As the US withdraws all its troops from Afghanistan, doubts and concerns are raised in the Middle East on a similar pattern being followed in Iraq and Syria on the impending American pullout from the region. Similar to Afghanistan, Iraqi citizens fear a precarious future. Only, in Iraq’s case, stakeholders will be multiple and hence a more chaotic situation is projected. Once the US ends its 2500-troop presence in the Islamic Republic, there are speculations on whether it would lead to an Iranian militia takeover, a resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or a possible civil war.[i]
ISIS Resurgence, Iran-backed Militias and Internal Rifts
Notably, on 20 January 2020, that is two months before the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic, UN Security Council had released a 25-page report on the reassertion of ISIS, Al-Qaida and affiliates in the region. The report further stated that ISIS is reorganising under a new leader Amir Muhammad Said Abdal Rahman al-Mawla, the former deputy to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and who holds a Turkmen ethnicity (minority within ISIS fighters). However, the leadership of al-Mawla was more speculative than confirmatory. The report was further revised in February and July 2021and confirmed that there were about 10,000 active fighters in the group and “maintains a largely clandestine presence in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic and wages a sustained insurgency straddling the borders between the countries”.[ii] The group is more pronouncedly present in Iraq especially in rural areas, especially in Diyala, Kirkuk and Salah al-Din governorates. Remaining sheltered in the Hamrin mountain range, the organisation still actively recruits foreign fighters.[iii]
While the resurgence of ISIS and its affiliates looms large, given the prevalence and visible influence of Iran in Iraqi polity and security apparatus since 2014, another threat that the country faces is the Iranian militia takeover. Iran has reportedly been providing technical support to the Iraqi government and weapons to Kurdish peshmerga to fight ISIS since mid-2014. Iraqi Shia militia groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are supported and funded by Iran. Iraqi militia’s close links with Iran were exposed when the US airstrikes killed General Soleimani who was accompanied by Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on 3 January 2020.
Similarly, despite years of negotiation between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil, positive outcomes are elusive. Amidst the Iraqi government’s preoccupation with other problems facing the country, there still remains series of thorny issues between Baghdad and Irbil especially with regard to sharing of economic benefits, especially on oil. While Iraq’s 2019 budget allowed the KRG to export 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) via Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Company; Kurdish officials exported around 500,000 bpd directly to Turkey.[iv] Issue becomes much more complicated as the KRG administration is divided. This has remained a bone of contention between the two administrations and KRG’s control over major oilfields in Iraq has further aggravated the situation. An unresolved Kurdistan issue may result in a civil war situation in Iraq as the US wishes to move out.
Thus, Iraq faces many internal problems which are mostly because of the surrounding external forces that are there. The country faces the brunt of big power rivalries, rampant corruption and the heavy presence of armed militia groups which are mostly from Iran. There is a visible competition for influence in the region between Iran and the US, Israel and Gulf Arab nations on the other side and which has resulted in attacks on Iraqi grounds. Present leadership in the country is aware of these complexities and thus has realised that regional stability is the only solution to stability in the Islamic Republic.
Given these considerations, Iraq held a regional conference titled “Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership” on 28 August wherein leaders of Arab (Egypt, Jordan, Gulf Arab, Turkey and Iran participated. French President Emmanuel Macron was also in attendance.[v] It is noteworthy that initially the conference was aimed at discussing water shortages in the region, Syrian and Lebanese crises and Saudi-Iran relations but there were last-minute changes and the conference centred on Iraq’s role in the region. Such change in agenda is definitely in light of the Afghanistan crisis and the Taliban’s siege of that country.
The final statement released by the Islamic Republic revealed that the conference aimed at “reconstruction, provision of services, infrastructure support and strengthening the role of the private sector, as well as its efforts in dealing with the file of the displaced and ensuring the voluntary and dignified return to their areas after turning the page of terrorism”.[vi] The last line is aimed at Iranian support of the Iraqi Shia militia funded by the Persian state. It is clear that Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is preparing for American withdrawal and does not want his country to become of a hotbed of conflict between regional and international powers.
However, there are three questions that need to be asked are: how effective is Iraq’s mediation policy; two, do Baghdad have the influence, resources and prestige for bringing instability in the region. Third, are the countries on the same page? While most of the Arab, Gulf Arab nations, Iran and Turkey had their presence felt, some countries amongst these sent their junior ministers. This was majorly the case with regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Israel was not invited. US President as he is busy with Afghanistan affairs released his statement at the conference, however, the statement was rather bland and does not mention anything specific other than mentioning inclusivity on the part of Iraq to include the Kurdistan Regional Government to strengthen ties between Iraq and its neighbours.[vii] Interestingly, there was no representation from Kurdistan Regional Government.
Thus, as replacing the US with other unreliable regional and international powers does not seem a viable option for the Iraqi administration and therefore by using its strategic location and rekindling its negotiating skills, the al-Kadhimi government is trying to pitch for a stable region and thus a stable country. How sustainable this approach is remains contested. As far as India is concerned, the Afghanistan situation has been difficult to handle, probable chaos in the Middle East as the US pulls out will be nightmarish! Not only is the region host to over 10 million Indian expatriates but New Delhi’s energy dependency is over 55 per cent on the region. Iraq continues to be India’s topmost supplier of oil despite a 23 per cent drop in purchases and the country hosts around 25,000 Indians as of January 2020.
[i] Author’s interview with China Daily in Jan Yumul (2021), “Regional Conference in Iraq highlights Security”, China Daily, Hong Kong, 30 August, Available at: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202108/30/WS612c1d1ba310efa1bd66be31.html, accessed on 31 August 2021.
[ii] UNSC (2021), Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIl (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities, 3 February, Available at: https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/68, accessed on 31 August 2021.
[iii] UNSC (2021), Twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIl (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities, 21 July, Available at: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/S_2021_655_E.pdf, accessed on 31 August 2021.
[iv] Azhar Al-Rubaie (2019), “Baghdad-Erbil Disputes set to continue amid divisions in Kurdistan”, The Arab Weekly, 3 August, Available at: https://thearabweekly.com/baghdad-erbil-disputes-set-continue-amid-divisions-kurdistan, accessed on 31 August 2021.
[v] Government of Iraq (2021), “Final Statement of the Baghdad Conference on Cooperation and Partnership”, 29 August, Available at: https://gds.gov.iq/final-statement-of-the-baghdad-conference-for-cooperation-and-partnership/, accessed on 31 August 2021.
[vii] White House (2021), Statement by President Joe Biden on the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and partnership, 28 August, Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/08/28/statement-by-president-joe-biden-on-the-baghdad-conference-for-cooperation-and-partnership/, accessed on 31 August 2021.