem Soleimani.
Less than a month earlier, dozens of fighters crowded round the smiling Iranian general as he toured Al-Bukamal just across the border in Syria after helping them flush the extremist group from the town.
Among the many potentially dangerous by-products of Soleimani’s killing by an American airstrike last week and the new chapter of upheaval for Iraq is that it could give rise again to the conditions that Islamic State can exploit.
Tehran and Washington were targeting a common enemy in the three-year battle against the group. Iranian-backed militias did a lot of the combat fighting while the U.S. provided air power. Now they risk turning Iraq into a theater of conflict again just as the country seeks to extricate itself from the influence of outside forces.
If Soleimani was heralded as a savior for helping defeat Islamic State, he was also partly responsible for its rise by stoking the sectarian tensions that have defined Middle East conflicts for generations.
As the leader of Shiite Iran’s main agitator in the Arab world, he encouraged the sidelining of Sunni leaders from politics following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He helped organize and promote a vast network of Shiite militias that went on to take over some ministries. As Islamic State, or ISIS, expanded into Iraq to establish its caliphate, the group claimed to be the defenders of Sunni Islam for a disgruntled population.
“From ISIS’s point of view, a U.S.-Iran conflict works in its favor in a couple of different ways,” said Kamran Bokhari, founding director of the Center for Global Policy in Washington. “A weakening of the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, especially the militias, creates space for its people to try and stage a comeback. With the U.S. going after Iran and its allies in the region, less focus is on ISIS, which adds to its room to maneuver.”
Iraq has come a long way. Iraqi nationalism has strengthened and protests that have engulfed the country since October transcend sectarian and ethnic identities. Iraqi security forces are much stronger.
But all the same, Soleimani’s killing by a drone in Baghdad challenges Iraqi sovereignty and risks embroiling the country, and the region, in the kind of instability that Islamic State has shown it can thrive from. While the U.S. points to its success in destroying the physical caliphate, officials say fighters have gone underground and are in a position to rebuild.
Much depends on whether there’s an escalation. On Wednesday, Iranian missiles hit two American bases in Iraq, though the U.S. said there were no casualties and that they deliberately missed personnel stationed there.
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The U.S. has 5,000 troops in Iraq and heads a multinational coalition that is still fighting remnants of Islamic State, previously known as ISIS, as well as training Iraq’s military.
On Jan. 5, Iraq’s parliament voted to require the government to “end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason” by foreign troops.
The ballot was won largely by Shiite lawmakers 170 to 0, according to official figures. About 150 mostly Sunnis and Kurds, the majority of whom likely oppose the expulsion of foreign troops, failed to show up. The measure won’t be enacted until it’s signed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
But Iraqi forces still require U.S.-led coalition training and, without that, Islamic State could re-emerge from their cells, according to an Arab diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. It’s notable there was no unity in the vote to expel American troops and that Shiite politicians were pressured to vote after being challenge about their loyalty, he said.
When tension rose, the U.S. embassy suspended consular operations and urged all Americans to leave the country. The U.S.-led coalition announced it was halting most of its operations against the militants. Canada said it was also stopping operations, while Germany said it has temporarily moved some troops from Iraq due to safety concerns.
“Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration,” President Donald Trump said in a televised briefing on Wednesday. “ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran, the destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”
The decision by the U.S.-led military coalition to pull back, though, works in Islamic State’s favor, according to Sajad Jiyad, director of the Bayan Center, an independent think tank based in Baghdad.
If the U.S. is forced to withdraw more significantly, “at least initially Iraq would struggle to fill the gap,” said Jiyad. “Another probability is that Da’esh would try to take advantage of that,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
In 2014, the Iraqi army abandoned its positions as Islamic State launched its offensive. Then the fall of the city of Mosul alerted the world to the threat.
The jihadist group doesn’t hold any significant territory in Iraq anymore. Instead it’s turned to insurgency tactics such as bombings, sniper attacks and targeted killings, resorting to the same measures it used to undermine faith in the Iraqi authorities.
“I doubt if the international coalition as led by the U.S. will be able to continue its anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria in the present circumstances,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “Members of the coalition are more concerned about their own safety than carrying out operations against ISIS. The anti-ISIS fight is the first casualty of the U.S.-Iran confrontation.” – Bloomberg
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