In the wake of the unexpected American airstrike that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani –
the face of Iran’s influence in Iraq – at Baghdad International Airport on January 3, Iraq must reckon with the consequences of its relationship with the United States. Yet, few are discussing the military man who may have the ability to resolve Iraq’s current constitutional and geopolitical crisis: Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi.
Al-Saadi spearheaded the Iraqi campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) following the group’s invasion of Iraq in 2014. As second in command of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, he led his commandos to decisive victories over ISIS in the Battle of Baiji, the Second Battle of Tikrit, the Third Battle of Fallujah, and the Battle of Mosul. After the loss of Mosul in 2017, ISIS all but collapsed in Iraq. This historic conquest cemented al-Saadi’s status as a war hero.
Many Iraqi generals and warlords managed to distinguish themselves on the battlefield during the three-year campaign against ISIS. Few, however, shared al-Saadi’s unique ability to navigate the American–Iranian rivalry that characterized much of the anti-ISIS effort. Though Iran and the U.S. were in effect fighting on the same side, they refused to cooperate. This persistent failure to compromise complicated the picture for Iraqi militiamen, police officers, and soldiers dependent on American and Iranian patronage, given that these fighters went into battle side-by-side.
Despite commanding a force designed and trained by the U.S., al-Saadi avoided siding with the U.S. outright.
Despite commanding a force designed and trained by the U.S., al-Saadi avoided siding with the U.S. outright. In fact, he often grew frustrated with American officials; during his bid to retake Fallujah, al-Saadi complained that American warplanes rarely launched airstrikes when he asked them to. The general likewise took pains to keep Iran at arm’s length, rejecting an offer of Iranian support when he was taking charge of the push against ISIS forces entrenched at Baiji.
As an effective, nonpartisan commander, al-Saadi earned respect from Iraqis across the political spectrum. He accomplished the rare feat of becoming an Iraqi cultural icon without subjecting himself to the sectarian spoils system that still dominates Iraq’s military and politics. Most Iraqi generals and politicians aligned themselves with Iran or the U.S. to further their careers or out of self-preservation. For his part, al-Saadi served in a succession of Iraqi governments without tying himself to a particular faction. Iraqis saw him as a war hero, not a Sunni or a Shia.
Despite al-Saadi’s popularity, he never demonstrated interest in politics. In September 2019, however, he found himself embroiled in a political scandal after Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi attempted to sideline al-Saadi in September by transferring him to an administrative job in the Iraqi Defense Ministry – sparking bloody mass protests across the country.
By October 1, a thousand Iraqis had gathered to protest al-Saadi’s dismissal. Already frustrated by Iraqi officials’ failure to combat corruption, lessen unemployment, and offer public services, the protesters viewed the humiliation of al-Saadi as the final straw. They even carried pictures of him during demonstrations. One month later, the demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands.
The reasons behind al-Saadi’s transfer remain in dispute. Many young Iraqis, though, viewed the move as a capitulation to Iran. While al-Saadi had done his best to sidestep the conflict between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq, his collaboration with Americans on the battlefield led Iranian leaders to view him as partial to the U.S. Neither did al-Saadi’s service in the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, when he fought the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Iraqi allies, endear him to Iran and its Iraqi proxies.
A petition calling on the U.S. to push Iraq to make al-Saadi the country’s prime minister received twenty-one thousand signatures.
Joking that he would prefer prison to leaving the battlefield, al-Saadi nevertheless accepted the transfer in the name of safeguarding Iraq’s stability. He soon vanished into the background. At first, Iraqi demonstrators had other ideas. A petition calling on the U.S. to push Iraq to make al-Saadi the country’s prime minister, while riddled with typos, received twenty-one thousand signatures. Even so, the general’s prominence seemed to dissipate as the demonstrations gained momentum and protesters shifted to broader demands, such as reforming Iraq’s frail political system.
At first glance, current events in Iraq appear to have rendered al-Saadi insignificant since his dismissal four months ago. But things have only unraveled further since then, as Abdul-Mahdi has resigned and hundreds of demonstrators have died in clashes with Iraqi security agencies. Protesters also torched one of Iran’s consulates in a violent rejection of the country’s involvement in Iraq.
Adding to the upheaval, the U.S. bombed an Iranian-linked Iraqi militia in December after it killed an American citizen. The militia and its supporters responded by besieging the American embassy for two days. The demise of Soleimani and his right-hand man, the Iraqi warlord Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, has further aggravated tensions. Rather than making al-Saadi extraneous to Iraq’s future, this still-unfolding chain of events has made him more important to the country than ever.
Trapped between the U.S.’s attempts to maintain a sphere of influence in the Middle East and Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, Iraq needs a public figure who can bridge this gap.
Trapped between the U.S.’s attempts to maintain a sphere of influence in the Middle East and Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, Iraq needs a public figure who can bridge this gap. Al-Saadi succeeded in balancing Iraq’s needs with the realities of the American–Iranian competition for control over Iraq when he guided the country to victory over ISIS. He also coordinated with the same Iranian-funded militias antagonizing the U.S. now.
Al-Saadi’s track record shows he holds the unique, unrivaled popularity, military experience, and the political capital necessary to untangle and mediate the international crisis quickly swallowing Iraq. These traits make his return to the public sphere seemingly crucial to the country’s future. His actions will determine how Iraq confronts the ongoing American–Iranian rivalry, for few other Iraqi public figures enjoy the popularity and skill necessary to untangle this conflict.