The Long Game in Iraq
How to Counter Iranian Influence in Baghdad
By Robert S. Ford and Randa Slim September 30, 2019
Shiite militiamen south of Baghdad, July 2014
Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters
Last week, rockets landed in what was once known as the Green Zone—the heavily fortified neighborhood in western Baghdad where the American embassy is located. It was the second such attack since May, when another rocket exploded near the massive U.S. compound. Then as now, the Trump administration thinks the attacks were the work of Shiite militias in Iraq with close ties to Iran. Washington has long called on the Iraqi government to clamp down on these Iranian proxy forces and cut off relations with Tehran. The U.S. response to the latest attack will likely be to double down on those calls and dial up the pressure on Baghdad.
That approach is unwise. The current government in Baghdad is on good terms with Washington but cannot survive if it makes an enemy of Tehran. The last thing it wants is to get caught in the crossfire between the two. At best, the United States’ attempts to cut Iran out of the picture will not succeed. At worst, Washington could weaken a friendly government in Baghdad and pave the way for one that is far less disposed to cooperation.
Not so long ago, Iran’s proxies in Iraq had become the United States’ partners in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS. U.S. aircraft and Special Forces coordinated indirectly with the militia fighters, with the Iraqi army serving as the conduit. Because of this, the Americans were prepared to look the other way while these same forces also supported Iran’s agenda in Syria and Yemen, against U.S. interests in these countries. But with ISIS in Iraq largely contained, that indirect cooperation has ended, and the Iran-linked militias want the remaining U.S. forces to leave the country.
Today, several dozen such Shiite militias operate in Iraq (in addition to a handful of Sunni ones).