US influence in Iraq wanes as Iran strengthens grip
When Donald Trump ordered the air strikes that killed Qassem Soleimani he took his highest-stakes gamble yet as he ramps up pressure on Iran and seeks to counter the Islamic regime’s regional influence.
For years, Washington had viewed Soleimani as its arch nemesis. The commander of Iran’s elite Quds force cultivated a network of Iranian proxies across the Middle East that the Trump administration accuses of attacking American targets and destabilising the region. But rather than weaken the influence of Tehran and its proxies in Iraq, the US president’s decision to eliminate Soleimani as he left Baghdad airport is likely strengthen it, Iraqis and western analysts said.
“Trump has accelerated Soleimani’s work in Iraq,” said one Iraqi official. “They created a mess because they couldn’t understand Iraq.”
Soleimani was killed in a convoy along with Iraqi militia leaders, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Now pro-Iranian militia groups in Baghdad are using the outrage the assassinations triggered to push to rid Iraq of US troops and the fallout from the air strike has already given them an initial victory. The Iraqi parliament on Sunday backed a resolution to order all foreign forces out of the country.
Although non-binding, the vote, supported by Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, underscored the frayed state of Washington’s relations with Baghdad as Iraqis from across the political spectrum condemned the air strike as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.
It is unclear how Mr Mahdi’s caretaker government will proceed. But Mr Trump responded to the vote by threatening sanctions against Iraq if Baghdad moves to evict US troops, adding that Washington would bill Iraqi authorities for an “extraordinarily expensive air base”.
US influence in Iraq has waned since President Barack Obama withdrew American troops in 2011 after a disastrous eight-year occupation characterised by cycles of violence in which tens of thousands of Iraqis died. The US has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into Iraq since the 2003 invasion but successive US-backed governments failed to deliver services and rebuild the shattered state.
American forces returned in 2014 to fight Isis, which had seized swaths of Iraqi territory as the army collapsed — but only after Iran first came to Baghdad’s aid.
Iran, which shares a long border with Iraq, has strong cultural, religious and trading ties with its neighbour. It started building its influence as soon as the demise of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, allowed Iraq’s majority Shia community to dominate politics.
The fight against Isis then saw the rise of myriad Iraqi Shia militias, mobilised under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Units, a paramilitary force, to fight the jihadis. The dominant militias in the PMU are Iranian-backed, fought US troops in the 2000s and took orders from Soleimani. He was regularly pictured on the front lines with militia leaders, while a US-led coalition provided crucial support as Isis was pushed back.
After Baghdad declared victory over Isis, the militias were hailed as heroes, paving the way for the groups to extend their influence across politics, security and the economy. Fatah, the PMU’s political wing, won the second-largest number of parliamentary seats in 2018 elections, deepening Iran’s influence.
Iraqis say US mis-steps and misunderstandings created the space for Tehran’s increased role.
By 2010, the Americans had “very little depth to their relationships inside the country”, according to one former Iraqi official. “They spent millions on the Iraqi army only to find it disintegrate in  in a matter of hours,” the official said. “They left a series of projects half finished . . . there’s really nothing but a trail of broken promises.”
Iran, in contrast, sought to influence all parts of social, economic and political life in Iraq, building links that were “very difficult to disentangle”, the former official added.
The dynamic shifted at the high point of the battle against Isis during which “there was very significant American influence on Iraqi security decisions”, according to Douglas Silliman, a former US ambassador to Iraq who left Baghdad last year. But after Baghdad declared victory over Isis in December 2017, the US lost ground again.
“As long as the US was pursuing the shared Iranian and Shia militia goal of trying to defeat Isis, they were willing to deal with us,” said Mr Silliman. “But immediately after that was done there was a lot of pressure to reduce the American presence.”
US relations with the Iraqi government have worsened since Mr Trump took office, according to Renad Mansour, an Iraqi analyst at Chatham House. Under previous US administrations Washington and Baghdad “would speak almost weekly”, he said, noting that the Trump administration had not invited the Iraqi prime minister or president to Washington.
“It’s been very clear the US has lost allies within the Iraqi state. It’s partly because of its own doing and the incoherent US policy in Iraq,” Mr Mansour said.
The former Iraqi official said the US-Iraq relationship “was always based on where Iraq fitted into a regional crisis that required American engagement”, he said. Like other Iraqis, the official feared Iraq would now become the theatre for a wider conflict pitting the US against Iran and its proxies.
Another concern is that the shifting dynamics will damage the youthful anti-government protest movement that has for weeks been challenging the role of Iran and demanding reforms.
“Those brave protesters did speak against Iran’s influence; now they can’t because even three months ago, they were subject to assassinations,” the former Iraqi official said. “There are Iraqis that don’t want to lose the US, but in this politically charged atmosphere nobody would dare speak rationally now.”
How the US lost Iraq
Under President George W Bush the US leads the invasion of Iraq, toppling strongman Saddam Hussein and occupying the country.
Obama administration completes withdrawal of American troops after years of occupation characterised by chaos and violence in Iraq.
American forces return after Isis has exploited the state’s weakness to seize swaths of Iraqi territory as the army collapsed — but only after Iran first comes to Baghdad’s aid.
Baghdad declares victory over Isis.
Fatah, the political wing of powerful Iran-backed Shia militias who fought against Isis, wins the second-largest number of seats in parliamentary elections. The US views elements of the associated militias as Iranian proxies.
An American civilian contractor is killed in a rocket barrage on a base near Kirkuk, Iraq. The US blames the attack on Shia militias with links to Iran, triggering the latest round of escalation.
January 3 2020
Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, is killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad.