Iraq Dragged into Epicenter of anti-Iran Front after US Withdrawal
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s inability to swing Arab rulers around to the Trump administration’s plans after the US withdrawal from Syria had consequences this week in Washington and the Middle East.
At the White House, two of the president’s senior staffers, National Security Adviser John Bolton and special adviser on Syria James Jeffrey wrangled over who was to blame. In the Middle East, Iraq suddenly found itself under the harsh floodlights of a wholly unsought role.
Until recently, Iraq was busy pulling its together from the brutal war with the Islamic State, which occupied almost half of its territory in 2014-2017, followed by the oil war with northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Central government in Baghdad is known to be weak, corrupt and incapable of wielding its authority in large stretches of the country. In the last few years, Baghdad has had to maneuver for a balance between US and Iranian influence in order to survive. Washington wielded a high card in this contest in the form of Iraqi security forces’ dependence on the US military presence for back-up and for the supply of weapons.
Iran holds Baghdad by the throat through its influence with the Iraqi Shiites, who constitute a 60pc majority of the population. Indigenous Iraqi Shiite militias are furthermore administered and ruled from Tehran. The largest is the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) or Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi under the command of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi of Iranian descent. Far more than a militia, the PMU is a highly-trained, well-armed legion of 150,000 fighting men, which is three times the size of the national Iraqi army.
Until recently, Iraq stayed more or less aloof from the Syrian civil war and its political fallout, excepting only for the participation of small elements of the Iraqi Shiite paramilitary Kata’ib Hezballah (Hezballah Brigades), which Tehran enlisted for Bashar Assad together withAfghan and Pakistani Shiite militias. However, since President Donald Trump announced on Dec. 19 that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, Iraq finds itself drawn willy-nilly into a vortex, which neither Washington nor Tehran intended.
Evidence of this unwanted role may be seen in the unplanned rush of visits to Baghdad this month, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
Secretary Pompeo was there on Jan. 9, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif treading on his heels on the 13th and Jordan’s King Abdullah on the 14th. In the space of 48 hours, Adel Abdel-Mahdi, prime minister of Iraq found himself prodded by Iran into rapprochement with Syrian President Assad. This spate of diplomacy was sparked by a decision in Washington to follow up the US troop pullout with a US military redeployment to three Iraqi bases in Iraq. These bases were to be on standby for resuming military operations in Syria if need be. (See DEBKA Weekly 831 of Jan. 10: US Plans to Launch Air Operations in Syria from Three Iraqi Bases.)
As a result, instead of shrinking the US-Iranian front in Syria and Lebanon, as Trump intended, that front became longer and stretched into Iraq. As Iraq evolved unexpectedly into the Syrian arena’s backyard, Baghdad became a player on the Syrian stage.
Assad quickly capitalized on this development. He turned to the Iraqi prime minister, possibly on Russian and Iranian advice, with a proposition: Baghdad should nod to Washington’s request for Iraqi forces to stand on the Syrian border and block Iranian and pro-Iranian military cross-border movements. But meanwhile, Assad would grant the Iraqi air force a free hand to hit ISIS targets in eastern Syria, their common foe. This dispensation suited Baghdad very well since the Iraqis are terrified of an attempted comeback by the dreaded caliphate.
It also suited the Russians and Iranians, who saw how they could use Iraqi aerial activity over eastern Syria to keep the American air force out. They then proceeded to the next step. Syrian and Iraqi officials began discussions on the replacement of US forces in eastern Syria with Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) aka Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. This Iraqi Shiite militia conglomerate is under the direct command of Iran’s Middle East commander, Al Qods chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
This development has Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv and the royal palace in Amman seriously worried. King Abdullah immediately set out for Baghdad on his first visit in 10 years, to demand guarantees that no PMU forces would come near the eastern border of his kingdom.
On Jan. 15, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi had no sooner sat down at his desk in the office of the Israel chief of staff, when he had to pull out the IDF’s operational plans for dealing with the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia.