Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Warning Update: Iraqi Government Formation Showdown Could Turn Violent

By Aaron Hesse with Samantha Leathley and Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: The U.S. has temporarily disrupted Iran’s play to form a new Government of Iraq hostile to the U.S. Renewed U.S. diplomatic engagement in Iraq and the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran have strengthened Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s leverage ahead of a deadline for the first phase of government formation on September 3. Abadi blocked a bid by Iran to use the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to grant concessions to Iraqi Sunnis in return for their support for a proxy-led governing coalition. The U.S. is now helping Abadi broker a deal with Iraqi Sunnis and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that would exclude Iran’s proxies. Iran has a range of response options in Iraq and could choose to escalate militarily against Abadi, Iraqi Security Forces, or the U.S. in Iraq. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is tracking the situation closely and will continue to provide updates.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi is attempting to reassert command-and-control over Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Iraqi Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) Deputy Chairman Abu Mehdi al Muhandis is a designated terrorist and a senior proxy of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - Quds Force. Muhandis issued two sets of orders in early August 2018 directing units of the PMF to withdraw or redeploy from parts of majority-Sunni Ninewa and Anbar Provinces without approval from Abadi. Abadi reversed the directives and asserted his sole authority to relocate military forces in a meeting with defense officials on August 24. He also directed PMC Chairman Fallah al Fayyadh to assume the duties of Muhandis, who did not attend the meeting.

Abadi is targeting Iran’s proxies in the PMF in order to shape government formation negotiations ahead of a key deadline on September 3. Badr Organization Chairman Hadi al Ameri - another senior proxy of Iran - won the second-most seats in the May 2018 Iraqi Parliamentary Elections. Ameri and Abadi are locked in a tight competition to assemble a political coalition capable of dominating government formation and choosing the next Prime Minister of Iraq. Each seeks to acquire the support of Sunni and Kurdish blocs in order to complete a coalition and form the next Government of Iraq.

Abadi has temporarily disrupted Iran’s government formation strategy in Iraq. Muhandis’ order for the PMF to withdraw from Ninewa and Anbar Provinces was a concession intended to secure support from Sunnis for Ameri. Abadi may also have disrupted efforts to force defections from his own coalition. Fayyadh ran in the elections with Abadi’s Victory Coalition but withdrew his support for Abadi on August 20, potentially swinging a large block of seats to Ameri. His attendance at the meeting on August 24 could indicate his return to Abadi, possibly in return for a position on the Iraqi Council of Ministers or even the office of Prime Minister.

Renewed U.S. support for Abadi may enable him to outcompete Iran and its proxies for the backing of Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds. The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran has likely strengthened Abadi’s leverage in government formation negotiations. The U.S. may have threatened to remove Iraq’s exemptions from secondary sanctions if Iranian proxy leaders are given senior positions in the next Government of Iraq. These sanctions would economically cripple Iraq. Abadi reportedly sent a delegation from the Iraqi Central Bank to ask for trade waivers from the U.S. Treasury on August 28. The U.S. could grant these waivers with conditions meant to exclude senior proxies from the Government of Iraq. The U.S. may also have threatened to designate specific proxy leaders that could enter the new government including Ameri and Asa’ib Ahl al Haq Secretary-General Qais al Khazali.

Continued U.S. engagement is essential. The U.S. also increased its diplomatic support to broker a deal between Abadi and Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish blocs in July 2018. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Abadi at a NATO Summit in Brussels on July 12 and later spoke with him via telephone on August 14, stressing the “importance of forming a moderate new” Government of Iraq. U.S. Special Envoy to the Global Anti-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk also met with Abadi on July 25 in Baghdad ahead of meetings with former Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani on August 1 and Iraqi Sunni Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi on August 16. Pompeo also allegedly may have intervened to block efforts by Qatar to support outreach to Iraqi Sunnis by Iran.

Iran must now recalibrate in Iraq and could choose military escalation. Iran has a range of options to respond in Iraq. IRGC-Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani is reportedly holding meetings with key political power-brokers in Baghdad alongside Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi. Soleimani and Masjedi may request meetings with Abadi in coming days in order to coerce him to reconsider his intervention in the PMF. Soleimani still retains control over Iran’s proxy units within the PMF despite the nominal constitutional authority held by Abadi. Abadi has not yet ordered the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to confront the PMF and it is unclear whether he is willing to use force if his orders are not obeyed. Soleimani could ultimately decide to order kinetic action against the ISF, Abadi, or (in a most dangerous scenario) the U.S. in Iraq. Asa’ib Ahl al Haq - another not-yet-sanctioned proxy - sent representatives to Iran on August 25, potentially to discuss kinetic options.

U.S. support is essential because it helped to halt the imminent formation of a new Government of Iraq by Iran’s proxies in Baghdad. This engagement may dampen or accelerate further escalation by Iran. In the most likely scenario, Iran will be deterred from kinetic escalation by the ability and willingness of the U.S. to impose direct and secondary sanctions on Iran in Iraq. In a most dangerous scenario, however, a mutual escalation in Iraq could expand into an intra-Shi’a civil war that draws in other regional actors including Saudi Arabia and Turkey. U.S. military forces and diplomats could be caught in the crossfire. ISW is tracking the situation closely and will continue to provide updates.