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Among several critical files stacked on the table of the awaited US President, Iraq is a principal file due to the nature of the strategic dares Iraq poses in a way impinging on the US strategy in the entire Middle East.
Actually, during Donald Trump’s reign, there were several attempts to reach clear political ends in Iraq but the issues’ nature in this arena negatively affected his minds and further compounded the inherent constraints.
ISIS and the security paradox
As a matter of fact, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is the first Iraqi issue that barriers to the next US President, despite the militarily curtailment impaired this group and facilitated regaining control over most of Iraqi terrorism- afflicted areas in the northern and western regions through international coalition in coordination with the Iraqi security forces. Still, the repeated attacks carried out by this group at the present time suggest that there is more should be done.
- Washington faces 18,000 ISIS fighters deployed in Iraq and in parts of Syria, which requires an urgent change in the US strategy on the ground
Military estimates issued by the US Department of Defense in 2019 indicated that the number of the organization’s elements ranged between 14,000 to 18,000 fighters, distributed over a geographical area including the Iraqi and Syrian map. These estimates also referred to an escalation in the attacks of these elements reached to 60 attacks per month including armed attacks, improvised explosive devices, road blocksor temporary control of military headquarters.
On the basis of this strategic fact, the United States views ISIS as a challenge poses a great threat to the US forces and their strategic partners. Actually the US seems prepared to address these security concerns in the future, despite the US recent tendency to reassess its military deployment in Iraq and eastern Syria, a trend that may cast a shadow over the circumstances of the Iraqi national security, especially if this US strategic shift might bring another shift represented in the tactical displacement of Iranian forces from Aleppo and other military sites in eastern Syria.
The strategic formulations that the US uses to deal with the escalation of ISIS threats are currently witnessing many security readings inside the US decision-making circles, in a strategic shift that is apparently going to give many military forces more effective roles in confronting this organization. Indeed, we mean here the Iraqi security forces and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), while the US issatisfied with providing intelligence and logistical support, which is a general US strategic trend that may include other military geographies in the Middle East.
Iran and the influence peddling
The second issuefor the President ahead is the Iranian actor which deemed as a variable that the US President will find himself compelled to deal with in Iraq. Although Iran was keen in the first phase of the US occupation not to directly and publicly depart the US strategy and objectives in a sharp, clear or specific way, Iran later played the game of controller through the loyalist factions, which it had trained and financed so long time before the US occupation of Iraq, making use of the chaos created by the US occupation. Reviewing the nature of the relations between the two sides, we find that during the sharp turns since the beginning of the occupation until recently, they were able to always reach understandings at the end, whether through their agents in the political process or through direct communication, consensus and intersection of interests. In fact, ideological and strategic alignment contributed to the continuation of that control game.
Given the political commitment demonstrated by the US in support for the current Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, it is not clear if Iran feels that it can make Iraq a security partner, or an active part of the axis of resistance. Although there are many factions within the structure of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), it today presents itself in another way as part of the axis of resistance, while Iran on grounds seeks for enrolling the Iraqi official system to this axis. It is clear that Iran wants to end the security influence of the United States in Iraq, which prevailed in urging the close factions and parties to support Kadhemi, seekingfor integrating the factions associated with them into the Iraqi security system, looking forward to founding a government supporting Iran, expanding its security influence and establishing a clear security transit route from Iran to Syria.
On this basis, it can be said that Iran can simply succeed in thwarting the government of Mr. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, if the policy of the next US President is not conducive to Iranian goals. At the meantime, Iran may wish to achieve a stable Iraq, subject to great Iranian influence, to be part of a security axis that includes Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The fact suggests that Iran can achieve its goals simply by driving the United States out of Iraq and assuming the role of an external provider of civil and military assistance. Iraq, which is weak and economically and healthily exhausted, will continue to give Iran relative freedom of action and will not represent any threat to its influence. Iran will indefinitely remain a real threat in the future, for the United States on the one hand and Iraqi National Security on the other.
Loyalist factions and proxy war
The third issue is illustrated by the rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) since 2014. Despite the structural and organizational distinctions that they are going through today, so that we have come before a crowd that gradually began to differentiate from Iran, specifically the factions affiliated to Iraqi religious-Shiite references, we find on the other hand another stream of PMF began to be associated organizationally and administratively with the power of Jerusalem, and here we mean the loyalist factions, specifically the five major factions (Kataib Hezbollah,Asa’ibAhl al-Haq, Harakat al-Nujaba, Brigades of Sayyid al-Shuhada, Brigades of Imam Ali), which made these factions the long hand of Iran to exhaust the United States In Iraq since 2018. It even has begun to establish its strategic and military presence in many areas where the US forces are present, specifically the cities liberated from ISIS control
The loyalist factions within the PMF have emerged militarily in 2014, after the well-knownfatwa issued by the Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, to find many of these factions that were legally pursued the opportunity to legitimize their military presence by entering under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, with the support and influence By former Quds Force commander QassemSoleimani. In 2016, the PMF were organized institutionally through a law issued by the Iraqi Peoples’ Assembly under the title (The Popular Mobilization Authority). These factions now possess a military force parallel to the Iraqi army and deployed in many areas in northern and western Iraq.
- The United States is forced to deal with Iranian influence in Iraq, which in turn controls the loyalist factions there
Following up the contexts of US engagement with the PMF, we find that the United States has defined the ways of handling the loyalist factions linked to Iran, specifically the factions that were mentioned above, or those that have appeared in recent times such as the “League of Revolutionaries”, “AshabElkahf” and others, which continuously attacked US forces in Iraq and played a prominent role in the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad in December 2019, in addition to receiving continuous financial and military support from Iran.
Basically, the state factions constitute one of the most critical security challenges facing the US forces in Iraq. Thus, the US has sought during the last period to pressure the governments of Mr. Haider al-Abadi and Mr. Adel Abdul Mahdi, to find a way to control the movement of these factions, by merging them with the Iraqi security forces, dissolving them, or organizing their legal status tightly. Such pressure, Mr. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is expected to submit to, and surely will attract the attention of the next US president.
Dimensions of the role of these factions in Iraq are clear with its constant endeavor to dominate the Iraqi political process with its figures, institutions and structures and through not allowing any internal, regional or international political or popular actor to threaten its political interests there. This was evidenced by the Iranian role in dealing with the demonstrations raidedIraq in October 2019, where slogans condemning the Shiite parties and the Iranian role in Iraq were raised. It is well- known as well that ensuring its political influence in Iraq is, in return, a guarantee of the effectiveness of Iran’s regional strategy while it will place more pressure on the influence in Iraq.