Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is set to visit Washington soon, although he does not yet have a date or an invitation, so he is scrambling to say all the right things in order to secure a meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Iraq is worse off than it was two weeks ago and this last week has propelled two items to the top of the list for Al-Kadhimi’s visit to the US: Kata’ib Hezbollah’s continued attacks on the US and Iraqis, and calls by Al-Kadhimi for early elections that Kata’ib Hezbollah and its allies in Iraq’s Council of Representatives won’t allow to happen.
The top agenda item for Trump is for Al-Kadhimi to do something about the militias that he supposedly commands as Iraq’s commander in chief. The militias that fall under the government’s security apparatus are attacking US personnel in Iraq, which are there to partner with the Baghdad government to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh. The militias have now become more of a threat to the US and Iraqis than Daesh.
Trump wants to know if the US has a partner in Iraq. The president is willing to pull US forces out of Iraq if this “partner” continues to disappoint. Republicans and Democrats are looking for a reason to end this experiment. And it won’t be without costs to Baghdad and Tehran.
Two actions by the Democrat-led House of Representatives point to a breakup if nothing changes. Democrats voted to cut funding for the US mission in Iraq by $145 million and Republican Rep. Joe Wilson was able to get two amendments passed that would ensure no US dollars go to any institution in Iraq where the militias have access to the funds — that would mean the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior would be most affected.
The US is in Iraq to deal with Daesh under a UN mandate but the biggest threat to American forces is from militias, which the Iraqi government pays and supposedly controls. Kata’ib Hezbollah is a designated terrorist group that attacks Americans, kills Iraqis, and is now threatening Al-Kadhimi with assassination. It vowed to hold the prime minister responsible for the deaths of Qassem Soleimani and Kata’ib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis — both killed simultaneously in a US drone strike in early January.
Al-Kadhimi has brushed off the threats to his life but is not willing to confront the powerful militia. Most Iraqis believe and the evidence points to Kata’ib Hezbollah as the militia responsible for killing the PM’s adviser and expert analyst Hisham Al-Hashemi last month. Some Iraq watchers say that it would put Al-Kadhimi in danger if he even hinted that Kata’ib Hezbollah was responsible for Al-Hashemi’s targeted assassination.
It is the parliament, not the prime minister, which will decide if there is to be electoral reform and early elections.
This is exactly why Al-Kadhimi has to take on the militias; an entity within the Iraqi security forces cannot openly threaten to kill the prime minister without repercussions. If that’s where we are at in Iraq — a place where the commander in chief cannot use the Iraqi security forces to take on a rogue militia beholden to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force — then the US should withdraw all support and place the Iraqi government in economic disfavor, while continuing to support traditional and new allies in greater Iraq.
Withdrawing US financial support for the Iraqi government and sanctioning Iraq’s institutions, where groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah funnel US dollars to Tehran, will impact Iran and its political parties in Iraq. The protesters are demanding Al-Kadhimi go after the militias. They want the US to end its support for the status quo. They want new elections in order to end Iran’s vote on what Iraqis do, and they want them now.
A key component of Al-Kadhimi’s interim status as prime minister is to call for new elections, arrest those responsible for killing Iraqi protesters, and rein in the militias beholden to Tehran. He has said the right things, but his actions and inaction are all that matter.
Let’s look at Iraq ahead of Al-Kadhimi’s US visit. Protesters are once again on the streets demanding free and fair elections, water and electricity, jobs, and an Iraq free of Iranian interference. Iraqi protesters are still being killed, tortured, kidnapped for ransom, disappeared, and detained by militias and the security forces. By design, the forces under the command of Iraq’s commander in chief are operating outside of his control.
Al-Kadhimi has demanded investigations into the violence used against protesters and, on two occasions, has detained militia members using Iraq’s special forces, only to release them within 48 to 72 hours. Their release came after immense pressure from Tehran, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Fatah alliance led by the Badr Organization’s Hadi Al-Amiri.
The prime minister is in a predictable position: He has no power to do anything against those that put him in power. Iran has had control of Iraq’s parliamentary system since the 2018 elections. It had loose control with the Dawa Party under Nouri Al-Maliki, but this was solidified with the militias that came to power in 2018, when Fatah came in ahead of then-Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s Nasr party.
Abadi, commander in chief during the Daesh campaign, lost out on the credit for defeating Daesh to the militias commanded by Soleimani through Al-Muhandis and Al-Amiri. Ironically, the moniker “Our guy in Baghdad” has been given to Al-Kadhimi by Tehran, Riyadh, and, yes, Washington.
The 2018 elections gave political parties tied to Tehran control of the Iraqi Council of Representatives. Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance may have come in first, but Tehran was not concerned as it has always demonstrated an ability to push Al-Sadr to support its position. Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and Al-Amiri’s Fatah corralled Al-Sadr, Abadi and Ammar Al-Hakim of the Hikma party to form the largest bloc in parliament — the bloc known as Al-Bina’a.
The militias wear suits in the Council of Representatives; they have control and they have primacy. It is the parliament, not the prime minister, which will decide if there is to be electoral reform and early elections. The militias supported Al-Kadhimi for a reason: They are not worried about him as they have all the power.
Both the US and Iraqis want free, fair and early elections, but Iran does not. Iraqis are willing to die for freedom from corrupt political and religious parties that prioritize Tehran’s concerns above theirs. The US needs to acknowledge the sacrifices made by those Iraqis wanting sovereignty from Iran by shedding a spotlight on the atrocities committed by the militias and the Iraqi security forces.
Washington and Baghdad also both want Al-Kadhimi to take on Iran’s militias, while Iran does not. Gone are the weak arguments that taking on Iran’s proxies will rally Iraqis round the flag in support of the militias. This line of reasoning is old, tired and was debunked with the deaths of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis. Iraqis did not rally round the flag; instead they demanded more militia leaders be targeted by the US.
The US must demand Al-Kadhimi take on the militias that are threatening its troops and Iraq’s sovereignty. And the White House must demand that Al-Kadhimi holds free, fair and early elections. In both cases, Iran has a stronger position than the US. Iran has a say through its militias’ penetration of Iraq’s political and security apparatus. The US does, however, have economic leverage that could decimate Iraq’s economy and end Tehran’s use of Iraq as an economic life support system.
Al-Kadhimi must use a trusted group within the Iraqi security forces that is willing to take on the militias, arrest their leaders and, most importantly, keep them in custody despite the pressure from Iran and its Iraqi partners. This will grow his support in Iraq and give him leverage against Fatah in the Council of Representatives. If Al-Kadhimi does not take action, the US must make it a costly decision for the Iraqi government.
Al-Kadhimi has two options: Tilt Iraq away from Iran or be treated like Iran. And the US also has two options: Stay blind to Iran’s takeover of Iraq or listen to the Iraqi people who want to help it get Iraq right.
• Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
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