Iraq’s most important external partners, Iran and the United States, as well as Iraq’s domestic politicians, are competing to consolidate their leverage ahead of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue set to begin on June 11. Iran dispatched its IRGC-Quds Force Commander and energy minister to solidify a key energy deal that the United States had hoped to deter by encouraging partnerships with Gulf States. Iran’s proxies in Iraq responded by opposing the US-encouraged outreach to Saudi Arabia and attempting to form a parliamentary mechanism to demand the expulsion of US forces from the country. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has strengthened his domestic position by filling key vacant security roles, passing a full cabinet, and forming an alliance in Parliament to support his actions in order to navigate the competing demands on his country in the Strategic Dialogue. The pursuit of leverage by all actors indicates each expects their stance in the Strategic Dialogue negotiations to be met with resistance.
Iraq Situation Report
Economic and diplomatic competition between the United States and Iran is ramping up as both sides attempt to control the conditions leading up to the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue in mid-June. Iran seeks to ensure that Iraq continues to import Iranian energy, a key economic driver for Iran's sanctions-battered economy. Iraq relies on those imports to bolster its under-funded, often-strained electrical grid. The United States is aiming to reduce Iraqi reliance on Iranian imports by encouraging investments by US and allied companies and leveraging its sanctions waivers. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is capitalizing on what appears to be a grace period granted to him by the United States and Iran to work with both sides and secure Iraq’s energy and defense requirements.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is seeking to develop closer energy relationships with Iraq’s Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, to demonstrate to the United States that Iraq is making progress in divesting from Iranian energy reliance and renewing relations with all of its neighbors before the June US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seeks to balance a variety of opposing forces in Iraq. After a week of executive orders and appointments generally viewed as favorable to the United States, Kadhimi called the Iranian-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) heroes who are essential to the anti-ISIS fight in a visit to PMF headquarters. Kadhimi needs to maintain his ties with the PMF and Iran’s proxies in Iraq to prevent militia-led civil unrest and ultimately state collapse. However, Kadhimi also made a point of showcasing his leverage over the PMF by bringing with him the leaders of militias that defected from the PMF in April. Those defections threatened to fracture the PMF and offended the organization’s leadership which remains under Iranian, rather than Iraqi, government control. Iran continues to work to demonstrate its influence over Iraqi affairs in other areas; the Iranian ambassador told Iranian media that Kadhimi asked for financial aid from Iran and said that Iraq remains “dependent” on Iran for financial support despite US pressure to sever those ties.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi jumpstarted his term by conducting a series of executive-level actions favorable to Iraq’s restive population and the United States, but potentially harmful to Iranian interests in Iraq. Kadhimi appointed powerful generals with US ties to head the US-trained Counterterrorism Service and Iranian-infiltrated Ministry of Interior, indicating a willingness to push back against corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq’s security sector. Kadhimi also issued orders likely designed to win over Iraq’s popular protest movement, which appeared divided over how to respond to the new government. Each of these moves challenges Iran’s influence in Iraq and may draw backlash from Iran’s political and militia allies in the country despite previous Iranian support for Kadhimi’s government. Kadhimi’s shift could benefit the United States, which Kadhimi is likely to court for financial support to mitigate Iraq’s ongoing budget crisis.
Key Takeaway: Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government formation process further splintered Iraq’s already fractious political scene. Disagreements over cabinet appointments created new fractures within political blocs, calling into question whether individual members of parliament will vote along their usual party lines. Despite worsening political acrimony, Kadhimi maintains broad Sunni and Kurdish support in Parliament and will likely be able to satisfy enough Shi’a blocs to ascend to the office of prime minister with a partial cabinet. Because of their shared interest in Kadhimi's success, Iran and the US confined their competition to other lines of effort ahead of the June US-Iraq strategic dialogue, thereby creating enough space for Iraq’s political elites to negotiate government formation. One day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iraq to bring armed groups under state control, the US-funded outlet al-Hurra published a story indicating that recently formed militias in Iraq are under the direct control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Key Takeaway: The government of Iraq remains beset by competing domestic and international forces, a political conflict that threatens to further destabilize the Iraqi state. Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani likely worked with caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi to remove key militias loyal to Sistani from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The order places these militias under the direct command of the Office of the Prime Minister, a move which will be viewed by Iraqis as a vote of no confidence by Sistani in the remaining Iran-backed PMF factions and leadership. Simultaneously, Iraq’s Shi’a political blocs, led by the Iran-backed Conquest Alliance, are frustrating Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to form a cabinet, calling into question whether Kadhimi will be able to overcome the partisan and ethno-sectarian deadlock to form a government. Additionally, Iran-backed parties are taking steps to weaken opposing ethno-sectarian groups by claiming some cabinet positions for Shi’a blocs rather than for their usual Kurdish occupants.
Iraq’s political elites are conditioning their support for Prime Minister (PM)-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi on the composition of his cabinet. The US and Iran have continued their competition to influence Iraq’s future. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following SITREP map covers the period April 15 - 21, 2020.
ISW is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following SITREP map covers the period April 1 - 7, 2020.
Iran advanced multiple lines of effort in Iraq to compel the U.S. withdrawal from the country. Iran successfully organized political opposition from the most powerful Iraqi Shi’a blocs to deny parliamentary backers to Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi. Zurfi, who enjoyed tacit U.S. and international support, is now unlikely to win a vote of confidence. The U.S. completed pre-planned consolidations from three major Iraqi bases and several smaller camps, while several European nations either completely or partially withdrew their forces from Iraq over COVID-19 concerns.