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Iraq is more than just a watchtower for the US over Iran

Tallha Abdulrazaq

If the US genuinely wanted to counter Iran, and strengthen Iraq, it would put its considerable resources towards helping Iraqis build an authentic national movement that represents all Iraqis.

In an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation on Super Bowl Sunday, US President Donald Trump said that he intended to keep American troops deployed in Iraq because he wanted “to be able to watch Iran.” According to Trump, Iran was a “vicious country that kills many people”, and he wanted to keep an eye on the country, making specific reference to nuclear weapons and the widespread allegation that Iran was looking to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

If Trump was serious about containing Iranian expansionism that has seen it draw lines of influence from Tehran to Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, Sanaa and threaten the stability of other countries in the region, then Washington could do a lot more than turning Iraq into a glorified watchtower.

American hypocrisy when dealing with Iraq: The Americans have been talking about dealing with the growing Iranian threat to stability in the Middle East for quite literally decades with every president from Carter to Trump having only negative things to say about the regime in Tehran. Trump is not an outlier in this regard, as even Barack Obama, widely and wrongly considered a dove, was motivated to negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – better known as the Iran nuclear deal) to sidestep and curb the potential threat of an Iranian nuclear programme. It is mind-boggling even to consider the possibility that the United States, even at the height of its power following the Cold War, could not bring down the Iranian regime after apparently four decades of trying.

Think about it. The sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the US, is dubbed “The Great Satan” by Tehran. Nevertheless, the Great Satan unironically shipped thousands of Hellfire missiles and drones to the Iraqi government under then-Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki which were promptly used on unarmed civilians rather than “extremists”. This in turn exacerbated an outbreak of violence that was exploited by ISIS (Daesh) when the pro-Iran Maliki decided to butcher protesters demonstrating against sectarian discrimination, corruption and the abuse of anti-terror laws to quell dissent.

When the war against Daesh really went into full swing, the Great Satan appeared again, this time to unleash his apparently demonic forces to support the holy mujahideen of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) who had been summoned by Ayatollah Ali Sistani but commanded, armed and trained by figures connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That’s right, and to borrow a sarcastic jibe from Al Jazeera’s Faisal Kasim, the forces of the Great Prophet (as they sometimes call themselves) were protected directly by the Great Satan in an alliance that can only be described as unholy, and led to the deaths of untold tens of thousands of civilians who wanted nothing to do with Daesh.

Some of the people who were in direct receipt of US close air support were figures such as Qais al Khazali, the leader of the Asaib Ahl ul Haq Shia Islamist militia, who was blacklisted as a terrorist by the White House. Others include Hadi al Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organisation that is again directly linked to the IRGC and its enigmatic Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, also on the United States terror list.These people have continuously threatened American troops with death, even as recently as a week ago, yet Washington is still happy to provide them with military support.

The very levers of Iranian power in Iraq are thus also directly supported by the United States. This includes American support for politicians who are close to Iran, like Maliki and the current premier Adel Abdul Mahdi. Of course, this is all happening against the historical backdrop US clandestinely working with Israel to arm Iran against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. If only all enemies were this friendly and useful.

A sovereign Iraq could stand up to Iran: If Trump were serious about containing Iranian ambitions, then we would see a radically different approach. For instance, he could use Washington’s considerable economic and diplomatic might to support the kind of freedom of expression and association that could lead to a genuinely national movement built around common values and shared culture and identity.

It is difficult to imagine seeing the Iraq of today, but it was not long ago that, despite Baathist political repression, many Iraqis felt like they shared a common heritage and land. If they did not, then unit cohesion would have utterly collapsed in the Iran-Iraq War when Iraqis across the ethno-sectarian divide stood together and successfully fought off Iranian troops for eight years.

It is all too easy to brush such a suggestion aside and say that Iran’s influence is too well-entrenched for the US to do anything about it except play catch-up, but that is nonsense. Day and night all we hear is how the United States is the most powerful country in the world, and it is despite its dwindling prestige in the face of a resurgent Russia and an increasingly confident China.

Nevertheless, it has considerable resources and could easily invest in strengthening Iraqis who care about the sovereignty of their land, of which there are many, rather than throwing away billions of dollars trying to tempt politicians and militants away from Tehran’s orbit when they are already in Iran’s pocket. Instead, Washington prefers to use Iraq as an outpost and will barely utter a word as critics of the established regime are actively murdered, most recently Iraqi Shia dissident Alaa Abboud who was shot dead in Karbala on Saturday.

As long as the Americans can watch the surrounding region and protect Israel, as Trump made absolutely clear to CBS, then they could not care about truly containing Iran by empowering a local movement. Why? Because, ultimately, any expression of true independence and sovereignty will also be deemed a threat to US interests, and let us not forget that Iraq has a track record of not toeing Uncle Sam’s lines.

Washington would, therefore, be happier to see Iraq under Iran’s thumb and in a perpetual state of conflict, subjected to the worst kinds of violence, corruption and desolation. This will not change unless Iran oversteps the boundaries the US has set for it but, right now, it is happy for Iran to dominate Iraq and scare wealthy Arab Gulf states witless and into ever more expensive arms deals.