Rolling Back Iran in Iraq

A new government in Iraq may be the kickstart the United States needs to reset its relations with Baghdad and rollback Iranian influence. Iran’s longtime goal has been to undermine America’s regional commitment and provoke U.S. attacks that draw Iraqi condemnation. The United States should avoid a tit-for-tat with Iran or its proxies and instead launch a concerted effort to roll back Iran’s military presence in the country.

Iran has a longstanding presence in Iraq, and the two countries share a nearly 1,000-mile border. Iran can avoid direct conflict with the conventionally stronger American military by relying on its Iraqi proxies. The integration of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq’s state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) allows these groups to portray themselves falsely as defenders of Iraqi nationalism.

Iranian proxies, like Kataib Hezbollah, are likely to increase their activity against American positions to provoke a response that can sow tension between Washington and Baghdad. When this group killed an American contractor at the end of last year, the United States responded with airstrikes against the group’s leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani’s death garnered much of the coverage afterward, but al-Muhandis’s role as deputy commander of the PMF also caused complications for U.S.-Iraqi relations.

From an operational standpoint, the strike against Soleimani and al-Muhandis was a tremendous success that also warned against further American deaths.

Yet, Iranian proxies continue to launch rockets on bases hosting U.S. soldiers and the Green Zone. Iran and its proxies have launched numerous attacks since the strike against Soleimani, including a recent attack on Camp Taji that killed two American soldiers and one British soldier. This increased aggression suggests that the one-off responses are not enough to deter Iranian action. In fact, such a tit-for-tat could be counterproductive as it would allow Iran to further portray action against PMF groups as a reason that Iraq should no longer tolerate an American presence.

Therefore, delegitimizing and isolating Iran’s proxies in Iraq from the rest of the Iraqi security forces is a crucial challenge going forward. A vital step in this long-term process will be re-demonstrating that a partnership with the United States is more advantageous to one with Iran.

Along these lines, former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s reported decision to separate four PMF brigades from the rest of the Iranian-backed forces has game-changing potential. Bringing the militias without Iranian support under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office could create more opportunities for American forces to target Iranian proxies without reprisals from Baghdad. The confirmation of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Iraq’s new prime minister could signal further tension between Baghdad and Iran’s proxies. Kadhimi’s candidacy received Shia support but Kataib Hezbollah opposed him and has accused him of being involved in the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis.

Unlike Iran, who desires a weak Iraqi government that it can control, America wants a stable, secure, and independent Iraq in which it has mutual interests. To prove this, a renewed emphasis on combating ISIS can draw further Iraqi support for the American mission as the terrorist group prepares to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic with a resurgence in Syria.

Even with these unique capabilities, maintaining a troop presence in Iraq will be crucial to rolling back Iranian influence. After years of fighting and the development of trusted relationships, the United States has a vested interest in Iraq’s success. An American military presence displays commitment and signals that the military is not going to abandon longtime Iraqi partners.

Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) should prepare for an increased frequency and variety of attacks against positions in Iraq. Concentrating U.S. forces on larger bases with better air defenses is a defensive step that reflects the decreasing number of American troops on the ground. The deployment of aircraft carriers and air defenses are useful against a conventional Iranian attack, but these defenses would not adequately guard against low-flying rockets that proxies often use.

However, action against Iran does not always need to be overtly public, kinetic, or have an American return address. Increasing partner capabilities is critical to the viability of an independent Iraqi government.

To this end, there is room for greater non-kinetic interdiction by working with and assisting professional Iraqi security forces that are not part of the PMF. America should work with local partners to shut down munitions factories for Iranian proxies on Iraqi soil and limit Iran’s precision-guided missiles capabilities.

There are also reports that the United States is preparing more aggressive action against Iranian proxies. Kinetic targeting should be the last resort both because they are the most escalatory and their risk to alienate Iraqis.

At the same time, CENTCOM should not hesitate to threaten targets in Iran or its proxies that threaten to endanger American lives. When turning to this option, the United States should not merely degrade an adversaries’ bases, factories, and arsenals but instead cripple them to prevent their further use.

Iran will continue undermining America’s efforts if it keeps having a military foothold in Iraq. To sever this relationship, the United States needs to stop relying on occasional responses to Iran’s aggression and instead focus on rolling back its military capabilities. While Iran has the initiative, it is not too late to avoid Iranian control of Iraq.

LtGen John Toolan Jr., USMC (ret.) is a former commanding general of the Marine Corps Pacific Forces and a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Board of Advisors and its Gemunder Center Hybrid Warfare Policy Project. He was also a participant on JINSA’s 2018 Generals and Admirals Program to Israel.

Originally published in RealClearDefense