The new government in Baghdad has evoked two broad reactions in Washington: hope and dread.
My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Meghan O'Sullivan is encouraged by Iraq's new president and designated prime minister, Barham Salih and Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Both men have longstanding relationships with the U.S. government and have played important roles in building a new Iraq from the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.
Senator Marco Rubio is more pessimistic. Looking at Iraq’s new government, he declared Iran the “clear winner,” tweeting that the chief of Iran’s potent Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, had brokered the deal for the new government.
U.S. and Iraqi officials with whom I spoke told me the Iranians did not get everything they wanted, but neither did the Americans. Salih and Abdul-Mahdi represent a kind of compromise. The Iranians supported the coalition of Shiite religious parties represented by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and militia leaders like Hadi al-Amiri. Iran also favored another Kurdish candidate for the presidency favored by a rival Kurdish party.
U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk, on the other hand, favored the slate of candidates affiliated with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. McGurk was instrumental in getting the Iraqi parliament to support al-Abadi over Maliki in 2014, a key condition for deeper U.S. military involvement in the fight against the Islamic State.
In the end, it was an Iraqi who was most influential in the negotiations: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 88-year-old head of the Shiite hawzas of Najaf, set the stage for Abdul-Mahdi’s selection as prime minister when he released a statement urging “new faces” in the next government. That ruled out Maliki and al-Abadi.
Sistani’s position was understandable. The party that won the largest bloc in parliament in May was affiliated with the rebellious cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a leader of the Shiite insurrection against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 who has emerged as a fierce critic of Iranian influence in Iraq in recent years. His bloc, which includes communists and other outsiders, was most blunt in criticizing the corruption that has become endemic to Baghdad politics.
The unrest and desire for change has only become more pronounced since the spring. Protesters torched government ministry buildings and the Iranian consulate last month in Basra, Iraq’s third largest city and an important hub for its chief export, oil. They demanded more jobs, a functioning power grid and an end to widespread corruption. One of the organizers of those protests, a human rights activist named Suad al-Ali, was shot dead in the street last month.
Al-Ali’s murder also coincides with renewed threats from Iranian-backed militias against the U.S. U.S. officials tell me there is an increasing risk that those militias intend to kidnap Americans in Iraq. That’s one factor that led the U.S. to suspend operations in its consulate in Basra. Another is U.S. allegations that those militias fired rockets and mortar rounds at the consulate last month.
Hostility between the U.S. and Shiite militias is nothing new. One such group, Asaib al-Haq, was responsible for the brutal murder of U.S. troops near Karbala in 2007. More recently, however, there has been an uneasy ceasefire between U.S. forces and the militias during the fight against the Islamic State.
What does all this have to do with the new government in Iraq? Between the election in May and the recent protests in Basra, Iraqis are making it clear that they don’t want to be a vassal state of Iran. This presents an opportunity. The new Iraqi government will have to show its independence. With a little skill and luck, the U.S. can quietly give Abdul-Mahdi the support he needs to push back against Iran and address the economic misery in places like Basra.
To do that however, the U.S. needs to signal its commitment to Iraqi cities under threat from the militias. Barbara Leaf, who served as a senior U.S. diplomat in Basra in 2010 and 2011, told me when she served there, the consulate was shelled two to three times a week. By suspending operations in Basra, she said, the U.S. is sending the wrong message “not just to the Iraqi government, but to the Iraqi people.”
She’s right. And there is another audience for this message: Suleimani and his many proxies in Iraq. Surely he needs to know that a few threats and errant rockets cannot drive the U.S. out of a city whose people are fed up with the thieves and terrorists he has empowered.