Iraq Takes Center Stage in Conflict Between U.S. and Iran

Like it or not, Iraq is still a crucial battleground in the Middle East

A Shi'ite fighter from the Popular Mobilization Forces / Getty
May 16, 2019

The State Department on Wednesday ordered "nonemergency U.S. government employees" at both the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil to leave Iraq immediately. "The order applies primarily to full-time diplomats posted to Iraq by State Department headquarters in Washington, and an embassy statement said that visa services in Iraq would be suspended as a result," the New York Times reported. "Contractors who provide security, food, and other such services will remain in place for now."

The directive came after the Trump administration said last week that it received intelligence suggesting Iran and its proxy forces were planning to target American personnel, facilities, and equipment in the Middle East, including in Iraq, where Tehran backs a network of Shi'ite militias. In response to the intelligence, the United States bolstered its naval presence in the region and deployed additional military assets there.

Amid Washington's public concern over growing threats from Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Iraq earlier this month. Pompeo made the surprise trip after American intelligence showed Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias in Iraq moving rockets near bases housing American forces, Reuters reported Wednesday. "He told Iraq's top brass to keep the militias, which are expanding their power in Iraq and now form part of its security apparatus, in check, the [Iraqi security] sources said," according to the report. "If not, the U.S. would respond with force."

These latest reports further prove what was already clear: Iran is increasingly prioritizing Iraq in its regional military strategy, using its Iraqi proxies more than ever to project Iranian power and to threaten the United States and its allies. Intelligence assessments by the Israeli military released in February showed that Iran had moved the bulk of its soldiers and bases in Syria away from the Israeli border, redeploying forces to eastern Syria and Iraq. The decision indicates that Tehran now seeks to entrench itself in Iraq, where the Iranians have set up missile launchers to threaten Israel and have, according to Reuters, given ballistic missiles to Shi'ite proxies. Reuters also noted last year that Iran is developing the capacity to build more ballistic missiles in Iraq with the ranges to threaten both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran of course not only plans to use Iraq to target the "Little Satan," as it so affectionately calls Israel, but also the "Great Satan," the United States. The State Department announced last month that Iran is responsible for the deaths of at least 608 American service members in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The Trump administration's recent actions suggest that Washington still very much views Iran as a threat to Americans in Iraq.

Iran sending long-range rockets and missiles to Iraq would really escalate current tensions and endanger American and allied forces across the Middle East. These weapons, which can threaten targets hundreds of kilometers away, would be game-changers. Beyond expanding the number of potential targets, these longer-range rockets and missiles would allow Iran to attack from less predictable locations, and putting them in the hands of proxies would give the regime in Tehran a degree of plausible deniability. Michael Knights and Assaf Orion, both fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, published an important analysis this week on the threat of such deployments and the implications for regional security. "Concern is mounting within Iraqi, U.S., and Israeli intelligence circles that Iran is covertly supplying long-range artillery rockets to proxy militias inside Iraq, including U.S.-designated terrorist groups Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HaN), and potentially the Badr Organization," they write. "It is also widely accepted that militias have developed a line of communication and control to Iran through Diyala, allowing them to import missiles and equipment without government approval or knowledge." Knights and Orion argue that deploying these weapons would "cross a line," in part because they would "bring a wider array of U.S. forces and partners into potential firing range. In a future conflict, missile-armed proxies operating from Iraq could target U.S. forces in various parts of the Gulf, Iranian Kurdish oppositionists, the Iraqi government, or Saudi Arabia."

Iran has followed a similar model in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, providing rockets and missiles to local proxies to target Israel, Saudi Arabia, and American forces. These transfers are not just about military capabilities, but are also part of a larger Iranian strategy to seek preeminence in the Middle East. Throughout the region, Iran seeks to export the model of Hezbollah, its chief proxy force in Lebanon, arming and financing militias outside of a country's government to the point that the militia becomes more powerful than the government, except it is subservient to Tehran. And then, over time, these proxies progressively enter state institutions and become entrenched in the government. In the end, Iran exerts heavy influence over the country without needing an overbearing presence of Iranians on the ground.

Iran's military efforts in Iraq should also be understood as part of its broader strategic agenda to create a so-called land bridge from its Afghan border to the Mediterranean Sea, a continuous corridor of political and military control from which to exert influence across the Middle East and weaken America's role in the region. Securing routes from Iran to Iraq, and from Iraq to Syria, is a crucial part of this effort.

The implications of Iran's recent push in Iraq are potentially explosive. Over the past week, the Western media has warned of a coming war between the United States and Iran. These warnings are overblown—neither side has any interest in an all-out war at this time. The United States wants out of the Middle East, and Iran is neither stupid nor suicidal: it knows it is overmatched. A more realistic scenario in the foreseeable future is Israel targeting Iranian and Iranian-linked forces in Iraq, carrying out airstrikes similar to what it has done in Syria in recent years. A problem for Jerusalem, however, is that many of the Iranian-backed militias are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMUs, an umbrella organization that has been incorporated into Iraq's security apparatus. Israel would risk finding itself in a fight with Baghdad, whose security forces also work with the United States, complicating the situation even further.

Even more dangerous is the possibility of another war between Israel and Hezbollah, which has an estimated 130,000 rockets ready to fire at Israel. As I wrote earlier this year:

For months, if not years, there have been growing signs that Iraq would be involved in such a war. A commander of Iraq's PMUs warned recently that the militias are ready to respond to Israeli acts of "hostility." Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has also said that a future war with Israel could draw thousands of fighters from Iraq. Iran's decision to redeploy soldiers only makes it more likely that Iraq would be a key belligerent in a future conflict.

The ongoing tension between the United States and Iran over Iraq also makes this possibility more likely.

Sixteen years after the United States invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein, many Americans—both leaders and regular citizens—are done with Iraq. The problem is that Iraq is not done with the United States, whether Washington likes it or not. Iraq has reemerged as a great showdown, and as a coming battleground, between the United States and its allies on one side and Iran and its allies on the other. The events of the past week show how dangerous this situation is, and how quickly it can escalate. Beyond the Islamic State, Washington needs to prioritize Iraq, recognizing it as a focal point of a larger Middle Eastern conflict that is not inevitable but could very well be on the horizon.

Published under: Iran , Iraq