Iraq’s Higher Federal Court certified the results of the early parliamentary election held in October, on December 27, 2021, handing populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr the lead in forming a new coalition government. Sadr’s newly minted MPs even arrived in parliament wearing white shrouds, marking their loyalty and willingness to die for the cleric as political consultations began.

Yet, as Iraq’s political factions prepare to finalize the alliances and key posts, violence has again risen between the U.S. military forces and the Iranian-sponsored militias in the country. Whether Iraq’s leadership finds a way to keep the peace as the formation of a new government unfolds in Baghdad is the enduring question.

Whether Iraq’s leadership find a way to keep the peace as the formation of a new government unfolds is the enduring question.

The United States announced it had ended its combat mission in Iraq, choosing to focus solely on providing intelligence and advisement to the Iraqi government in its efforts to battle the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization.

However, pro-Iranian militias, widely known as the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have been adamant on their position that the end of the U.S. combat mission does not satisfy their demand for a full withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq, which they deem an “occupation.

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Meanwhile, Washington’s hope appears to rest on Sadr’s recent electoral victory. Many observers have viewed Sadr, a staunch Iraqi nationalist, as likely to position Iraq into a more neutral geopolitical territory, or at least distance the country from Iran.

Locked in Confrontation

Drone attacks have been increasing in recent months against the U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. Armed drones were used to attack the U.S. military outpost in Tanf, Syria in October and December. The U.S.-led international coalition remains present in both countries as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, which has now been ongoing for nearly eight years.

The Ayn al-Asad Air Base in Anbar Province, where the International Coalition military advisors, along with the former Camp Victory outside of the Baghdad Airport, were targeted in the latest wave of drone attacks that fortunately caused no casualties. Improvised explosive device (IED) attacks consistently target coalition logistical convoys. Red tracer rounds lit up Baghdad’s night sky as the U.S. Embassy’s C-RAM system responded to rockets that were fired towards the Green Zone on January 13.

Furthermore, the potential deaths of U.S. service members or civilian personnel by a pro-Iranian militia attack on the coalition could provoke a strong response, as was seen in February 2021 after a deadly missile attack in Erbil. President Joe Biden subsequently ordered some factions of the PMF to be hit with airstrikes in Syria.

The potential deaths of U.S. service members or civilian personnel by a pro-Iranian militia attack could provoke a strong response.

In response to recent statements and sanctions issued by the Iranian government against the former U.S. administration officials involved in the killing of Iran’s late powerful military commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned, “We will work with our allies and partners to deter and respond to any attacks carried out by Iran. Should Iran attack any of our nationals, including any of the 52 people named yesterday, it will face severe consequences.” These attacks demonstrate how events could easily lead to a significant and dangerously unpredictable escalation of violence between the two sides in Iraq.

On December 29, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi declared that the U.S.’ combat role in the country had ended. For his part, Kadhimi has repeatedly emphasized that the military bases in Iraq are Iraqi bases and that U.S. forces only serve a supporting role. Iraqi military officials also point out that U.S. advisors were currently at the bases under Iraq’s protection.

Kadhimi himself survived an assassination attempt in November 2021. Widely favored by the international community, Kadhimi has taken on a tacit and cautious approach in trying to scale back the influence of the PMF during his tenure as prime minister.

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Despite these efforts, some of the PMF factions sense a moment of opportunity to pressure the U.S. into a full withdrawal from Iraq following the end of its involvement in Afghanistan. However, Tehran will likely attempt to prevent these groups from making any harmful moves that could seriously jeopardize the talks in Vienna regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Whether the PMF factions will listen is another story.

The Iraqi government will negotiate with the militias in order to deescalate the situation. Officials in Baghdad are deeply concerned about the potential for a war between the U.S. and Iran on Iraq’s sovereign territory.

Neither Eastern nor Western

The October election results became a main point of contention after the pro-Iranian elements saw a significant decline in their seats in parliament. They have now formed a new political grouping called “the Coordination Framework” and protested the vote. Staging rallies and camping out near the Green Zone in Baghdad, they alleged that fraud and manipulation had been carried out in a conspiracy against them.

Following the attempted assassination of prime minister Kadhimi, Iran’s Esmail Qaani, the current Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, came to Baghdad to pressure the bloc into accepting the election outcome.

Sadr vowed to form a new Iraqi government that is neither “Eastern nor Western.”

For his part, Sadr vowed to form a new Iraqi government that is neither “Eastern nor Western.” Over the last few years, Sadr has carved out a significant level of influence for himself in the political scene. He is able to channel the grievances and sentiments of the anti-government movement, as well as mingle in the same circles as the ruling establishment and pro-Iranian factions.

Hamzeh Hadad, an independent political and economic analyst, told Inside Arabia, “It is wise to remember that Sadr has a long history with Iran and that has not changed. The reason some have assumed this is by contrasting Sadr’s rhetoric with other political actors who have openly shown closer ties with Iran. This is not the right way to assess political relationships. More than one political actor can be allies with Iran and actions weigh more than words.”

Earlier, Sadr sought to break apart the Coordination Framework by offering to accept some parties into his government while forcing others to go into opposition, a measure that has been rejected by the Shia bloc. In response, he indicated that he would form a broader coalition with the Sunni and Kurdish blocs and that there was no longer a place in Iraq for militias or sectarianism.

Sadr is likely to achieve his aim of keeping the Framework out in the cold. Consequently, an Iranian delegation left Iraq disappointed after failing to secure a place for former prime minister Nour al-Maliki in Sadr’s emerging coalition.

Iraqi leaders will try to placate Iran by celebrating its revered figures, whom Iraq’s pro-Iran supporters believe helped rescue the country in the grueling fight against IS. President Barham Salih delivered a speech to commemorate fallen Major General Soleimani. Salih is well-positioned to stay as president since both the U.S. and Iran favor him for the post.

However, anti-Iranian sentiments continue to run high. A large group of protesters who recently disrupted a Soleimani memorial in the city of Kut were met with a violent response from the Asaib Ahl al-Haq members, a hardline Iranian militia guarding the ceremony.

Despite the often-heard comments that the U.S. is leaving the Middle East, the U.S. military looks prepared to stay in Iraq and Syria for the long haul.

Despite the often-heard comments that the U.S. is leaving the Middle East, the U.S. military looks prepared to stay in Iraq and Syria for the long haul, given the ongoing political instability and the lingering presence of IS activity in the area. Iraq is still well-positioned to keep one foot solidly in the Western camp. The European Union even announced it was removing Baghdad from the EU’s list of countries at high risk of money laundering and financing terrorism.

After four years of the Trump presidency keeping U.S.-Iranian tensions dialed up to 11, Iraq needs to move forward into an era of calm in order to rebuild its economy and find some political stability. The Biden administration still has time to negotiate with Iran and should keep Iraq’s precarious security situation in mind as Washington works to find a diplomatic approach to reducing tensions with Tehran in the region.

However, for U.S. interests to truly be met in preserving the U.S.-Iraq relationship, policymakers must move beyond an emphasis on security arrangements. If the U.S. worked to enhance and support economic investment, education, humanitarian, and development measures, this would go much further in building a healthy, sustainable, and successful relationship with Iraq.

“Security is not the only aspect concerning Iraq and providing support elsewhere will cement the historic partnership between Iraq and the U.S. in areas that others will not be able or have the resources to,” Hadad noted, adding, “In this way, the U.S. would be positioning itself in support of the Iraqi public, the same public who protests, votes, and in the long run, does play a part in the government’s decisions. The U.S. has always been criticized by Iraqis for not playing the long game in Iraq, unlike Iran’s strategy, and this would be a way to change that.”

The question still remains: how far will the Iraqi paramilitary groups go in order to secure their goal to see the U.S. ousted from their country? Some intelligence officials acknowledge that, with Soleimani gone from the scene, the armed factions have become more comfortable in acting with greater independence and are now better equipped and experienced for a violent campaign to achieve their aims. This will leave the U.S. and Iraq’s fragile government with substantial troubles in the year ahead.