Iraq’s most powerful political and military leaders were gathered in Baghdad’s opulent presidential palace to discuss just one thing: how to stop the country’s closest neighbour, Iran, and its most powerful ally, America, going to war on its soil.
The May 19 meeting took place when US-Iran tensions over Tehran’s nuclear programme and its backing of foreign proxies had put the Middle East on edge. Two weeks earlier, the US had dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf, citing Iranian provocation. In Iraq, which shares a 1,400km border with Iran and majority Shia Muslim populations, there was concern that it could become the flashpoint. After all, Iraq hosts more than 5,000 American soldiers, while a plethora of local Shia paramilitary groups are loyal to Tehran.
Iraqi leaders could not face the prospect of a new war after years of conflict long predating the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The oil-rich country was just getting its breath back after a four-year military campaign to defeat Isis, supported by both the US and Iran.
“[Iraq] is a success that is emerging after four decades of conflict,” says President Barham Salih. “We don’t have the stamina, we don’t have the energy, we don’t have the resources, or the willingness, to become victim to yet another proxy conflict.”
A fresh outbreak of violence, warns Mr Salih, would shatter the country’s hopes of rebuilding its society. Its neighbours and allies “should not be allowed to undermine the hard-won success in Iraq”, he says. “We say Iraq first — and we do not want our stability to be squandered. We have had enough of conflicts.”
Some observers worry that the battle-hardened Iraqi Shia paramilitaries who have received training, arms and funding from Iran could provide the spark for any conflict. So powerful are some of these groups that their leaders were at the palace meeting. Their rise has been compared with Hizbollah, another Iran-backed militia, which has become the most potent force in Lebanon.
Washington considered the threat, to US personnel and installations inside Iraq, so severe that it closed its consulate in Basra months earlier and days before the meeting ordered non-essential diplomatic staff to leave Baghdad.
The two sides have history. Iraqi Shia militants fought American soldiers after the US-led invasion. But in 2014, with Iraq’s regular army collapsing as Isis took control of a third of the country, the Iran-linked paramilitaries mobilised under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Units, or Hashd al-Shaabi.
Alongside volunteers answering a religious call to take up arms against Isis, they numbered some 100,000. Their role in defeating the jihadi group meant that in 2016, Hashd fighters were given legal status and the group gained serious political clout in last year’s elections. People regarded by American diplomats as terrorists in the mid-2000s were voted into parliament.
The Hashd are lauded by many as having stopped Isis reaching Baghdad. But since 2018, their swelling political and economic power has been seen as a challenge to the weak Iraqi state. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said last year that Iran-backed Shia militias “jeopardise Iraq’s sovereignty”.
Many leaders at the Baghdad meeting privately favoured Tehran or Washington. A senior official says Iraq’s neutrality in the US-Iran melee has frustrated some in Tehran; nonetheless, that stance was reaffirmed at the meeting.
Hours later, a Katyusha rocket hit the central Baghdad Green Zone, home to the sprawling US embassy. Analysts had already warned that Iran could hit back at the US by having regional proxies conduct asymmetrical attacks.
It was one in a series of unclaimed attacks close to American targets in Iraq during May and June. They coincided with incidents of sabotage on tankers and oil infrastructure in the Gulf. Mr Pompeo linked the incidents to Iran, which dismissed the allegations. No group claimed the apparently unsophisticated attacks in Iraq, which caused no casualties.
“It was a way to test the limits of the Americans,” says Maria Fantappie, International Crisis Group’s senior Iraq adviser. “Whoever did it is aware that the red line for the Trump administration is bloodshed.”
US anxiety had been evident a fortnight before the presidential palace meeting when Mr Pompeo abruptly cancelled a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to make a late night dash to Baghdad, where he restated US concerns about Iraqi armed groups under Iranian command.
The administration of US president Donald Trump did not publicly specify which groups it feared. And many argue Washington, where anti-Iran hawks are in the ascendancy, overreacted by evacuating the non-essential staff.
American intelligence “has a bias it wants to prove”, says Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi government counter-terrorism adviser. Yet one veteran Iraqi politician describes “nasty threats” by certain Shia militias against “US installations”, including oil companies and diplomatic outposts. US intelligence, he says, indicated Iranian military commanders had met their Iraqi paramilitary allies in Baghdad.
Stoking fears that rogue militant elements could push Iraq into confrontation with its neighbours, a drone strike in May on Saudi Arabia’s Yanbu pipeline, initially claimed by Iran-backed Yemeni Houthis, was later blamed by Washington on Iraqi Shia militants.
But not all the militias which make up the Hashd are seen as a threat. “The Americans are blaming Kata’ib Hizbollah,” says a senior Iraqi official. Kata’ib Hizbollah is an Iran-backed Iraqi Shia paramilitary group estimated to be about 10,000-strong. Designated as a terror organisation by the US, KH was formed in 2007 to fight US forces in Iraq. But it comes under the Hashd umbrella and is closely linked with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But the Iraqi official questions the US assessment: “According to our information, the Iranians gave direct orders to these groups not to [attack].”
The incident has left diplomats worrying that rogue groups — without any direct Iranian involvement — could trigger a broader conflagration. Douglas Silliman, US ambassador to Iraq until January, told the Lawfare podcast last month he fears “some group, probably one that is not directly under the control of Iran”, might cause casualties in an attempt “to make a name for themselves for pushing the Americans out”.
Tensions across the Gulf during spring and early summer peaked with Iranian guns shooting down a US drone over international waters — Tehran insists the drone was over its waters. Just 10 minutes before US jets were set to hit three different targets in a retaliatory strike, Mr Trump “stopped it”, as he later said on Twitter.
Iraqi fears over being sucked into a proxy war were not eased when Mr Trump boasted, months before the aborted attack, that America could use military bases in Iraq to spy on Iran.
“The dilemma for Iraq is that the US is an important ally,” says Mr Salih, choosing his words carefully. “Iran is an important neighbour.”
Iran and Iraq’s shared history — etched with grievances from Saddam’s regime and eight years of war between 1980 and 1988 — is now animated by trade, and social and religious ties: millions of Shia pilgrims traverse the two countries every year.
Ironically the toppling of Saddam, opened the way for Tehran to expand its regional influence. Since 2003, Baghdad’s political class has been dominated by Shia former opposition figures. Exiled from Saddam’s regime, many sheltered among fellow Shia Muslims in Iran, where their militant groups and parties were incubated. About half of Iraq’s parliamentary seats are now held by politicians linked to Shia militias.
Hawkish US policymakers believe that through its sway over the government and its proxy militias, Iran has made Iraq a vassal state.
Nouri al-Maliki, who was Iraqi prime minister for eight years, denies that Baghdad slavishly follows an Iranian agenda. “I shook hands with Americans and made deals with them,” he says. “At the same time, I made use of Iran.”
But so strong is Tehran’s position, and so unpopular is America, that should the US increase pressure and force Baghdad to choose, Iraqi officials warn even moderates would cleave to Iran.
“Their policy of blacklists, sanctions, siege and war threats will only earn the US more enemies,” says Mr Maliki, who was forced out of office in 2014 by the Obama administration.
To some, Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Badr Organisation, the biggest of Iraq’s longstanding Shia paramilitary groups and a political party, appears the sort of Iranian ally the Americans worry about. He spent years in exile in Iran before rising to head Badr, a group once accused of running sectarian death squads. And he defends Iran’s policies and squarely blames US aggression for the tensions.
He praises Iran for its help fighting Isis, a view common in Baghdad, and describes Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite overseas Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard — but the target of US sanctions — as “our friend, not our enemy”.
Yet, having traded fatigues for suits and positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist amid an emerging “Iraq First” sentiment, he is seen by diplomats and analysts as an Iraqi militia leader the US can talk to. US policymakers are trying to calculate whether the emerging nationalism, invoked by high-profile political figures, could help weaken Iranian influence in Baghdad, by replacing sectarian Sunni-Shia rhetoric and ethnic cleavages that have undermined Iraqi unity and left it vulnerable to outside influence.
However, many Iraqis hope nationalist feeling will strengthen the country against all foreign meddlers — including the widely unpopular US.
With Mr Ameri’s approval as head of the Fatah parliamentary bloc, Shia paramilitaries have used their political strength to push for the withdrawal of US military advisers assisting Iraqi forces hunting underground Isis cells. New US sanctions against Iraqi officials — imposed over corruption allegations but widely interpreted as targeting figures with Iranian links — led to the US being accused of interfering in Iraqi affairs.
Mr Ameri now meets American officials, the pragmatic approach reflecting his move into the mainstream. But he remains a vociferous critic of Washington. Reflecting deep mistrust of what many see as Mr Trump’s reckless anti-Iran agenda, Mr Ameri says “the Iranian side is 1,000 times more sane than the American [one]”.
In 2007 Iraq was the world’s second most fragile state, according to the US-based NGO Fund for Peace, which measures everything from social cohesion to economic equality to assess countries’ vulnerabilities. Today it ranks 13th.
“Iraqis deserve far better,” says Mr Salih. “But there is no denying the situation . . . is improving.” He wants to focus on domestic problems — Iraq’s fast-growing population needs 12,000 new schools, for example — and making Iraq a regional hub for “economic collaboration and integration” rather than a proxy battleground for others.
Veteran Iraqi lawmakers who know both sides well say they do not believe either Tehran or Washington intends to start a war. Yet “sometimes war doesn’t happen by design”, says Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister. “But by mistake.”
Hashd al-Shaabi: how the militias became a political force
The Hashd al-Shaabi emerged in one of Iraq’s darkest hours, after a fatwa by Iraq’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urging volunteers to take up arms against Isis. Although there are Hashd units for all of Iraq’s faiths, the biggest were Shia and supported by advisers from the Quds Forces of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Many saw the Hashd as defenders of the country, especially the Shia. Then prime minister Haider al-Abadi made the group an official part of Iraq’s security forces. But since the territorial defeat of Isis in 2017, the movement’s heroic status has been tarnished by allegations of extortion, smuggling and harassment of citizens. The Hashd have become an unwieldy institution, with political groups and economic interests embedded in Iraqi society.
“Many Shia are worried that under the guise of Hashd al-Shabi a lot of corrupt, undisciplined groups are undermining the viability of the government,” says a senior Iraqi official. Hashd-linked parties backed the selection of technocrat Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. But he has no political base of his own. His office is led by chief of staff Mohammad al-Hashemi, who several analysts and officials refer to as “the real prime minister” and “Tehran’s man”.
Mr Abdul Mahdi last month issued a decree bringing the 150,000 Hashd fighters on to the state payroll, closing their economic offices and stripping the paramilitaries of their old insignias and independence. The move was praised by Shia militia leaders, including the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
But some believe the government is too weak to subjugate the Hashd. The longstanding Shia paramilitary groups “don’t want to be part of the state”, says Hisham al-Hashemi, a government counter-terrorism adviser. “They want to be the state”.
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